Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reinventing America? Is It Possible Or Has Its Time Passed? (Times Haven't Stopped Changing)

News of later developments (much later?) in our civilization from our friend at the Archdruid Report:

A great many people are wondering these days when the resulting bubble in US paper wealth—for that’s what it is, of course—is going to pop. That might still happen, especially as a side effect of a sufficiently sharp political or military crisis, but it’s also possible that the trillions of dollars in imaginary wealth that currently prop up America’s domestic economy could trickle away more gradually, by way of stagflation or any of the other common forms of prolonged economic dysfunction. We could, in other words, get the kind of massive crisis that throws millions of people out of work and erases the value of trillions of dollars of paper wealth in a matter of months; we could equally well get the more lengthy and less visible kind of crisis, in which every year that passes sees an ever larger fraction of the population driven out of the work force, an ever larger fraction of the nation’s wealth reduced to paper that would be worth plenty if only anybody were willing and able to buy it, and an ever larger part of the nation itself turning visibly into one more impoverished and misgoverned Third World nation.

Either way, the economic unraveling is bound to end in political crisis. Take a culture that assumes an endlessly rising curve of prosperity, and put it in a historical setting that puts that curve forever out of reach, and sooner or later an explosion is going to happen. A glance back at the history of Communism makes a good reminder of what happens in the political sphere when rhetoric and reality drift too far apart, and the expectations cultivated by a political system are contradicted daily by the realities its citizens have to face. As the American dream sinks into an American nightmare of metastatic poverty, disintegrating infrastructure, and spreading hopelessness, presided over by a baroque and dysfunctional bureaucratic state that prattles about freedom while loudly insisting on its alleged constitutional right to commit war crimes against its own citizens, scenes like the ones witnessed in a dozen eastern European capitals in the late 20th century are by no means unthinkable here.
Whether or not the final crisis takes that particular form or some other, it’s a safe bet that it will mark the end of what, for the last sixty years or so, has counted as business as usual here in the United States. As discussed in an earlier post in this series, this has happened many times before. It’s as old as democracy itself, having been chronicled and given a name, anacyclosis, in ancient Greece.

Three previous versions of the United States—call them Colonial America, Federal America, and Gilded Age America—each followed the same trajectory toward a crisis all too familiar from today’s perspective. Too much political power diffusing into the hands of pressure groups with incompatible agendas, resulting in gridlock, political failure, and a collapse of legitimacy that in two cases out of three had to be reestablished the hard way, on the battlefield: we’re most of the way there this time around, too, as Imperial America follows its predecessors toward the recycle bin of history.

Our fourth trip around the track of anacyclosis may turn out to be considerably more challenging than the first three, though, partly for reasons already explored in this sequence of posts, and partly due to another factor entirely. The reasons discussed before are the twilight of America’s global empire and the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, both of which guarantee that whatever comes out of this round of anacyclosis will have to get by on much less real wealth than either of its two most recent predecessors. The reason I haven’t yet covered is a subtler thing, but in some ways even more potent.

The crises that ended Colonial America, Federal America, and Gilded Age America all happened in part because a particular vision of what America was, or could be, was fatally out of step with the times, and had to be replaced. In two of the three cases, there was another vision already in waiting: in 1776, a vision of an independent republic embodying the ideals of the Enlightenment; in 1933, a vision of a powerful central government using its abundant resources to dominate the world while, back at home, embodying the promises of social democracy. (Not, please note, socialism; socialism is state ownership of the means of production, social democracy is the extension of democratic ideals into the social sphere by means of government social welfare programs. The two are not the same, and it’s one of the more embarrassing intellectual lapses of today’s American pseudoconservatism that it so often tries to pretend otherwise.)

In the third, in 1860, there were not one but two competing visions in waiting: one that drew most of its support from the states north of the Mason-Dixon line, and one that drew most of its support from those south of it. What made the conflicts leading up to Fort Sumter so intractable was precisely that the question wasn’t simply a matter of replacing a failed ideal with one that might work, but deciding which of two new ideals would take its place. Would the United States become an aristocratic, agrarian society fully integrated with the 19th century’s global economy and culture, like the nations further south between the Rio Grande and Tierra del Fuego, or would it go its own way, isolating itself economically from Europe to protect its emerging industrial sector and decisively rejecting the trappings of European aristocratic culture? The competing appeal of the two visions was such that it took four years of war to determine that one of them would triumph across a united nation.

Our situation in the twilight years of Imperial America is different still, because a vision that might replace the imperial foreign policy and domestic social social democracy of 1933 has yet to take shape. The image of America welded into place by Franklin Roosevelt during the traumatic years of the Great Depression and the Second World War still guides both major parties—the Republicans, for all their eagerness to criticize Roosevelt’s legacy, have proven themselves as quick to use federal funds to pursue social agendas as any Democrat, while the Democrats, for all their lip service to the ideals of world peace and national self-determination, have proven themselves as eager to throw America’s military might around the globe as any Republican.

Both sides of the vision of Imperial America depended utterly on access to the extravagant wealth that America could get in 1933, partly from its already substantial economic empire in Latin America, partly from the even more substantial "empire of time" defined by Appalachia’s coal mines and the oilfields of Pennsylvania and Texas. Both those empires are going away now, and everything that depends on them is going away with equal inevitability—and yet next to nobody in American public life has begun to grapple with the realities of a post-imperial and post-industrial America, in which debates over the fair distribution of wealth and the extension of national power overseas will have to give way to debates over the fair distribution of poverty and the retreat of national power to the borders of the United States and to those few responsibilities the constitution assigns to the federal government.

We don’t yet have the vision that could guide that process. I sometimes think that such a vision began to emerge, however awkwardly and incompletely, in the aftermath of the social convulsions of the 1960s. During the decade of the 1970s, between the impact of the energy crisis, the blatant failure of the previous decade’s imperial agendas in Vietnam and elsewhere, and the act of collective memory that surrounded the nation’s bicentennial, it became possible for a while to talk publicly about the values of simplicity and self-sufficiency, the strengths of local tradition and memory, and the worthwhile things that were lost in the course of America’s headlong rush to empire.

I’ve talked elsewhere about the way that this nascent vision helped guide the first promising steps toward technologies and lifestyles that could have bridged the gap between the age of cheap abundant energy and a sustainable future of relative comfort and prosperity. Still, as we know, that’s not what happened; the hopes of those years were stomped to a bloody pulp by the Reagan counterrevolution, Imperial America returned with a vengeance, and stealing from the future became the centerpiece of a bipartisan consensus that remains welded into place today.

Thus one of the central tasks before Americans today, as our nation’s imperial age stumbles blindly toward its end, is that of reinventing America: that is, of finding new ideals that can provide a sense of collective purpose and meaning in an age of deindustrialization and of economic and technological decline. We need, if you will, a new American dream, one that doesn’t require promises of limitless material abundance, one that doesn’t depend on the profits of empire or the temporary rush of affluence we got by stripping a continent of its irreplaceable natural resources in a few short centuries.

I think it can be done, if only because it’s been done three times already. For that matter, the United States is far from the only nation that’s had to find a new meaning for itself in the midst of crisis, and a fair number of other nations have had to do it, as we will, in the face of decline and the failure of some extravagant dream. Nor will the United States be the only nation facing such a challenge in the years immediately ahead: between the tectonic shifts in geopolitics that will inevitably follow the fall of America’s empire, and the far greater transformations already being set in motion by the imminent end of the industrial age, many of the world’s nations will have to deal with a similar work of revisioning.

That said, nothing guarantees that America will find the new vision it needs, just because it happens to need one, and it’s very late in the day. Those of us who see the potential, and hope to help fill it, will have to get a move on.

I read Dylan's Chronicles when it first came out and recommended it to all my friends.

I still do.

The Times Have They Stopped A-Changin’? Bob Dylan’s Chronicles v.1 Meets Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock

In his early days, Bob Dylan was an artist who was commonly mistaken for a politician. Everybody wanted to vote for him, but he wasn’t running for anything. Some thought he was the Prince of Peace; others wanted him to lead them to Washington, DC in a huge mob with torches and pitchforks and more torches, and just burn the place to the ground. But Bob knew the British had already tried that in the war of 1812 and it hadn’t done anybody any good.

I just read Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles v. 1 anachronistically. It came out in 2004, when I was finishing my Ph.D. and discovering that 9/11 was an obvious inside job, so naturally I was too busy to read it. (If I’d been doing my dissertation on Bob Dylan rather than Moroccan saints’ legends, and hadn’t figured out 9/11, I would have read it promptly and synchronistically.)

So Dylan’s Chronicles v.1 isn’t even a decade old. Yet it already has that odor of musty old Civil War ghosts from somebody’s ancient attic, marching around singing haunting songs that nobody ever bothered to write down…the kind of songs that have to be dredged up from deep in the minds of generations that have forgotten them.

It was ghosts like that that triggered the 20-year-old Bob Dylan’s genius. He spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library:

“In one of the upstairs reading rooms I started reading articles from newspapers on microfilm from 1855 to about 1865 to see what daily life was like. I wasn’t so much interested in the issues as intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times…It wasn’t like it was another world, but the same one only with more urgency, and the issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern. There were news items about reform movements, anti-gambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths, and religious revivals. You get the feeling that the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everybody will perish.”

Today, if you went to the public library and read newspapers from, say, 1963 through 1968 – the years Bob Dylan went from a wannabe coffee-house folksinger to a rich, reclusive icon – you might find yourself equally intrigued by “the language and rhetoric of the times.” You would read about wars, demonstrations, assassinations, drugs, new art forms, religious revivals, revolutions (sexual and otherwise)…sort of like today’s newspapers, only with vastly more urgency. And maybe the burning tension between all that immediacy, and the distancing effect of yellowing newsprint, would cause something in your brain to snap, and you would step outside of time and become an artist like Bob did.

Or maybe not. Maybe today, yellowing newsprint has gone the way of the black-and-white film and the daguerreotype. Maybe the they times they were a-changin’, but they won’t be a changin’ any more. Maybe we’re stuck in the cyber-flatland of the perpetual present – a thesis Douglas Rushkoff explores in Present Shock.

Douglas Rushkoff, like Bob Dylan, is a counterculture icon, even if he isn’t exactly a household word. Unlike Dylan, who was falsely painted as “the spokesman of his generation” when he was really just an unusually creative folksinger, Rushkoff actually has been a sort of voice of his generation: The “digital kids” as of his titles puts it. Which is to say that Rushkoff, unlike Dylan, is very much bound up with his times.

And those times, and maybe time itself, are coming to an end. Rushkoff’s life’s work thus far summarizes the trajectory of the cyber-counterculture, from its utopian hopes to its dystopian fears to its disintegration into the endless present that is the subject of his new book.

It all started around 1990, as – unbeknownst to almost everyone – the worldwide web was about to engulf the planet. Rushkoff, like his friend Timothy Leary, wondered whether computer networks might achieve what LSD had failed to accomplish: Enlighten the planet, banish greed and war, and usher in a new era of cooperation in the pursuit of happiness. How? By connecting everyone. By inaugurating a new ethos of playfulness. By opening up uncensored communication and exposing the truth. By creating a new “gift economy” in which information would be lovingly shared rather than stingily hoarded. And by connecting like-minded visionaries, those “cultural creatives” whose synergized minds would keep right on a-changin’ the world for the better.

In Playing the Future (1996) Rushkoff told us not to worry, our “digital kids” would be fine if we turned them loose on the internet, let them play computer games, and just stood back and let them create a cyber-libertarian future. (My fifteen-year-old read it when he was ten, marshaled its arguments effectively, and talked us into letting him do self-directed home schooling; he is now a budding libertarian economist-philosopher.)

But Douglas Rushkoff is no pollyanna. Throughout his series of eleven books, and especially since Playing the Future, Rushkoff has been coming down from his initial utopian high. His biggest step down was Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say (1999), a brilliant deconstruction of mind control that ranks up there with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine as must reading for anyone who wants to understand the post-9/11 world. (Had everyone read Coercion when it came out, the biggest act of coercion in history – the 9/11 psy-op – would have failed, and we would be living on a far better planet.)
Rushkoff’s penultimate book, Program or Be Programmed is in many ways a sequel to Coercion, which described the relationship between commercial/military mind-controllers and their victims as a sort of predator-prey feedback loop, in which each side has to keep getting smarter just to survive. Program or Be Programmed summarizes the opportunities and dangers of the new cyber-universe we inhabit. The upshot is that we need to all be computer programmers, or at least “reality hackers,” or we will be victimized (or at least programmed and exploited) by the programmers and hackers.
There is no middle ground.

That’s a fairly grim observation. But Rushkoff’s new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now paints an even bleaker picture.
Jean-François Lyotard already told us, in La Condition Postmoderne (published, appropriately enough, in 1984) that all the big stories or “grand narratives” had fallen apart. Not only the great religious sacred stories, but even their secular progeny – including Marxism and the Enlightenment myth of eternal progress – were in ruins. All that was left were the discordant fragments of “little stories” lying all around us, like rubble after the collapse of civilization.
In Present Shock, Rushkoff tells us that now even the little stories even narrative itself – is disappearing. In the world of instant-messaging, he says, email becomes (for many people) just another form of instant messaging. We are stuck responding to ever-more-incessant demands of the present, with no time to step back and consider the broad sweep of things…or even to tell any kind of story. Since storytelling is the way we master time, we are losing that mastery and becoming slaves of the endless present.

One of the things that storytelling does, as it constructs its model of the passage of time, is to include some things and exclude others. But as storytelling collapses, and as the internet brings every bit of information in the world together in present time, we are losing the ability to parse information and construct meaning. Hierarchies collapse. Authorities and anonymous idiots vie on the same plane. Everything becomes equally connected to everything else.
Rushkoff argues, in his chapter entitled “Fractalnoia,” that this ubiquitous connectivity explains the popularity of “conspiracy theories,” which he views as a paranoid tendency to over-connect the dots. For Rushkoff, the concern over chemtrails (or geoengineering if you prefer) is just a bunch of specious connections between “the weather, military, economy, HAARP, natural disasters, and jet emissions.” And chemtrails is just one of the many “conspiracy theories” which are themselves specious connections between “a myriad of loose ends, from 9/11 and Barack Obama’s birthplace to the Bilderberg Group and immunizations” (198).

There is some truth – at least at the abstract, theoretical level – in Rushkoff’s diagnosis. The kind of conspiracy writing I do (alongside many others) is a desperate attempt to inject historical context into the all-too-real dystopian eternal present Rushkoff describes. Mainstream writers simply parrot the “latest news” – Bin Laden assassinated, a shooting at Sandy Hook, the Pope resigns, etc. – as that “news” is constructed by the institutions of power. People like me put out the unofficial historical context in which such events can be understood.
Like the lamestreamers and the Twittiots, I try to pounce on each big event as soon as it happens and get my post out there as quickly as possible. But unlike them, my purpose is to supply the missing historical context. And unofficial history – the stuff repressed by the mainstream – is much wilder and scarier and more entertaining (as well as more educational) than official history.

When Bin Laden was supposedly tracked down and assassinated (instead of being captured and interrogated, as would have happened if the government’s stories about 9/11 and al-Qaeda were true) and then thrown in the ocean “in accordance with Islamic custom” (!) I had a skeptical story out in just a few hours. When the Sandy Hook shooting happened, I immediately reminded people that most big terror attacks are inside jobs, as everyone who has studied Operation Gladio, Operation Northwoods, and similar incidents knows. And when the Pope resigned, and when the new Pope was elected, I had stories out about Vatican corruption posted on the same day.

My stories are not paranoid attempts to connect everything to everything else. They are very specific efforts, concerning specific stories, designed to raise people’s awareness of unofficial history, which is generally far more accurate than official history. (Official history is always written by the victors, by the powerful; its purpose is always to serve the interests of the powerful, not to get at the truth.)

What Rushkoff misses is that it is not unofficial historians like me who are trapped in an eternal, over-connected present; it is the official culture that has so degenerated. Independent media, free to expose most of official history as a tissue of lies, is fighting back against that dystopian eternal present by putting present events in real historical context created by truth-seekers, not well-paid liars…which is what the mainstream journalists and historians are.
Rushkoff’s boneheaded obliviousness to the real import of the “conspiracy” stories sweeping the internet does not invalidate his larger thesis; rather, it confirms it. But it’s too bad that such a sharp analyst of cyber-countercultures should miss the real significance of the most important cyber-counterculture ever: The community of independent media voices and unofficial historians. The most important historical consequence of the invention of the internet, thus far, has been the rise of the 9/11 truth movement, whose alternative narrative is now favored by the majority of the people (as opposed to the powerful institutions) of our planet.

Rushkoff is right when he argues that 9/11 killed storytelling, killed linear time. But he doesn’t really understand why. 9/11 killed official culture’s ability to understand and make sense of the world – because the official version it gave us of the most important historical event of the century, if not of all time, was so transparently ludicrous.

As National Medal of Science winner Lynn Margulis told us, there has been no science since 9/11: A culture that thinks skyscrapers can magically fall through their path of most resistance at free-fall acceleration, without demolition charges removing their vertical support, is no longer scientific; it is effectively back in the Stone Age.

Since official culture, drowning in its own self-imposed idiocy, can no longer construct meaning, it is the internet-driven counterculture that is re-writing history. While the lamestreamers and twittiots are stuck in a mindless eternal present, those still capable of cognition are using the internet to represent the past more accurately, and build the future more intelligently. And in that future, the US and Zionist empires – the malign forces behind 9/11 – will be gone. And the world will be a better place…if the masters of war don’t drag it all down with them.

It’s the voice of the people, the voice of the folk, that carries the truth. That’s what Bob Dylan figured out. That’s why he left Hibbing, Minnesota and went to New York and started studying the folk poetry of half-forgotten ballads and yellowing newspaper articles.

And yes, the times they still are a-changin’. Something actually IS happening here, but you don’t know what it is…do you, Mr. Rushkoff?

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