November 30, 2010, 7:43 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Heroes, for the most part, are made by the yearnings of ordinary people.  If we’re not careful, and we yearn too much for the qualities we imbue in the heroes we prop up, we can become dangerous to ourselves:  delusional, ineffectual, uncritical, zombified.

There is a too big element in American society that holds these untruths sacred:  American exceptionalism, its inherent goodness, its guaranteed success.  Very hubristic, don’t you think?  And we all know what hubris leads to.  Yet these are the very heroic qualities which we continue to yearn for, dream up, codify, bundle, mount high, enshrine, and most damnably, believe in.

Why do we do it?  A crisis of leadership?  An addiction to happiness-at-all-cost?

Socrates sat in the market in Athens, ugly and insightful and alone, and devised dialogues that challenged the hypocrisies inherent in Athenian society.  He pricked peoples’ inflated hopes.  He pissed people off.  He was an anti hero because he was interested in the truth.  Enough of that, they eventually said and killed him.  That’ll shut him up, they thought, but it had all been written down and we can still read it today.

This kind of critical thinking doesn’t play well in an amnesiac culture like ours, prone to propping up a continuous parade of hero idols.  And yet, now that history has healed all wounds – or something like that – we accept Socrates as being important to the health of Athenian society and, vicariously, of our own.  Maybe that’s an answer that gets us somewhere:  we need new philosophers who aren’t afraid to take on the special orthodoxies of our time.  They are out there if you can see past all of the other noise.  And with enough traction their new ideas can challenge and perhaps even help to change our hero fetish.

Michael Brenner writes about heroes in his essay Celebrities as Heroes:

Nations deserve the heroes they get. A hero is one part the actuality of person and performance; three parts need of the observer for confirmation, reassurance, hope. Heroes are made more by the yearnings of others than by their own features and feats. Where the intensity of those needs stunts critical faculties, the powers of illusion and self-delusion grow. That holds for the object of hero worship as well — for the emotional currents flow both ways.

Heroes are enemies of truth. For they evoke powerful feelings that give distorted meanings to inchoate emotions. They provide the personified symbols of legendary dimension that inspire unjustified confidence and offer the comfort of a cult. Thoughtless loyalty follows.

Contemporary America’s craving is exceptional. /…/ The personal resources of our fabled individualism quickly run dry without the steady sustenance provided by the blind belief in our exceptional virtue, competence and claim on the future. Suspicions that we may not be destiny’s child born under a providential star erodes the optimistic self confidence that is our lifeblood.


Why is it that all segments of American society are so credulous, so literally mindless, so lacking perspective, so unready or unwilling to call the burlesque that is contemporary American politics what it is?

Michael Brenner, Celebrities as Heroes


resenting silly dreams

There is a transformative shift that comes with the traumatic events of our lives, a before and after.  There’s no going back to the innocence of the pre-event.  The memory of then mingles with the tangibility of now and we occupy a wholly new blended, bittersweet reality.  If traumatic enough, the event removes us from the world we have grown to know, everyday habits, the comforts of relationships, the normalcy we construct and occupy and share in the pursuit of a meaningful life.  When we go back to the before world, we are strangers and outsiders to it, and our natural proclivity is to explain the shift to anyone and everyone, like a confession, or a purging of the discomfort of the event and the loneliness of life with the knowledge of it.

Who shares in these traumatic events?  The large and growing literature of trans cultural migration confirms the alienation that comes with uprooting from native family and country when people emigrate.  The colonial boarding school has a similar documented history on the psyches of children of business, military and missionary parents.  Natural disasters and violent events rank as well, for instance in the case of Rebecca Brock who experienced 911 from the vantage of a flight going over New York and her capacity as a flight attendant.  In her essay quoted below, she draws an exquisite, searing picture of that violent and uncanny event which removes her from the safety and banality of her before life and throws her into a life in which she constantly craves sharing her experience with a world that doesn’t get it because it didn’t live through it.  She finds beautiful examples in literature that also describe this culture of humanity who have come back from that place beyond, the dead, and need to share their anguish with a world they see as inexperienced and petty.

Following are some of the bits of literature which she uses to describe her alienation.  For better results – easily the best piece I have read on 911 – read the whole essay:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

— Milan Kundera, Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

“I found myself back in the… city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams…I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew…”

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

“It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history. Human life-and herein lies its secret-takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch.”

Milan Kundera, Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Rebecca Brock, You Can’t Even Remember What I’m Trying to Forget

brave new google world
November 12, 2010, 10:19 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

A vision of the future from the CEO of Google.  Is this why antitrust is so important: to stop the psychopathologization of the increasingly powerful tech leader?  I’m going to try to distill the ideas.

Big Tech is omniscient, in the world, in the mind.

We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.

We don’t know what to do with ourselves.  Big technology doesn’t serve (by merely giving answers); it tells you what to do.  This is an interesting servant / served inversion.

I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions /…/ They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.

Big Technology is a marmy scold.  Again ideally it controls you.

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

The serious goal is, just remember, when you post something, the computers remember forever.

Big Technology promises freedom, from the things that bind us like social convention, family, the law.

I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time … every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

[people who take issue with their homes appearing online] “can just move” [after Google cars photograph their homes or businesses.]

Big Technology proposes a context of fear and – like magic – protection from it.

In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you… We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it.

We are responsible for dealing with the actions of big Technology.  They take on no responsibility for them.  We clean up any messes they incur.

We do worry that as this [personal] information gets collected, it becomes a treasure trove. /…/ In the worst possible case /…/ we know everything you’re doing and the government can track you./…/ Part of the way I answer the question “How do you trust Google?” is the moment we did something untrustworthy to any one of you, everyone of you would know within 5 nanoseconds, and it would be come the conversation in the room and you all would move very quickly to a competitive choice.

Big Tech’s baseline belief is that we don’t know what we want, and that we need them.  We never have before, but this is a new world, a brave … you know.

The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation. /…/ The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as “What shall I do tomorrow?” and “What job shall I take?” /…/ We cannot even answer the most basic questions because we don’t know enough about you. That is the most important aspect of Google’s expansion.

Big Tech improves on your feeble body and mind – the stuff you were born with.  It’s like a software update, it finds and replaces drives that no longer work.  Like human emotion and memory.

It’s a future where you don’t forget anything /…/In this new future you’re never lost … We will know your position down to the foot and down to the inch over time … Your car will drive itself, it’s a bug that cars were invented before computers … you’re never lonely … you’re never bored … you’re never out of ideas.  [Schmidt called this scenario] an augmented version of humanity.

-Eric Schmidt CEO of Google

Tech geeks are now in charge and making decisions that affect public and intimate and really all areas of our lives.  And the best part?  Noone, noone cares.

blame yourself

We believe things deeply and refuse to question them even when they don’t seem to be working, or even turning against us, biting us in the collective ass.  Here’s an example.  We’re hooked on happiness, we seek it at all costs.  We refuse to compromise our extreme commitment to it.  And why not?  Who doesn’t want to be happy?

Consider though, that the pursuit of happiness trains us to adopt a cause and effect understanding of our lives:  my success and failures come from me, how hard I work, the choices I make.  And when you lose your job, you blame yourself.  In spite of the fact that it’s not your fault that you lost your job, that there are socio-economic factors outside yourself that can be fairly easily and accurately fingered.  I have a friend, neurotic to a fault, who won’t collect unemployment insurance for the sake of her pride.  Huh?  It makes perfect sense now: she lives in a culture that pushes people who work further and further down the road of self reliance:  first stop actualization, next delusion and intractability, and eventually isolation and ruin.

The social consequence is a class of people who are incapable of challenging a status quo that has stopped serving them several generations ago.  It’s the first cousin of the reverse French Revolution crowd:  where the poor rise up with pitch forks against the people who are trying to help them and in support of other powerful people who are smiling and screwing them over.

That’s the argument Barbara Ehrenreich makes in her book Brightsided and Origen and Golan in their Adventures of Unemployed Man:


As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her book, Bright-sided, our obsession with positive thinking has undermined America. “On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out “negative” thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster.” Stories of the unemployed often end in tragedy, in part because America’s culture of extreme positive thinking means we can only blame ourselves for our failure. By isolating ourselves, we dampen our power to change the economic system. (In this panel, motivational vigilante The Ultimatum reads his book “It’s Not the Economy Stupid, It’s You!” over a loudspeaker in the ghetto.)

The Adventures of Unemployed Man, Origen and Golan

the uneasy fear of ideas
November 7, 2010, 7:17 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

Even in the new world, things get old in a hurry.  And it makes sense that in the American north east, where the Puritans and Quakers and Dutch first established themselves, and where new treaties and governments and constitutions were established first, and native peoples beat back, the body politic began its atrophy.

H. L. Mencken was a Baltimore writer and social critic.  In this excerpt from his essay, The Scene Almost Staggers, he takes down the eastern seaboard cities, that densely populated string of urbanity from which the great western expansion sprung.  Class esteem, self actualization and fear are the hallmarks of the east coast society that only a few generations earlier had escaped similar social strictures and clambered onto boats to make the trans Atlantic journey to a new kind of elusive freedom.

I left a midwestern city ten years ago, its twins and lawns and new uncomfortable towers, drawn by the lights and density of the American north east.  A girl I knew back then said, curiously, LA was the city to go to now, because of its start up verve, sun, sense of possibility.  Her words rankled; and I went east easily trading the new car city for the potential urbanity of the older east.  But the streets, wonderfully formed, were for the most part empty, and still are.  The cities are there, but the money and the ideas and the people are in the suburbs.

Mencken pulls no punches describing his own home town from the vantage of San Francisco.  If a city is as much its people as it’s building, spaces and forms, then what’s the advantage of beauty and urbanity if occupied by thugs and savants?

From Mencken’s essay:

The East, it seems to me, is gone, and perhaps for good. All the towns along the seaboard are now as alike as so many soldiers in a row. They think alike. They hope and fear alike. They smell alike. They begin to look alike. What one says all the others say. What one does all the others do. It is as if some gigantic and relentless force labored to crush all personality, all distinction, all tang and savor out of them. They sink to the spiritual and intellectual level of villages—fat, lethargic, and degraded. Their aspirations are the aspirations of curb brokers, greengrocers, and honorary pallbearers. The living hope of their typical citizen is to die respected by bank cashiers, Young Men’s Christian Association secretaries, and policemen. They are ironed out, disemboweled, denatured, dephlogisticated, salted down, boiled, baked, dried in a kiln.

Think of Washington: a hundred thousand miserable botches of ninth-rate clerks, all groveling at the feet of such puerile caricatures as Daniels, Burleson, and Palmer. Baltimore: mile after mile of identical houses, all inhabited by persons who regard Douglas Fairbanks as a greater man than Beethoven. (What zoologist, without a blood count and a lumbar puncture, could distinguish one Baltimorean from another?) Philadelphia: an intellectual and cultural slum. Newark: a worse one. New York: a wholesale district with an annex for entertaining the visiting trade. New Haven and Hartford: blanks. Boston: a potter’s field, a dissecting room. Mental decay in all its forms, but one symptom there is in common: the uneasy fear of ideas, the hot yearning to be correct at all costs, the thirst to be well esteemed by cads.

-H. L. Mencken, The Scene Almost Staggers, 1920, San Francisco

i’m the goddamn batman
November 4, 2010, 1:29 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: