Monopoly   (2016May23)

Monday, May 23, 2016                                            11:32 AM

What is improvement? If we get too extreme in bodybuilding, we become muscle-bound, unable to move about as easily as someone who doesn’t exercise. We often comment that there is a thin line between genius and madness—and the competition to be the ‘smartest’ puts college students at risk of nervous breakdowns and suicides, as well as brilliant careers. Business executives who perform at their peak can easily succumb to ‘burn-out’ in the same way.

Success and wealth for a parent rarely translates into success for their children—being raised wealthy robs them of the struggles that tempered their parents’ steel. More lottery winners go broke or have life crises than the rare few who survive being made instantly rich.

Extremes are dangerous—even little extremes can be unsettling. If I have a pile of books I’m looking forward to reading, I get confused about which book to read first. I think they call that ‘rich people’s problems’. Not that I’m in the one-percent—but I am, like most Americans, fabulously wealthy compared to any third-world citizen. And the existence of ‘rich people’s problems’ itself is proof that ‘improving’ one’s lot in life can be more accurately described as acquiring different problems.

But I don’t wish to oversimplify—one of ‘rich people’s problems’ is that other people are poor. This makes Charity an exercise in which rich people, with ‘rich people’s problems’, try to help people with poverty problems. Notice how charity never consists of simply handing poor people money. It’s an ‘if you teach a man to fish’ thing—rich people don’t see redistribution as a solution. They want to enable the poor to join them in a competition the rich have already won—it’s like lending money to the loser when you’re winning in Monopoly—you want to keep the game going.

And Monopoly is a good illustration of modern capitalism—most Monopoly games reach that point where all the potential plans have been played out and purchased, where one player has almost everything and the rest are a dice-throw away from bankruptcy. That’s why many Monopoly games don’t reach the finish—the end becomes a foregone conclusion long before. Monopoly, at the start, is full of possibilities—end-game Monopoly is more an on-rushing train. Likewise, American Capitalism started out as a world of possibilities and is now in a straight-jacket of previous purchases. Just as the second amendment made sense for muskets, but became madness for automatic assault weapons—success is a one-time thing.

America has trouble with success—our early financial success was based on the use of slaves—our early wealth of natural resources trained us to become despoilers of nature—our early adoption of public education made us think we were smarter than everybody else—and our invention of the atom bomb made us think we were in charge of the whole world. Every time Americans win we learn a false lesson from it.

Basing everything on money rather than birth seemed like a freeing sort of approach—you could, through personal effort, rise. Your future had potential that went undreamed-of in a class-based society. That image persists, even now, when all the years of effort by others has gelled into a rigged game. Wealth once again comes almost entirely through inheritance—and opportunities for the common man have become as rare as in the time of kings and serfs. Capitalism is no longer the handmaiden of Freedom—and it has become something darker.

A fragile web of distribution keeps food on supermarket shelves, gas in the stove, oil in the heater, water from the tap, sewage down the toilet, and electricity to the phone-chargers. Disruption of the system is dangerous to us all—destroying the establishment would mean a return to primitivism. The infrastructure of capitalism holds us hostage—it makes us need it. And the need to earn a wage holds us prisoner—which makes us need employers. The rich have more power over the rest of us than kings or pharaohs could ever imagine—yet we call this society a free one. Like children of an abusive father, we have no place else to go.

Changing capitalism won’t be easy—we can’t rebel against it—if we attack it we only hurt ourselves. A subtle, drawn-out political process is the only possible escape. Yet see how easily we are diverted and entertained by our politics—that’s not an accident. If people took politics seriously, we’d be talking about change in a pragmatic way, instead of shouting buzzwords at each other—we might enact some changes—and that is the only real threat the one-percent are facing. I wish we knew that as well as they do.

Behind The Façade   (2015Apr17)

Friday, April 17, 2015                                              1:05 PM

Yesterday I wrote a long tirade about lies. I didn’t mean for it to be a tirade—I intended to lay out my thoughts plainly, like a diagram. But when lies are the source of wars or murders or false imprisonments, it’s hard to keep cool while discussing the subject. The thing is—yeah, all that stuff is bad—very, very bad, but—I wanted to get at something behind the outrage. I wanted to discuss the effects.

You see, when I was ten years old, it suddenly occurred to me that my CCD classes were illogical. I didn’t think of it that way—Star Trek was still five years from its pilot episode. What I really thought was, “God, if you’re out there—talk to me. If you don’t talk to me, what good are you?” But no lightning struck me. Then I thought, “God, you’re a jerk.” Still no lightning. Over time it became clear that no response was coming, no matter how I felt about God. I’m a very literal sort of person, so discovering (after all the sermons and classes and nuns’ talk) that real life gave no actual indication of God made a real impact on me.

At the time, I became an agnostic. I was still possessed of enough faith in my elders to figure I might be missing something. But my world was full of bullies, mean brothers, angry parents, and strict teachers. There were plenty of real threats in my environment—so a threat that never manifested itself, like ‘God’s wrath’, was unconvincing, to say the least. It wasn’t until later, when I realized that ‘institutional lies’ were a feature of society, that I became a full-on atheist.

Ever since, I’ve been alert to any aspect of society that ‘runs on bullshit’. Religion is the big winner in that category, but Wealth, Fame, Cool, and many other illusions also make up a large part of our worldview. I’ve never achieved any of these things, but I have experienced little mini-demonstrations of them—and I’ve been horrified by the resulting changes in how others saw me and in how I saw myself.

I had slight upticks in my income, or had brief periods of localized notoriety, and was annoyed by the change in other peoples’ treatment of me—and how it made me feel funny about myself. Yet I made no connection—I still assumed that Wealth or Fame were desirable. It wasn’t until I’d seen how those ‘dreams’ could destroy so many people who achieved them that I realized that my own experiences had been warnings from reality. I think, deep down, we all know that Wealth, Fame, etc. are bad things, but we don’t let that stop us from wanting them. Maybe it’s the suggestion of power inherent in these ideas of ‘success’ that make them so tantalizing—I don’t know.

Alternatively, it could be the suggestion of comfort that attracts us to Wealth, Fame, or Status—comfort is first-cousin to happiness—and everyone wants happiness. But then we find that these illusions of success don’t really offer comfort, they offer options—and there’s nothing so uncomfortable as too many options. Rich people can loll on a hammock all day if they wish—but they have to choose to lie on a hammock out of the countless other options that rich people have before them—and guess how often they actually choose the hammock.

In the case of Fame, we tend to assume that loneliness is a sad thing and, therefore, popularity is preferable. Yet again, we find that Fame attracts attention, not companionship—famous people regularly find themselves feeling lonelier than ever, even while standing amid a mob of admirers.

The lesson here, to my mind, is that we should be wary of approximations when dealing with our hopes and dreams. Wealth, Fame, Power—these things are close to some very desirable ends, but in the end they manifest as something completely different—something bad. Real satisfaction and contentment come from things that are far less exciting to describe—a loving family, a close friend, a steady income, friendly neighbors, etc.

These things seem pretty achievable, don’t they? Oddly enough, the hard part to finding real happiness is in losing our obsession with these ‘mirages’ of success, the Wealth and Fame and whatnot. It isn’t until we abandon the struggle to be ‘King of the World’ that we find ourselves kings of our own little worlds. But there is no pleasanter surprise in life than to find that, while you can’t have it all, you already have enough.

My personal growth has involved recognizing many such ‘mirages’ (or lies, if you wish) and figuring out how to avoid falling for them without forgetting that other people still give them credence—that other people, in fact, make these ‘mirages’ the mainstay of their goals in life. But the point of atheism is not to make fun of people who take their religion seriously. And the point of having good friends is not to ridicule the rich and famous. If my values contain an inherent condemnation of someone else’s values, that doesn’t obligate me to attack those people. It’s called pluralism. And pluralism is invaluable in a world that is not only complex in actual fact, but made infinitely more so by layers of pretense.

Lately I’ve started to wonder about the circuitous mental paths produced by society’s mélange of truths, half-truths and lies. Social critics have recently observed that we always add to legislation, but we spend no effort on revising the existing laws, or repealing obsolete ones—this results in a justice system that chokes on its own accretion of ever more laws on top of laws.

It occurs to me that education is also overburdened with an accretion of details. I saw an article the other day that described a new technique of schooling where the Subject category was dropped—all classes were just classes. Every class could include more than one ‘subject’ and could more easily teach the connections between one ‘subject’ and another. By removing the artificial category of Subject, the educators streamline the students’ thought-processes, making them more organic thinkers.

This seems like a promising experiment. But it would be far more difficult to remove ‘categories’ from our social perceptions. Figuring out how to live our lives will probably always include navigating the various illusions of many cultures and beliefs. It’s rather breathtaking to realize that what can be nonsense to me is, to someone else, the very point of existence—or vice versa. Pluralism is some heavy lifting, at times.

And it means that we can kiss the idea of ‘simple solutions’ goodbye. Simplicity is definitely not humanity’s strong suit—so beware of impatience and frustration. Some of humanity’s most horrific crimes have been committed by frustrated people who have decided to ‘cut the Gordian knot’—to simplify the solution to a problem—that’s how we get to genocide, war, slavery—all kinds of bad stuff results from the impulse to ‘just fix it’.

Life, by and large, is much more about the doing than what gets done. It’s more about the journey than the destination. This is easily illustrated—the final result of everyone’s life is death—a rather useless achievement, unless there was some joy and beauty and love along the way. Corporations are famously focused on their ‘bottom line’, their profits. How transparently worthless this is. The experiences of the employees, their relationships, how their work impacts society—all the things that really matter are ignored. Corporations thus become paragons of imbecility. Now most people are forced to choose how they make a living without regard for personal fulfillment—we might as well as stayed with ‘hunting and gathering’ if all we wanted was to survive. I won’t even go into the idiotic emptiness of ‘corporate culture’. There, I think the word ‘culture’ refers not to the sense of a social-paradigm so much as the sense of a fungus, a mindless culture formed in a petri dish. The Dilbert comic strip is funny because modern corporate, cubicle culture is synonymous with insanity. Ha friggin’ ha.

I’ve even begun to question The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I’ve watched that show religiously, every night, even back when Craig Kilbourn was the host. But now I’m starting to wonder—is it really a good thing to have that relief, to laugh off the overwhelming insanity of modern life? Would it not be better to let ourselves become well and truly outraged? The globe is in crisis—and the people in charge should more properly be in an asylum. What’s so funny about that?

Take That

Take That (Election Night 2013)

Election Night! November 5th, 2013

Election Night!
November 5th, 2013