Ever wondered why Beethoven didn’t invent the blues? After all, he had sufficiently tragic motivations, he had a piano, knew how to play it well and had all the same notes available to him as Ray Charles. Why didn’t he write “Georgia” or some other blues classic? Such a tune may have been very cathartic and made him feel better. So, why no rhythm and blues? The reason is both prosaic and profound. It didn’t occur to him. He didn’t think of it.
What separated Beethoven from Blind Lemon Jefferson was not skills, resources, educational advantage, connections, privilege or opportunities. It was insight. Ideas. The innovation simply wasn’t thought of. I’ve come to believe that if you don’t invent something, there’s a good chance that nobody will. For all that Beethoven did create and innovate, he missed bringing forth the blues. This absence of insight (which is the pre-cursor to innovation) applies at all times in human history. We always had the ingredients for microprocessors. They were scattered all over the beaches of the world, in abundance, since pre-history. We just didn’t see how to create numerical processing machines with all that sand.
In this blog, I strive to provide creative ideas for starving artists, but lately, whenever I sit down to think about something useful for artists struggling to use their art in the service of humanity, or even just to give themselves pleasure, I hit a roadblock. Everything is stuck because of the fixed, rigid, wrong-headed ideas that we, as a species, cling to doggedly. We’re like blind faith zealots, spouting a religion based on false premises, like cult disciples brainwashed by charismatic leaders. What we fervently and mistakenly believe to be unassailable truths blinds us to more fruitful possibilities. Everybody is so consumed with making a buck and desperately trying to outrun ever-impending penury, that in our existential panic, we’ve lost sight of objective reality. We can’t even recognise that the suffering is self imposed – pure inventions of our own collective intellect – and that we could end the suffering at a stroke, simply by choosing to do so. We created poverty; it’s not a law of physics. It’s a game we play.
Meanwhile, we fill our days with virtue signalling displacement activities. Rather than addressing the root causes of our angst directly, we give up drinking for a month, or practice clean eating. Having comforted ourselves with these drop-in-the-ocean, hollow, self-centred gestures, we blithely re-elect people willing to robotically enact the current bad ideas that are the true source of our precarity. The thought that we should change he whole corrupted system is unthinkable. It’s just a matter of selecting the least bad version of a destructive regime. We uphold systems of thought that imperil us and make us miserable, while stepping over homeless rough sleepers in our streets, who are trying to withstand sub-zero temperatures, unaided, just to stay alive. The governments we support hose their tents down.
It doesn’t matter which issue I think about addressing. In the final analysis, what thwarts everything is the low quality of our collective thoughts. Like Beethoven, we have everything we need available to us. We just can’t invent the new ideas we need to break our intellectual logjams. We’re stuck.
It’s interesting to study anthropology, even from an armchair. What you find is that the prevailing mind set is far out of kilter with most of human history. Since antiquity, there has always been an acceptance of a need to protect people from the vicissitudes of whatever agreed system of economic activity and governance the community adopted. Debts were systematically forgiven. There were limits to state violence, at least in theory. What’s new and wrong about our epoch is that we now believe that it’s inevitable and right that some people will be crushed out of existence, so that a few can live lives of unfettered opulence.
We think that extreme inequality is a natural, inevitable, immutable law and that it’s right and proper to convert our claimed ownership of resources into the means to enslave other people, stripping them of everything, including their very dignity. The consequences of this belief system include dehumanisation, the justification of conquest through extreme levels of industrialised, mechanised, automated violence, the summary oppression of those that challenge the belief system and the single-minded obsession with preserving one’s income stream, even when it is factually proven that you are doing irreparable harm to others by doing so. It’s more fear than greed. To voluntary cease doing harm is to invite consigning oneself to oblivion, in a system that demands you continue to pay, just to exist.
The ancient Greeks faced many societal problems too, but their response was to invent ideas like democracy, stoicism, various new philosophies, geometry, scientific empiricism, a belief that mathematics could explain the mysteries of the universe and many more. These things hadn’t previously occurred to anybody, but it was useful to humanity to bring these innovations forward. In effect, the Greeks brought about a collective cognitive upgrade. Some of these innovations were so good, we still use them, millennia after they were first proposed.
I truly believe that a further cognitive upgrade is long past overdue. Our current ideas and beliefs are, rather than serving us well, consigning us to certain destruction. While we continue to believe that these ideas are the only ideas that can be, that these are the best ideas and that every possible idea has already been thought of, we’re stuck. We can’t make any progress in solving the very problems our current ideas are wholly responsible for creating. A willingness to face the possibility that these present solutions are not good solutions is all it will take. From that starting point, it becomes safe to ask what else we could do.
I say this fully aware that the very next person I respond to, on social media, will be speaking from the confines of a mind cage they refuse to vacate, even though the door is easily opened. They’ll argue with me from the assumption that their belief system is correct, sacred and unquestionable. There is no point in engaging with them, because alternative solutions have been rejected by them, a priori. The conversation will degenerate into a pointless slanging match, advancing nothing any further forward. At the conclusion of the conversation, they’ll convince themselves they’ve won and go back to their familiar existence, confined as it is to the boundaries of their self-imposed mind cage. These people have never had a new idea and probably never will have one.
As a species, we can do much better than this. I repeat – everything we need is available to us. All we lack is the will to rethink comfortable certainties. That’s just fear by another name. Our cognitive cowardice and intellectual dishonesty is all that’s killing us. Until we are willing to confront that, no progress is possible.