A decade into the “War on Terror,” things have started to get truly Orwellian here in the U.S. And you don’t have to be one of the wanton fear-mongers yammering on both ends the political continuum to recognize it.
Consider: last week a U.S. federal judge in Manhattan ruled that President Obama is not required to respond to a request from The New York Times and the ACLU for an explanation of the legal rationale for targeting U.S. citizens for assassination without due process. In issuing her ruling, Judge Colleen McMahon openly expressed frustration with the almost surreal “thicket of laws and precedents” that has grown up in recent years to confuse and complicate the issue:
A federal judge in Manhattan refused on Wednesday to require the Justice Department to disclose a memorandum providing the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The ruling, by Judge Colleen McMahon, was marked by skepticism about the antiterrorist program that targeted him, and frustration with her own role in keeping the legal rationale for it secret.
“I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret,” she wrote. “The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me,” Judge McMahon wrote, adding that she was operating in a legal environment that amounted to “a veritable Catch-22.”
— Adam Liptak, “Secrecy of Memo on Drone Killing Is Upheld,” The New York Times, January 2, 2013 (emphasis added)
For a glimpse of the wider context in which this circumstance is unfolding, and for a succinct — and rather dizzying — summary of recent actions by the U.S. government under the Obama administration that have accelerated our spin into previously unexplored regions of dystopian nightmare, see this paragraph from a recent Guardian blog post by Glenn Greenwald on the fact that the War on Terror is specifically designed to be a perpetual and unending affair:
The polices adopted by the Obama administration just over the last couple of years leave no doubt that they are accelerating, not winding down, the war apparatus that has been relentlessly strengthened over the last decade. In the name of the War on Terror, the current president has diluted decades-old Miranda warnings; codified a new scheme of indefinite detention on US soil; plotted to relocate Guantanamo to Illinois; increased secrecy, repression and release-restrictions at the camp; minted a new theory of presidential assassination powers even for US citizens; renewed the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping framework for another five years, as well as the Patriot Act, without a single reform; and just signed into law all new restrictions on the release of indefinitely held detainees.
Does that sound to you like a government anticipating the end of the War on Terror any time soon? Or does it sound like one working feverishly to make their terrorism-justified powers of detention, surveillance, killing and secrecy permanent?
— Glenn Greenwald, “The ‘war on terror’ — by design — can never end,” On Security and Liberty, The Guardian, January 4, 2013 (emphasis added)
Greenwald closes by stating that “the notion that the US government is even entertaining putting an end to any of this is a pipe dream, and the belief that they even want to is fantasy. They’re preparing for more endless war; their actions are fueling that war; and they continue to reap untold benefits from its continuation. Only outside compulsion, from citizens, can make an end to all of this possible” (emphasis added). Not to be pessimistic, and in fact to be purely realistic, I would add to Greenwald’s well-observed final line that, by and large, U.S. citizens don’t want this all to end, because, driven by deep historical-psychological forces, we’re so caught up in our consumerist dreamworld, even as its material and economic base decays and falls down around us, that we’ll drive the whole system and the nation itself collectively into the ground, and take a good portion of the rest of the world with us, before waking up and acknowledging the fundamentally sick nature of the whole thing.
But even more fundamentally, when Greenwald mentions the effective force of “outside compulsion, from citizens” in bringing about political change, it’s important to bear in mind the primal and primary fact that each and all of us, not just U.S. citizens but everybody on the planet, lives under the sway of outside compulsion by forces — psychological, spiritual, metaphysical, choose your level of framing — that make our thoughts, emotions, words, decisions, and actions anything but pure, and that pollute and corrupt us individually in ways that render collective action almost inevitably destructive. The “veritable Catch-22” identified by Judge McMahon subsists on a far deeper and wider plane than the merely legislative. Thus, the real level at which any corrective action has to begin remains, always, individual and personal.
To quote (again) the line from Jesus in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ that has always remained with me as one of the most succinct and astute summaries of our real plight, and of the real connection between spiritual and sociopolitical matters, and of the real basis for substantially positive action: “The foundation is the soul … If you don’t replace the spirit first and change what’s inside [before diving into political action], then you’re only going to replace the Romans with someone else and nothing ever changes. Even if you’re victorious you’ll still be filled with the poison. You’ve got to break the chain of evil.”
Everybody sing along! Especially us Americans. (Warning: NSFW language.)
The below-linked essay is, bar none, the single best piece I’ve read about the vision, legacy, and very dark long-term cultural implications of Steve Jobs and Apple. The writer, Evgeny Morozov (author of 2011’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom), delves into the deep history and philosophy of Jobs’ and Apple’s approach to consumer technology design and culture change, and states the upshot in forceful, elegant, and thoroughly disturbing terms.
Apple’s most incredible trick, accomplished by marketing as much as by philosophy, is to allow its customers to feel as if they are personally making history — that they are a sort of spiritual-historical elite, even if there are many millions of them. The purchaser of an Apple product has been made to feel like he is taking part in a world-historical mission, in a revolution-and Jobs was so fond of revolutionary rhetoric that Rolling Stone dubbed him “Mr. Revolution.”
[…] No wonder that the counterculture fizzled in the early 1980s: everyone was promised they could change the world by buying a Macintosh. Linking Apple to the historical process (Hegel comes to Palo Alto!), and convincing the marketplace that the company always represented the good side in any conflict, broke new ground in promotional creativity. Jobs turned to the power of culture to sell his products. He was a marketing genius because he was always appealing to the meaning of life. With its first batch of computers, Apple successfully appropriated the theme of the decentralization of power in technology—then also present in the deep ecology and appropriate technology movements — that was so dear to the New Left a decade earlier. If people were longing for technology that was small and beautiful — to borrow E.F. Schumacher’s then-popular slogan — Jobs would give it to them. Apple allowed people who had missed all the important fights of their era to participate in a battle of their own — a battle for progress, humanity, innovation. And it was a battle that was to be won in the stores. As Apple’s marketing director in the early 1980s told Esquire, “We all felt as though we had missed the civil rights movement. We had missed Vietnam. What we had was the Macintosh.” The consumer as revolutionary: it was altogether brilliant, and of course a terrible delusion.
More at “Form and Fortune: Steve Jobs’ pursuit of perfection — and the consequences,” The New Republic, February 22, 2012
So have you heard of zombie walks, ladies and gentlemen? I’m talking about those increasingly ubiquitous events where groups of respectable everyday folk get in touch with their inner zombie by dressing up in costumes and makeup as the named monster in its modern mass entertainment incarnation — that is, as reanimated, flesh-eating corpses who shamble, moan, and sometimes shout “Brains!” — and shuffle en masse through public places either for fun or to raise money for a charity.
I had personally heard of these events somewhere — they got their start circa 2000, so there’s a history to them — and stored the memory in the back of my head, but hadn’t thought much about them until a friend and fellow zombie enthusiast (Paul Salvaggio of Backbone Media) sent me a link to the following video of a recent zombie walk in Moncton, Canada, that raised money for the local SPCA:
I watched in awe as a group — horde? — of not just adults but young children stumbled down the city streets in full zombie regalia, complete with blood stains on their mouths and clothing. And my thoughts rapidly ramped up to warp speed. In no particular order:
– Parents are having their children do this? They’re dressing up little Johnny and Jenny as flesh-eating, blood-spattered ghouls that have risen from the grave to shuffle around in search of human flesh to eat? Glory be! Lawdy! Holy crap! Or some other appropriate exclamation. The societal, familial, and general cultural implications are staggering.
– The transformation of everyday life in contemporary first-world countries by the all-pervasiveness of mass entertainment has never been more blatant in a slap-you-upside-the-head sort of way. The idea of zombies as these cannibalistic flesh-eating machines was invented by George Romero in 1968. He launched it with Night of the Living Dead, thereby eclipsing the former and more historically derived image of the zombie as a sad worker drone controlled by rich and evil plantation owners. A drive-in horror movie — one with profound value and meaning beyond such a schlocky pedigree, to be sure — so revolutionized mass culture over a mere four decades via its various tangents of influence that it gave rise to a mass imitative behavioral phenomenon. It caused, or was part of, a mass stirring in the collective subconscious that mysteriously gave rise to an inexplicable but undeniable motivation to do what these zombie walkers are doing. Ye gods.
– Romero’s zombie movies were full of social and cultural criticism. Dawn, for instance, was and is an explicit satire on the American-style uber-consumerism that was newly minted when Romero wrote and directed the movie in the 1970s. The zombies in that film congregated at a shopping mall because that place “was important to them” in life. In their sad afterlives they wandered forlornly around that consumerist paradise in a kind of Dante-esque scenario of ironic punishment, stuck in a limbo where they could vaguely remember their past pleasures but were barred from enjoying them. Now, in today’s zombie walks, people are gleefully identifying with this monster. You can tell they’re Romero’s zombies, at least in the Moncton zombie walk, because they shuffle and moan like his zombies do, instead of running and snarling like the swift, feral zombies in 2004’s Dawn remake, or 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, or 2002’s 28 Days Later, or 2009’s Zombieland.
– The zombie walkers are partaking of a generalized zombie mythos, as evidenced by the fact that even though they’re Romero-esque zombies, they sometimes shout “Brains!” — an act that comes directly from the alternate zombie universe of the Return of the Living Dead franchise. And thanks to the pervasive mass entertainment culture, they can count on the fact that many or most observers will know exactly what they’re getting at.
– The zombie walkers are perhaps engaging in an awesomely delicious display of existential self-parody. America’s national capitulation to consumer capitalism as its guiding ethos, and its exporting of this ethos to the rest of the globe, has confirmed and fulfilled the worst cultural and societal fears expressed in Romero’s zombie movies. Dressing up to play zombie in our fully zombified economic, political, and social order is akin to letting the cat out of the bag. It’s like being the kid in the story who shouts that the emperor is wearing no clothes — except the kid doesn’t notice that he’s naked himself. These people are gaily identifying with the symbol of our national spiritual demise, and the tenor of the times just makes it natural, what with the zombie meme having gone not just viral but universal.
– On a slightly different note, in The Conspiracy against the Human Race, published just this month, Thomas Ligotti discusses the idea that human beings are self-conscious nothings, avatars of a blind and rapacious force that governs reality and, in the case of our unfortunate species, has produced organisms that are endowed with self-awareness, thus placing us in a horrific existential plight because we’re conscious of our situation in a way that no other organism is. If the modern-day zombie, as theorized by Richard Liberty’s “Frankenstein” character in 1985’s Day of the Dead, is nothing but a human being operating at its most primal level, with all of the higher faculties deadened and nothing but blind appetite remaining operational, then being one of these things might not be so bad after all, since zombie-hood is by definition life without self-consciousness, continued existence without the burden of selfhood. A zombie is a former self-conscious nothing that’s now just a nothing, but it’s still animate. Bliss, perhaps?
I doubt any of the zombie walkers are thinking about these things. But then, they don’t have to, because they’re too busy having fun in the grip of that astonishing uprush from the basement of the collective mind.
Photos courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/philippeleroyer/
In the first post in this series, I talked about the economic crisis that will force and is currently forcing the realignment and, in many cases, the wholesale revisioning of many U.S. college and university plans. The overwhelming majority of America’s higher education institutions will have to make major changes — raising tuition, eliminating faculty, staff, and entire programs, shutting down campuses, cutting back on student and staff services, and much more — in order to survive the new depression. Many — such as in Washington, Louisiana, and California — already face major decisions. Many won’t succeed, and many that come out alive will do so in a vastly altered form.
(In fact, in the handful of days during which I have organized this post, new info has come flooding across the transom about colleges cutting and planning to cut programs and staff, raising rates, and so on in response to budget emergencies:
- Students pay more, may get less — The Arizona Republic, May 16
- Georgia State U cutting 300 staff positions — WALB, May 18
- Financing Gap Leaves Uncertain Future for U. of Texas’ Online Arm – The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18
- Utah Disbands E-Learning Consortium — The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18
- Higher education cuts could mean double-digit tuition hike — Minnesota Public Radio, May 18
- University of Washington slashes athletic budget — Philadelphia Daily News, May 14
And so on.)
In the second post I talked about the distinction between education, properly conceived as the inculcation of a certain literate, critical, and sensitive cast of mind, informed by important thoughts and ideas, and job training, which over the past several decades has come to serve in America’s high schools and colleges, and also (just as importantly) in standard public thought and discourse, as a counterfeit substitute for true education. I did this in response to the claim, which I have had personally addressed to me, that the death of many higher education institutions will be a good thing since “college is useless” insofar as it requires people to engage in economically unhelpful things like studying Shakespeare (for instance) instead of preparing them for the “real world” of work-job-career.
In this final installment I’ll continue with the themes broached in the second one by exploring further — in a more free-form and rantish manner — the muddle of principles and motivations that characterizes the current higher education system and leads directly to our current quagmire.
Revisiting the uselessness of Shakespeare
When I recently expressed the aforementioned thoughts about Shakespeare and the distinction between vocational training and a liberal education etc. to an online community, one of the responses that came back was this, which I repeat in closely paraphrased form:
“But I’m an accountant and have never had to quote Shakespeare while preparing tax returns. Sure, knowing the humanities might be a good thing as general preparation for living a meaningful life and all that, but I don’t think colleges ought to require students to read Shakespeare etc. in order to earn a technical degree. When I was going to college I had to pay my own way, and I didn’t appreciate being forced to spend money on classes that didn’t specifically teach the knowledge and skills that would advance me in my chosen professional path. That doesn’t mean I’m a Philistine. I’m middle-aged now, and I read Shakespeare, Dante, Dostoevsky, and so on for personal enjoyment. The thing is, I also enjoy fishing, too, but I wasn’t required to take it in college. Nor should I have been. And the same holds true for the humanities.”
I think this line of thought is hugely helpful and valuable, because it hits right at the heart of what’s wrong with how we have collectively come to think and talk about “the value of a college education,” and have come to redefine and reorient our higher education institutions accordingly.
Should purely academic subjects like literature, history, philosophy, higher mathematics, etc., be required studies for people who are pursuing post-secondary training programs for specific job and career fields? The answer, in a nutshell, is “Hell, no!” — unless those career fields are somehow specifically related to those studies.
But should those subjects be required studies for earning what used to be considered a standard bachelor’s degree? The answer, in another nutshell, is “Hell, yes!” — unless we’re happy to abandon completely the ideal of a liberal education and the type of person it produces — that is, the type of person represented by, say, our founding fathers or Martin Luther King, Jr.
The near universal muddling of this distinction has done incalculable harm to our collective educational situation.
Our educational (and cultural) tragedy
Our problem is that we have tried to collapse the two functions, providing a liberal education and providing job-and-career training, into a single higher education system that never should have been about job training at all, or at least not like it is today. The principle-level conflict was embedded deep in the situation right from the start. Think about it. It’s obvious. How can a college or university justify recruiting somebody for, say, a marketing degree, and then charge them outrageous and always-inflating tuition prices (which interface nicely with the always-inflating textbook prices) while forcing them to take survey courses in British literature or Western philosophy? The answer, of course, is that it’s not justifiable at all. Training in marketing methods or any other purely commerce-oriented field doesn’t require a knowledge of the neorealist poets or 18th century continental philosophers.
But the really tragic thing isn’t that so many people are forced to spend time and money on classes that they truly don’t need to take as practical preparation for their chosen career paths. Rather, the real tragedy, which is considerably more insidious, is simply this: that our current ridiculous practice of forcing those academic classes on people who are only going to college for post-secondary job training (as distinct from pursuing an authentic education) works in tandem with the overwhelming commerce-and-consumerism focus of our insane American culture to make it seem as if literature etc. really are vestigial traces of a now-defunct old way of doing college, and that they ought to be dropped in favor of the business courses and other technical job training. In short, Shakespeare comes to seem inherently useless when the raison d’être for college is redefined in terms of a value system (job training for corporate consumerism) according to which it really is nothing but a waste of time when you’re forced to read the Bard for college credit. This is the height of idiocy. And it’s what we’ve been doing with increasing intensity for decades.
To state it another way: For many years the traditional liberal arts have been finding themselves forced with increasing frequency to justify their continued existence and relevance in economic terms. I’m talking about all of the marketing chatter by religious studies departments and philosophy departments and literature departments about their wonderful track record of teaching people to think and write well, and their oh-so-inspiring claims that these will be really valuable skills for getting top-notch, high-paying jobs in — wait for it — the corporate world!
To which I say: Er . . . what? So, let me get this straight. If I’m fascinated by, say, religion, and am passionate about studying the anthropological, sociological, historical, philosophical, and general cultural phenomenon of it all, or if I’m fascinated by Shakespeare and want to devote four years to studying and writing about his life and works, then I’m supposed to be thrilled at the supposed utilitarian value of this passion for gaining me a job as a communications assistant at a bank? Methinks there’s something rotten here.
A further problem: How long can these programs and departments continue justifying themselves on such grounds when their very faculties don’t really believe or agree with them, since these very subjects of study tend, if allowed to speak for themselves and really get under a person’s skin, to inculcate a cast of mind that rejects or at least sees the vapidity of the whole über corporate-consumerist lifestyle?
Over the years this inbuilt contradiction in the philosophical principles that underlie the current shape of our higher education system has steadily hollowed out its soul and rightfully raised all kinds of objections and hard feelings. And that’s where I get around to agreeing, in much qualified form, with those who hail the onset of major crises in that system as a positive boon. I keep hoping that the current world-shifting troubles will act like dynamite on this whole bloated structure of stupidity that is our educational establishment, and will thereby force the culling of so very many things that it will prove impossible to avoid making very hard decisions, and that in the process our colleges (and high schools) may rediscover their own souls.
And that’s the crossroads that America’s colleges and universities find themselves standing at now, with no guarantees about which way they’ll decide to turn.
To college seniors: Everything you have been taught is wrong — thank God
That’s enough from me. As you finish reading my words, why not leave here and go read Sharon Astyk’s recent, brilliant (and hypothetical) college commencement address, “As you go out into the world” (May 15)? Ms. Astyk envisions telling an assemblage of graduating college seniors the following:
It is, I believe, conventional at college graduations to begin from the premise that those graduating are about to embark upon life in the “real” world – a venture that is supposed to be radically different than their carefree college years. The assumption is that the institution in question has given you what you need to embark upon a meaningful and productive future – you are wiser than when you came in, and perhaps more ethical, certainly fitted to the world of work. Now, I have been chosen to give you your very last bit of wisdom, something to carry with you into the future. So here is the sum total of that wisdom:
“Everything you have been taught to expect is wrong.”
She then goes on to talk about the exigencies involved in living through the new depression and the onset of the era of peak fossil fuels, diminished resources in general, and deindustrialization.
Also check out the commencement address delivered (in actual fact) a couple of weeks ago by renowned environmentalist, entrepreneur, visionary, and author Paul Hawken to the graduating class at the University of Portland. Hawken said, among other amazing thing:
Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation — but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.
. . . . When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.
. . . . This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.
The very fact that somebody really said such things very publicly, and that similar passionate insight is blossoming everywhere, may be grounds for expecting more than the worst.