Monthly Archives: December 2014
Looking ahead to 2015 with a bit of trepidation
It’s that phase of the cycle when most Westerners turn the lights off on the passing year and enter into the new one full of resolve and keen for rejuvenation. Frankly, I don’t know many people who have succeeded in getting past January before falling back into bad habitude.
I know I made it as far as Lent once, before my resolve dissolved in the first new anxiety storm that came my way and I ended up the year like a fat Marlon Brando, like Kurtz in ‘Nam with that Buddha body at the end of Apocalypse Now, chanting down the year with, “The Horror, the horror.” Always we’re looking for release, only to find reincarnation and the same old, same old suffering and desires.
Nevertheless, hope being hope, that curvaceous cliché sprung from the oceanic depths of metaphor devoid of experience, ‘she’ twerks yet again, making promises for the new year you know ‘she’ will never keep (o, but that’s the allure!), yet you soldier on in trenches filled with musk-cat gas and coughing through a faulty mask, surviving, getting through.
Anyway, this year, rather than shoveling the same ol’ chivalry, I’ve decided to present an omnibus of resolutions, with the idea being that if even a couple are kept, then 2015 will end with a pilgrim’s progress rather than with Brando’s head case scenario. Okay, then, I resolve…
To remember, like a prayer, that I am mostly made of water, and, after pondering that marvel for an extended moment, will see more often throughout the year, all politics aside, that my primary relation to the world, as an extension, is physical, not mental.
To appreciate that democracy not backed by human rights and the rule of law is little more than a Che Guevera t-shirt off eBay or a newt in the witches’ brew.
To try harder than ever to be guided by the Golden Rule, even in a world ruled by gold and the return of Baal.
To worship the Singularity as soon as its benefits to the common human are demonstrable, and not just an ecstasy rush to the geeky übermunchkins, who, too often, are all giddyup and no pony.
To ponder the implications of 100,000 people signing up for a one-way (suicidal) mission to Mars. Does this indicate new hope for our race, or a sign of the abysmal depths of our collective despair?
To never vote again guided by myth-y memes and totem tropes, or false equations like ‘the lesser of two evils’, or product placement virtues, or because ‘It’ll be the first Black!’ or ‘It’s time for a Woman president’. And to never vote again, if the choice doesn’t matter, for that would not be participatory democracy, but participating in da mockracy.
To have days without the Internet – lo! without electricity, where the buzz is replaced with silence and the silence is filled with being alive. And throw in some days without clothes, wearing nothing but the Designer’s label: Ecce homo.
To remember that the Holocaust was not so long ago, nor Hiroshima, nor the Killing Fields, nor the terror nullius genocides of Tasmania or the Dakotas, and to own that we are at heart depraved and only civilization can save us.
To read more books. To finish John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, the astonishing history of cathedrals, those multi-generational constructions that, like the Great Wall and the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, are abstracts of desire, profound representations of form and function, and living monuments to human hands, that aliens will one day marvel at, just as we marvel at the canals of Mars.
To appreciate, Alvie Singer’s observation that ‘the ethics of politicians are a notch below child molester’ and is, generally speaking, not merely a figure of speech, and that lowered expectations are called for, until public service is no longer a matter of wolves dressed in sheepish grin clothes.
To proffer thoroughbred solutions occasionally, rather than flogging the same old nagging nightmares of human consciousness; and to be something other than a face-saddle to high-ridin’ ideologues – Ichabod Cranes riding roughshod through the woods so dark and deep, an’ never a promise do they keep.
To re-read and revisit in my mind, and review old college notes, on alternate civilizations, like the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri forest or the matrilineal peace of Çatal Höyük, for clues to contagious cooperation and the means to a pandemic of the dissed ease call grace, that tempest of the soul that resolves with monster and master striding hand-in-hand in the om-ambulance of love. (Yuh, okay, go ahead and pop me in the chops; I’ll even turn the other cheek.)
To question authority and to assume that the bustards are lying until they prove otherwise. Bin Laden is dead? Prove it. What do you mean you lost the DNA and photos? The FBI had identified the beheading ISIS Brit? Okay. What’s his name then? MH17 was shot down by the Russkies or their rebels? Fine. Let’s see the images from the US satellites directly overhead that day. No worries, mate
To listen more. To others. To myself. To the music of the spheres.
To laugh more. With my kids, especially. But to wean myself from the sardonic and sarcastic – the way a heroin junkie does with methadone – with a view to finally kicking the expensive habit altogether. And to accept there may be setbacks.
To question the courage of the myriad conspiracy fearists (who Truthers refer to as Fearies) who live in a world surrounded by collusion and corruption, and who hide behind Enlightenment reasoning, the way Pangloss hid behind the curtain as Lady Godiva passed on her way to the chocolate factory (the question is: Willy Wonka?). I’m in neither camp, but frankly the Bush torture regime did us a favor. Because if not for the dark deeds of Guantanamo, there’s no way the 9/11 story holds up under scrutiny. I mean, you have to think they’re not torturing the Triffids for nothing, right? Right?
To remember as I look and smile at the ‘hand-made’ kilims hanging on my wall, which I purchased years ago in the Grand Bazaar, that tiny little hands wove the hairs of grazing beasts, in a bizarre system of slave production, conspicuous consumption, and unreflective showoffmanship. And, of course, there are lots of tiny hands piecing together my better life.
To have the courage to love, to wear the Other’s shoes, and to be strong enough not to hate, at least, as Dylan sings, most of the time.
To marvel anew, when I gaze upon a Christmas tree and see in its twinkling lights and colors an image not of Man but of the cosmos to which we belong. (O Tannenbaum, indeed!)
And finally, I resolve to lose weight, exercise more, learn to read French, go green, and survive yet another year of spies, lies, and the Earth’s demise. In my beginning is my end, writes T.S. Eliot, but also, in my end is my beginning. There’s lots of lines in between.
A lot of people don’t know it, but when Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, was a young man he attended a high school in Switzerland, where, among other things, he developed a taste for Western fast foods and a certain degree of proficiency playing point guard for the school basketball team. As with the other kids on the team, he also developed a love of the NBA and its stars. Like just about everyone, Kim was in awe of Michael Jordan’s on-court skill set.
When Kim took over the reins from his deceased father, it was hoped in the West that the young man’s exposure to freedom and capitalist consumption would lead to a greater appetite for both, and a rapprochement with Washington. Surely that was the expectation when Google’s Eric Schmidt and Joel Cohen, along with globalization executive Bill Richardson – all of whom have strong ties to the State department – visited North Korea in January 2013, just before the release of the Schmidt-Cohen futuristic tome, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, hit the bookshelves. One can readily imagine the trio pushing the inevitability of open markets, and trying to ‘honey trap’ Kim by suggesting that if he were to adopt the Google surveillance system Kim could appear to ‘open up’, while continuing to exert total control through algorithms and all-pervasive surveillance. “Works for us,” Schmidt might chirp.
Well, we’ll never know what was said, but it’s clear that the unofficial State department entourage came away empty-handed. And it wasn’t long afterward that tensions were ratcheted up again. And then the mainstream media began to excoriate ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman for traveling to North Korea to indulge Kim’s NBA basketball fanaticism, because, they cried, Rodman should be ashamed for entertaining Kim while a Korean-American, Kenneth Bae, was being imprisoned for alleged proselytizing and Bible smuggling. Rodman’s harassment seemed to have racial overtones, especially given that the Schmidt-Cohen-Richardson trio had barely eked out a pizzicato on Bae’s behalf during their fugal concerto for capitalism.
Shortly thereafter, young Kim went from being a potential reformer to the same old, same old crazy North Korean dictator. Kim played right into the nut job depiction, rattling his missiles; arresting a second Bible-thumper; kidnapping a South Korean movie director and forcing him to make a monster movie; and engaging in risky military escapades on the border.
So that’s the milieu and mood that forms the backdrop of the Goldberg-Rogen film, The Interview.
James Franco and Seth Rogen play best buddies, Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapaport, who produce a TV ‘news show’ that features interviews with celebrities that are gossipy and tasteless. The pair are exceptionally pleased with themselves, like Narcissus and Echo, and especially triumphant after white rap star Eminem comes ‘out of the closet’ during the 1000th episode of the show, causing pandemonium in the public (and in the studio). But when the pair meet up with an old Columbia School of Journalism friend, now a senior producer for 60 Minutes, who mocks the pair’s trash journalism, they are crestfallen. Until…they learn President Kim Jong-un loves their insipid program and wants to meet the pair for an interview. Their jubilation at the prospect of interviewing Kim in Pyongyang bears complexity when they agree to a plot to act as CIA assassins during the interview, during which Skylark is to deliver a lethal dose of ricin during a handshake.
Is the movie funny? The 7.5 IMDB rating would suggest that, yes, it was plenty funny. Certainly, the premise is absurd and comedic, and the acting of the principals was a splendid reach for laughs. And it’s unlikely Rogen-Franco-philes will be disappointed. But how funny it is might depend on whether you find risible a film that begins with a little girl chanting down America, singing her earnest wish for the Land of the Free to perish in “its own blood and feces.” Personally, I was creeped out.
And then after that, well, it became a familiar Rogen-Franco movie. The pair were in the Dumb and Dumber mode. Franco was especially over-the-top pulling Jim Carrey-type faces, and seemingly lampooning a number of famous interviewers, including, it seemed, Jon Stewart. There were some chucklesome moments, but it was definitely a lineup of shtick aimed at young shallow men – guys into the everyday sports argot that includes not-so-secret tasteless sexist jokes (not one woman in the movie had any power not stripped away from her by an objectifying sexual appeal), and there was a tremendous amount of homo-eroticism, involving not just bonding jibes between Franco and Rogen, but also between Franco and Park (who plays Kim), which revolved around how “empowering Katy Perry is” with her lyrical sexual ambiguity, and the relative effeminacy of Margueritas, which Kim’s dad has condemned as a “gay” cocktail (but which film Kim likes, in his secret shame).
Language is coarse and lowest common denominator-oriented. There is comic book horror. There is an awful lot of Asian linguistic parody, which seemed intent on copying the Borat phenomenon of a few years back. Skylark delivers white-appropriated Black hip-hop shoptalk regularly. And Jews may cringe to know that Kim is saved from a ricin death when the leader aborts a handshake when he is told Rapaport, who is intent on following through on the CIA plot (while Skylark becomes best buds with the fat totalitarian), that Rapaport is “a Jew,” causing Kim to cringe. There may be found a lot of hilarity, for some, to discover that Kim “has no butthole. He has no need for one.” When the clownish buddies lose the ricin package, the CIA sends a drone, a la Amazon’s delivery ambitions, with more poison, contained in a phallic device that Rapaport is forced to hide up his ‘butthole’. Essentially, he is forced to rape himself for the viewer’s delight.
I dunno. Sometmes you have to weigh up the costs of the humor versus the karmic gravity of the subject. I enjoy apocalyptic humor as much as the next zombie, and the like, which Rogen and Franco exuded with some delight in their previous film, This Is The End (2013), but I got thrown off by the recent stoush over allegations that North Korean agents hacked into Sony in retaliation for the making of the film, which, even as comedy, has not-so-funny overtones in calling for the assassination of Kim. I mean, deposing ‘dictators’ seems to be an Obama specialty, and little of it has been funny, given the utter chaos the maneuvers have created.
Also, I feel bad for Koreans, North and South. While I haven’t visited the North, I have lived in South Korea earlier in my journeys, and was sometimes overwhelmed by the sense of emptiness and vacated spirit there. After all, the Japanese once literally raped and razed their way through the country with such devastation that Korea became a traumatized wasteland you can still feel. No doubt, the release of the movie by Sony, a Japanese corporation, was especially confronting to North Koreans. That’s if the hacking even took place as advertised; the “breach” certainly boosted the distribution and sales figures for the film.
In a perturbing development, ‘human rights activists’ have vowed to mass deliver 100,000 copies of the film to the North Korean populace by means of balloon, in the off-chance that viewing the film will incite regime-change rioting in the streets. Imagine if the CIA had commenced their toppling of Chile’s Allende democracy with an airdrop of Woody Allen’s Bananas. The propaganda machine is at full throttle, folks.
In the end, if you found it funny that time President Obama told his media guests as a national press dinner that he’d drone to death certain musicians if they made passes at his daughters, then you’ll probably like The Interview and its mindless humor. Me, I keep thinking of the innocent people who’ve been droned, killed without a trial or a warning, including American citizens; and I can’t ever imagine laughing at that.
And I didn’t find it particularly comforting or funny when, after North Korea was publicly (and thinly) accused of hacking into Sony, President Obama said, in all seriousness, “They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.” No one from the press laughed. Funny, that.
In the famous ‘mirror scene’ of Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver, cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) rhetorically confronts himself with aggressive remarks. He seems to say, “You see what you see; now what are you going to do about it?” When you gaze into the mirror abyss, it gazes back, and there is no fleeing. Bickle, a war veteran who no doubt witnessed atrocities, doesn’t implode inward but explodes outward and confronts a world in which corruption and degeneracy have been normalized, and people conform by looking away. He does as the voice of his conscience bids him in an effort to bring redemption.
Long before Bickle was even flicker in Scorcese’s eye, the radical Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing lashed out at blind conformity and the psycho-social regimen that coerced individuals into moral assimilation, even at great cost to their psychic integrity. Said Laing in The Politics of Experience (1967), “Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last 50 years.” Conformity can provide safety and certainty, but by necessarily submitting to authority it contains a strong potential for evil.
Bickle and Laing came to mind as I was reading Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness by the brothers Joel and Ian Gold. The Golds claim to have discovered a new behavioural pattern that suggests a growing psychological condition they are calling the Truman Show Delusion. As the name suggests, it is a conviction that one is being watched and televised, as if imprisoned in a reality TV show, wherein everyone is a player acting out a script. Joel Gold writes, “The delusion raised questions about the interplay between mental illness and our environment, and larger questions about the relationship of mind to culture.”
Ian Gold adds that he believes such Truman-like “delusions have to do with our relationships with other people, and the new media creates a larger community with more threats and opportunities.” One thing that our increasing online activity results in, the Golds imply, is a deterioration of our boundaries with others. We become more interactive, with internet activity, texting, emailing, and cell phone chatter. Maybe this what CEOs Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt of Google mean when they argue that we can no longer have the expectation of privacy.
Suspicious Minds is not only about the Truman Show Delusion, although that is certainly a fascinating development. The book explores delusions in general. The brothers underscore just how fragile and suggestible the human mind is, which is both a blessing and a curse. Humans have wild and freely associative imaginations that allow for dynamic, alternative-minded reality, but such freedom can be a maze that is difficult to navigate, and there is the constant danger that the clew we hold may have been planted by a structuralist minotaur with a hidden agenda.
The authors hook the reader with the Truman Show Delusion, which then disappears for a hundred pages or so before re-appearing. Meanwhile they provide a rather standard history of mental illness, from roughly the start of the Enlightenment to the present. This is interspersed with absorbing case studies of delusional patients. Foucault it is not. Although a psychology student would find the most value in Suspicious Minds, it is also a worthwhile read for the layperson, too.
Another surprisingly readable and interesting psychology title I came across recently is Paranoia: The 21stCentury Fear, also by two brothers, Jason and Daniel Freeman. This book posits that a growing percentage of the West’s population is engaged in paranoid thoughts. They say that right now a startling 25% of those around us believe someone is out to do them harm, either by words or deeds. As the authors put it, “the days when paranoia could be written off as a meaningless sign of insanity are long gone. In this book we put paranoia centre stage. It’s only right, because paranoia is centre stage in our culture and in our individual lives.” Paranoid thinking, while not necessarily psychotic, is nevertheless seen as a precursor to delusions such as the Truman Show Delusion. In both instances, there is an intensified sense of threat and a perceived rupturing of boundaries.
These books remind me of the themes I found in another book, which I reviewed in these pages a few weeks ago: Thomas P. Keenan’s Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy. It’s interesting to compare them, because Keenan’s catalogue of technological creepiness goes much further in explaining the growing ego ‘disruptions’ that we face as a result of ceding our privacy to the world of interactive digi-stim. In fact, in a disturbing follow-on to his book, Keenan’s describes incidents where marketers have used directional speaker technology to target shoppers and place voices in their heads (leading to increased sales, of course). While it’s refreshing to see in the Golds’ and Freemans’ studies an explicit acknowledgement of the role culture and environment play in leading to paranoid thinking and delusions, they make no effort to express culpability for the role their psychiatric profession plays in creating these conditions.
Certainly, the deterioration of privacy has a lot to do with this trend toward more ‘abnormal behaviour.’ The Golds at least reference that the Truman Show Delusion is in many cases directly linked to 9/11 trauma (they describe one poor ‘Truman’ who thought 9/11 had been staged as part of his reality TV sub-plot), but they make no mention of the comprehensive and penetrating surveillance state. This is partially excusable for Paranoia, which came out in 2010, well before the Snowden revelations pulled the blinders off, but not so excusable for Suspicious Minds, which is a very recent release. Do the authors really see no connection at all between the deep intrusions of the surveillance state, and the corporate algorithms and trackers digging at our desires?
It reminds me of what R. D. Laing acknowledged all those years ago: psychiatry is often in the business not of helping the individual per se, but of finding a way to have that individual adjust and assimilate to the system, no matter how absurd or abnormal that system is. And that’s a benign criticism that doesn’t even address breaches of patient confidentiality, or, as outlined in Anatomy of an Epidemic, the collusion with Big Pharma to hook people on debilitating psychotropics. And it ignores the trust-annihilating outrage of psychologists teaching government spooks how to torture more effectively.
I’ve heard Taxi Driver criticized for glorifying vigilantism, but that misses the point. Scorsese is not reveling in street justice. He’s pointing out that even this one-man lashing out against systemic sleaze and corruption can be accommodated, even lauded by normal society, because it looks like reform. But of course Bickle changes nothing much in the end, although a no-longer-innocent girl is set free. To change the system, we must all become cabbies confronting ourselves in the mirror.