Posts Tagged ‘progress’

American Exceptionalism

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Shakespeare PC Map (todd)

A Shakespearean Map of the U.S.A. courtesy of David Jouris

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2014)

“There are no exceptions to the rule that everybody likes to be an exception to the rule.” Charles Osgood

Recently listening to fascinating interviews with Noam Chomsky and Julian Assange, I was struck by their repeated use of the expression American Exceptionalism. The expression as they used it had geo-political connotations, but I think American Exceptionalism also captures the essence of the most popular operating system of the individual American psyche.

In geo-political terms, American Exceptionalism refers to the belief of those currently ruling America, that America can and should do things militarily, politically and economically on the world stage that America will not tolerate any other country doing. In terms of the individual American psyche, American Exceptionalism manifests in countless ways. For example:

Arriving at Big River Beach a few days ago, hoping to enjoy a stroll on the sand, I was confronted by a large growling unleashed dog. When the dog’s owner—a woman in her thirties wearing a Sierra Club sweatshirt—came to my rescue, I informed her that dogs are supposed to be leashed on Big River Beach. She bristled and said, “My dog won’t hurt anyone.”

A young man we know who recently received a Master’s degree in Environmental Science because he “wants to educate people about the dire need for humans, en masse, to shift our energy consumption habits,” recently flew to Paris from San Francisco “just for fun” and has trips planned for next year to Chile, Thailand and Australia because, “I have so many frequent flier miles.”

This same wannabe world saver turned down a lovely apartment an easy walk from the private high school where he teaches classes in Environmental Awareness and chose to live “in a hipper part of the Bay Area,” necessitating a ninety-minute car commute to his job. That’s ninety minutes both ways.

Is this intelligent young man unaware of the hypocrisy of his behavior in light of his professed beliefs? I think so. I think he is a quintessential American Exceptionalist. In his mind, everyone else needs to stop driving so much and flying everywhere, but not he. Why not he? He’s an American.

“There are two reasons why a man does anything. There’s a good reason and there’s the real reason.” J.P. Morgan

A few months ago, Marcia and I watched the very good and creepy (to me) movie Her about a bright personable man with intimacy issues—played by Joaquin Phoenix—who falls in love with an incredibly sophisticated computer operating system possessed of clairvoyant artificial intelligence. At a crucial moment in the movie, the operating system, voiced with sweetly sexy allure by Scarlett Johansson, informs our hero that she is simultaneously carrying on “intimate” relationships with hundreds of other users. Crushed to the core by this news, Joaquin nonetheless soldiers on with his relationship with the operating system, though things can never be as wonderful as they once were because She was supposed to be his and his alone. It would have been fine for him to have another relationship while maintaining his relationship with Her, but that was unacceptable for Her.

When Her was made (a couple years ago) the movie was intended to be futuristic. By the time we saw the film, we could discern almost no difference between the reality depicted on the screen and the lives of millions of urban computer peeps of today. Indeed, we just saw an excellent French movie, shot in Manhattan a year ago, Chinese Puzzle, and the constant use of computers and mobile phones as key factors in the lives of the characters in Chinese Puzzle made Her seem like a period piece set in the recent past.

“From the naturalistic point of view, all men are equal. There are only two exceptions to this rule of naturalistic equality: geniuses and idiots.” Mikhail Bakunin

The Ebola epidemic, verging on a pandemic, has clarified (for anyone willing to face the truth) the extreme interconnectedness of the global community. Powerful idiots, led by Ted Cruz and other mega-morons, are urging travel bans to and from afflicted areas, thereby impeding the crucial flow of medical personnel and medical aid to those countries where the epidemic must be fought if there is any hope of containing the disease. Ted Cruz and other People Of Little Brains seem to personify American Exceptionalism to an insane degree. What do they imagine will happen if the airline industry suddenly and dramatically contracts? The major airlines would quickly go bankrupt, the stock market would collapse, and the ensuing global economic disaster would then make the spread of Ebola into all nations a sure thing instead of highly probable.

The Ebola epidemic reveals American Exceptionalism to be what it actually is—a cancerous blood clot in the main artery of what might otherwise be an effective, functional, egalitarian global community. All the nations of the world will have to become highly cooperative with each other in order to defeat Ebola, and the sooner everyone realizes this the better our chances of not only defeating Ebola, but of establishing new modalities for dealing with the many other threats to the biosphere.

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” George Bernard Shaw

I came out of the post office yesterday just as a man in a humongous pickup truck pulled into two and a half parking spots—his truck effectively blocking one of the two lanes of the little street—and left his gargantuan engine running as he climbed down from his cab and sauntered into the post office. The sticker on his front bumper said SEVEN FUCKING MILES PER GALLON. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

The sticker on his back bumper said I EAT STEAK EVERY FUCKING MEAL. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

I walked home imagining scenes in which I engaged this fellow in discussions about global warming and fossil fuels and gigantic trucks and American Exceptionalism, and in every scene he got out his gun and mowed me down.

Sane Man Walking

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

When Your Heart Is Strong painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“ Solvitur ambulando, St. Jerome was fond of saying.  To solve a problem, walk around.” Gregory McNamee

After a severely stressful year of extreme physical challenges finally resolved by two successful surgeries, I am once again walking to and from the village every day, and slowly but surely building up my strength and stamina. The three-mile trip—downhill to town, uphill coming home—is invigorating now rather than exhausting, and the hour of steady walking is always a welcome relief from desk work and my connection to the electrical digital reality that underpins so much of my life today.

Spring has sprung, the plum trees and camellias and quince are in fulgent bloom, crab apples, rhododendrons, and cherry trees soon to follow with their outbursts of color, while Japanese maples spread their leafy wings and daffodils wave their trumpet-like flowers over the green grass that will never be so brilliantly green as when it first erupts from the flanks of Mother Earth. How sweet to walk through this riot of new life—what fun to write such purple prose.

“If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking.  Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.” Raymond Inmon

Having just finished writing a new novel, copies being made at Zo, the one and only copy shop in Mendocino, Ian the meticulous maven of duplication handling my case, I find that I am already in the grip of yet another novel, three chapters written and a fourth being told to me as I walk through the piney woods, the new story so intriguing I can barely remember the other book that owned me so completely for several months until just the other day.

I was talking to a friend about the experience of writing my new novel, the first I’ve birthed in some years, and I used the expression necessary delusion to describe why, whilst in the throes of giving birth, I felt so certain that this new book was truly fantastic, though it might not be any good at all.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” said my friend, frowning quizzically. “Why was it necessary that you be delusional?”

“Because,” I explained, “if I’m going to spend months and possibly years working on something that has very little chance of succeeding commercially, when I might otherwise make real money editing other people’s writing, I must believe the novel is going to be the next Moby Dick or Portnoy’s Complaint, or better yet a combination of the two.”

“But maybe you’re not delusional,” said my friend, an optimistic fellow. “Maybe you did create a masterpiece.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. “Masterwork or drivel, it is imperative that I believe the book is superb or I won’t continue. And because the epigenetic overlords controlling me wanted that thing written, they caused the requisite endorphins to be released into my blood along with whatever else was needed to silence my inner critics long enough for me to get the job done, after which the spell was broken and, to thoroughly mix my metaphors, I turned back into a frog, or Toad, as I was called in elementary school. Toad Walnut.”

“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.” Simone Weil

Yes, indeed, until I was fifty, I cared deeply about what might happen to my stories and novels and plays after I completed them, hoping fervently that they would bring me renown and buckets of money. And it was this hoping and caring, I now realize, that kept those creations glued to my psyche for months and years after I finished them. Now, blessedly, I understand that keeping things glued to my psyche is the creative equivalent of going deaf from wax buildup in my ears—an impediment to hearing the call of the muse, a blaring egotism that tells the gods I am not the tabula rasa they require; and so they desist from using me in the way I love to be used.

Which is not to say I don’t appreciate those rare and inspiring notes of praise from readers and listeners—I do—or that I don’t hoot for joy when I find a check in our post office box for something I wrote or recorded—I do. But I am happiest nowadays when the muse has me under her power and there is nothing glued to my psyche to distract me. I feel most alive and empowered when no attachment stands in my way of hearing the muse in full surround sound stereo, my attention undivided as I work to translate her imagistic offerings into prose.

“Walking takes longer than any other known form of locomotion except crawling.  Thus it stretches time and prolongs life.  Life is already too short to waste on speed.” Edward Abbey

Countless authors have written about how their most famous works came to them while they were on long walks; and many great scientists, Einstein among them, have said that their most profound theories were first imagined while they were taking walks. I attribute this recurring linkage of inspiration and walking to the profound interrelationship of our specie’s evolution from little-brained tree-dwelling apes to walking-around-on-the-ground hominids with huge brains—the relatively swift evolution from small-brained to big-brained coinciding precisely with our specie’s adaptation of walking and running on two legs as the fundamental means of getting around in the absence of trees to swing through.

During my brief collegiate career, I majored in Cultural Anthropology and was required to take an introductory course in Physical Anthropology, a field I found both fascinating and infinitely less morally questionable than Cultural Anthropology as it was generally practiced in those days—a university-funded imperialism, if you will, that treated indigenous societies as specimens to be intellectually dissected and analyzed by Great White Academics whether those specimen societies wanted to be dissected or not.

In 1967, the year I began my avid reading of Physical Anthropology texts, one of the debates raging in that field was whether bi-pedal locomotion (walking on two legs) or the advent of the opposable thumb was the adaptation most responsible for and/or conjoined with the dramatic enlargement of our australopithecine brains.

This distracting debate eventually went the way of the Dodo, thank goodness, and we followers of the fossil discoveries and resultant theories of how we came to be the humans we are today were no longer distracted by academic dickering while we marveled at the ingenuity of nature guiding our evolution from little hominids who were the favorite prey of enormous cats to large hominids staring at television screens while miniature versions of those enormous cats sleep on our beds and demand to be fed or they’ll shred the furniture.

My point being: I totally grok why walking ignites the imagination, and I enjoy thinking about that ignition as a variation on good old ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny—the physiological development of the individual organism recapitulating the physiological evolution of that organism’s species—the imagination ignited by walking recapitulating the interconnectedness of bi-pedal locomotion and the dramatic enlargement of our incredible brains.

 “After a day’s walk everything has twice its usual value.” George Macauley Trevelyan

I have previously extolled the wonders of Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which might have been subtitled A Treatise on Walking and the Evolution of Human Society, and I feel compelled to extol his book again. A favorite anecdote therein echoes my own sense of how Nature intends for humans—amalgams of body, mind, and spirit—to function on spaceship Earth.

“A white explorer in Africa, anxious to press ahead with his journey, paid his porters for a series of forced marches. But they, almost within reach of their destination, set down their bundles and refused to budge. No amount of extra payment would convince them otherwise. They said they had to wait for their souls to catch up.”

That story strikes me as an excellent explanation for the discombobulating sensation known as jet lag, as well as explaining why I always feel so much more relaxed and present when I walk to town rather than drive. I have not run ahead of my soul. Or put another way, I am in synch with my essential nature. I am grooving with my intrinsic biorhythms. I have fortified my sanity by doing what my body and mind and spirit require for optimal functioning. In walking I am practicing the yoga (unification) of body, mind, and spirit free of digital electronic automotive interference—striding (or in my case ambling) through the natural world as our Bushmen foremothers and forefathers strode on the sands of the Kalahari.

Here is another thought-provoking tidbit from The Songlines.

“In Middle English, the word progress meant a journey, particularly a seasonal journey or circuit. A progress was the journey of a king round the castles of his barons, a bishop round his dioceses, a nomad round his pastures, a pilgrim round a sequence of shrines. Moral or material forms of progress were unknown until the seventeenth century.”

What I especially like about that earlier definition of progress is how it resonates with my feelings about my daily walk to town, my own little pilgrim’s progress, my shrines the post office, Zo, Corners of the Mouth, Harvest at Mendosa’s, the bank, Goodlife Café, the Tiki god statue overlooking the mouth of Mendocino Bay, the driftwood sculptures on Portuguese Beach, the library, the hardware store, the traffic light on Highway One—the pleasure of my progress amplified by meeting other pilgrims along the way.