This week’s bumper crop of excellent reading and viewing includes: an essay on the past, present, and future of apocalyptic expectations and their measurable impact on real-world religious and secular circumstances, including our present geopolitical prospects; a fine examination by Charles Hugh Smith of the moral-and-monetary corruption infecting not just the “1 percent” but everybody else in America today; a look at America’s super-rich and their secession-like alienation from life on the ground in the nation at large, even as their ruling grip on it has tightened into a stranglehold; a revealing look at the way much of academia has sold itself out to professional sophistry in the service (and pay) of corporations; two pieces about Burning Man, one focusing on its relevance to evangelical Christians and the other on its history; an article exploring the reasons for science fiction’s enduring gravitation toward dystopian storytelling; and a breathtakingly brilliant short film in the dystopian SF vein by none other than Blade Runner director Ridley Scott’s son, Luke Scott.
Waiting for the Apocalypse: From the Romantic to Romney
Malise Ruthven, The New York Review of Books blog, August 25, 2012
The idea of impending doom, whether divinely ordained or inferred by creative imaginations in the wake of absent deities, is a recurring theme not only in the work of writers such as Yeats, Eliot and Beckett. Imagining — or predicting — the end of the world has been the stuff of popular culture from the doomsday panoramas of the English artist John Martin (1789-1853) to the events of the “Rapture” described in the Left Behind series of novels by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In recent years, apocalyptic rhetoric has turned up in international politics among terrorists and hard-line governments such as Iran, but also their adversaries in Washington, Israel, and elsewhere including the current Republican candidate for president. Perhaps this should not surprise us. Apocalyptic movements have been motors of religious — and secular — change throughout history.
The Rot Runs Deep 2: Don’t Call Out My Scam and I Won’t Call Out Yours
Charles Hugh Smith, Zero Hedge, August 28, 2012
Teaser: Complicity reigns supreme as everyone benefiting from a scam keeps quiet about everyone else’s skim lest their own share of the spoils fall under the harsh light of inquiry.
The uncomfortable truth is that America has become a nation of skimmers and scammers. The rot runs deep not just in the upper reaches of the financial and political Elites, but in the bottom 99.5% as well. America can now be summarized by this phrase: “don’t call out my scam and I won’t call out yours.” In other words, all the skimmers and scammers have become complicit, not just in protecting their own scam from the light of day, but in protecting everyone else’s scams, too, lest those who lose their swag unmask someone else’s scam in revenge … It’s easy to skewer the financial and political Elites’ abuses of power, but few look at all the rot below.The fraud and embezzlement-riddled mortgage market of the previous decade included not just investment bankers but non-Elite Americans who lied about their income, debt, and other material facts in order to obtain a fraudulent mortgage … The justification for all this skimming and scamming is always the same: “everybody else is doing it” … There is another dynamic: desperation. Beneath the placid surface of the “recovery,” millions of people are desperate and feel that skimming, scamming and lying are their “only hope” to 1) keep what they have 2) gain much-desired upper-middle class perquisites or 3) keep body and soul together and not end up living in a cardboard box. These dynamics of moral rot and desperation have created a society in which the spirit of the law is blatantly violated but “all is well” as long as the letter of the law has only been scratched. We see this in every level of society, from legalist parser in chief Bill Clinton’s obtuse defense, to the classic phrase that the “dancing” (i.e. the fraud and embezzlement) goes on until the music stops, to the disability recipient who “does whatever it takes” to get free money for life … In this sense, moral rot is to be expected as economic surpluses vanish and entire economies must live within means that have shriveled for structural reasons. Can an economy that has become dependent on lies, misrepresentation, “fudging” of numbers, fraud, embezzlement and a multitude of skimming and scamming operations escape the moral and financial black hole it has created? The self-evident answer is “no.”
Revolt of the Rich
Mike Lofgren, The American Conservative, August 27, 2012
Teaser: Our financial elites are the new secessionists.
Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it. If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension– and viable public transportation doesn’t even show up on the radar screen. With private doctors on call and a chartered plane to get to the Mayo Clinic, why worry about Medicare? Being in the country but not of it is what gives the contemporary American super-rich their quality of being abstracted and clueless … After the 2008 collapse, the worst since the Great Depression, the rich, rather than having the modesty to temper their demands, this time have made the calculated bet that they are politically invulnerable — Wall Street moguls angrily and successfully rejected executive-compensation limits even for banks that had been bailed out by taxpayer funds. And what I saw in Congress after the 2008 crash confirms what economist Simon Johnson has said: that Wall Street, and behind it the commanding heights of power that control Wall Street, has seized the policy-making apparatus in Washington. Both parties are in thrall to what our great-grandparents would have called the Money Power. One party is furtive and hypocritical in its money chase; the other enthusiastically embraces it as the embodiment of the American Way … The objective of the predatory super-rich and their political handmaidens is to discredit and destroy the traditional nation state and auction its resources to themselves. Those super-rich, in turn, aim to create a “tollbooth” economy, whereby more and more of our highways, bridges, libraries, parks, and beaches are possessed by private oligarchs who will extract a toll from the rest of us. Was this the vision of the Founders? Was this why they believed governments were instituted among men — that the very sinews of the state should be possessed by the wealthy in the same manner that kingdoms of the Old World were the personal property of the monarch?
Smoke and mirrors
Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education, August 16, 2012
Teaser: ‘Agnotology’, the art of spreading doubt (as pioneered by Big Tobacco), distorts the scepticism of research to obscure the truth. Areas of academic life have been tainted by the practice, but some scholars are fighting back by showing the public how to spot such sleight of hand, reports Matthew Reisz.
Whole industries have an interest in casting doubt on the overwhelming evidence that smoking damages health, that nuclear energy imposes substantial risks, that climate change is taking place and that the pre-credit crunch banking system was a house of cards. Academics who cultivate the art of spreading doubt — what one scholar calls “agnotology” — are often de facto protecting corporate profits and discouraging governments and individuals from taking action. They also give authority to views that would be taken with a large pinch of salt if put forward by journalists, lawyers or public relations firms … [A] number of powerful recent books, most of them written by academics…argue that significant areas of academic life have been tainted by a malign or exaggerated version of the scepticism at the heart of science and scholarship. Each is adamant that the public has been misled in damaging ways and suggests ways for ordinary citizens to see through the abuses.
Burning Man: Fear of an Alternative Pagan Social Order
John W. Morehead, Religion Dispatches, August 31, 2012
[NOTE: This is by the same John Morehead who is a good friend of The Teeming Brain, and who runs the excellent Website Theofantastique, one of the best resources and gathering places on the Internet for exploring “myth, imagination and mystery in pop culture.” For more about his analysis of Burning Man and its significance for current and future evangelical Christianity, see his book Burning Man Festival: A Life-Enhancing, Post-Christendom “Middle Way.
Christianity in America has much to learn from Burning Man, including the need to rediscover its own countercultural origins and the practice of speaking truth to power, concepts of self and community in postmodernity, the significance of play as a possible “signal of transcendence,” the importance of festivals with their rituals of inversion and the critique of society, and utopian considerations … [But] For evangelicals like [Steve] Matthews [a “cult and new religious movement expert and investigative journalist” with The Worldview Center], Burning Man embodies deep-seated fears which can also be seen playing out in other aspects of American culture. Many conservatives fear that America is undergoing decay, and this is taking place in the spiritual realm as well. A lingering economic malaise, coupled with our continued cultural fascination with apocalyptic scenarios, provides a context in which Burning Man functions as a Rorschach test. For critics like Matthews, peering as he does through a narrow theological and apologetic lens, Black Rock City is a “Pagan” challenge to Christian culture. For others, it offers hope for spiritual revolution, both within and without the church.
Hot Mess, a.k.a. An Oral History of Burning Man
Brad Wieners, Outside, August 24, 2012
Teaser: Burning Man, the annual super-rave in Nevada, has become Independence Week for a worldwide tribe of inventors, artists, and desert freaks. Brad Wieners talks to founders and fans about how the party got started — and the death, mayhem, and power struggles that almost shut it down.
Burning Man is partly the story of a half-dozen eccentrics—an unemployed landscaper (Larry Harvey), an art model (Crimson Rose), a struggling photographer (Will Roger Peterson), a dot-com PR gal (Marian Goodell), an aerobics instructor (Harley Dubois), and a signmaker (Michael Mikel)—who made good. Less charitably, it’s the tale of a group of slackers who grabbed hold of the one thing that brought them notice—and, eventually, a paycheck—and have ruthlessly ridden it for all it’s worth. The truth contains elements of both, of course, but one thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.
[NOTE: This piece contains the words of a varied gallery of individuals. We find this particular comment to be especially interesting:]
ELIZABETH GILBERT (author of Eat, Pray, Love who wrote about Burning Man ’96 for Spin): Honestly, I was scared of it. I remember the way the camp turned from this playful thing by day—beautiful and fanciful and Narnia-like — to this menacing thing at night. Being around all that fire, people with guns, and a lot of people on drugs, I was like, “They’ll be eating each other soon!” And in some ways they were — more sexually than anything else. I understood that Burning Man was waking something up. That awakening might lead to transcendent creativity — or it might be savage and ungovernable once it’s released.
Science fiction and dystopia: What’s the connection?
Andrew Milner,The Conversation, August 30, 2012
Teaser: Our obsession with worlds worse than our own says more about our future than we might realise.
The future in science fiction is often presented in a dystopian setting. Certainly films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men follow this pattern. But why? … There are, no doubt, many reasons for this. But the most important is that utopia is fundamentally boring, since nothing much can happen in a place where nothing much is wrong … By contrast, dystopias are rarely charged with boredom, since their stock in trade of human beastliness remains oddly captivating to our conventional post-lapsarian sensibilities. This is too negative a conclusion, nonetheless, since dystopia also often has a deliberately positive function. The more serious of the worse worlds of dystopian fiction typically take as their political or moral purpose the intention to warn against undesirable likely future developments. Dystopia goes in and out of fashion, but it was almost certainly at its most influential in Europe during the first half of the 20th century – that is, in a time and place in which there were two dreadful wars, the Great Depression, Stalinism and Fascism. In short, a time and place with much to be warned against. If dystopia has once again become fashionable in film and literature, it’s almost certainly because we too now have much to be warned against.
This short dystopian film in the mode of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was in fact directed by Scott’s son, Luke Scott. In the words of Movies.com, it stars Giovanni Ribisi as “a scientist who spends his days working to ‘grow’ meat for humanity to eat, while his evenings are busy doing things far less legal.” It debuted at this year’s National Association of Broadcasters event in Las Vegas and seems poised to launch the younger Scott’s film career in fine fashion. Be warned/advised that it contains some incidental nudity, placing it in NSFW territory.