Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wealth creates civilization

Immense wealth is definitely immoral. The idea that a handful of people can control the resources of the entire planet flies in the face of everything American school children are taught publicly to hold dear. The alternative is communism, which also flies in the face of everything American school children are taught publicly to hold dear.

In 1491, North America had a thriving, bountiful ecosystem shared by a diverse population of native tribes. It was far from a paradise, as these tribes exerted their influence on their own citizens and on neighboring groups with the full range of human tactics from cooperation and diplomacy to violence and treachery. We are told that many of them had a different notion of property than Europeans did, so there were fewer walls and fortified borders.

They seem to have had a less adversary relationship with nature. That made them more vulnerable to nature's culling forces as weather and food supplies fluctuated. From what I have read, you needed to stay on top of your game in those days if you were going to last long. Most of us today are pretty sure we would not like to spend our lives that way. That's why we have cars and television sets and supermarkets and stuff like that. If people didn't want those things, the companies that make them would have gone out of business long ago. So clearly we have a preference for civilization.

European-style civilization is a direct outgrowth of concentrated wealth. The inhabitants of Europe evolved personalities that led to conflicts that resolved themselves in a system of enclaves centered around a rich guy's castle. Over the centuries, these accreted into nations. The shape of those nations kept changing as the basis of connection changed. Philosophies came and went or came and stayed to create a complex intellectual landscape.

The rich guys needed people to work for them. Sometimes these people would suffer hardships so great that they threatened the well-being of the rich guys. A really bad plague or famine would have such a negative effect on the work force that the rich themselves would suffer. So medicine and agriculture advanced, improving living conditions for the lowly as well as the high and mighty.

When Europeans ventured to the Americas, it was rich corporations establishing commercial beach heads, not plucky refugees seeking a place to live according to their noble consciences. Plucky refugees might have made good subjects for the dirty and dangerous work of colonization, but they did not foot most of the bill. The concept of private property arrived in the Americas like any other disease or invasive species for which the native biome was completely unprepared.

All the infrastructure of the American colonies was established to make business more profitable. Long before independence was declared, American entrepreneurs were getting their piece of the action. Between the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, more than a century and a half passed. A couple of generations lived and died. In the name of wealth and power, settlers moved outward from initial landing sites into the interior.

A bold pioneer with a sharp ax, a trusty musket, quick reflexes and a good lawyer could establish a family fortune just by marking a bunch of trees and making darn sure his land claims were duly registered. The next poor schmuck to wander into that happy valley to set up a little farm or a sawmill or something would find out he was already behind on his rent.

Between 1776 and 1876 a century passed in which no one questioned the concept of personal wealth. Steal some land from the natives, chop it into parcels and sell it off. The natives weren't using it, they were just living on it. They were smelly and talked weird and just might kill you.

Interestingly, between 1876 and 1976 a lot of people questioned the time-honored concept of minority ownership of majority necessities, particularly once the 20th Century arrived. As civilization advanced on the backs of  millions of laborers and the wallets of hundreds of wealthy people, mostly men, the standard of living accidentally increased to the point where the working class and people in the middle income bracket were now healthy and well fed enough to start exerting some real political influence.

After many attempts to crush this rebellion by force, the wealthy had to accept the new economic landscape. However, they still had the advantage of their own close associations, better schools for their children, better homes and gardens to shelter and nourish their progeny and generations of tradition enforcing their superiority. In the long run, all the wealthy have to do is wait. The ignorant rabble will waste its substance. They will not give up the comforts of civilization, and civilization is still very much the property of the wealthy, run for their benefit. It's their world. The rest of us just get to live in it...as long as we don't make too much trouble.

The wealthy hold the whole planet hostage. The war necessary to dislodge them would have to destroy everything. If anyone survived, they would probably reinvent the whole messed-up paradigm anyway because the war would have reduced them to such savagery that all gentle enlightenment had been scorched out of them.

The problem with any meritocracy is that some people will be bad winners no matter what the basis of the competition is. Back in the dim past we chose warriors as our leaders. Some time in the 20th Century we switched to CEOs. Warriors are basically predisposed to be pricks, despite what you may believe about knights in shining armor. Defender of the weak, blah blah blah. When your clout comes from your actual ability to clout that can't help shaping your thinking. And CEOs are supposed to be all about earnings. What's good for the company bottom line may not be good for your individual ass. Be warned.

Whatever the basis of merit, it creates a hierarchy, which gives abusers of power the tools they need.

Consensus would be nice but we can't even agree to seek it.

So, for what it's worth, the desire of the wealthy to create good neighborhoods for themselves created the model for good neighborhoods throughout history. Their ability to put up defenses against their bad neighbors established the concept by which we still live. In wide open spaces where no one is fenced in, no one is fenced out, either. While that can be wonderfully welcoming and inclusive, it also means you could get an arrow stuck in you when you step out to take a leak in the morning. It means someone has to sit up all night to watch the horses or you might not have any in the morning. It means you may repeatedly have to kick someone's ass until yours finally gets kicked for good, just to have a little space to call your own.

The wealthy seem like greedy bastards who don't play well with others and don't like to share their toys. They are vastly annoying and downright damaging to society in a great many ways. But being a jerk is a basic human characteristic. We should at least give a nod to rich jerks through the centuries who accidentally bestowed the benefits of shelter and sanitation on the rest of us jerks who have actually built and operated it for them.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Hope Less

What does it say about the Republican Party that when Barack Obama chose the word Hope as a campaign slogan the Republican Party, through their irrepressible publicity agents like Sarah and Rush, had to start sneering at it? True to their words, the offensive line of the conservative side of American politics has done its utmost during the last four years to oppose things that offer hope to millions of Americans. And it's working.

There's no such thing as a Great Depression. They're all pretty lousy. The country's economy might be improving slightly under the Obama administration, but it's slow going when the opposition has to take everything as an affront. The conservatives make less and less of a secret of the fact that their policies really are meant to cause the destruction of American citizens and trends in American society that they consider undesirable. They have fully accepted the premise that it's far easier to take lives than to change minds. In an overpopulated world, the quick fix is to kill people. This gets easier when you decide you dislike so many kinds of them so much that you have no qualms about stuffing them into deteriorating situations.

"The Poor" get the most attention when in actuality the working class faces the most immediate threat. Outright poor people have programs to help them with various needs like housing, food, heating fuel and health care. These programs are constantly under threat, but they have managed to remain in place. Meanwhile, people not far above the poverty line get no help and have no buffer to keep them from disaster. Even people in middle income brackets can be destroyed so swiftly, particularly by medical expenses, that they crash down to make a crater underneath the safety net without even slowing down for a brief instant of eligibility. Dead men take no dole.

To the bean counters it doesn't matter who gets destroyed. Life is cheap. People make more people with very little prompting. Some who get crushed may be charming, entertaining and even useful, but they can all be replaced. Then again, why bother? Every death just leaves more for the rest of us.

Kind of makes you wonder whether the sacrifices of World War II were worth it. We bought a few decades, but corporate fascism has an apparently unbreakable grip on our government and our own citizens seem more interested in hating each other than in seeking a better human condition.

People of limited financial means facing a medical crisis have to decide what sort of life they'll have left after the expenses of fighting a serious illness. We make heroes of cancer survivors, but they are forever stigmatized by the medical insurance industry and enslaved to the pharmaceutical industry for whatever drugs they might need to sustain life after the drastic damage inflicted by cancer treatment. I know this because friends who are fighting cancer right now are telling me about their experiences.

In the end, whenever that comes, you want to feel that life has been worthwhile. This gets a lot harder when you realize that all human endeavor is just the diversions of a completely useless species. All we do is argue, fuck and fight. I believe that convincing people to ease up a little would be the most worthwhile achievement in history. So far it has also been the most futile. Even people you'd think would agree will suddenly spout some aggressive rhetoric perpetuating the cycle of punch and counter punch, bullshit without end, amen.

Maybe the horrible winter is making the mental climate worse. It's very hard to get regular exercise, which an aging body needs far more desperately than a young one does. And the growing roll call of cancer patients in the area reminds us that the Big C doesn't care who you are or whether you take good care of yourself. I don't care what they say about early detection and improvements in treatment. In the slow collapse of industrial civilization it's just one more thing you hope never happens to you. If it does, you're doomed to massively uncomfortable treatments that will probably just make the end of your life agonizing. Or you can go without the treatments and just have the end of your life be agonizing.

Isn't this depressing? It isn't great at all, is it?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Music and drugs

Throughout the 20th Century, especially from the Jazz Age onwards, musicians were increasingly associated with drug use. It certainly wasn't all of them, but no one was ever surprised to learn that this one or that one was using something, whether it was alcohol or something more exotic. Little has been said, however about the addictive nature of music itself.

My music fixation has led me to consider that very subject and to do ten minutes of exhaustive research. My first and last stop was Helpguide.org, whose Google snippet showed that it might contain the kind of checklist of warning signs of drug abuse that I was looking for.

This opening statement hit on critical similarities immediately:

"Some people are able to use recreational or prescription drugs without ever experiencing negative consequences or addiction. For many others, substance use can cause problems at work, home, school, and in relationships, leaving you feeling isolated, helpless, or ashamed."

Substitute music for drugs and you get this:

Some people are able to use recreational or instructional music without ever experiencing negative consequences or addiction. For many others, music use can cause problems at work, home, school, and in relationships, leaving you feeling isolated, helpless, or ashamed.

Helpless! Isolated! Ashamed! That sounds like me after a tough recital or String Band session. The others take off. Helplessly I flounder after them. I feel isolated as the worst excuse for a musician in the place. I'm ashamed that I did not practice more, and that I present myself as any kind of a musician whatsoever. I swear I'm going to quit. But do I? No. Within HOURS I'm "practicing" again.

The same site offers this list of signs and symptoms of drug abuse:

Common signs and symptoms of drug abuse

  • You’re neglecting your responsibilities at school, work, or home (e.g. flunking classes, skipping work, neglecting your children) because of your drug use.
  • You’re using drugs under dangerous conditions or taking risks while high, such as driving while on drugs, using dirty needles, or having unprotected sex.
  • Your drug use is getting you into legal trouble, such as arrests for disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, or stealing to support a drug habit. 
  • Your drug use is causing problems in your relationships, such as fights with your partner or family members, an unhappy boss, or the loss of old friends.

Common signs and symptoms of drug addiction

  • You’ve built up a drug tolerance. You need to use more of the drug to experience the same effects you used to attain with smaller amounts.
  • You take drugs to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms. If you go too long without drugs, you experience symptoms such as nausea, restlessness, insomnia, depression, sweating, shaking, and anxiety.
  • You’ve lost control over your drug use. You often do drugs or use more than you planned, even though you told yourself you wouldn’t. You may want to stop using, but you feel powerless.
  • Your life revolves around drug use. You spend a lot of time using and thinking about drugs, figuring out how to get them, and recovering from the drug’s effects.
  • You’ve abandoned activities you used to enjoy, such as hobbies, sports, and socializing, because of your drug use.
  • You continue to use drugs, despite knowing it’s hurting you. It’s causing major problems in your life—blackouts, infections, mood swings, depression, paranoia—but you use anyway. 
Again substituting music for drugs the parallels are disturbing:

Common signs and symptoms of music abuse

  • You’re neglecting your responsibilities at school, work, or home because of your music use. Or how about dragging in even later than usual the morning after your weekly String Band session and spending most of the day listening to the tunes you're trying to learn, collected on your MP3 player?
  • You’re playing music under dangerous conditions or taking risks while high on it, such as driving while plinking on a dulcimer you just bought because it looked easy to learn, using strings you should have changed long ago, or having unprotected sex.Wait. What? Maybe if I was a better musician I could use it to get laid, but not at this point!
  • Your music is getting you into legal trouble, such as arrests for disturbing the peace, driving under a frigging dulcimer, or stealing to support an instrument collecting habit. 
  • Your music use is causing problems in your relationships, such as fights with your partner or family members, an unhappy boss, or the loss of old friends.These mostly take the form of WOULD YOU FOR GOD'S SAKE STOP PLAYING THAT THING FOR A WHILE?!?! Or maybe you feel you have to hide your practicing so they won't all get together and stage an intervention.

Common signs and symptoms of music addiction

  • You’ve built up a music tolerance. You need to play longer to experience the same effects you used to attain with smaller amounts.
  • You play music to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms. If you go too long without playing, you experience symptoms such as  restlessness, depression, sweating, shaking, and anxiety because you know you're forgetting everything you've worked so hard to try to learn.
  • You’ve lost control over your music. You often play for much longer than you planned, even though you told yourself you wouldn’t. You may want to stop playing, but you feel powerless.
  • Your life revolves around jamming. You spend a lot of time using and thinking about music, figuring out how to get more sheet music or learn more tunes, and recovering from the effects of hours of practicing. These vary depending on the instrument and the method of playing it.
  • You’ve abandoned activities you used to enjoy, such as hobbies, sports, and socializing, because of your music.
  • You continue to use music, despite knowing it’s hurting you. It’s causing major problems in your life—mood swings (Yes! I nailed that! Oh no, I totally suck at this!), depression (No, I just totally suck at this and always will), paranoia (Everybody wishes I would quit showing up but they're too nice to say so.)—but you play anyway.

 I would worry about myself but I have to practice as soon as my wife leaves. Other people may have problems with music, but not me. I can handle it.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The struggle for existence

If I had known that winter was going to die out in my lifetime, I would not have wasted all that time learning to ski. My life would have been very different. Chaos being chaos, once you change one thing you change a myriad of things. Multiple universes beckon in every fraction of a direction.

In the world we know, many of us invested time and energy in the continued existence of winter. The lack of it is going to cause a great deal of inconvenience for everyone, whether they choose to believe it or not.

In one small sport shop in one small town in one small state on one small patch of the Earth's surface occupied by the self-styled greatest nation on the planet, we struggle to survive. Our biggest adversaries are the weather and the economy. Their allies are other activities we do not service and the human tendency toward sloth.

We can't do much about the weather because too many people don't agree that we were capable of damaging the global climate in the first place. We can't do much about the economy because it is controlled by madmen with self-serving theories about who should prosper and how that is accomplished.

The attack on 9-11-01 was a blow, but the nation's response was more damaging. This was part of Osama bin Laden's plan: he knew that the powerful emotional response, coupled with our diverse philosophies, added to our technological ability to over-react would create massively destructive tension in our tenuously joined society.

The economy is bad, but it is made worse by the Republican immune system's response to Democrats. In the coming election we can either elect a Republican president who will join the misguided right wing of Congress to  strengthen the grip of oligarchy on our society or we can re-elect the Democrat and face four more years of destructive opposition from the Republicans as they try to make the economy such a mess for the average citizen that we will vote for whatever platitude-spouting orator they put forward in 2016 to promise to fix it.

Elections are no longer about leading this country to greatness or even goodness. They're about picking someone to lie to you for a few years until you have to pick a replacement knave or fool to occupy your television screen while unseen minions have their way with the nation's finances.