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  • Best or Worst of Times?

    | Photo: Deviantart.com

Published 8 May 2015
Don't exaggerate the good. Don’t minimize the bad.

Taking the extreme descriptors “best” and “worst” as approximate one can make a case either way - and even both ways at once. The trouble is, most people see the social prospects glass half empty, not half full, and for them current times are depressingly immobilizing.

Yes, some other people see a revolution set to arrive tomorrow  and for them today is never anything but the calm or the chaos before the glory. And while it does not immobilize people, delusion doesn't produce much that is positive, either.

A question arises: Can we intelligently navigate the best/worst perceptions?

Best of times? Activism is present all over the world, in some places  it is even knocking on the future's door. Greece, Spain, and numerous places in Latin America demonstrate resistance to imperial agendas while spinning out innovative domestic projects. The same holds, less visibly, for many places in Africa and Asia. Even in the U.S. growing anger, outrage, and dissent accompanies huge numbers of local albeit largely single issue projects with major advances on some fronts.

Worst of times? Ecological insanity threatens calamity. Nuclear stockpiles beckon Armageddon. Conventional wars multiply corpses. People dodge bombs and beheadings winding up drowned in the Mediterranean. Europe seeks to demolish Syriza, to ward off Podemos, and to exile exiles. Its right resurges. Reactionary Venezuelan elites and U.S. pay masters assault projects all over Latin America. Terror producing assassinations daily deploy from multitudinous military beachheads. Hypocrisy runs rampant. Self delusion escalates. We are exceptional. It's all warranted. The inhumane, the barbaric, becomes mundane.

There is a Hollywood TV show that chronicles the morally challenging circumstances of its female Secretary of State. Supposing we swallow that such an official would always be more personally concerned about justice and human well being than about corporate and state power, Madam Secretary is portrayed brilliantly. But, its entertainment so let's let that bit of masquerade slide by. Indeed, if we feel charitable we can even note that the show acknowledges that Madam Secretary must fulfill her institutional obligations, and that in abiding that requirement she has no choice but to jettison real human solidarity with anyone other than allies of the rich and powerful, a portrayal which could be instructive for at least some in the audience. But here is something that happened in a recent show that should have been incredibly instructive, but probably wasn't.

Briefly, in front of millions of American eyes, the TV President tells Madam Secretary that he has placed her very close friend and partner in work, who we earlier learned was a traitor with a right wing agenda, on a kill list. Our hero blanches, but then says yes, she will help set up and implement assassinating her friend. The target has run and her family does not know why she left and are worried sick. So while waiting to assassinate her, Madame Secretary attends the birthday of the intended target's daughter. Despite that Madam Secretary knows why her friend ran and is on track to kill the woman, she tries to comfort her friend's child and husband, who are her very close family friends. Murder most sympathetic.

But now comes the teachable moment. There follows a scene with an aide railing at Iran as a country where they kill whoever they want, whenever they want, for whatever reason they want. The message, unchallenged, is that such behavior is so macabre, so perverse, so horrible, that any violence visited on Iran is of course justified. Did the show's audience ask, does it follow that any violence visited on the U.S. is justified due to our murderous policies?

In wartime the U.S. aims, in Henry Kissinger's words, "anything that flies at anything that moves." In peacetime it aims special contraptions including drones and police revolvers at whatever we explicitly choose to kill as well as at anyone else who happens to get caught in the crossfire carnage. Add our economic torture of countries we target and it all dwarfs anything any terrorist has ever even contemplated accomplishing. Yet somehow, that reality is beside the point. We are good, they are bad.

Madame Secretary displayed the incredible ability for its characters to see claims about Iran one way, and claims about the U.S. oppositely, even when the two things viewed were effectively alike except in scale and in who was the perpetrator. Did the TV writers know what their script was doing? Or were the TV writers as blinded by patriotic idiocy as the characters in the show? And does it matter, given what we can confidently say about the audience who watched?

Here is Kurt Vonnegut explaining this type situation; so common in the U.S. and world, from his book Mother Night.

“I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be linked unto a system of gears where teeth have been filed off at random. Such snaggle-toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even by a substandard libido, whirls with the jerky, noisy, gaudy pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell.

The boss G-man concluded wrongly that there were no teeth on the gears in the mind of Jones. 'You're completely crazy,' he said.

Jones wasn't completely crazy. The dismaying thing about classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, thought mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined. 

Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell - keeping perfect time for eight minutes and twenty-three seconds, jumping ahead fourteen minutes, keeping perfect time for six seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year.

The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases.

The wilful filling off a gear teeth, the wilful doing without certain obvious pieces of information - 

That was how a household as contradictory as one composed of Jones, Father Keeley, Vice-Bundesfuehrer Krapptauer, and the Black Fuehrer could exist in relative harmony - 

That was how my father-in-law could contain in one mind an indifference toward slave women and love for a a blue vase -

That was how Rudolf Hess, Commandant of Auschwitz, could alternate over the loudspeakers of Auschwitz great music and calls for corpse-carriers - 

That was how Nazi Germany sensed no important difference between civilization and hydrophobia - 

That is the closest I can come to explaining the legions, the nations of lunatics I've seen in my time.”

So, returning to our opening questions, we might ask how we can more constructively navigate best/worst than by turning ourselves into cuckoo clocks from hell.

Amilcar Cabral, a revolutionary who fought against Portuguese colonialism and all forms of imperialism, wrote "tell no lies, claim no easy victories." To me, that means to exclusively celebrate the best or to exclusively bemoan the worst won't yield good results.

Don't exaggerate the good. Don’t minimize the bad.

For the bad, discern its real systemic causes. Target those causes including thinking through what could replace the institutions at fault, not just replace the individual people at fault.

For the good, see not only the inspiring attributes, but explore where their trajectories ought to lead. Incorporate that desired destination and carefully conceived steps toward reaching it in one's reaction to existing conditions. 

Many good people are getting weary. They feel beaten. Their mood paints everything dismal. Even what should engender hope spins depressingly. Some counter this condition with delusions that all is great and victory is nigh.  

Not being a cuckoo clock in hell is good. But beyond that, we must accurately read reality. We must cooperate and aid one another. We must hear lessons and improve. We must develop vision and pursue it in our immediate efforts.  

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