A Politics of Profound Disillusionment
We're used to seeing modern history telescoped through a montage. A ticker-tape strewn trading floor in grainy black & white, followed by shots of silent factories, and then, bread-lines; stand in for the First Great Depression. The World Wars, the Cold War, treated the same way. A few short clips spliced together and all the ambiguity, all the boredom, and long tense months or years of indecision are smoothed out. The First Gulf War was the first time this packaging was attempted in real time. The result was what Baudrillard termed "the War That Did Not Take Place." At least in part because the image-making outstripped the event. The Iraq War, with its "Mission Accomplished!" only took the father's farce and made the son's buffoonery most plain.
That all makes it hard when we're "living history" as we are today. Of course the dominoes falling in the Arab World appear in the foreground. Even there with the fast pace of developments we still tend to want to hurry it up and draw conclusions before anything has settled….
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Vinay Gupta can be counted on to cut through the haze of revolutionary zeal. His latest post has helped me find the focus for this post.
So let me lay out the big threats. There are but two, plus a minor third.
global environmental catastrophe caused by bulk factors like CO2 and deforestation
self-replicating disasters like plagues, bioweapons, genetic engineering and nanotech
The countries causing most of these risks are democracies, my friends. We have the vote, but we have not reined in our own cultures to bring us back from the various cliffs which we speed towards, one ton of coal and one biolab grant at a time.
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In our rampage to put our guys on top, and to give others the freedom to put their guys on top, we have failed to note that
“our guys” are completely failing to address the real issues on climate and technological risk
“our guys” are systematically stripping away our civil rights
People, this is not working. And it’s not going to be fixed by dumb politics from the left, or dumb politics from the right, or a series of leaks which kick out the foundations from half a dozen more marginally stable countries.
It’s going to be fixed by a global, catastrophic wave of disillusionment, of which the leaks process might be a part.
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I find it lonely to be the one always looking the other way. It's an instinct, an aspect of my hyper-vigilance. Having flirted with bi-polar tendencies for much of my life, I've had the pleasure of experiencing both ends of what Yasei Kaige describes as mutually exclusive fates:
Children that are extremely abused within their first six years can, by learning, over-develop their threat processing instincts and can manifest sociopathic vigilance or paranoia later. Children that are extremely over-indulged in their first six years can, by learning, under-develop their opportunity processing instincts and can manifest sociopathic entitlement or narcissism later. The common marker for their sociopathy is the persistence of reflexively inappropriate response to novelty in social situations.
My hyper-vigilance, my persistently inappropriate reflexive state, remains even as I seem to have set aside the most toxic levels of narcissistic/entitled responses that dominated my youth. I struggle with finding the best way to deal with hyper-vigilance. Perhaps at least in part this may be because while I've seen through the egotistical side as counter-productive, I still find value in hyper-vigilance. At least while I find myself in such a dangerous and heedless world.
At the risk of sounding like an unrepentant narcissist, let me say that I do feel it is essential to ground what I say in my own experience, just as I hope that others will do the same. If in the end I base my judgements on my own intrinsic sense of navigation, and expect that any authority I may accrue with anyone be grounded in their own sense of navigation; it's important to not hide where these points of contact with my own experience occur.
I both trust and distrust my vigilance. This seems to be the most useful stance. The best navigation does come from a profound humility concerning one's methods and results.
In this case, I've been biting my tongue concerning recent events in the Arab World. I cannot help but root for anyone who has found the courage to defy tyranny. It's a beautiful thing. There is in it such an affirmation of life in the face of its destroyers. The sense that a virtuous tipping point might be in the offing, especially when we are ticking off a litany of vicious ones, is heartening. People are putting their lives on the line!
I keep coming back to the long long list of such occasions in the past and the way they have all ended. It's so much easier to admit this in the abstract language of Mastery, Not Control:
Control’s power has been, and continues to be, destructive of life at all levels and at all scales.
It has been extremely successful at destroying or co-opting its opposition: Whenever resistance is frustrated it falls into the trap. It is then destroyed or co-opted. This has borne out in every case. Every failed defense by an indigenous people, every attempted overthrow by some “enlightened” faction, has failed. They’ve all failed: Destroyed as a weaker force against a stronger. Or, co-opted whenever they’ve managed to create a superior force and fought on to “victory.” They become the next oppressor. This is the history of civilization. Every example of Twentieth Century conflict bears this out.
Every example of Twentieth Century conflict bears this out.
This is why it's so good to hear Vinay asking for a politics of profound disillusionment.
Why do we cringe at the sound of that? We fear disillusionment. Should we? What's the alternative? Is it truly better to continue to replay the same dramas over and over again? Reaching moments of shining brightness before falling back into a turmoil of destruction when neither is addressing our actual predicament? This begins to take on the language Yasei Kaige might use to describe a path towards spiritual enlightenment:
We can use them (Forms) as most have always done to impersonate ancestors, personify received wisdom, avoid the exigencies of transformation by conforming instead.
Alternatively, we can leave these forms entering them. As we are entering them, we can detect our tendencies to impersonate and to personify and we can practice ceasing impersonation and personification even as we allow ourselves to take the form.
All of this, I would submit, is a way of practicing the opening of mind, of climbing out of the erosive ruts of our particular histories onto the meadow of our possibility.
He is talking about religious forms, the gulf between the acts of originators like the Buddha or the Christ and the institutions built by their followers; but the same could be said for political forms.
What I'd like to suggest in linking these two thinkers – who aren't that different in the end, though they express their focus in differing ways – is that both are talking about the need for a great, a profound, disillusionment as a precursor to moving ahead. A big part of that process is learning not to fall into the cycles of highs and lows brought on by exhilaration and despair. Stepping out of the easy drama, recognizing that its promised "solutions" are illusions. This is the only way to break out of the thrall of the Spectacle.
A few of us here in "the West" have lived the nightmare of having discovered that our path leads towards an abyss and then found that the rest of the world is pushing to not be left behind on our path towards destruction. Perhaps there is some slim hope that we can be so "lucky" as to be equally influential in our own growing disillusionment.
A first step, no matter whether the "News" is "positive" or "negative" is to disengage from the Spectacle. Its dramas don't lead to any resolution.
This isn't the same as backing the oppressors, or acting out the pitiful last gasps of irrelevance our "leaders" enact as they try to thread the needle between realpolitik and paying lip-service to profound aspirations.
Cheering "liberation" by proxy, is no more ethical than fighting wars of repression by proxy. We do a disservice in either case. In both cases we are condescending to our "lessors." Instead we should be working on our own disillusionment while hoping that our example as it gains authenticity might "travel."
Carl Jung looms large. Here's what he says about illusions and their dangers:
A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.
My greatest hope arises from the fact that this opportunity to see through the conditions of our predicament in this way is a new development. Holding our focus in the eye of seeming "good-news" is just as essential as maintaining focus in the face of perennial "bad-news."
There is no kindness in holding out false hopes that insulate anyone from the true state of our predicament. Let's try to remember that. Kindness, humility, both require that we maintain the truth of our profound vulnerability. This precludes turning liberation into a spectator sport, just as it precludes aiding the oppressors. The path of kindness requires us to focus on our own liberation from the gruesome fascination found in the Spectacle. Only then can we find some way to act that might take us beyond its destructive cycles.