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Entertainment for the Journey

I’m preparing for an upcoming trip to Ecuador in December. I tend to overthink, and am learning there are some serious snakes and spiders in the jungle there, including the Fer-de-lance and black widow. But if we can’t entertain ourselves during the journey, never mind others, what’s the point?

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Señor Fer-de-lance! (Courtesy BBC Nature)

 

Interview With an Ecuadoran Snake

Hola, Señor Snake.

Hola, Gringo .

Como estas ?

Muy bien. Y tú ?

Okay. Thanks for asking .

Are you on a holiday. ?

Yes. A friend invited me to accompany her.

Be careful where you step.

Gracias. You are a courteous snake .

De nada . We try to make guests feel welcome in the jungle . Did you get all your vaccines? I could administer any you’re missing with my built-needles.

Thanks. I’m good. Some people are afraid of snakes.

Some people are afraid of their own shadow.

Yes, there seem so many things to be afraid of these days. My friend says she hates snakes.

Strong words. But that’s nothing to me. I just exist here, doing snake-like things.

Do you bite?

Only a little,  if someone steps on my head.

But you are very venomous.

Lo siento. It is my nature. I use my venom to catch and eat small rodents like agouti — preferably accompanied by a glass of Syrah.

Not fava beans and a nice chianti ?

No! What do you think I am? I generally don’t much like people either .

I hope you’ll make an exception for me.

We’ll see.

My friend said some folks here call her a witch .

Then she should be okay. She can cast a spell to keep me away. Is she a good witch or a bad witch?

She says she can be very bad: muy malo.

Make sure she does not cast a spell on you and turn you into an agouti .

Too late. The spell is cast. Here I am thousands of miles away in the jungle bringing medical care to local people. At least it’s for a good cause.

Did your friend bewitch you to lure you into her lair ? Like a spider.

No, I think she likes me. I call her querida bruja* for fun .

She is like a lady witch doctor , perhaps.

Kind of . Though she is a very interesting witch — she leads eco tours and runs a farm.  She goes rafting .

Sounds like she has a real pair of ovaries. Does she intimidate you?

Not too much. And who wants boring?  And If she turned me into an agouti, we couldn’t have interesting conversations.

Yes. Conversation is important.

You have some some serious spiders here by the way, including black widows, tarántulas and very unhygienic spitting spiders. But no. I came because I wanted to.

You are from the States ?

Si. Pennsylvania .

The keystone state . Two main cities: Philadelphia , city of brotherly love , and Pittsburgh , city of three rivers .

You are an educated snake.

Gracias. I have my degree in herpetology.

I know other snakes where I come from, like timber rattlesnakes.  I come across them when I hike.

I know a nice family of timber rattlesnakes el Norte, in the central part of  Pennsylvania. We stay in touch by Facebook and WhatsApp.

Being a snake, you have no opposable thumbs. How do you dial your phone?

Google voice activation works well enough . So when are you leaving Ecuador?

A few weeks.

What a pity . Back to all that cold . Away from your friend .

That’s the way the world works now: everyone is connected but apart.

Yes. Strange. If I may be personal, you seem not always positive.

It’s my nature sometimes. And it’s based on experience.

But you entertain me. Will you visit again?

I’m here to show up and enjoy the journey now.  I’m not thinking about the future . Sure. Maybe.

If you visit again please look me up. I’ll keep the light on for you.

Will you put a mint on my pillow?

No. An agouti .

Gracias .

Just watch where you step and lay your head. You never know what you might encounter in in the jungle. See you later.

Not if I see you first. Ha ha.

Hasta la proxima.

Chao.

# # #

*Dear Witch

Image: Agouti & Syrah Wine

Better Together (Photo credits: Agouti: brian.gratwicke, Syrah: Ricardo Bernardo | ricardobernardo.net)

 

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Tech Voodoo Redux

 

I’m struck lately by the contradiction between the technological profusion of our society and our preoccupation with magic, paranormal, fantasy and the occult. As we rely on fruits of the scientific method such as self-driving cars and genetic engineering to solve our problems (of not knowing how to drive and not knowing how to stay healthy), we seem equally obsessed with an opposite mode of thinking and behaving.

The disconnect is especially evident in television, movies and the web. For every example like Apollo 13 and The Martian that celebrates the virtues of empirical thinking and technological ingenuity, five or six seem to promote a view of the world decidedly inconsistent with the scientific method and standard (that is, arguably Western) logic. A partial list includes:

Books:

  • The Da Vinci Code
  • Harry Potter
  • The Secret

Films and Television:

See above, and –

  • Lucifer
  • The Magicians
  • Underworld
  • The Vampire Diaries
  • The Walking Dead

Gaming

  • Dungeons & Dragons (which originated as a board game in the 1970s and has since gone online)
  • Final Fantasy
  • Magic, the Gathering
  • Myst

Examples like The Secret and (to some extent The Da Vinci Code ) cross the line into magical thinking ‘belief systems’ which I have touched on  here and here.

There’s more than one way to skin Schrödinger’s cat:  A linear, empirical mode of thinking and understanding of the world does not necessarily give us a monopoly on reality.1  And books inspired by the occult (see H.P. Lovecraft) and shows such as theTwilight Zone have been around for a long time. But the more mainstream ambivalence about technology and the scientific method may be due to our disappointment and frustration with the world these have given us (or more accurately that we have created with them). It seems suspiciously coincidental that all the commercial hype over vampires and zombies seems to date from the information technology revolution of the 1980s and 1990s and the growth of the Internet hydra.2

The line between the scientific method and magic in this world has not always been so clear. Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy in between creating calculus and classic physics. Joseph Priestly, clergyman and discoverer of oxygen, pursued his Millennialist religious studies after absconding to Northumberland Pennsylvania3 at the forks of the Susquehanna, near where I grew up.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings exhibit a consistent internal logic and and science (or techne4 ) all their own — sort of literary alternate universes. Tolkien wrote of creating secondary worlds that adhere to their own laws.5

I just recently uncovered the following essay I published in 1985 titled The New Magic.

At the time I wrote it the IBM PC had debuted (followed by Apple’s IIc and Macintosh computers). Cell phones did not exist. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was a toddler. Online services that preceded the World Wide Web were dominated by Compuserve, followed by Prodigy and something called the Well.6

There’s a lot we didn’t know then (including, in my case judging from the photo, how to grow a proper beard). But it goes to show that the conflation of technology and magic have a long history, something useful to keep in mind. — CDL

1 Associated with literacy and a text-based culture.

2Popularized in books like Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends.

3Where he was encouraged to flee from England in 1794 due to his religious dissent and support for the French Revolution

4Related to craft or art.

5See On Fairy Stories

6Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, which still exists, bless its anachronistic heart

It’s a Wonderful Lonely Life

The search for community and love with our fellow human beings (at least the ones who are not trying to kill us) is a hallmark1 of the season. This accounts for the popularity of films such as It’s A Wonderful Life. Nevertheless, the effort to pathologize normal human emotion and behavior marches on. On December 1st the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a 3-million dollar CMU study funded by the NIH on ways to help older adults feel less lonely. In the same issue it reported a federal suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for improper incarceration of mentally-ill prisoners; including the use of solitary confinement. There is some connection here — or perhaps disconnection.

It is part of life to lose friends and loved ones through death, time and alienation. But apparently the way to address the problem in this age of connected isolation2 is no longer to have people who know and accept us to talk to us, pat us on the back, share a cup of coffee, kiss us on the cheek, or more (if we are romantically inclined). It’s to learn to meditate the loneliness away. Quoting David Creswell, the expert overseeing the CMU study, the Post Gazette states:

… the number of lonely older adults may be increasing, putting their overall health at greater risk, but the way to help them isn’t necessarily to connect them to more people.

The Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of psychology, funded with a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health announced Monday, hopes that training people in better relaxation and coping techniques will reduce their perception of being lonely.

Each of us is wired with a different need and capacity for being alone. The solitude of Thoreau and Muir and eastern religious mystics is not for everyone. Indeed, in this hyperconnected age of crowdsourcing, solitude itself has become suspect. Therefore, it’s enlightening to know that a problem that philosophers like Buddha and artists from Nietzsche and Kafka to Van Gogh have struggled with for thousands of years is simply one of perception. 

You’d think the widespread adoption of social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter over the Internet would help. But, as Olivia Laing writes in The Future of Loneliness in the Guardian:

 … the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready

It can be difficult enough to endure or learn to accept loneliness if we are mentally whole and emotionally intact (a relative proposition). How much worse if we are imprisoned and isolated with schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. Yet in the absence of community resources and adequate policy, the mentally ill are generally shunned by society3. Mentally prisoners who have completed their sentence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania often remain in jail. Some have been placed in solitary confinement.  

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania announced the suit Monday on behalf of Stephen Kline, 25, a onetime Allegheny County resident who now is an inmate at Mifflin County Jail; Gabriel Gamble, 30, a patient at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County; and Matthew Christy, 26, a patient at Warren State Hospital in Warren County… 

The suit claims the state does not have enough beds in community-care programs for all of those needing autism and mental health services — more than 1,000 are waiting — and that people in jails and state hospitals face special obstacles to community care.

In 2013, the Disability Rights Network sued the Department of Corrections, alleging that the state misused solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. The state took corrective action..

Literature and popular culture abound with references to the plight of loneliness: 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Alone Again, Naturally, Gilbert o’ Sullivan
Only the Lonely, Roy Orbison

Have we forgotten Robin Williams and his death only last year? As his character The World’s Greatest Dad states:

“I used to think the worst thing in life is to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”

We conveniently overlook the fact that gathering to celebrate the season of light and fellowship around the winter solstice originated in the need to to prepare for the long dark night together. Our hopes and fears is not just a phrase from a Christmas song. Can you identify the following excerpt from another holiday favorite?

When you’re alone, alone in the world…when you’re alone in the world.
Blown away leaves get blown in the world…swirled away leaves get swirled.
Listening to your heels as you walk, making a lonely clack.
You don’t know how it feels when you talk and nobody’s voice talks back
.4

I challenge you to read or listen to this without feeling a tear coming on.

All Is Forgiven

In It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey’s penury, loneliness and imminent arrest bring him to the brink of suicide. At the end of the film when hope is restored (along with the missing eight thousand dollars), George’s brother, Harry, toasts him as ‘the richest man in town’. Harry does not toast George’s mastery of meditation and relaxation techniques to cope with loneliness. He toasts the fact that George’s friends and neighbors gathered around him in his time of need. They didn’t update their Facebook page, send tweets and begin Kickstarter campaigns. They showed up. — DA

1With a small h.

3Often due to policies designed to protect their rights. Listen to the enlightening WESA 12/10 interview with PA Congressman Tim Murphy , himself trained as a mental health professional.

4Click the link to read and hear this song with lyrics by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill (who went on to write music for Funny Girl).

Art & Artificiality: Selfies & Dandies

As background for our ongoing oral history on technology in literature and popular culture, I just finished reading David Hughes’ The Shock of the New . Hughes describes dandyism and art in the 19th century, along with the eponymous figure of pop art and Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol.

Writing in the Paris Review on February 20th [1], Tara Isabella Burton compares the cult of 19th-century dandyism with our 21st-century predilection for taking cell phone portraits of ourselves (aka ‘selfies’). She quotes Charles Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet, who describes the dandy as:

…transcending his humanity—by choosing and creating his own identity, he remains splendidly aloof, unaffected by others or by the world at large.

Oscar Wilde, Dandy Extraordinaire (Wikipedia Commons)

She also quotes 19th-century French writer Jean Richepin:

“…the true dandy evokes surprise, emotion, and passion in others, but remains entirely insensible himself, producing an effect to which he alone remains immune.” And is: 

“… brilliant and bored;  he lives in terror of being pigeonholed by others. “Having dabbled in nearly everything—arts, letters, pleasures—he had forged for himself an ideal, that consisted in being unpredictable in everything.” … he applies false hair and makeup to alter his appearance and confound his peers.

Hughes writes about Andy Warhol, a 20th-century dandy by any other name, whose:

… ‘autistic stare was  the same for heroes and heroines as for death and disaster… the shallow painter who understood more about the mechanisms of celebrity than any of his colleagues, whose entire sense of reality was shaped… by the television tube.”

Andy Warhol
Poul Webb, Art & Artists

The period of 19th-century dandyism that Burton and Hughes cite between roughly the 1840s and 1900  coincides with the appearance of photography,  which allowed for endlessly reproducible images.

Anyone who has seen portraits of Warhol, who famously ‘liked to watch’, instantly recognizes the carefully constructed image: fright wig, the glasses, the stare. And of course Warhol utilized the replicated, mass-produced industrialized image in reframing everyday objects and celebrities as objects worthy of attention and art all the way to the bank.  As Hughes writes:

“Warhol did more than any other painter alive to turn the art world into the art business. By turning himself into pure product, he dissolved the traditional ambitions and tensions of the avante garde.

Burton quotes Jennifer O’Connel[2] in the Irish Times: “We are living in an age of narcissism, an age in which only our best, most attractive, most carefully constructed selves are presented to the world.”  Paradoxically, O’Connel also writes about the increasing prevalence of loneliness in our lives.[3] In the 1970s, when I was in college, Christopher Lasch warned (or at least pointed out the consequence) of this direction in our culture in The Culture of Narcissism.

In addition to mass media of television, film, advertising and the web, consumer culture gives us cell phones, helmet cams, Google glasses and personal monitoring devices. These technologies purportedly give us the freedom and power to define ourselves, endlessly watching, refining, redefining and creating our image. But where is the line between the freedom to create our own identity and the demand that we do this incessantly (and exclusively) for the consumption of others ?

In Ken Gergen’s ‘The Self in the Age of Information’ the cult of narcissism calls into question the whole idea of self, in the sense of immutable character. Gergen proposes that modern technology (including now Facebook, Twitter, and evolving forms of social networking) make the plastic personality, the chameleon self, a primary asset in creating and presenting a public persona. Image is all. Warhol also creepily said ‘I want to be a machine’. But if we are all busily  creating digital versions of ourselves for public consumption, whatever our private struggles and personal joys (if these count for anything), who is the audience we are doing this for? And what happens when they move on to the next trend, or if we need a human connection beyond people just watching? – CDL


[1] Keep Smiling, Tara Isabella Burton, The Paris Review

[2] Selfie, word of 2013, sums up our age of narcissism  Jennifer O’Connel, The Irish Times

You Are There

Sixty-plus people attended our live radio presentation of ‘The Thin Man’ Comes to Pittsburgh at the Omni William Penn Saturday November 23rd. One of the first questions people asked me was, ‘Are you going to record it?’, followed by ‘Are you going to put it on YouTube?’ We could just as well have done this for people to enjoy anonymously behind their screens — in between checking e-mails and Facebook. Instead, people braved the first real winter weather of the season to join other audience members and ourselves for the experience of hearing Nick and Nora and an array of lowlifes and highflyers do their thing. My thanks to Sarah, Bob, Tamer, Jessica and the staff at the Omni for providing a great venue.

Omni William Penn Lobby

Omni William Penn Lobby

In these days of twitter and instagram, human activity is endlessly digitized, replicated and deconstructed. Eight-word text messages count for meaningful conversation. Experience must be compressed into 144 characters. I was privileged to collaborate with a wonderful group of people who made our event come alive. Only two perform full-time. One is a musician and poet, in addition to working in the financial services industry. The rest have day jobs. We rehearsed for two months to put together a show to knock the socks off our audience. ‘Astonish me’ the theater critic said. What seems astonishing is that we pulled it off.

Whether painting or music, theater or dance, the arts at their best connect us to our deepest selves as individuals and as a community. This is more important than ever as our lives become preoccupied with self-promotion and dependent on duplication of experience — endlessly replicated and mass- produced. This trend affects everything from clothing to relationships to our emotions to the food we eat. We seek the ‘authentic’ in a safe, standardized, mass-produced palatable format — one that won’t challenge our expectations too much or result in a less than optimal experience. Andy Warhol, still revered here in his home town, reframed and resold us our own memes (the familiar artifacts of consumer culture) and took the proceeds all the way to the bank.

So we update our Facebook pages, send tweets on our own time and convenience, screen our calls (if we talk to anyone at all) — endlessly reiterating what someone else has said and what we already know. Our lives themselves are circumscribed by the virtual and vicarious so that we barely have a thought that is not predigested and shared immediately with others, hardly knowing ourselves what we think.

We are in danger of becoming commodities ourselves. We are encouraged to this by consumer advertisements and depictions of what life should be (speaking of Warhol). Smart phones, helmet cams, GPS coordinates allow us to track, monitor and share our most profound and innocuous thoughts. We watch ourselves constantly. The consequence of all this sharing with strangers who do not know us – is that experience is isolated and fragmented. We form judgments of others (and have judgments formed about us) without regard to personal history, circumstances or context.

But the process of ensuring a perfect cup of coffee every time1 does not scale easily to the arts or to being human. The happiest and most tragic aspects of living are fraught, unpredictable, messy. True art reflects this. It contains an element of the sacred, an immanence that cannot be manufactured. To be more than than just the sound of one hand clapping, it must involve an audience and a performer (or presenter) taking a mutual risk on an unknown quantity. As Stefany Anne Goldberg writes2:

“A magic trick is not a can of peas. A pirouette is not a product. A performance is just a person, creating an experience for other people, making them laugh, making them gasp, annoying them, delighting them. “

“… in a live performance, there’s a symbiotic relationship between audience and performer, in a recorded performance, audience and performer are divorced from each other, unreal to each other.”

” Nothing else has the feeling of standing on that precipice between failure and success — the puddle of sweat at the small of the back, the fluttering heartbeat, the tingling knees; to experience that moment when everything just might fall apart and probably should and you know it will, but then it doesn’t…. “

A live performance invites strangers to invest individually and together in a communal experience that will never be repeated. On good days the result can be transcendent, enlightening, uplifting. On other days, well, at least you can make up your mind yourself. Because you were there. – CDL

1See Julian Baggini, Joy in the Task, in Aeon Magazine

2Stefany Anne Goldberg , Send in Whatever Clowns are Left, The Smart Set

Radio in the ‘Burgh

I enjoyed the first installment on AM radio in the ‘Burgh in the Post-Gazette. I vividly recall personalities such as Jack Bogut and shows such as KDKA’s Sixty-to-Six (not to mention Bob Prince) on my visits to Pittsburgh.

Retro Radio

Bob Prince broadcast Pirates baseball on a set like this during summer evenings on my grandparents patio.

Of course,commercial radio started in Pittsburgh.  One thing left out of the 10/13 article (at least the first one) is that the William Penn Hotel was the site of the world’s first live orchestra broadcasts in the 1920s and broadcasts of the Count Basie and Lawrence Welk orchestras in the 1930s. We are partnering with Arcade Comedy and the Omni to evoke this experience with a sketch comedy show on November 1st and a live radio adaptation of ‘The Thin Man’ on November 23rd.  Please see the following links for more information and tickets:

Retro Radio Review at Arcade Comedy Theater November 1st (sketches inspired by radio scripts from the 1930s and 40s)

‘The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ Live Radio (at the Omni William Penn November 23rd)

Incidentally, one of the stars of the original Thin Man film, William Powell, was a native of Pittsburgh. With a grant from the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts, we are hoping to do a live broadcast and streaming webcast of the Omni event during Pittsburgh’s traditional start to the holiday season. Ironically, the local stations we approached so far say that the technical demands and logistics of doing a broadcast on location in 2013 make this a challenge!

Advertisers, the news media and education often give the mistaken assumption that new technology (e.g., podcasts, Instagram and Facebook) inevitably supersedes older, established technology such as radio (and newspapers ; – )). In reality human beings rediscover and reapply older technology all the time to meet problems and create new forms of expression where there is a need and benefit.  Just ask anyone who owns a Prius or a 1904 Columbia Electric Runabout.  Please see the following links:

The Marx Brothers on Radio (marx-brothers.org)

An Appreciation of Damon Runyon  (by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker)

Original Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Recordings (Realaudio at OTR Network)

A Few Words About Copyrights  (Interesting take on a confusing subject from the Generic Radio Workshop)

– CDL

Is It Live, Memorex or Youtube?

Excellent article in the Irish Times about digital replication (streaming) of music and art vs. live performance and presentation.[1]

Woody Guthrie, troubadour of the American dustbowl in the 30s (who had a thing or two to say about labor, exploitation and music) observed “… electric fonagrafts an’ radeos an’ talkies has fixed it where you put a nickle in an’ one or two musicians entertains hundreds or thousends of people, an’ hole armies of well talented folks goes beggin.” [sic]

His complaint preceded Facebook and Youtube. The dilemma now as then is how to reward and support those who honor their artistic muse when the prevailing commercial and consumer trend is to turn her solely into a commodity, if not a whore. Our organization (ALCStudies.org) promotes live spoken-word and musical events (e.g., live radio and lectures). We believe the Web can digitize and duplicate the simulacra[2], but never replace the immanence (and sacredness) of connecting human beings through the gift of live art, including music, dance and the spoken-word. People hunger for that experience still, which is as old as civilization. The Gaelic and Celtic cultures gave us some of the greatest examples. Just ask Ossian (or at least James Macpherson) ; – ).

Speaking of exploitation, see an article on emotional labor at FastCompany.com

— DA


[1] *Memorex, orginator of a famous casette tape television commercial featuring singer Ella Fitzgerald, filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

 [2] Thanks to artist Chris McGinnis for introducing this term: …The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. – Jean Baudrillard

Our Institutions, Ourselves

Here at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies we examine the received wisdom of crowds and other presumed or self-appointed sources of authority. The news so far in the first month of this year reassures us that our mission is not wasted.

The congress convenes, prosecutors prosecute, politicians pontificate, the media mediate (but not much meditate) on the sublime and the ridiculous: church and state, small and great. Financial institutions gain rewards from damaging the economy. Businesses profit from outsourcing and layoffs, while claiming to engage and value their workers. Organizations of higher learning declare their noble mission and beneficence in educating and building the character of students, while refusing responsibility for paying taxes, raising tuition or their own employees’ depredations.

There is no lack of souls looking for a cause with which to identify themselves. There is no more zealous fanatic than a convert. Lost souls and gifted people alike (who are often the same) seek a cause greater than themselves to belong to. Ideally, this leads to the greater good.

But there’s a fine line between the faithful and the fanatic (from Latin fanaticus “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god,” also “furious, mad”). As we immerse ourselves in the tribal identity of Republican and Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, the right to bear arms or freedom from wanton death and mayhem, we may invoke the darker angels of our nature. The darker side of devotion leads else elsewhere. Soldiers for the cause, whether volunteers or employees, along with the defenseless and the innocent, come to be seen by their leaders merely as expendable resources, along with ethics and accountability.

A colleague grew up in central Pennsylvania where they worship American football. Every fall people there dress in blue and white and drive past the crisp autumn leaves to attend the games in Happy Valley. In America uniquely sport tends to drive institutions of higher learning (and their contracts with cable television). Six-six, two-hundred fifty pound halfbacks and running backs subsidize the study of computer engineering and post-modern cultural deconstruction. The size of the elephant in the room sometimes obscures the cost of its care and feeding, and the sacrifices made for someone’s presumed greater good.

Charitable, governmental, educational, or business institutions can become corrupted when their own perpetuation becomes an end, rather than a means, to fulfilling their mission. Communism culminated in the toppling of the Berlin Wall, after the loss of millions of lives. Fascism led to worse. Its mirror image, McCarthyism, prompted an elected government in a free society to betray ideals of free speech and democracy and destroy lives of its fellow citizens. Even in America, land of liberty and libertarian , there is subtle or not so subtle pressure to wear the right clothes, say the right words and think the right thoughts.

Thomas Paine insisted on promoting an Age of Reason over religious dogma in his later years. This made him the unacknowledged founding father, with little honor in his own nation. John Locke wrote about the social contract that guides relations between the individual and civil society. Thomas Hobbes wrote about the unruly mob’s need to be led by some single unifying leader, whatever the cost to individuals. Between these two orbits we seek the golden mean.

The goal of an institution formed to find homes for the homelessness, end hunger or find a cure cancer should be to eliminate its own raison d’être. But the poor, the unborn, the disenfranchised will always be with us – as will young boys needing protection in the locker room or sacristy, and women from rapists in their community. Where fund raising, administration, marketing and promotion for social and charitable organizations become ends in themselves, effective leadership may lie more in knowing what side their bread is buttered on than feeding it to the hungry. If your livelihood depends on making the case for the need that keeps you in business, you may not be inclined to make it go away or take accountability for flaws in carrying out your mission. Thus the justice of your cause easily becomes justification for a host of ills.

Thoreau, the poster child for the environmental movement, wrote the beloved Walden preaching a transcendent, personal connection with the world. But Life Without Principle, his lesser-known essay contains words that would be considered subversive to the children of any middle class school district today:

  • The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse…
  • Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient

And to those obsessed with the trivia elevated to significance now on Facebook:

  • I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. .. It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember!

Thoreau was not an advocate of unbridled capitalism, nor for unthinking patriotism, that last refuge of scoundrels. The same man who argued for the love of nature pleaded for the life of a murderer and fanatic, John Brown, following the latter’s brutal murders in Kansas and insurrection at Harpers Ferry in the cause of abolition.

Rescuing puppies or ending global warming or electing a candidate depends on putting your cause in front of the right people and convincing them to ante up. More importantly, it depends on recruiting dedicated people and finding symbols who will support your cause through thick or thin, even at the expense of their own interests. Businesses and nonprofits have a host of ways now to reach out and declare their social conscience and how much they care. E-mail updates, Facebook invites and twitter feeds invite us daily to be part of of their communities and causes. But they don’t hold our hand in the middle of the night at the hospital or listen to us talk about what to do about our lousy jobs. And they quickly abandon us if we do not fit their agenda or prove a liability or embarrassment.

Thoreau died mostly forgotten at forty-five in the bedroom of his parents’ home surrounded by unsold books published at this own expense. Leon Trotsky, communism’s one time true believer and acolyte, was hunted down and murdered. Joseph McCarthy died a shunned alcoholic.

Human beings also aren’t merely icons for a cause, to be replaced by the new icon du jour. They don’t exist to promote brands or as algorithmic functions of their connections on Facebook. No man (or woman, or child) is an island. We are not merely our beliefs and needs devoted or subverted to the needs of institutions that do not mourn our passing or care about our true selves. As Nelson Algren, that troubadour of Chicago’s lower depths in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote in the Man with the Golden Arm, ‘We are all members of each other.’ – DA

David Abramoff, Ph.D., is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. Copyright 2013. For permissions and reprints please go to our Contact Us page.  We gratefully accept donations made through Fractured Atlas.

Science, Religion & Magic

We have a tendency to see science, religion and magic as mutually exclusive, rather than as related, even co-dependent, phenomena.

Science grew out of alchemy and the search for the divine secret of matter for the purpose of transforming lead into gold (much like  derivatives were used to package and turn worthless loans into profit on Wall Street) .

The discipline of empirical thought added to alchemy invented science. Driven by the search for profit, science gave rise to industrial and technological revolutions: iron,  steam, electricity and the age of the machine.

A recent article in the Atlantic describes the depiction of technology in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Men, elves, dwarves and wizards allied themselves to defeat Sauron, Sarumon and the orcs. who sought to subjugate the old magic of Middle Earth with a newer, darker force:

“The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fist…”

In this world, outside the realm of fiction, it’s not always clear which forces are enlightened and which are more Mephistophelian. Sometimes they are a little of both.

Scientists and technologists are susceptible to whim, fancy and ego as the rest of us. We assume their training in the modern magic of engineering, computer science or medicine gives them more insight or a monopoly on truth. But their discoveries are often Faustian in nature. Could we have had antibiotics without genetic engineering? Central heat without global warming? What bargains are we willing to make and have made for us? And by whom?

David Noble describes religious belief as an element of scientific and technological pursuit. Galileo and Copernicus felt they were doing God’s work. Isaac Newton, who almost single-handedly invented physics, dabbled in alchemy and was a Mason. Robert K. Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita as he watched the atomic bomb explode. Today visionaries such as Steve Jobs want to re-make the world ‘insanely great’ in their own images. Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil want to transcend it. Technological determinism, no less than religious zeal, tells us what must be so. Do we have a choice?

We persist in the misapprehension that science is a thing, a collection of objective, immutable facts, rather than a process. Michael Polanyi argues in Science, Faith & Society that this process owes as much to inspiration and intuition as logic.

Perhaps it is no accident that at the same time we are overrun by devices that hold our thoughts, guide our steps, and organize our love lives, so many take refuge in the old magic of sword and sorcery and vampire fantasies.

Are our iPhones and tablets that much different than idolatrous fetishes and talismans carried as repositories of power to attract luck or repel evil? What is Facebook but a virtual altar to the graven image of ourselves?

— CDL

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