Poison

Imagine waking up, one day, to the realisation you were being poisoned – slowly, but inexorably. The tell-tale signs had been there for the longest time, but you had convinced yourself that nobody had wanted you dead or debilitated so badly that they would engage in such a stealthy, patient, utterly sinister game. Indeed, you had been frequently gaslighted into believing the unmistakeable symptoms of slow, deliberate poisoning were either all in your head, or down to other seemingly more plausible explanations. You had made bad choices, were lazy or stupid, they had breezily corrected you. There was no conspiracy to poison. How would anybody organise such a massive, co-ordinated plot? How would they keep the conspiracy a secret, with so many involved?

Yet, on finally making the unarguable realisation, going back over the thousands of incidences when the trickle-slow poison was administered, you came to see, with lucid, clear understanding, that almost everyone you knew had been in on it. Some had undoubtedly done it for money. Others were unwitting accomplices, content to accept, without question, the authorities’ earnest assurances that the substance they were administering was non-toxic. Still others accepted that the poison was possibly harmful, but not in such small doses, surely.

They all denied the obvious, readily observable fact that the poison’s effects were cumulative and progressive. In the late stages, the consequences included blindness, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, loss of limbs, gangrene, infections that never healed, liver damage, kidney failure, dementia, depression, muscle seizures and wasting, severe fatigue, tooth loss, malabsorption of essential nutrients and many other quality of life diminishing afflictions. Imagine coming to understand that many people you loved the most had suffered and been taken from you, long before their time, because of this poison.

The trajectory of the toxin was deterministic. It led to every cell in your body being rendered unable to use energy, diseased and dysfunctional at a mitochondrial level. In this state, every normal action became an epic struggle between the will and failing biological machinery. Everything involved pain and exhaustion. It was ultimately fatal, with people dying prematurely of “the effects of old age”. Even in death, the true root cause was always concealed.

With your new realisation, imagine if you then discovered that this poisoning was widespread and accelerating, in the whole population. It wasn’t just you they were relaxed about poisoning; it was everyone. They were even unwittingly poisoning themselves, in ignorance. Some succumbed sooner than others, so those that were resistant were used as deceptive evidence that nobody was being poisoned.  

Observing how such a monstrous thing could have been perpetrated, you learned that the government and their scientists had actually recommended you substantially base your diet on the ingestion of the poison. With your taxes, they had heavily subsidised it’s production and uptake. Doctors assured you that the poison was safe, being the most culpable of the gaslighters. An entire industrial supply chain, vast in scale, had grown up to deliver it.

Looking down the aisles of any supermarket, you saw that nearly every foodstuff on sale had the poison included, sometimes concealing the adulteration, but other times openly advertising it as a health food. Often, you could get two for one. There were entire aisles full of the stuff, so that actually avoiding taking the poison was almost impossible, especially for the unwary and those that hadn’t yet realised.  

In millions of restaurants and fast food outlets, it was almost impossible to find an option on the menu that wasn’t contaminated with the poison. Convenience foods were universally tainted. Some enterprises even specialised in unashamedly dispensing it, dressing it up in attractive and delicious packages to tempt the uninformed. A lot of people were getting very rich supplying the stuff.

In tragic ignorance, parents would often feed it to their children, as a pacifying treat and expression of love, unaware of the biochemical processes they were setting in train. They’d been reassured by every authority figure they trusted. The poison was also highly addictive, causing those that tasted it to come to crave it. A physical and psychological dependency could be well established in early childhood, rotting their baby teeth down to festering, fetid stubs that had to be surgically removed.

The pharmaceutical industry had developed elaborate and expensive treatments and medications to mask the symptoms of the poison, so that the afflicted could continue to consume the deadly stuff. The mechanism of action of the poison was well understood and characterised, with a clear path, biochemically speaking, from root cause to disease effect. Triglycerides were directly correlated with the dose. But there was no money in eliminating the root cause, so doubt was cast over the simple biochemical explanation and on the scientists who espoused it. Their voices were silenced, their reputations destroyed and their warnings futile.

Manufacturers of the poison would pay for monumental art galleries, with the profits. Several times a year, marketing campaigns would, for purely sentimental reasons, exhort everybody to consume particular foodstuffs richly laden with the toxin. People who were already sick were encouraged to eat and drink more of what was killing them. Indeed, they were shamed if they refused to partake.

In an effort to increase the dosage, some companies had added the stuff to salty, aerated water, both to arrest the emetic effect of a saturated solution of the poison and to prevent your thirst from being slaked, so that you drank another glass or bottle of it, and then another. This most potent version of the poison was advertised in association with young, fit, vital, carefree, liberated people, not those in the late stages of its grip – a monstrous deception. The smartest investors in the world endorsed the company producing the drink, through large shareholdings. Profits were healthy, even if the product was not. Government secret services concealed their foreign agents by sending them into enemy territories to preside over the company’s licensed bottling plants.

Some believed that if you eliminated the most obvious form of the poison, you were safe, not realising that most other commonly available and cheap foods were converted into the poison, by your body, directly. The class of foods that either were the poison, concealed the poison or were readily converted into the poison was overwhelming.  

Ironically, the worst effects of the toxin could be ameliorated and substantially reversed, within ten weeks, if all forms of it could be avoided, but that was the point. It was almost impossible to avoid. That’s why it kept on killing. Slowly. Deliberately. Uncaringly.

Imagine how your relationship to the world and everybody in it would change, once you understood that you were being poisoned and the myriad, insidious ways it had been happening. Who could you trust? Who could you tell, without them accusing you of being a conspiracy theorist? It would be a very lonely and isolating moment. You’d feel an intense sense of betrayal. How could anybody even begin to tear down this well-entrenched, institutional edifice?

The worst of it, for an artist, would be the realisation that fellow artists had enthusiastically collaborated in the artful concealment of the deception, sometimes even fooling themselves. So blinded had they been to the consequences, they had leapt at the chance to make their art in the service of death and disease. They hadn’t seen it that way, of course, but that didn’t change the truth of the matter.  

In using their art to make the poison come to be seen as benign, they were just as complicit as everybody else that maintained and reinforced the deception. Other people were paying for those artistic indulgences with their very lives. No artist would like to imagine their work makes other people thoroughly sick, yet this is what they had accomplished. All of their artistry had amounted to this.

The deception, it turned out, was generations, even centuries old. Nobody had unmasked and halted it, in all that time. If anything, it was getting worse, with consumption of the toxin steadily increasing and the health of the populace steadily declining. It was almost unsustainable, as the attrition and losses mounted. No wonder productivity had grown stagnant. At the root of the economic malaise was a health crisis.

Humanity is prone to wrong-headed, bad ideas. They’re incredibly difficult to change and become tenaciously embedded into the normal run of how things are done, regardless of how harmful and maladaptive. In fact, our stubborn refusal to confront and revise them is the most maladaptive behaviour of all, with existential consequences. Mass carbohydrate toxicity, for that’s what it is, in reality, is a ready metaphor for other, even more serious human delusions. It serves as a model for how you can fool all the people, all the time.

One of the more insidious bad ideas was planted during what has been wrongly labeled “The Enlightenment”. People, in truth, are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent, trucking and bartering through life. Smith had turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers. This way of thinking took hold of us and it delivered a society which is essentially amoral and asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody and everything else as a means to their own private ends. 

As articles of faith, these ideas have consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we find our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we receive, there is a new way to pit us against each other. The costs have become too high. Mass carbohydrate poisoning, the excessive consumption of these toxins, beyond the human body’s capacity to withstand them (which turns out to occur at a much lower dose than widely acknowledged or officially sanctioned), is but one of the direct consequences of this way of thinking. The learned tendency for selfish materialism, without fear of censure, is what makes it so difficult to bring it all to a sensible halt. There’s too much money to be made in allowing the harm to continue, unabated.

A society that conceals and continues the death and debilitation, for profit, is one based on a blind faith in science; a self-serving belief in progress; rampant materialism; and a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.

When we replace the vital ties of kinship and community with abstract contractual relations, or when we find that the only sanctioned paths in life are that of consumer or producer, we become alienated and depressed in spirit. We open the door to blithely, if slowly, killing each other, without a pang of conscience. Abstract rights like liberty and equality turn out to be rather cold comfort. These ideas, however lofty, may not get at the most basic human wants and needs – the need to huddle, socially, to care for one another, to share our warmth and to experience the security and comfort of solidarity. We want to feel safe from harm.

We would much prefer to live in a “social economy of affections,” or, put more simply, a moral economy. Simple societies tend toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasise feeling and mutual affection. Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living. In simpler societies, they feel the exact opposite. Everybody owes everybody else. There are mutual ties. People don’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they have a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it, because it nurtures you. That’s very different from the Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to vanquish each other.

You have to create peaceful, nurturing conditions, or the human race can’t survive. There is no other fount of social morality itself. But, we have a bias toward centering on male aggression and taking it to represent everybody, which is unfair.  

Most of our utopian visions carry on the errors and limitations born of a misguided view of human nature. That’s why communism, as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, projected a materialist perspective on progress, while ignoring and actively, visciously suppressing the natural human instinct for autonomy— the ability to decide for ourselves where to go and what to say and create. On the flip side, capitalism runs against our instinct to trust and take care of each other. We’re labouring under the yoke of some very bad ideas, which work to obscure better answers for society. We’re blinded.

The natural outcome of our blinkered belief in rugged individualism is conquest, violence, dehumanisation, a tendency to attack or exploit those weaker than ourselves, narcissism, mindless escapism and consumerism, bullying, assault, adherence to hierarchies of power and unquestioningly trusting in illegitimate authority figures. All of these terrible flaws are what keeps the carbohydrate overdosing going, for example. That’s how you keep a massive conspiracy active, yet hiding in plain sight – by tacit, unspoken agreement. It’s all there. There’s no master plan or organising committee. The monstrosity perpetuates organically, because we all accept its premises and assumptions as axiomatic.

Regrettably, artists have, for centuries, used their work to legitimise these terrible ideas, which deny our true human nature. They’ve actively participated in the propagation of the propaganda, programming all of us to keep taking the poisons, whether they be simple carbohydrates, or racism, misogyny and prejudice. It’s very disappointing that such brilliant, creative talents could belong to such hard-hearted, shitty specimens of humanity. We could have done better, had we chosen to.

Ultimately, we can resist and defy the institutions that deny our real humanity. Rather than violence or revolution, we can engage in evasion, passive-aggressive insolence, disobedience and exile. We don’t have to eat the poisons they foist upon us.  

We had better get to it, though. To put it bluntly, our current set of ideas are not compatible with human civilisation. One of them has got to go. I know which one I’d rather eliminate. Our current politically-driven orgy of indulgence in the worst ideas possible will precipitate an inevitable existential crisis and we’ll have to choose which will be retained – civilisation or our delusional beliefs. Perhaps that moment will come sooner than we expect.

Abuse people long enough and they become brutal too, in turn. The brutalised brutalise. The cycle becomes harder to break. This is where we are. We poison ourselves, each other and our children, in myriad ways, interconnected by a belief in a body of bad ideas, rather than facing uncomfortable truths and dismantling entrenched privileges.

What we have is a distinct solidarity deficit.

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Making Art In Dark Times

I think the thing I struggle with most is making art when my heart is aching. Unfortunately, the list of things that can make somebody pre-disposed to being an artist (a modicum of sensitivity and a heightened aesthetic sense, for example) feel heartache can be pretty long. Creativity dries up for so many saddening reasons.  

There’s the difficulty in carving out creative time and a space in which to create. The pressures to earn often include the distraction of a demanding day job, which you need to give your best to, for pure integrity reasons, but which can leave you feeling drained, dispirited and depleted. Inevitably, there are health issues to contend with, bureaucracy to comply with and the tribulations and troubles of those closest to you, who you love the most. It all has a creativity dampening effect.

Add to that the ambient background of a veritable cavalcade of your artistic heroes and inspirations dying, the prevailing political climate, the parlous state of the global economy, crumbling institutions and infrastructure and a despoiled natural environment and you would have to be pretty self-centred to not notice. In fact, isolating yourself and creating art, in the face of all of that, which requires quite a bit of detachment from other people and intense focus, can be seen as an act of selfish abandonment. That can make you feel awful, too.

What’s an artist to do?

I see it as the greatest test of an artist. It’s tempting to give in to despair and just stop creating, but you have a duty to others, as an artist, even if your contributions go unappreciated. You have a duty to fill the world with as much hope, beauty and wisdom as you can create. Your imagination and ability to see differently is crucial to changing an unacceptable situation. Your works are needed to soothe humanity, give them comfort and be a conduit through which they can feel their fears and grief. Art has an important emotional and psychological purpose and artists who can provide that relief really should.

Without your art, ideas, creativity and imaginative connection, human thought devolves into the drear existence of the purely functional. All the joy disappears and everybody’s heart becomes heavy. Efficiency displaces frivolity. Productivity replaces quality. The calculus fetishises cost over delight. Everything has to turn an advantage and profit to those controlling the swindle.

Have you ever noticed what dull, two-dimensional people billionaires tend to be? They’ve dedicated so much of their existence to the accumulation of wealth and power, that they have let their imaginations, intellects, generosity, sociability empathy and souls wither and atrophy. Then, they attempt to remake the world in their own image, according to their distorted values, impoverished in the very things that make us human. They do so, because they have the influence and purchasing power to amplify their muted, stunted character and personalities. Is it any wonder that modern cities, centres of wealth and power, are such deserts of culture, lacking grass-roots vibrancy and intellectual stimulation?

The heavy-hearted die young. Art is what helps humanity slow down its inexorable march toward death and oblivion. It is the only thing capable of uplifting the downtrodden. Each artwork is an expression of love – a gift given to mankind, in the hope that it will be accepted.

If that seems like a daunting responsibility to shoulder, as an artist, it is. What you make matters, but more importantly, demonstrating the strength and defiance to make joy and wonder, in a tumultuous world, is even more inspiring. In the darkest days, when things are no longer funny at all, finding ways to bring smiles and laughter into the world is like delivering a medicinal salve and a balm to heal the most wounded of hearts. Art is life.

So, keep writing, drawing, joking, parodying, painting, sculpting, architecting, designing, discovering, engineering, playing, inventing, composing, innovating, recording, knitting, sewing, crocheting, gardening, growing, nurturing or whatever else you do to express your creativity. In the darkest of days, when the world seems hell bent on an orgy of hatred, violence, vengeance and base cruelty, art is the antidote. It matters more in dark times than when times are good and the living is easy. It’s also much harder to produce.

In giving the gifts of your creativity, freely and with gratitude for your abilities, you can heal your own aching heart, even though it feels intensely painful to dredge the original and delightful from the depths of your own raw feelings of distress. The process of making art, in dark times, can be extremely uncomfortable and require you to dig deeply for the courage, but humanity desperately needs your contribution.

Be brave and keep on creating. You must create better, faster and with more strength, than the destroyers can destroy. It’s a titanic contest.

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Sacrifices

Everything you do requires a choice. What you spend your time on is a decision to not spend time on something else. Some of the things you spend your time on, regrettably, have the effect of foreshortening the amount of time you have left. All of your activities come at a price, expressed in lost opportunity of one sort or another.

I get a little frustrated when I see artists dismissed as lazy, but talented. What annoys me is that it pre-supposes that their laziness is not a deliberate, legitimate choice, often for exceptionally good reasons. It suggests that a person’s worth is measured by the extent to which they apply their talents. Just being, it is asserted, is not enough. You must be something. I don’t agree.

It’s none of anybody else’s business how a person chooses to spend their time. Being talented does not oblige you to do nothing other than develop and exploit that talent, to the exclusion of all else, especially if the implication is that you owe it to others. No you don’t. It’s your life. You can do whatever you want with it, regardless of other people’s demands and expectations. You weren’t born to serve audiences, at the expense of pursuing other fulfilling things, while you’re alive. Who needs that kind of pressure?

So, most of us are talented, but lazy. And that’s OK. If you have many talents, that doesn’t single you out for a purgatory life of frenzied development of every talent you have, to world-class accomplishment standards. The joy may be in being goodish at a lot of things. So what, if you’re terrible at some of them?

You also don’t have to give up on things you love to do, just because you only have time to work hard enough to excel at only one of your talents. Choosing to spread your time out, over the many things you can spend your time on and derive enjoyment from, rather than focusing on being outwardly successful at just one of them, is a perfectly valid life choice.

If you work hard on your talent and find yourself enjoying it less and less, you’re allowed to quit.  It’s not compulsory.  Just because you have a talent doesn’t mean you have to stick at it forever, especially if it becomes a chore.  Sometimes, laziness is just taking time out from working on your talent, until it becomes fun again.  This is a perfectly good reason for laziness.

Becoming more talented takes really hard work. You have to make sacrifices. That means less time with those you love, less recreation, less reading for pleasure, fewer trips away just to experience new surroundings, less time taking care of your health and less sleep. You’ll probably dance less too, unless dancing is the talent you are working to improve. Those are all consequential losses. You can work really hard on developing your talent, but don’t ignore and diminish the importance of what you’re giving up.

Being less lazy is also something you can work at, but that’s a choice that demands sacrifices too. You’re not a machine, put on earth to be productive, but otherwise of no worth. That’s a narrow, utilitarian viewpoint, propagated by those that profit from your sweat. Sometimes, your very presence is all your loved ones need. It doesn’t matter that you’re not cranking out brilliant, creative masterpieces at the time. It really doesn’t.

How tragic to reach a point, in your life, where you feel you’re surplus to humanity, unless you continue to exhibit and improve your one most outstanding talent. You’re worth much more than that.  

If you decide to work hard at something, it turns out that it’s easier to get less lazy, more brave and to obtain greater clarity about your fears, your work, your values and your purpose or mission, than it is to get more talented. That’s your choice too, but there will be sacrifices that must be made, no matter what you choose.

There is so much more to life than being productive and displaying your talent, the whole damn time. You can choose to remain as you are, if that allows you the time to do all the other things that make you happy and fulfilled. Don’t measure yourself solely by the number and quality of the artifacts you leave behind. Consider how much of your love, empathy, connection and wisdom you were able to share.

At some point, staying alive a while longer, with an adequate quality of life, surpasses the need to crank out one more fine, creative work. Who is to say that is wrong, or lazy? What does it matter if you neglect your talent, while you pay attention to this? Your talent evaporates, when you’re dead, so focusing on staying well preserves your talent anyway. Without life, it’s gone, no matter how outstanding it was.

Spending all your time dedicated to turning the planet into waste, through consumption of art materials, so that you look talented and not lazy, is actually the height of insanity, akin to burning the furniture and the fabric of the house, to keep warm. Encouraging others to consume yet more of what you make, so that your talent develops and you can’t be accused of idle indolence, is just as mad.

You need to experience all of life, not just the expression of your talents. Always be mindful of the sacrifices.

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Playing With Commitment

I was reading one of those glossy guitar magazines, the other day. My wife buys me one, every now and then, as a much appreciated gift. In this edition, there was an obituary, of sorts, for the late Rick Parfitt, of Status Quo. Quotes from previous interviews with the guitarist were interspersed in the valedictory article. One question asked him to distill the magic ingredient that made their seemingly simple music such a potent crowd pleaser. In trying to capture that particular lightning in a bottle, Parfitt observed that the key to it was to play those riffs with one hundred percent commitment. If you didn’t, he explained, the music would sound lame.

I thought that was a rather important insight. Even if your hands hurt and your fingers are bleeding, or your head is filled with distracting catastrophes, in order to make the music work, you have to play it like you mean it. You can’t phone it in. You have to be fully present in the moment, focused completely on just one thing: driving the song along and entertaining people enough, to make them forget about their woes and dance. It takes one hundred percent commitment to delivering the groove. 

We learnt this in our teens, as a young covers band. This was Australia, in the nineteen seventies and pub rock was just being born. Our repertoire included many Status Quo numbers, which at the time, were still relatively contemporary songs. It was cool to play them well. It was disastrous, if you did so half-heartedly. An audience would party hard, along with you, if you delivered, but equally make their displeasure known, in the form of vociferous, ferocious heckling and thrown glassware projectiles, if you weren’t right on it.  Playing authentically and with total commitment to the beat was both a form of self-preservation and a way to make yourself and everybody in the room feel good. That’s why you were there. To entertain. Nothing feels better.

This is also why AC/DC works, in my opinion. It’s solid. Relentless. The instruments are pounded ruthlessly, to create that solid engine of a rhythm section. The song and audience are propelled by a constant, driving, insistent, assertive pulse, which pervades every air molecule in the place. This is the very essence of Australian pub rock. The beat just never quits and you can’t ignore it. You’re compelled to move in time with it. Your very heartbeats fall into synchronism.

As a musician, you have to get into the zone and ignore distractions, to bring this feeling off. You have to be immersed in the flow. To me, this is where hired-gun session musicians sometimes fall down. They remain detached and aloof – technically flawless, but uninvolved in the soul of the music. They play it like it’s just another sheet full of notes. Rarely will they dig in and participate in the creation of the rawest, visceral communication, from musicians to audience. They play in a non-committal way. Too cool to get down and dirty.

Though we deny it, everything we do relies on human energy and effort producing the goods. Physical, kinetic movement. Muscles. It’s easy (and lazy) to think that entertaining people and motivating them to enjoy themselves is not work at all, but it takes effort, dedication and generosity. You’re using your human energy and your commitment to delivering the groove to unleash everybody else’s expressions of joy. You have to unlock their hearts. You have to fight for every heartbeat. It takes a lot of humanity to make it sound like a well-oiled machine.

It’s not at all easy, until you surrender yourself to this purpose. When you do, suddenly everything slots into place and you’re playing right in the pocket. If every member of your band does this, at the same time, then the magic happens. It’s not what you play, but how you play it. Putting something of yourself into it, holding nothing back, is how this is done. It’s all or nothing. Half way is nowhere.

Just because you’re not the drummer doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time. The groove consists of every contribution and only spot on is near enough. It has to motor. In fact, the other musicians should be consciously trying to make the drummer sound amazing. Tap your foot and move your body, to keep the beat. It’s a dance and you need to dance with it, even if you only nod your head in time.

It helps a lot to sing the melody in your head, just a few milliseconds before you play it and sticking to the melody, supporting it, honouring it and preserving it is very important. If you want to deviate from the melody, you’d better have a better melody to replace it. You’re there to recreate memories with melodies.

Don’t play what the piano player is playing. They’re the piano player, not you. Play something of your own, which complements what they’re playing. Playing in unison should be for effect and emphasis. You’re trying to lift the bandstand and the room.  

Don’t listen to the musicians that are trying to accompany you – you need to lead! And try hard to accompany the lead instrument or voice, not swamp and overwhelm them. Don’t stand on their melodic toes and listen for where their line needs an answer or support.

To quote Jazz musician Thelonious Monk, “you’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?”. Always know. Hesitancy and uncertainty is immediately audible and destroys the groove. Play with verve and panache.

Discrimination is important. You’re always playing with light and shade. There has to be a lot of darkness, for the lighter, contrasting moments to shine. Notes can be as small as the sound of a pin dropping, or as big as the universe. What you choose to play depends on your musical imagination.

The inside of a tune (the bridge) us what makes the outside of a tune sound good. Crisp beginnings and endings make the band sound tight, “together” and polished. Don’t play everything all the time, or every time. Leave some space for the imagination to fill in the details. Sometimes, what you don’t play is as important as what you do. Always leave them wanting more.

Stay in shape, as a musician. If you only play at gigs, you may turn up to a gig out of shape and then you won’t be able to make it. When your commitment to playing wanes, so does your playing. On the other hand, when you’re swinging, swing some more. If you’re not playing right at the very edge, you’re taking up too much room.

If you write music that isn’t interesting enough to play, to get your band members to come to rehearsal, write more interesting music. Musicians should live to play it. Your responsibility is to write something worth playing. Exciting music. Getting gigs is easy if you stay on the scene, are part of it and you define it. Make the music that matters.

When the spotlight is shining on you, you’ve got it and you have to carry it. If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but it’s on you. You’ve got it. Do something entertaining with it. Then pass it on and let somebody else take it.

Whatever you think can’t be done, or can’t be played, somebody will always come along and do it, or play it. It might as well be you. Get it done. A genius is the one most like himself. Be open and authentic, when you play and play with the courage and vulnerability to fail. If you drop it, puck it back up again immediately. Don’t miss a beat. Commitment, not omitment.

That, I think, is how you play with commitment.

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Nobody Wants Your Shit

Tiny, typical houses are full to overflowing with consumer crap. They don’t want any more. There’s just no room. Whatever masterpiece you’ve created, it’s the wrong colour, anyway. It won’t match the décor, even if they have the wall space, inclination and patience to hang and frame it.

Every man Jack is making some kind of art, to varying standards of accomplishment. Nobody is as dedicated to buying it, though. That’s not a creative pursuit. It’s not seen as a means of expressing yourself. There’s no passion in it.

Your artistic folly is just playful silliness mixed with melancholy. Nobody wants to indulge your penchant for regret, at paths in life not taken. Everybody knows those paths were impossible and unrealistic. Your self-doubt would have crippled your progress along that path, anyway.

You think if you make art purpose-designed to please, then somebody will want it, but ironically, it’s your art’s very inauthenticity which makes it unpalatable and repulsive. You can’t please anyone, most of the time.

There’s no time to listen or to read and far more nostalgia value in replaying familiar favourites. Who needs the shock of the new? Who wants to waste time explaining why you won’t pay attention?

Nobody wants your shit.  

Even if you make it entertaining and viciously brief.

Even if you dumb it down.

Even if you compromise your artistic integrity to naked populism.

Even if you give it away.

Nobody wants your shit.

So, make it authentic, make it good and hope it touches somebody else, in some small way. Get some joy out of the making.

If acclaim is what you’re seeking, to fill the void inside, the truth is that the void is unfillable. You’ll have to fill that yawning, abyss with something more substantial – a sense that you deserve to be happy, just for being.

Don’t expect anybody to affirm that for you, though.

They won’t.

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The Opposite of Now

What’s the opposite of “now”?  Contrary to what many people believe, it isn’t “then”.  There never was a golden age, which if we’re regressive and nostalgic enough about, can be restored to its former place in our lives.  This seems to be a belief, though, that has brought people that promise a return to a golden age (e.g. “make America great again”, “take back control”) to positions of power.

The uncomfortable truth, unfortunately, is that they will never be able to deliver a former golden age.  It never existed.  The best they can hope to do is to create some kind of pastiche of a fictitious, rose-tinted, golden age, but rendered in modern day reality.  Whatever confection they concoct, though, it will be thoroughly counterfeit.

So, if the opposite of “now” is not “then”, what is it?  I submit that the opposite of now is to imagine a world where the realities that are currently manifest are instead replaced by alternatives.  If “now” is a barren, austere, depressing time, then the opposite of now is a fruitful, abundant, uplifting world.

The problem is that no current political party has dared to describe the opposite of now, except by reference to the past.  It’s as if they lack the will, the courage and the imagination.  That may be because we’ve been progressively taught not to think critically.  This lack of critical thinking capacity didn’t happen accidentally.  It was deliberately engineered.  The story of how that was accomplished is as horrific as it is distressing.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned the Powell memo, written in the early nineteen seventies, which was a blueprint for an assault, by big business, on its critics.  In effect, it launched a militant war on critical thinking itself, waged by powerful, organised interests that didn’t want anybody to question the legitimacy of their actions, or express concern about how those actions might impinge on the lives of everybody else.

The privileged leaders of big business wanted to carry on, in any way they saw fit, like little, privatised tyrants.  With no effective opposition, or even anybody to call attention to their egregious excesses, they would be free to do as they pleased.  This was their dream and they have been incredibly successful at achieving their goals.

Powell, as a human being, appeared to me to have been a narrow-minded, bigoted, thoroughly indoctrinated elitist, with a world view that didn’t consider the “little people” at all.  He didn’t question the fundamentals of the system he defended, from a humanist point of view.  Instead, he preferred to defend a fatally flawed human construct; an edifice of biased, twisted and disturbing values, antithetical to humanity, so that elites like him could remain prosperous, entitled and opulent.

His blinkered view was that the obvious benefits of Capitalism must be preserved at all costs, irrespective of the damage that this system inflicted on the environment, justice and people’s lives.  His perspective and fervently held belief was that critics of the system could be dismissed as misguided and ill-informed, lacking access to “balanced” information.

That he should have reached this patronising conclusion speaks volumes of his denial of the fact that many sentient, bright, informed people had found Capitalism deficient and wanting, in many significant ways, which required fundamental reform and urgent redress.  They’d concluded, in the main, that the system was beyond corrective tweaks and needed to be replaced with something more benign and equitable, in its entirety.

Powell, in contrast, thought of the free enterprise system as beyond reproach – something that must be defended by fair means or foul, preferably by stealth to avoid the project being derailed or defeated, to protect free enterprise against being dismantled.  He didn’t acknowledge the harm and damage wrought by the single-minded pursuit of profit, in any meaningful way.  To him, it was an unthinkable thought.

In his report, Powell listed methods that corporations could use to silence those in, “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals”, who were hostile to corporate interests.  Variously called the “free enterprise system”, “capitalism” and the “profit system”, Powell held that the American political system of democracy, under the rule of law, was also under attack, often by the same individuals and organisations who seek to undermine the enterprise system.

At no point did it occur to him that the “rule of law” was a fundamentally violent construct, which tries to change minds and behaviour, through physical and psychological coercion.  He was apparently not aware of other ways of maintaining societal order, without resort to force, fear and intimidation.  He equated the current political system with democracy, when what he was advocating has, in fact, become a system that has completely disenfranchised the majority.  We have a corporatocracy, not a democracy.

It has been demonstrated that it doesn’t matter what you vote for, the elites will always get their way, regardless.  Corporate interests, via lobbyists and donations, carry much more weight, in deciding government policy, than the votes of individual, ordinary people.  This is why the government’s policies are so often at antipodal odds with the will of the majority.  The Western political system has proven to be wholly undemocratic.

The solution Powell called for, to protect the enterprise system, was the establishment of lavishly funded think tanks and conservative institutes.  We know now that these think tanks and institutes exert excessive influence on the shape and complexion of government policy.  They are all funded by corporate billionaires, but in true ashamed-to-admit-their-role fashion, rather than trying to win any policy argument on its merits; the cash is donated secretly, with the ties to corporations effectively denied and hidden.  Instead of representing independent, critical thought, these think tanks are nothing more than mouthpieces for the interests of corporations.  They don’t acknowledge it, but they represent the view from enterprise, invariably at the expense of ordinary individuals.

Powell proposed that ideological assaults against government regulation and environmental protection be directed at a mass audience, as if regulations didn’t protect workers against the reckless and harmful actions of corporations and the environment needed no protection from the rape and despoliation of Earth’s natural resources at all.  Remember that under the capitalist system, the environment is considered infinite, limitless and provided without cost to corporations, as their right.  Further, if a natural resource is destroyed, exhausted or driven to extinction, it doesn’t matter.  If the habitat is rendered unfit to sustain life, Capitalism doesn’t care.  In Powell’s calculus, if you can’t eat the food, breathe the air or drink the water, that doesn’t matter, so long as the enterprise system is protected.

To subvert the prevailing tide of criticism of capitalism, Powell advocated placing corporate-friendly academics and neoliberal economists in universities and banishing from the public sphere those who challenged unfettered corporate power.  He singled out Ralph Nader by name.  If this meant the destruction of promising academic careers, then so be it.  Without a hint of irony, fake academics, obedient and subservient to power, were installed to take the place of real critical thinkers, just as they were in Soviet Russia, under the Communist regime.  Low integrity individuals, dispensing a much lower quality of thought than the people they displaced, occupied positions of influence in the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals.

Under Powell’s plan, which was enacted by Chambers of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, organisations were formed, disguised as grass-roots, popular movements, to monitor and pressure the media to report favourably on issues that furthered corporate interests.  Pro-corporate judges were placed on the bench (indeed, Powell became one of them).  Academics were controlled by pressure from right-wing watch lists, co-opted university administrators and wealthy donors.  Under the prolonged assault, the universities, like the media, were eventually disciplined into becoming compliant, banal and monochromatic.

What provoked this unprecedented attack on the ability to question and to hold corporate power to account?  In Powell’s own words, “What concerns us is quite new in the history of America.  We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre.  Rather the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued.  It is gaining momentum and converts.”

At no time did Powell stop to consider that perhaps this was becoming a mainstream movement for very good, legitimate reasons.  It appears not to have crossed his mind that perhaps all of these people, far from being cranks and extremists, may have held a carefully considered view; the result of carefully weighing the evidence.  He never admitted the thought that perhaps the attackers of the enterprise system were right.

Having decided that most people must be wrong, a priori, he proceeded to defend the indefensible, as if it were a law of physics or the natural order of things.  Did this position own anything to his self-interest and desire to ingratiate himself further with the culprits?  One can only speculate.

In his call to fight a covert battle against the populace, he used this rallying cry: “What has been the response of business to this massive assault upon its fundamental economics” (as if economics was delivered on stone tablets from God), “upon its philosophy,” (i.e. its value system of self-interest), “upon its right to continue to manage its own affairs,” (when it is really only a privilege, especially if it is at the expense of others) “and indeed upon its integrity?”, (as if a system founded on swindling and exploitation had any integrity to preserve).

Powell continued: “The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival — survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.”   Of course, the people had no freedom, beholden as they were to their employers as wage slaves.  Only anarchy, an absence of a ruling class, gives you true freedom.  Powell was right in suggesting, elsewhere in his report, that socialism unacceptably limits personal freedom, but he was utterly blind to how capitalism does so too.

He couldn’t have expressed his suggested solution any more clearly and succinctly: “It is time for American business — which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in all history to produce and to influence consumer decisions — to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself.”

This is nothing less than an appeal to corporations to use their well-honed mendaciloquence.  Rather than uplifting humanity, corporations would instead sell them a false proposition.  Claiming to be saving them, protecting them and edifying them, they would, in secret, actually be doing whatever was best for enterprise, irrespective of the true consequences.

Thus, all checks and balances were dismantled, with no protections remaining against corporate malfeasance.  The people, it seems, were expected to take it on trust that corporations would act ethically and in the common interest, for reasons no better than unbridled personal greed.

This is how censorship, deceit, surveillance, control and propaganda all became permanent features of now.  Big business waged a purposeful, silent, sustained, indefinite war on the minds of the little people.  Critical thought was eradicated.

This is what we have now.  You can readily observe it for yourself.  But what could we have had, if the Powell report and its enthusiastic supporters had never waged such a calculated campaign to shore up the enterprise system, at all costs?  What would the opposite of now look like?

Whereas academic critics have been marginalised, discredited, fallen into disrepute and been silenced, ensuring that we’re all dumbed down, the opposite of now would be thriving, vibrant debate and discussion by literate, well-informed critics, about other ways to organise human affairs that don’t suffer from the terrible deficiencies of Capitalism.  Most people would read, would be well-informed and could engage in meaningful debate about how to improve the situation of humanity.  Indignity and inequality would be in the process of being designed out of the economic system entirely.

Today, greed is worshipped as the greatest good, but the opposite of now would be a society that valued sharing and fair distribution, on a voluntary basis, so that no human was left destitute.  This would be a personal responsibility, rather than conducted through a series of centralised, enforced taxations.  Every living being would understand and honour their personal obligations to every other person, to ensure that terrible poverty was impossible.

Socialism would exist, but not in the top down, command and control sense it is generally understood (typified by Communism).  Socialism would be a voluntary, bottom up, grass roots, local affair, ensuring that one’s neighbours had all the requisites of a good, comfortable and fruitful existence.  Nobody would rapaciously hoard wealth, with so much surplus income that they barely possess sufficient imagination to devise worthwhile ways to spend it, as we see with bloated, spendthrift, conspicuously-consuming, multi-billionaires today.  The opposite of the inequality and greed of now is generosity, gratitude and equity.

While we, now, have a disgraceful history of vanquishing and conquering other peoples, other species and other lands, the opposite of now is to nurture, co-operate and collaborate.  Today, we force our ideas on others, violently, we take what is theirs and call it ours, we circumscribe stolen lands with borders that we police to keep immigrants out and we expect the conquered and vanquished to know their place and worship at our feet, no matter how much we mistreat them or steal from them.  In opposition to this situation, a more enlightened humanity would understand that everybody is entitled to the things we claim as our privilege.  We have no special, exclusive, legitimate claim to them.

Now, we promote and praise psychopaths for their ruthless effectiveness at exploiting and manipulating other people.  We call them winners.  The opposite of now is to see them as they truly are – emotionally damaged and deficient people, in need of pity, therapy and kept away from power.  They aren’t to be trusted with it and certainly cannot be left unsupervised, to do as they wish to others, without recourse, as they are now.

The opposite of now is to humanely rehabilitate them, treat their neurological deficits (if they are treatable) or else isolate them from the rest of society, where they can do no further damage.  That is not to say they should be forcibly locked in cages.  They just can’t participate and share in a peaceable and non-manipulative society.  We should all be wary and vigilant, in their occasional presence.

Today, so many people harbour very low quality thoughts as fundamental truths.  They never question them.  They lack the critical capacity to examine things they were told, by people they trusted and fail to raise the quality of their thoughts.  Instead, they are beset and hampered by superstition, bronze-age belief systems, the post-fact society and the primacy of personal opinion over objective evidence.  Outright lies are euphemistically called “alternative facts”, in true Orwellian fashion.  These people are easily indoctrinated and manipulated, by the application of fear, doubt and uncertainty.  They can be whipped into frenzies of blind hatred and blame storms, directed at minorities, the different and the vulnerable.

The opposite of now would be to learn and use critical thinking skills, to question what you are told, rather than obediently accepting it as fact, to eschew manipulation by appeals to base emotions and to carry much higher quality thoughts around with us, in our heads, free from superstition and supposition.

Nowadays, the arts and humanities have been defunded and left to rot.  Arts and humanities education is withering on the vine and it has been largely replaced by utilitarian, vocational learning.  Our imaginations have been consigned to use only in our hobbies and our empathy is never developed, for fear of getting in the way of being good, compliant, corporate tools.

The opposite of now is a thriving, flourishing, expansive arts scene, with humanities taking their proper and equal role to scientific and mathematical training.  We’d be encouraged to think ethically about the things we do, in our working lives.  The things we make, industrially, would have to pass the test of whether or not they were a net benefit to humanity.  We wouldn’t do anything just because we could, because it was profitable.  Instead, we’d only do what was beneficial.

The media has been thoroughly debased.  This was achieved, in Powell’s words, through the following course of action:  “Incentives might be devised to induce more “publishing” by independent scholars who do believe in the system.  There should be a fairly steady flow of scholarly articles presented to a broad spectrum of magazines and periodicals — ranging from the popular magazines (Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, etc.) to the more intellectual ones (Atlantic, Harper’s, Saturday Review, New York, etc.), and to the various professional journals”.  In other words, today, the media is totally controlled and stuffed with biased writings, to favour the interests of big business.

The opposite is a situation where independent thought flourishes, where writers publish with integrity and where the media is the guardian of the public interest, holding people to account.  It would explain, rather than obfuscate and debate important issues, rather than issuing regurgitated public relations spin, celebrity distraction, exhortations to consume pointlessly and planted, disguised opinion pieces.  In short, it would stop lying to us.

The zero-sum-game idea seems to be in the ascendant, today.  This is the idea that if you have any, I have less.  Therefore, to have more, I must take yours.  This mindset does not admit to growth, even though growth is very the mandate of the Capitalist system.  There must always be more (even when there cannot be).  It seems logically contradictory that capitalist apologists have so little faith in the fundamental mechanism of capitalism – ever accelerating growth – that they feel the need to take from others, in order to have more.

The polar opposite of now is sharing and abundance.  Realising there is enough to go around, without hoarding, taking from others, or despoiling the environment unsustainably, is rooted in the idea that technology, eventually, provides the abundance.

There was nothing in the physical world, during the Dark Ages, which prevented electricity and electric machines from being invented.  All the raw materials were just lying around, unused.  What turned those raw materials into electric motors, wires, heaters and communications devices, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were new ideas and lots of them.  The Kings of the Dark Ages fought bitter, bloody battles to amass more power, control and wealth, but not a single one set his mind to inventing electric power.  Think how much more powerful and wealthy a Dark Age King that possessed the secret of electric power transmission could have been.  Instead, their zero-sum thinking meant they couldn’t imagine a world transformed by higher quality ideas.  We make the same mistake today.

The Bronze and Iron ages didn’t happen because new materials were dropped to Earth from the heavens.  They happened because curiosity and ingenuity were applied, along with serendipity and careful observation.  There was no point arguing over spears and flint arrow heads, once swords and metal tools were possible.  All that made them possible was thinking higher quality thoughts.  The opposite of now is realising that, with better technology, we don’t need to fight and argue, to the death, over scarce resources.  It’s just oil.  We don’t need to choke and heat the atmosphere, with the resultant combustion gases, to supply our energy needs.  We just need to think harder.

There’s mounting evidence that much crime and anti-social behaviour has its origins in significant childhood trauma.  We know it, but do almost nothing about it.  If anything, we reinforce it with more traumas.  If we were to imagine an opposite alternative reality, we would, through kindness and care, reduce and perhaps even eliminate childhood traumas of the type that wrecks young lives entirely.  It would require people that inflict trauma to heal from their own trauma first and to cease seeing younger people as prey.  This is a breakable cycle, but we have to want to break it.

Evidence is telling us that drug addiction and substance abuse can be traced to different mechanisms for coping with stress.  Some want to numb themselves and choose drugs that do this, while others want to confront their stresses with energy, head on, so they choose uppers and amphetamines.  Stressed children are looking for a way to change their mental state, to cope with stress and chemicals seem to be a ready and easy answer. In Iceland, they are teaching kids to cope with their stresses with natural highs.  Mindfulness training and meditation to cope with psychological pain they wish would hurt less and creative achievements and challenging sports, to create the buzz that the stress confronters need, to feel better.  It’s working.  Substance abuse is at record lows.

The opposite of now does not heartlessly punish and persecute addicts, but instead recognises the need for altered mental states, to cope with extremes of stress.  It then provides chemical-free, harmless means for making those changes of mental state, in positive, productive ways.  The kids are healthier, the system saves a ton of money it would have spent dealing with the effects of addiction and they feel they have achieved something worthwhile, in the process.  Now, we’ve got the war on drugs – an ineffective waste of resources and humanity that seems to make the problem worse.  It’s a war of attrition.

Too many in our society still believe it is acceptable to force somebody to comply with their wants through physical or psychological violence.  They claim that, since they experienced violence themselves and it did them “no harm”, then it’s fine to dispense violence to others, in turn.  Sorry.  These people are not OK.  They’re broken.  Violence is never an acceptable way to bring somebody else’s ideas around to your own.  It doesn’t accomplish that, anyway.  It just creates resentment and silent insubordination.  Nobody has the right to inflict violence on anybody else, for any reason, yet we delegate this power (which we don’t have) to the police, law enforcement agents and the military.  All we do is perpetuate the cycle of violence.

The complete opposite to this is to be kind to each other unconditionally.  Anger should never be vented by resort to assault of any kind – physical or mental.  Violence should be seen for what it is – an ineffectual waste of energy and the source of seething resentments and further future violence.  Violence doesn’t work.  It might seem to offer temporary compliance, but it never actually does.  Give it up.  Disarm.  Take off the violence authorisation costumes.  This road leads nowhere good.

In the now, we’re still pathetically addicted to having strong leaders and governments that will violently keep everybody in line with what we want them to do and say and be like.  We can’t imagine a functional world without governance.  We refuse to take responsibility for our own actions and humanity and would rather be controlled, than have to exercise self-control.

The opposite situation is one where there is no ruling class, no enforcement and no arbitrary laws, designed mostly to protect property.  There’s no theft and no crime.  Property is respected.  People, having realised that the price of true freedom and self-determination is to take responsibility for their own lives and actions and to act in accordance to their obligations to humanity, live productive, peaceable, self-determined lives, as they best see fit, with nobody to judge them or to try to “correct” them.

In the opposite to now, people realise that how other people live their lives is mostly none of anybody else’s business.  You have no automatic right to impose your value system on them.  If you wish to offer your value system as a model for living, then you must allow people to choose it voluntarily, or it’s worthless.  Furthermore, you must persuade your fellow humans on the basis of the quality of your arguments.  Imposition of your system, by military force and intimidation, only proves your system is baseless and illegitimate.  You can’t bomb anybody into peaceful democracy.

Now, people live solitary lives, as selfish, isolated, self-obsessed individuals. We try to equate this to personal freedom, but it’s not the same thing as real freedom.  The freedom to purchase any consumer good we can afford is a very meagre sort of freedom.  The price we pay is loneliness and having nobody to call on, when we need help.  We also tend to treat the rest of humanity as strangers, unworthy of our compassion or care.  We turn refugees, desperate for a peaceful place to live, away at the border, to face a dreadful fate we don’t even care to imagine.  We’ve become hard-hearted.

Real freedom means a community that you can belong to, which will help you, when you need help.  It also lets you help others, in turn, thereby strengthening the bonds that tie the community together.  There’s always somebody to talk to, nobody is excluded and you can depend on having something to eat and sufficient warmth to sustain you in the cold.  The opposite now is people voluntarily spending their time helping each other out and ensuring universal inclusion.

With the frenzy to protect ourselves against the insecurity and precarity of the free market, most families have two parents working hard, just to stay afloat.  There never seems to be enough money left, at the end of the month, but in working these hours, our fragile families weaken and fracture.  We are absent parents to our children, farming them out to professional childcare workers and educators.  We miss the best parts of having a family, through work stress and distraction, not to mention the sheer number of hours spent away from home and from each other.  No wonder marriages fail.

The opposite of now is a society that recognises the value, economically and psychologically, of keeping families together, so that they can support each other and pass wisdom from elders to the younger members of the family.  Families that care for each other, love one another and have the time to spend with each other, teaching, learning and just enjoying life, have a lot to recommend them and should be seen as something to aspire to.  Families fracture due to external pressures and stresses and because one or more family members is carrying some scar from childhood trauma, or because they are desperate to make money, instead of tending to quality relationships.

Science has been terribly compromised and discredited, due to the influence of corporate money and intimidation.  Otherwise reputable scientists have succumbed to the temptation to subvert their own research, to suit the agenda of big business.  It is a fact that scientists funded, in whole or part, by big business are three times more likely than independent scientists to find that their funder’s product is both effective and safe.  How can that be explained, other than by a lapse in integrity.  As a consequence, you can’t believe science at face value, any more.  Even the friendly family doctor has been caught out dispensing junk scientific advice, because the research was bent.

The opposite of now is community-supported scientific research, which retains true independence and can, therefore, reach conclusions that need to support and big company agenda.  This science would be trustworthy and reliable and we could all see not only the results, but the source data and method, so that we could verify the science for ourselves.  In actual fact, most science is not beyond the grasp of intelligent, motivated people, but ivory towers are built, fortified by pay-walled scientific journals and sector-specific jargon, to separate the chosen in the priesthood, from the lay.  We don’t need to tolerate that.  If the science cannot be explained to somebody of adequate intelligence in simple and clear terms, then the scientist explaining it doesn’t really understand it.  That’s a pretty reliable litmus test.

As increasing amounts of wealth are siphoned off to enrich the wealthiest in society, social services, such as health care, facilities for the disabled, support the terribly injured, care for the aged, care for people with special needs, etc. are being pared to the bone and on, into the very marrow.  The social safety net, created so that all citizens of the society could live safe and meaningful lives, irrespective of their random afflictions, without the fear of financial ruin due to sheer bad luck, is being dismantled systematically, so that it can be privatised, to create unearned profits to the rich monopolists that will inherit these public, common goods.  Although they were built and paid for with our taxes, they are being sold as if they belonged to the government of the day.

The opposite of now is a just society that realises the best and most productive outcome for the economy is not to drive the unfortunate into penury, stress and premature deaths, but to create the conditions that enable everybody to live well, not just survive.  An economy that has an imperilled, distracted, struggling workforce lacks the ability to thrive.  It should be the first priority for community spending, not the last.  If it weren’t for the waste and destruction of more or less permanent warfare, or preparations for it, then diverting the investment into these vital services would be more than adequate to provide for all.  Today, we’re making people suffer and die, for purely ideological reasons, while we spend like drunken sailors on aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons and adventitious conflicts in far flung countries, to protect our claim to their oil and lithium reserves.

We’re under surveillance, constantly, we’re told, to protect us from terrorists whose names we’re never told and whose headquarters, strangely, can never be located.  Google Maps has surveyed most parts of the globe, yet we’re led to believe that dark, sinister, evil forces remain a clear and present threat that nobody can find.  We all know the only terrorists capable of staging significant terrorist spectaculars belong to the secret services of governments.  They’re the only ones with the funding and infrastructure necessary.  The truth is we’re under surveillance not to protect us from the terrorists, but to protect corporate interests from all of us.  We’re considered to be the terrorists.  Under the Powell doctrine, critical thought, dissent or people speaking against the interests of big business are to be watched and controlled.  That’s why the government can access your personal browsing history, but members of parliament are exempted from being subject to the same law.

The opposite of a surveillance society is one where you own the access rights to your own data, you can control who uses it and for what purpose, you can rescind access at any time, for any reason, you may monetise it, if you see fit and what you read of think is none of anybody else’s business, least of all a private corporation or a government.  What we have now is the very antithesis of privacy and self-determination.  We have, instead, invasive intrusion, where your data can be misinterpreted (by algorithms, written with a corporate bias) and used against you, without you even knowing.  It’s like being owned.  Only slaves are owned.

What we have now is massive and growing inequality of incomes, outcomes and opportunities.  The richer you are, the richer you get.  The poorer you are, the poorer you become.  What’s the opposite?  A world where there is social mobility – where the poor can become wealthier, or at least enjoy a better standard of living.  That would require that the richest cannot get any richer, which might be thought to be a disincentive to work harder and take risks.  If the rich were only rich because they worked harder and took more risks, that argument might hold some water, but it isn’t the case.

To me, a guarantee that nobody fell below the level of a decent, comfortable life might be the better opposite of now.  Similarly, if the wealthiest were prevented from becoming obscenely wealthy, at the point where no reasonable human being needed more money to meet their desires and needs for a good life, that might be more satisfactory.  It’s all fraught with difficulty, though.  The concept of a universal, minimum, basic, living income is important, nevertheless.  If you can print money to bail out banks, the same money can be printed to support the lives of every citizen of Earth.  They’d probably spend it into the economy in wiser, less harmful ways than banks, too.

Part of the solution, of course, may be to ask the fundamental question: why do you need to pay anything to anybody, for the privilege of remaining alive?

Having freed corporations and big business from any effective criticism, they’ve responded by behaving in an out of control fashion.  Instead of honouring their social responsibilities, they get away with whatever they think they can get away with, which is a lot.  There seems to be no ethical conscience or moral compass at the helm, even though corporations are just groupings of people.

Opposite to this behaviour is organisations that come together to achieve some goal, requiring a lot of human co-operation, which behave in a fashion that is mindful of their place in the world and the organisation’s interdependence with other human beings.  Voluntary self-discipline, based on self-restraint and consideration for the organisation’s impact on the planet and its inhabitants is a corporate responsibility.

Now, there are actions and policies carried out by and on behalf of big business that are positively anti-humanity.  They do things that harm humanity, directly and indirectly, but they have no qualms about doing so, because their mandate is to create profits and so-called shareholder value.  Others would happily see large sections of humanity murdered, for the convenience of those that remain.

The converse is a population that recognises, with gratitude, the sheer unlikely miracle that every human being is.  Edifying humanity, in the realisation that each and every member of the human race has capabilities far beyond anything we have been able to design, or will be able to design any time soon, is a more realistic viewpoint.  They’re not machines; they are precious points of life, in a universe that seems very much devoid of life (at least in close enough proximity to us for meaningful interaction).  Each human is unique and the loss of any one of them a tragic, irreplaceable loss.

We’ve been taught to loathe ourselves.  We are prone to seeing ourselves as a viral plague, on the planet, worthy only of eradication.  Our now is one where we regard humanity as a dubious benefit to the planet.  In a contrary reality, we’d see ourselves as utterly remarkable and capable of great good, if allowed to express that good, unhindered by the distractions of economics and ego.  Without the need to conquer and vanquish, or impose our wills violently, in the absence of greed, because the quality of our thoughts was raised, we’d come to be a remarkable occurrence – a piece of the cosmos that is self-aware and able to ask questions about itself.

In our present reality, we consume tainted food, water and air.  These essentials for life have been variously adulterated for profit.  The obverse of this coin is an alternative reality where there is no monetary incentive or material gain to be found, in spoiling the food, water or air.  Organising human affairs around the preservation of the purity and integrity of the resources Nature provides, which we are dependent upon to survive, would be the priority, rather than profits or shareholder value.  Imagine if our currency was, instead of money, the nutritional value of our foods, the welfare of our farmed animals (assuming we don’t all go vegetarian), the purity of our water and the freshness and quality of our air.

At this time in human history, organised unions of labour have been largely disbanded and eviscerated.  They no longer have the power to keep corporate interests in balance with employee interests.  The opposite of this is a time where freedom of association is a sacred right, where collective bargaining is permissible, where corporations do not act in opposition to the people that do the work that generates their revenues, but instead in equitable collaboration with those whose skills are needed.

Similarly, collectives of workers would act responsibly toward the source of their livelihoods and to protect their mutual endeavour from destruction.  Workers, in this alternative reality, are not exploited; they are members of co-operatives, with the benefits generated by their mutual enterprise shared justly and equitably.  What would disappear would be the rentier: the class of people that lives on unearned profits, derived from artificial scarcity and those idle folk that ride the backs of those that do the work, without contributing their own talents or skills.

In the imaginations of our current leaders, the UK would become a tax haven for grubby, dirty, dodgy money, generated by dubious means.  It would become the closed-minded, self-serving, nasty, unwelcoming, insular, xenophobic home of small-minded, fixed-mindset bigots.  The opposite is a nation that eschews corrupt enterprises and ill-gotten gains and has an ethical, empathic, inclusive, diverse, embracing approach to all of humanity.  What would prevent hordes of people swarming to that land and swamping everything, until life here became miserable?  The quality of their thoughts, the fact that their standards of living, where they lived, were no worse than here and where their resources had not been stolen by violent conquest.

Excessive immigration ceases to be a threat, when everybody has a decent life, no matter where they live.  Why shouldn’t they have decent lives?  What right has anybody to deny freedom of movement to any other human being, to live wherever they choose to live?  The geo-location of your mother’s vagina, at birth, should not entitle you to deny a decent life to other people, whose mothers’ vaginas were less propitiously located, at the moment of their passage down her birth canal.

These days, any honest assessment would force you to admit that we are ruled by a deceitful, criminal cartel.  Each newly-elected leader produces a fresh cavalcade of buffoonery, chicanery, stupidity, imbecility, megalomania, egotism, mendacity and negligence.  It doesn’t matter which party, which country and which leader you care to consider.  This isn’t something that can be fixed by choosing wiser, better leaders.  There aren’t any.  Even if there were, they would soon be utterly compromised and corrupted.  The root of the problem is belief in leadership and a ruling class.  It’s a delusion and will always be so.

The very opposite position is a world where there is no ruling class and no reliance on leaders.  We would have to make society work without the violence, the weapons, and authority figures in their magic authority costumes.  We cannot thrive, as a society, by continually relying on somebody else to do what we ourselves are responsible for doing.  We’ll have to do it ourselves – all of us.  Indolence is an option, but not one that leads to a healthy life or a healthy community.

Today, we reward indolence.  It’s considered to be the very highest achievement, available only to those that have amassed plenty of money.  Only they can live the life of opulent invalids.  That’s a sterile life, devoid of opportunities for genuine achievement, self-improvement, creative accomplishment or meaning.  The opposite of now is a society that prides itself on people continuing to learn, to challenge themselves, who never give up creating, while doing work that has meaning, rather than a fat pay check.  Compassion is a valuable public good, as is kindness and empathy.  They are not incidental to a good society; they are its foundation.

The free enterprise system that Powell was at such pains to protect, unconditionally, has turned delinquent.  Big business doesn’t pay its way.  It’s a free-loader.  Being free from criticism for decades, it now weasels out of its obligations to the communities that it operates within.  Through elaborate tax avoidance schemes and socialising the costs of their losses and failures, these organisations have become thoroughly parasitic.  The wealth they aggregate is not redistributed and often repatriated, via shady tax haven accounts.  They contribute little, if anything, to the upkeep of the infrastructure they brazenly depend upon, nothing to the education of the next crop of compliant human resources, pay no mind to the health and wellbeing of the people that share proximity with their enterprises and deny all responsibility for the care of the disabled, injured and elderly.  They take, but never give.  They get away with this because they’re big enough and because criticism has been stifled by design.

To the corporate balance sheet, everything possible is an externality.  Those material things necessary for human survival are fully paid for by the “little people”, while the executives buy more fast cars, bigger ocean-going yachts, larger luxury property portfolios, private jets and helicopters and even their own, personal space flight programmes.  Big businesses are, today, very poor community citizens.

What’s the opposite of these organisations?  You can work it out for yourself.  The opposite is organisations which operate for mutual benefit, which spend their profits back into the community, maintaining the roads, schools, hospitals, communications systems and electricity networks.  They ensure that no citizen lives in destitution and want.  They are not hedonistically bent on outrageous, conspicuous consumption, but instead act like responsible co-dependents.  If corporations were spouses, we’d divorce them.

While people spoke kindly and nostalgically about President Obama’s time in office, his legacy is eight solid years of unceasing, constant war.  During that time, he commanded forces that dropped 20,000 bombs, at a rate of more than six per day.  Most of the drone strike victims, during his tenure, were not the intended targets.  Instead of investing in roads, bridges, high speed trains, clean water supplies, resilient electricity grids, incorporating renewable energies and broadband access for the most rural and remote of communities, the common wealth was dissipated pointlessly on war materiel and waging lethal conflicts.

If you believe President Trump will behave any differently, you have not been paying attention to his actions, or his rhetoric.  It will be just one more cavalcade of buffoonery, chicanery, stupidity, imbecility, megalomania, egotism, mendacity and negligence.  That’s an inescapable feature of governance and belief in a ruling class.  It always ends the same way and always will.  Early indications only add weight this prophecy.

Competition and free markets did nothing to correct this insane aberration.  If anything, they amplified the destruction and waste.  The free enterprise system did not react with benevolence and benign action.  Instead, it provided irresistible incentives to prey upon the disenfranchised.  It left them without hope, the means to survive and any remaining belief in the political and economic establishment and status quo.  This opened the door to a maverick.  People are expecting him to save them.

A huge military-industrial complex, the biggest of all businesses, absorbed all of that government money without flinching and without a single pang of conscience.  This is what Powell sought to protect from growing criticism and attack.  I warrant that it would have been better for humanity if such parasitic organisations had been dismantled and the remains scattered to the winds.

This divergence between now and its opposite is not a new phenomenon.  In the time of Tesla, he was intent on providing a means to raise humanity and give everybody warmth, light and comfort, unconcerned about his own material wealth.  His competitors were ruthless robber barons, who had made their fortunes in highly unethical and questionable ways.  This is not opinion or speculation; it’s documented fact.  You can read the old books and verify this for yourself.  The outcome is well documented too.  Tesla died penniless, discredited and alone, while the money men founded gigantic banking dynasties.  Humanity was denied many of Tesla’s far-sighted inventions.  The free enterprise system chewed Tesla up and spat him out, leaving us all the poorer.  Conquest won.

At the root of what is wrong with now – the single low quality idea that holds us back most – is what I call the conquest mindset.  The conquest mindset is all about winning, defeating the opponent, taking, grinding the other guy into the dirt, it’s about trophy hunting and bravado to mask fragile masculinity.  It is the desire to appear powerful, smart and in control, when you are nothing of the sort.  The conquest mindset is what justifies the rape, pillage, destruction, genocide and theft of things other people hold dear.  This single, terrible mindset is diametrically incompatible with cooperation and collaboration, both of which are necessary to establish a society that has no need of violent governance by a ruling elite.  Cooperation and collaboration are the very foundations of personal freedom and self-determination.  They’re the very opposite of now.  Without them, we can’t have either.

Anarchy is not possible, or desirable, until humanity significantly raises the quality of its collective thought (at which time anarchy becomes optimal and ideal).  Don’t hold your breath for those conditions to prevail, though.  The quality of thought is apparently in terminal decline, at present.  High quality of thought is a necessary, but insufficient condition for true freedom, self-governance and social cohesion.  Those that equate anarchy to chaos and social disintegration are merely reflecting the low quality of thought evident everywhere today.

The opposite of now is an alternative reality, which we could have had and which we yet could still have, if we are prepared to change what we think; fundamentally and radically.  It is the ideas we cling to that hold us back.  Our dogged adherence to tradition, false assumptions about the terrible and unchangeable character of human nature and our belief that stifling criticism, critical thought and dissent would serve our interests best, has become an intolerable legacy.  The current political situation has not served anybody’s interests well – not even those elites that have materially benefited.  In reality, their secret, silent war on critical thinking has only imperilled them.

Powell was a deeply stupid man, for all his affectations and pretensions to the contrary.  The Powell memo was chock-full of stupid ideas.  Stupid people ran with it and stupidly enacted them.  It led to stupid outcomes.  We have become a species that behaves stupidly, globally, as a consequence.  We do stupid things for equally stupid reasons.  We’re living in the age of stupid.

Artists have a vital role to play in changing the situation we now find ourselves in.  They possess the imaginative and expressive powers to describe the opposite of now, in lucid, tangible, appealing ways, showing how better systems of conducting human society might function and feel.  We can paint the pictures, write the descriptions and visualise the obscure ideas.  Our core skills are in ideation.  We can bring imaginative visions to life and have the capacity to envisage and portray a better world.  It’s up to us to make it obvious.

All we have to do, to break the spell of our collective, engineered stupidity, is to decide to do so.

 

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Artists Under Tyranny

We know what comes next.  We know why it takes root and how it metastasizes.  And I’m afraid that, if we extrapolate from current trends, if nothing changes significantly for the better, then artists, innovators and intellectuals are all screwed.

Worse than that, we’ll collectively and individually do nothing effective to prevent it, even though we had the power and capacity to do so, all along.  We’ll watch it all unfold, paralysed by fear, disorganisation and the vain hope that if we keep our heads down and simply comply, we’ll be spared.  The truth is: nobody will be safe.

How can we be so sure?  We have the Soviet Union to thank for providing us with a blueprint for how outcomes develop, for thinking people, under any tyrannical reign.  In particular, we have the writings of  Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, who described in insightful, uncomfortable and unflinchingly accurate detail how the lives of free-thinking, critical, creative people changed inexorably, in the face of mass irrationality.

His courageous analysis was a work of rare integrity, based on observation and a deep understanding of people’s fears and motivations.  Given that the same forces and characteristics are, today, in play once more, we can say, with reasonable certainty, that the same bleak prognosis will apply in our own time.

Tyranny creeps up on us slowly, disguised as something benevolent.  Those with eyes to see it, however, recognise its vicious nature from the outset.  To quote Solzhenitsyn, “Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence”.

Few listen, though, because the promises made, if kept, would transform the miserable lives of so many.  Sadly, there is no serious intention to keep those promises; a reality which becomes immediately apparent if you watch what they do, instead of believing what they say.

The divided are easier to rule, so the first tell-tale sign is language that overtly appeals to the idea that there are in-groups (“people like us”) and isolated out-groups, who pose a grave threat to progress, or so goes the demagogic rhetoric.  If giant red flags haven’t been waving furiously at you, in the past year or so, you are either in a persistent, vegetative coma or else believe you’re guaranteed life membership of the in-group.  But you’re not.  Nobody is.  (Well, you may be, but your life is likely to be much shorter than you think).

My family survived the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s Terror and accompanying famine, life under a fervent, national independence movement, Soviet occupation, surviving under Nazi rule, two World Wars, fleeing as destitute refugees, lived as nominally free citizens in a land of unfettered Capitalism (but as distinctly second class citizens), toiled as working class, manual labourers and experienced the opulence of living as privileged, comfortable, upper middle class elites.  Our family history is testament to what the critical thinker Chris Hedges writes: “The more despotic a regime becomes, the more it creates a climate of fear that transforms into terror.  At the same time, it invests tremendous energy and resources in censorship and propaganda to maintain the fiction of the just and free state.”. Believing the lies obediently will get you killed.

There are two simple techniques for keeping everybody in line, when the tyrants come to power.  The first is fear.  The other is false hope.  They work in tandem to ensure that nobody challenges the ruler.

Fear is the easiest to grasp, at a visceral level.  Resisting despotism is often a lonely, solitary act, exposing the dissident to the full, violent force of those that protect the tyrant.  Solzhenitsyn tells the tale of a rebellious prisoner, in the Siberian gulag, who used his training as a soldier to overwhelm and kill his guards.  Upon seeing this, his fellow prisoners immediately sat down, in horror, waiting for the replacement guards to come and place them under their supervision once more.  Far from seeing themselves as liberated, their fear of retribution made them act like cowardly captives, even though their immediate oppressors were now dead.

As much as the courageous rebel cajoled and shamed them, they would not join him in rebellion.  Had they joined him, the entire state gulag apparatus could have been decisively defeated and surely would have crumbled.  Their lack of courage condemned all of them to continue to endure continued, unspeakable torments, for years to come (if they didn’t succumb and die first).

In truth, people fear their freedom and release from whatever holds them captive, every single day of their lives.  Granted their true freedom, the responsibility of determining their own fate and the burden of having to make their own moral, ethical decisions in ambiguous scenarios, people overwhelmingly prefer to defer to a governing ruler, however malign and malevolent.  This tendency has a name: “Stockholm Syndrome”.  Tyrants know this and exploit it ruthlessly.

We saw something similar in China, when that brave, unknown man halted the tanks in the square, by the simple act of steadfastly standing in their way, daring them to run him down.  Instead of his fellow protesters joining him, in solidarity, they watched helpless, paralysed, and mortified.  Had they joined forces with him, then by sheer weight of numbers they would have rendered the military forces impotent and toppled the precarious power structure.  By standing alone, though, he was easily disposed of and erased from history.  The inaction of the rest of the protesters sealed his fate.  There are, today, vast electronic machines deployed to ensure that no mention of the incident is ever rendered to Chinese computer screens. The people in charge, “invest tremendous energy and resources in censorship and propaganda to maintain the fiction of the just and free state.”

In journalist Chris Hedge’s words, “Rebels will be persecuted, imprisoned or forced to become hunted outcasts, much as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are now.  A public example will be made of anyone who defies the state.  The punishment of those singled out for attack will be used to send a warning to all who are inclined to dissent.”  This is how fear works as a tool of control.

A close cousin of fear is intimidation.  Threats and menaces can be used to discipline a populace that dares to think critically of the tyrant.  Consider the so-called press conference held by president elect Donald Trump on December 11th, 2016. In this encounter, Trump refused to answer questions posed by reporters representing news organisations that had run stories he didn’t like, or who were critical of him and his agenda.  The message is clear.  Publish stories that are favourable to him, or risk being frozen out and hence, run out of business as a publisher.  Pure intimidation.

His audience was loaded with paid staffers, who jeered the media and cheered at his pronouncements, to give the false impression that the media are evenly divided between those for and against him and his policies.  To reduce public confidence in the reporters’ words, he baldly asserted that the media was dishonest.  Individual news outlets were singled out and labelled “fake news”, or “piles of garbage”.  All of this intimidation cleared the path for him to utter demonstrable lies, such as claiming he gave news conferences every other day, when he hadn’t, in fact, given one for literally months.  He also took credit for successes, such as Chrysler and Ford announcing that they would produce more cars within the United States, which actually had nothing to do with him.  Chrysler had been planning this for over a year and Ford attributed the decision to an agreement with the United Auto Workers union.

False hope works in different ways.  It turns ordinary people into willing, complicit, culpable collaborators of the tyrant.  They commit evil, at the expense of their fellow man, in order to take actions they believe will save their own necks.  If you feel pride in your position and possessions, you will hope that by complying obediently with a tyrannical regime, you will get to keep your position and possessions.  We all know that, under tyranny, everything you own, your status and your standing within society can be swept away at a stroke, on the flimsiest of pretexts.  There is no amount of compliance that can protect you from this, even though people imagine they’ll be OK.

The tyrant also offers false hope of a better future, but that always seems to be just out of everybody’s reach.  In the mean time, privations must be endured a while longer, in order to reach the promised Nirvana.  To deny your forbearance is treasonous.

Any artists that openly and steadfastly defy the state, or who continue to produce dissenting works, are easily liquidated and decapitated, one by one.  Their fellow artists do not stand by them, at times of threat, in mutual solidarity, to emasculate the violence of the tyrant’s willing tools.  Instead, the dissident is left to stand alone.  Even though every artist is, in a very real sense, already condemned, a forlorn hope that the state will ignore us if we comply will cripple and passivate many who have already been damned.  In Solzhenitsyn’s analysis, “Universal innocence also gave rise to the universal failure to act.  Maybe they won’t take you?  Maybe it will all blow over.  The majority sit quietly and dare to hope.  Since you aren’t guilty, then how can they arrest you? It’s a mistake!”   Even if you are arrested, then surely justice demands that the error will be swiftly and efficiently discovered and redressed.  This wilful ignorance and innocence, born of false hope, is fatal.

Hope, rather than giving you strength, can, counter-intuitively, weaken a person.  Solzhenitsyn asks. “If the condemned man in every cell had ganged up on the executioners as they came in and choked them, wouldn’t this have ended the executions sooner than appeals to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee?  When one is already on the edge of the grave, why not resist?  But wasn’t everything foredoomed anyway, from the moment of arrest?  Yet all the arrested crawled along the path of hope on their knees, as if their legs had been amputated.”  It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.

In societies that are about to surrender to rule by a tyrant, those that can see it coming emerge as a stratum of wise, thinking people, who are that, but nothing more.  They’re mocked and laughed at.  Their truth, expressed through their writing or their art, sticks in the craw of people whose deeds and actions are single-minded and narrow-minded.  Like a flower that blooms too soon, emitting a delicate fragrance, they are mowed down.  Solzhenitsyn said, “These people were particularly helpless in their personal lives; they could neither bend with the wind, nor pretend, nor get by; every word declared an opinion, a passion, a protest.  And it was just such people the mowing machine cut down, just such people the chaff-cutter shredded.”  It’s a career-killing contagion.

Chris Hedges puts it this way: “The machinery of the security and surveillance state, the use of special terrorism laws and the stripping of civil liberties become ubiquitous.  The lofty rhetoric of liberty and the reality of the chains readied for the public creates magic realism.  Reality and the language describing reality are soon antipodal.  The pseudo-democracy is populated with pseudo-legislators, pseudo-courts, pseudo-journalists, pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-citizens. Nothing is as it is presented.”  The wise, thinking people are steadily replaced by impostors, posing as wise, thinking people, but being, in truth, the exact opposite.

Demagogues, Solzhenitsyn reminds us, are stunted and shallow people. “Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty,” he writes.

“The overall life of society comes down to the fact that traitors were advanced and mediocrities triumphed, while everything that was best and most honest was trampled underfoot,” he observes.  Phoney artists, innovators and intellectuals, surrogates, “for those who had been destroyed, or dispersed,” take the place of real artists, innovators and intellectuals.

The right response to despotism, tyrants and demagogues is, according to Solzhenitsyn, something he calls civil-valour.  It’s a species of valour that requires a moral courage that is more difficult than the physical courage encountered on the battlefield.  “This unanimous quiet defiance of a power which never forgave, this obstinate, painfully protracted insubordination, was somehow more frightening than running and yelling as the bullets fly,” he says.

Chris Hedges, commenting on the prevailing political climate in 2017 in America, says: “Self-interest alone should have generated sweeping protest, should have made the nation as a whole more conscious.  We should have understood: Once rights become privileges that the state can revoke, they will eventually be taken away from everyone.  Now those who had been spared will get a taste of what complicity in oppression means.”

Compare this to Solzhenitsyn’s testament:  “The traditional image of arrest is also what happens afterward, when the poor victim has been taken away.  It is an alien, brutal, and crushing force totally dominating the apartment for hours on end, a breaking, ripping one, pulling from the walls, emptying things from wardrobes and desks onto the floor, shaking, dumping out, and ripping apart—piling up mountains of litter on the floor—and the crunch of things being trampled beneath jackboots.  And nothing is sacred in a search!  During the arrest of locomotive engineer Inoshin, a tiny coffin stood in his room containing his newly dead child.  The ‘jurists’ dumped the child’s body out of the coffin and searched it.  They shake sick people out of their sickbeds, and they unwind bandages to search beneath them.”

“Resistance,” he writes, “should have begun right there, at the moment of the arrest itself.  But it did not begin.”  And so the mass arrests were easy.  And so we take our shoes off at the airport on command and submit to radiation exposures and cavity searches, conducted theatrically by the TSA, in the name of protecting us from an anonymous enemy.  Everybody knows that these measures are, risibly, wholly ineffective against real terrorists, but none dare level the accusation.

How can you win, against such a massive, oppressive regime, in which people engage in sublime insanity collectively?  Solzhenitsyn provides this answer:

“From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you,” he writes.  “At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it.  I shall never return to freedom.  I am condemned to die—now or a little later.  But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better.  I no longer have any property whatsoever.  For me those I love have died, and for them I have died.  From today on, my body is useless and alien to me.  Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.'”

“Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble,” Solzhenitsyn writes.  “Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”

My grandfather was held in captivity by the Communists, up to his knees in freezing water, for days.  He lost everything he owned.  In fact, over his lifetime he lost everything at least three times over.  I’m sure, standing in the freezing water of a dark, underground cellar, he doubted he would ever see his wife and family again.  Somehow, he clung on to his spirit and his conscience.  He survived, so that his son might inherit that spirit and conscience.  My father, in turn, passed that legacy on to me, as I hope to pass it on to my own children and their children.

Expect the tyrants to, in Chris Hedge’s words, “use the familiar tools that make possible the authoritarian state: mass incarceration, militarized police, crippling of the judicial system, demonization of opponents real and imagined, and obliteration of privacy and civil liberties, all foolishly promoted by the political elites on behalf of corporate power.”

Ellen Schrecker, the foremost historian of McCarthyism, said that, “the rise of Trump has been in the making for four decades.  Corporations funded and established institutions to close the cultural, social and political openings made in the 1960s, especially in universities, the press, labor and the arts.  These corporate forces turned government into a destructive power.  America was pillaged and cannibalized for profit.  We now live in a deindustrialized wasteland.  This scorched-earth assault created fertile ground for a demagogue.”

The late Lewis Powell, a general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and later a Supreme Court justice (and an evil bastard, in my view), in 1971 wrote an infamous eight page memo outlining a campaign to counter what the document’s title described as an “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.”  The memo established the Business Roundtable, which generated huge monetary resources and political clout to direct government policy and mould public opinion.  The Powell report listed methods that corporations could use to silence those in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals” who were hostile to corporate interests.

We can readily observe the reality of this prolonged campaign for ourselves.  Academics have been denounced; their opinions denigrated as the pronouncements of untrustworthy experts.  The church no longer has the authority over morals and ethics it once had, in no small part due to its scandalous and predatory behaviour toward vulnerable children and desire to cover it all up.  The media is fully bought and paid for by corporations, with journalisms on life support, struggling to remain viable and with newspaper business models in free-fall collapse.  The media more resembles entertainment and distraction, than being a clarion of truth, holding the powerful to account.  Intellectual and literary journals have, largely, retreated to publishing behind expensive pay walls, their papers no longer accessible to the general public, as the public library system is slowly dismantled.

None of this was accidental.

Powell called for the establishment of lavishly funded think tanks and conservative institutes.  We have them today, though they often conceal the true nature of their funding and patronage.  Their agendas remain hidden.

As part of his memo, Powell proposed that ideological assaults against government regulation and environmental protection be directed at a mass audience.  What are people, today, encouraged to vote for?  The Brexit vote was unashamedly framed in terms of removing European control over UK laws.  The desired result is deregulation of business, suspension of human rights legislation and exemptions to environmental protections.  Powell advocated placing corporate-friendly academics and neoliberal economists in universities (in much the same way that Solzhenitsyn documented the replacement of those who had been destroyed, or dispersed, with traitors and triumphant mediocrities) and banishing from the public sphere those who challenged unfettered corporate power—especially Ralph Nader, whom Powell cited by name.  Organizations, masquerading as grass roots movements, were to be formed to monitor and pressure the media to report favourably on issues that furthered corporate interests.  Pro-corporate judges were to be placed on the bench.

Academics were to be controlled by pressure from right-wing watch lists, co-opted university administrators and wealthy donors.  Under the prolonged assault the universities, like the press, eventually became compliant, banal and monochromatic.

“He spelled out a need for an alternative to academic knowledge,” Schrecker said of Powell.  “He felt the academy had been undermined by the left.  He wanted to establish an alternative source of expertise.  What you’re getting in the 1970s is the development of things like the American Enterprise Institute [in existence since 1938] , The Heritage Foundation, a whole bunch of think tanks on the right who people in the media can go to and get expertise.  But it’s politically motivated.”

“It was unbelievably successful,” she said of the campaign.  “It’s pretty bad.  What we’re seeing today is an assault on knowledge.”  Today, we speak of a post-truth society.  “What came out of this are the culture wars of the late 1980s and 1990s which created a set of stereotypes of professors as deconstructionist, raging feminists who hate men, cross-dressers, and, worse, who are out of touch with reality.”

Quoting Chris Hedges again, “The ideological attack was accompanied by corporate campaigns to defund public schools and universities,” (and privatise them), “along with public broadcasting and the arts.”  There is abundant evidence to show that the arts and artists have been left to fend for themselves, in a winner takes all economy, purpose-built to favour the rentier and the asset stripper, rather than the creatives and dissident artists.  Hedges goes on to say, “The humanities were eviscerated.  Vocational training, including the expansion of the study of finance and economics in universities, replaced disciplines that provided students with cultural and historical literacy, that allowed them to step outside of themselves to feel and express empathy for the other.  Students were no longer taught how to think, but what to think.  Civic education died.  A grotesque kind of illiteracy—one exemplified by Trump—was celebrated.  Success became solely about amassing wealth and celebrity.  The cult of the self, the essence of corporatism, became paramount.”

Schrecker said that during the McCarthy era, most of the Red baiting, blacklisting and censorship emanated from the government, especially J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Hoover and McCarthy, along with Richard Nixon and Roy Cohn, left ruined lives and reputations in the wake of their vicious inquisitions.  They effectively shut down freedom of speech and freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought is what is at stake, for artists.  Without the freedom to allow their imaginations to roam where they will, an artist becomes a flightless bird.

“There is an attack on the American mind,” Schecker said.  “A lot of what we’re seeing with Trump is the product of 40 years of dumbing down.”  Deliberate dumbing down, not accidental.

In Chris Hedges’ view, “All dissent will be criminalised.  Institutions, fearful and weak, will carry out purges of those few who speak out.  Most of society, intimidated by a war psychosis, will be compliant to avoid being targeted.  Resistance will often be tantamount to suicide.  We must not become preoccupied with the short-term effects of resistance.  Failure is inevitable for many of us.  Tyrants have silenced voices of conscience in the past.  They will do so again.  We will endure by holding fast to our integrity, by building community and by spawning new institutions in the midst of the wreckage.  We will sustain each other.  Perhaps enough of us will endure to begin again.”

With such a bleak prospect our likelihood, it begs an important question.  What can be done to end the oppression?  How can it be stopped and reversed?  If history is cyclic, as it has indeed been to date, then what causes the cycle to revert to the mean?

At what point do people snap and revolt against their oppressors?  Solzhenitsyn suggests, “So many deep historians have written so many clever books and still they have not learned how to predict those mysterious conflagrations of the human spirit, to detect the mysterious springs of a social explosion, not even to explain them in retrospect,” He goes on to say.  “Sometimes you can stuff bundle after bundle of burning tow under the logs, and they will not take.  Yet up above, a solitary little spark flies out of the chimney and the whole village is reduced to ashes.”

How can artists prepare for the coming years under tyrannical rule?  Here is Solzhenitsyn’s considered advice:

“Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position; all is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night.  Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.”  We are rather obsessed with attaining personal happiness, in modern society, yet Solzhenitsyn suggests we have higher priorities, under despotism.

“It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides.  If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears can hear, then whom should you envy?  And why?  Our envy of others devours us most of all.  Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well.  Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory!”

It isn’t about you.  All we have is each other.  And we have love, spirit and conscience.  Do what you can to remain sound of mind and body, but defy quietly, steadfastly and constantly.  Obstinately remain subtly insubordinate.  Do not stand alone, waiting to be mown down singularly in a blaze of brief, but spectacular glory.  Maintain your understated dissent and do not lend the oppressors your consent.  Remain faithful to your own judgement, ethics and morals and refuse to submissively obey, but play the intellectual mediocrities that inhabit positions of power skilfully, so that you and those you love can survive, intact, unharmed.

Both of my grandfathers managed to get every single member of their immediate families to safety, beyond the reach of their oppressive tyrants.  Sadly, their extended families did not fare so well.  To escape with their health and their lives, my grandparents used their wit and guile and their agile thinking to, time and again, escape situations of great danger, without compromising their essential humanity.  I’m very proud of them.  There are lessons for every person and especially every artist that must, through circumstance and the political indolence of their society, live under tyranny.  Create.

Love each other and stay safe.

 

 

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