Monday, March 23, 2015

I have been using this blog somewhat differently this year, and suspect that I will continue to do so going forward. Rather than constructing unwieldy link lists, for example, I’ve been sharing those same sorts of links (along with some others, especially related to my sense of self as a citizen) on my Facebook page. There are limits to that approach, as there are to doing it here, but it has the advantage of being both more timely and – from my perspective, at least – far less labor intensive. One limitation is that I can have “only” 5,000 Facebook “friends,” an arbitrary (and ridiculously low) number that I manage to keep open, to the extent that I do, by culling those who have quit Facebook.¹ Twitter has no such limitations, but as a platform is far more limited & limiting even than Facebook. The reality is that every attempt at an online commons is deeply compromised, both technologically and as a free public square, piazza or zocalo. It is easy enough to hold up an ideal, such as the book as a technological platform, but frankly the difference between the limitations of the book and the limitations of online mostly has to do with the transparent failings of the latter, and the more easily hidden or obscured failings of the former, failings that don’t seem “obvious” mostly because we grew up with the form.

There has been – is – a lot of bile online of late, which is to be expected in any situation of scarcity. When you have 40,000 publishing poets in the English language in North America alone, roughly 4,000 books per year, job lists that remain well below 100 per year, and ever fewer outlets for the distribution for physical wares, people are going to resent anyone who seems to receive undue attention, especially if they come by that mostly by making a comic spectacle of themselves and the process to which the other 39,999 folks feel some commitment. Historically, satire has had an angle of intent, puncturing those who have an advantage on behalf of a larger portion of humanity that does not. As the ratios between those two categories has gotten ever further out of whack, anyone tone deaf enough to appear to have his or her jousting steed turned in the wrong direction is making themselves one big target.

Beyond this, however, I think there is a malaise that underlies much of the bad blood that is going around. At the heart of it is a sense of depression that the world is coming to a very bad tipping point quite soon – may in fact already be on the wrong side of it – and that there are no effective mechanisms for braking the out-of-control vehicle that is the Anthropocene before we all hit the wall. It is not just that there now appears to be some absolute deadline – fifty years at the most – for the workers of this world to unite in order to simply halt the accelerating damage of capitalism, and that the notion that we might get there by occupying a handful of pocket parks, or even rolling out an “Arab Spring” one region at a time, suggests the scale of the problem.

Underneath this conundrum is a further layer of ill-feeling, literal dis-ease, that the traditional politics of power are simply too corrupt to be rescued. The failure of the Obama administration has a lot to do with this sense. Obama ran in 2008 to the left of Hilary Clinton, but he has governed entirely as though he were her, giving Wall Street largely what it wanted (the ability to continue to plunder at will) while eviscerating the most basic rights to privacy and governmental accountability, continuing the ongoing disaster that is the US military interventionism throughout the world. Every single problem with the Affordable Care Act, his one positive achievement, has been the result of a compromise with the anarcho-capitalists who run the Republican party. In choosing to crack down on whistle blowers who call for accountability in government while failing to prosecute the gang of thugs who lied to Congress and the American people in order to start an “unnecessary war” – unpack that term! – has not only meant that the GOP was free for the first six years of his term to play offense when they should have been playing defense, but has set up an electoral confrontation in 2016 between Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse a Little Later. Only the likes of Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush could render a Wall Street foreign policy hawk like Hillary Clinton the “progressive alternative.”

One might imagine all of this worldwide discontent as some kind of rerun of the 1950s – just wait until the next John Lennon or Martin Luther King shows up – but on a planet where there are only enough natural resources to deliver a first-world lifestyle to 2.5 billion people, it matters that we passed that population threshold circa 1950. And the effects of “things getting worse” are visible for all to see. The very same ensemble of technological disruptions that have created this commons on-line enable us today to photograph police doing what they really do in communities of color as well as to use drones to blow desert weddings to smithereens if somebody has “bad intelligence,” or to put Oklahoma into its techno-earthquake zone as we suck the last dregs of old fuels out of the planet’s soil. And now the very same contractors who ensure that 57% of the federal budget goes to military defense are clamoring for the right to sell drones to pretty much just anybody. What could go wrong?

All of which makes me want to say, lighten up a little, folks. Take a deep breath. Some tone deaf poet is not your enemy any more than Charlie Hebdo was anybody’s enemy. The English Department is not your enemy. The police are not your enemy – tho it would sure help if they were demilitarized, properly trained and representative of the communities they “serve.” Now the CEO of NestlĂ© who argues that the idea of drinkable water as a human right is nonsense, he just might be worth looking at as a significant opponent. And as somebody who controls disproportionate amount of resources on this planet, it matters that he says that. But if you think your problem is that somebody put the contradictions of discourse into high contrast in a way that made you cringe, might I suggest that you have not noticed that your house is on fire.

¹ There is an interesting study to be done of people who have tried and abandoned Facebook, a group that I suspect is quite a bit different from those who have never tried it at all.