Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Butterflies on Steroids

I recently finished reading "A Question of Values" by Morris Berman and was stopped dead in my tracks by his statement:
"Wouldn't it make sense, at this point, for America to "resign' with dignity? To come to terms with its collapse, and just accept it?" I think about this all the time. It's been my personal Zen koan, even before reading Berman's book.

So you open your safe and find ashes. But exactly who--what publisher, what network--would even entertain such a story? Of America "resigning" and coming to terms with its collapse? Acceptance of this damning truth may be our only exit from the culture of lies and denial--from the "psychic free radicals" poisoning everyone's energy field and filling the collective atmosphere with a sense of dread--but ultimately (once you seriously think about it), would facing up to this truth help or harm? Were we fully to acknowledge our civilizational and environmental collapse, wouldn't that signal a hopeless defeatism from which there could be no possibility of recovery? But what if recovery really is not possible? Would that mean a loss of faith in life, of still having confidence in something which is broken? Can we even grasp what it would be like to live without confidence in the future?

Anyway, it won't happen. Nobody, not Obama and certainly not the Republicans, not Charlie Rose or Jon Stewart or anyone else, is going to stand up tall and officially inform the American people that it's "over" for our country. Nobody wants to tell their out-of-town friends that the houseplants have died and gone black, sitting in their pots in the bay window. Who among us is likely to admit that we really have no idea what we should do? Life seems as if it just goes on, irregardless; it goes on as before, at least for those whose houses are still standing and are not under water--whose chess pieces can still be found in their rightful positions on an end table in some well-furnished room. For those who are still that lucky, there is no shortage of good days.

In his book, Berman cites a Feb.2, 2009 essay by Benjamin Barber, published in The Nation: "It is hard to discern any movement toward a wholesale rethinking of the dominant role of the market in our society. No one is questioning the impulse to rehabilitate the consumer market as the driver of American commerce." Many weights have fallen on the heads of the American people since then, with notable frequency, but thus far, nothing has broken the powerful pattern. "Rather than being on the verge of some possible cultural renaissance," Berman comments, "or a reversal of our entire history, what we are now witnessing is the slow-motion suicide of the nation, with Mr. Obama guiding us, in a genteel and semi-conscious way, into the grave. Indeed, what more can he or anybody do at this point?" I still vividly recall Berman's comment, even before Obama became president, that whoever got elected would end up being a funeral director, rather than a president.

One of my favorite writers (whom I've also been reading of late), Caroline Myss, in her Forward to Andrew Harvey's "The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism," claims that aside from the obvious social, political, economic, and environmental challenges facing us, there are even more treacherous subtle forces at play, such as the ever-accelerating rapidity of these changes--to the point where we can't really keep up with them. Change now happens at light speed and is global in magnitude. There is hardly such a thing anymore as a "local" change, says Myss.

"The Internet and the television have brought changes of all nations into view within seconds and not only into view, but into your bank account, into your stock holdings, into your insurance policies, and into your job security. A shift in the market in Japan or China could result in the loss of your job in the morning." It sounds like the "butterfly effect," only on steroids. (The "butterfly effect" refers to the proposition that whatever happens in the world has a ripple effect that eventually affects every other thing in the world. Thus, a butterfly flapping its wings in Rio can cause an earthquake in Beijing.) The information overload of news and information, warns Myss, affects not only our exterior lives but also our emotional, psychological, and mental well-being:

"I frequently have people tell me," she writes, "that they avoid the news because it's all negative, but is avoidance really a mature response?" (To me, avoidance seems like a nickel magic trick.) If you decide to avoid the news because it's all negative, "then who should respond to those assaulting the environment?" asks Myss. "And to those committing war crimes? And to those violating our constitution? These crimes happened and will continue to happen precisely because people do not want to look at the shadow of the society we live in, much less the shadow of the global community." Don't imagine for a moment, she adds, that by not following the news you can avoid the psychic free radicals generated by the collective unconscious. They are penetrating willy-nilly into your individual psychic field whether you are paying attention or not.

Item. From my local newspaper today: "For the first time in a year, Americans have stopped spending more. Consumer spending failed to budge from April to May, evidence that high gasoline prices and unemployment are squeezing household budgets....Consumer spending is important because it accounts for 70 percent of economic activity."

Item. A friend from Roanoke, who has been driving across the country to California with her dog, sends this bulletin (along with many others): "Arkansas seems to have missed the fact that the World did not end on May 21st. I counted 12 billboards still proudly displaying the 'message.' "

Enough for now. I am ending this post with opening lines from a poem by Ray Bradbury:

"Not smash and grab, but rather find and keep;
Go panther-pawwed [sic] where all the mined truths sleep
To detonate the hidden seeds with stealth
So in your wake a weltering of wealth
Springs up unseen, ignored, and left behind
As you sneak on, pretending to be blind."

And that, folks, is my collage offering for the week. I hope to leave behind a weltering of wealth that will spring up unseen in my wake, as I myself sneak on, pretending to be blind, which of course, I'm not.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Into the Yucky Pack of Varmints, a Huntsman Comes!

Here's how the New York Times characterized the GOP's first presidential debate held earlier this week: "Monday’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire — full of historical error, economic obfuscation, avoidance of hard truths and even outright bigotry — was a feast for connoisseurs of political dysfunction. Desperate to avoid being outflanked on the right, the seven candidates tried so hard to outdo each other in finding fault with President Obama that they seemed to forget that they are competing for the same party nomination. By evening’s end, they had melted into an indistinguishable mass of privatizing, tax-cutting opponents of Shariah law."

The following exchange is a day-glo example of what the Times editorial was referring to. It took place that night between CNN's moderator, John King, and Governor Tim Pawlenty, who predictably recommends more tax-cutting to "get the economy moving again": “If you win the nomination, you’ll have to make the choice that a nominee makes, and that is picking a running mate. Governor Pawlenty to you, look back on 2008 and the process. President Obama made a pick. Senator McCain made a pick. Who made the best choice?” Pawlenty hesitates, and then recovers. He says Vice President Joe Biden makes horrible decisions and that Palin is wonderful.

The truth is, there is one plausible Republican candidate out there--one who still bears a resemblance to the species once formerly known as "homo sapiens." But he wasn't at the debate. He has since announced, however, that he will officially declare his candidacy next Tuesday. I've been eyeballing Utah's former governor, Jon Huntsman, ever since late May when I came across an online version of a commencement address he gave at the University of South Carolina on May 27th. I've mentioned him since to several friends, who all shook their heads in foggy nonrecognition. "Never heard of him,. Don't know who he is," they all said. Except for my friend Jane's son, Emerson, a politically savvy young man whom I love to talk politics with. When I said to Emer that I thought the Republicans had one decent candidate, he immediately shook his head in agreement. I wondered if, by some miracle, we were referring to the same person. "What are his initials?" I diffidently asked, almost afraid to ask. "J.H." he replied. "Yow! I said, that's him!"

The first time I noticed Jon Huntsman was when President Obama appointed him as U.S. Ambassador to China. A few pundits whispered at the time it was partly to get Huntsman out of the country as a political rival in the 2012 election. But Huntsman resigned the post several months ago and came back to America. He's been on the GOP's list of possible candidates all along, but Republican officials have ignored him. Huntsman polls at only 1% and in a straw poll in Iowa, he got a total of one vote. The GOP would like to keep it that way, not only because he is unacceptably moderate, but because he also did the unthinkable--accepting a job in the Obama administration. Which is, after all, the equivalent of digging your own grave. Not only that, but he expressed support for Obama's 2009 stimulus package, endorsed an individual mandate for health insurance, and has been a moderate on gay marriage, supporting civil unions for same-sex couples. "This would make him an accomplished pragmatic conservative in any other Western country," writes political blogger, Nate Silver. "In America, in the GOP today, he's a commie."

But what really got my attention, as I said, was his commencement speech. It sounded just like something Obama would give. These are some excerpts:

"Your generation will have your own unique set of circumstances that make you feel like your future has somehow been derailed. Wars, economic recessions, social upheaval, revolutions around the globe...and yet, in each case, we recover, learn lessons and become ever more resilient.
I know there are many in China who think their time has come, that America's best days are over. And, there are probably some in this country who have lost confidence and think that China is the next big thing. But these people aren't seeing things from my earlier vantage point of 10,000 miles away. The way I saw it from overseas, America's passion remains as strong today as ever. Hold on to that sense of optimism. Hold on to that belief in your future. Our free and open society that can respectfully embrace debate, coupled with a free market system that rewards risk and innovation, is still the envy of the world. We are still as full of potential as ever. Just remember... When the oppressed are fighting autocratic regimes, they look to America for inspiration. When overseas entrepreneurs build companies, they still look to U.S. practices as the gold standard. When young people around the world want to attend the best colleges and universities they travel here. When playwrights, filmmakers and the creative classes abroad dream, their imaginations are fueled by America’s example.Our system needs new thinking. We need a fresh generation of innovators, leaders, risk takers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and activists -- That's you! Give back. As much as you’re able. Work to keep America great. Serve her, if asked. I was, by a president of a different political party. But in the end, while we might not all be of one party, we are all part of one nation, a nation that needs your generational gift of energy and confidence."

The other notable thing about Huntsman is he doesn't spend his time bashing Obama, or even take pokes at his Republican counterparts. He is, like Obama, unfailingly polite. "I think the answers are in the middle," he told a small crowd in Hancock, N.H. "There are enough wars in the world that Republicans don't have to be at war with Democrats." It's enough to stop the heart. Right now Huntsman's trailing like a vine, so we'll just have to see how it all plays out--starting next week when Huntsman's candidacy becomes official.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Walking in Water

Far be it from me to deny the Prez his moment of glory over the 2009 auto bailouts, but he needs to let up on the optimism narrative re the economy and face reality. I know Time magazine's recent cover story, "The Optimism Bias," claims our brains are hardwired to see the bright side, and that this is good for human health and evolution, but there's a hideous truth stalking the rear window and tapping on the panes. The U.S. economy is no longer treading water; it is going under. And this time. bailouts won't save us.

As of a year or two ago, bailouts were an important part of humanity's rescue plan--but that was before before floods and earthquakes and tornadoes became the new normal. Now, every week, another piece of the planet sinks under water, or is completely wiped off the face of the earth by an earthquake or a tornado. It's pretty grim stuff that, so far, President Obama has been reluctant to parse into his strained equations for the "recovering" economy.

Only a couple of weeks ago, flood disasters along the Mississippi delta grabbed the headlines, and now, another wave of flooding threatens multiple cities along the Missouri River--meaning that, once again, businesses, jobs, and homes will be pummeled and thrashed out of existence. Lives and economies upended. Levees and dams are unable to hold back the deluge. In the case of the Missouri, the floods are a consequence of excessive winter snow deluging down from the Rockies as it melts. The flows at some of the dam gates are expected to be more than double any previous records. Emergency rescue operations have demanded round-the-clock help from all government agencies--the National Guard, FEMA, and the Army Corps of Engineers--even while the national debt is rising at the rate of $46,0000 PER SECOND. But these nightmare scenarios are not just happening here. They are happening everywhere.

In 2010 alone, about 92 million people were forced to flee their homes because of natural "mega-disasters" around the world, more than double the number than during the previous year, according to reports by experts at an international conference about climate change and population displacement held in Oslo, Norway, recently. The March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan left more than 10,000 people dead, some 17,500 missing, and about a half-million homeless. In China, more than 15 million people were forced to flee their homes following floods, while 11 million were displaced in Paklstan. Similar mega-flooding has also occurred in Australia, India, and most recently, the U.S. "The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events is increasing, and this trend is only set to continue...as human-induced climate change comes into full force," said Elisabeth Rasmusson, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Polls show that Americans are increasingly unhappy with Obama's handling of the economy, and growing ever more pessimistic about the slow pace of recovery. Disapproval of his economic record is at a new high--boosting Mitt Romney's chances in the 2012 election. The American electorate is just so god-damned predictable, like the stars keeping their courses. The last thing Republicans want to see is a robust economic recovery taking place just before the election. It looks now as if they may get their wish.

Discussing climate change is bad news for any politician in office, so I expect we'll just go on with the president's optimistic bluster about auto bailouts, more rejiggering of the relationship between economic growth and jobs, and more Congressional rants about the debt ceiling. As the fire balloon bringing collapse burns in the night sky, no one will ever connect the dots. The sleeping elephant in the room will shamble forth, scattering bricks and bones, and our lost and ruined world will overflow its banks until it drowns. Whoever made that haunting film "Waterworld" was clearly a visionary and ahead of his time.