Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Too Much, Too Fast

I've always thought it interesting how you can see certain processes much more clearly when the action is either sped up or slowed down – as with time-lapse or “stop-action” photography. You can see things happening that you might otherwise have missed – or that would have failed to reach your threshold of perception. And every species – every life-form in fact – seems to have it's own “preferred rate of change” or rhythm – things that fall within that perceptual range are perceived, and constitute useful information, and things that don't are not, and in fact may as well not be there at all. Even within a species, there are differences; we use terms like “slow learner”, “hyperactive”, “short attention span”, etc., but to the people in question the rate at which they're dealing with the world seems “right”, and everyone else must strike them as odd – either frenetic or sluggish.

And so it is in societies, when it comes to changes in the political landscape... economics... religion... customs and habits... and so on. Each generation is able to tolerate a certain amount of change, and then the next generation takes over and proceeds to make (or experience) changes at its own pace, etc. So we can wind up with quite dramatic changes over time, but typically within any one generation the rate and type of change was at least tolerable – i.e. not overly traumatic or disorienting. But this is... um... changing – i.e. the rate of change is accelerating – due, as the conventional wisdom goes, primarily to technology, communications, and so on – technology and communications being the primary instruments of change, whereas the more traditional forces that have been aligned against change have grown weaker, or have at least been overpowered by the more “modern” media. This is, of course, not entirely bad news, if the change in question represents real progress – e.g. improvements in medical care, public health, environmental protection, etc. But change, especially of the kind Obama made into a mantra, also has a natural tendency to be aligned with dissatisfaction... with revolution and rebellion (not only against governments and systems, but against God) – and just like mutations in evolution, most changes are not for the better. They may represent something new, novel, and perhaps amusing – but in the long (or even short) run they are likely to be more destructive than constructive. And the main point, when it comes to human nature, is that accelerated change, even for the better, goes against the grain for most people – it is experienced as a stress or trauma. And even that can be tolerated if there is an occasional period of rest – but in our time even that is lacking. There is no rest for the “news-weary” -- not with a 24-7-365 news cycle and hundreds of cable channels and thousands of Internet news sites. No sooner is one new idea in place, and being implemented, than a new one comes along and the process begins all over again. The cycles are getting shorter, almost to the point where the beginning and the end seem to converge. This is fairly harmless when it comes to things like fashion, for instance – and we can view with amusement things like wildly vacillating hemlines and the like. The only thing impacted in that case is one's pocketbook, if one is foolish enough to want always to be “up to the minute”.

But politics, government, the economy, and society in general are a different matter. In those areas, there is a pitched battle on – and has been for quite a while – between the “agents of change” (as they proudly deem themselves) and the rest of us – you know, the “folks”, the stuck-in-the-muds. The latter are ever being goaded and harassed by the former, and told that change is “in”, and perfectly natural, and that skepticism is bad (and bad manners, besides). Of course, to people who have a burning desire to change the world – and, along with it, human nature – change is our only hope (Obama again). The worst thing would be to just sit back and let things stay as they are – to, for instance, tell Congress to go home and take a few years off from “law making”. That would be anathema to those who feel that some level of “continuous revolution” (Mao's term) is the only way to improve the human lot, and to achieve – finally! At long last! -- justice (or at least “fairness”). And yet smart politicians – and even smart tyrants – know that you can accomplish more in the long run by gradually turning up the heat (under the pot of water with the proverbial frog in it) than by causing, or aiding and abetting, overt and obvious strife. Violent revolutions, while they represent sudden change, are useful primarily in that they set the stage for subsequent, more gradual change. Consider, for instance, the stereotyped “banana republic” which has a revolution of some sort just like clockwork, every year or two. But nothing really changes! Yes, the people at the top do – and the uniforms might – but the standard and style of living for the average person slouches along just like always... and the more perceptive ones wonder what all the fuss was about.

Consider now the changes wrought by recent events in this country – mostly economic, but also political and social. As I said before, each generation has been given, in most cases, no more than they could handle – even though there have been notable exceptions, like the Civil War and the Depression, and – on a less traumatic level – things like the automobile, air travel, the telephone, etc. All of which give the older generation at any given time the chance to say, “Well, when I was a boy (or girl), etc.” The point is, they lived through it and survived, and if you pressed them on the point they might have to agree that, on balance, the positive changes generally balanced out the negative – although there will always be a longing for “the good old days” and “simpler times”, even when those simpler times involved things like polio, tuberculosis, cholera, etc. People do, in fact, tend to forget what was bad about the “good old days”; that's just human nature. I grew up in a town where dogs ran loose and where the brook running through the center of town was an open sewer... but I doubt if one in a hundred of the old timers remembers that. They are much more likely to think about the stores on Main Street (now mostly gone, courtesy of Wal-Mart), and the soda fountain, and the parades and carnivals (which still go on, at least). The past acquires a kind of golden (or sepia) glow, like a scene out of “It's a Wonderful Life” -- with all of the drudgery and hardship somehow photoshopped out. And yes, there were “welfare families” then, but there are welfare families now too... and cancer hasn't yet been “conquered”... and cars were much more fun back then, but less reliable (and “gas guzzlers” as well). And there was still an aura of romance about air travel (can you imagine?). And passenger trains were still a meaningful sector of the economy (ditto). But now we have the Interstates, and gigantic cruise ships, and Disney World, and... well, you get my point.

And I'm going to claim that, even back then, many of the changes that ordinary people experienced were administered from on high. It was the work of master manipulators and propagandists, for example, that got us into the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the two World Wars, and the war in Vietnam. And how did we come to give up so much locally-grown food in favor of canned or frozen goods shipped from half a continent away? And why did we trade in so many finely-made pieces of craftsmanship for things made of plastic and particle board? And why were home remedies suppressed in favor of the dictates of allopathic medicine? And why, for that matter, did small-town women feel a need to discard their cotton-print dresses and sensible shoes in favor of imitations of the stuff coming out of Paris, Milan, and New York? (After all, they weren't going anywhere that would require them to actually wear those things – sadly, perhaps.) And at what point did the middle class acquire upper-class pretentions (AKA “etiquette”) and the lower class acquire middle class pretentions (Martha Stewart and her ilk)? Why were the small-town opera houses torn down and replaced by radio, TV, and movies? Why did, in other words, the residents of certain well-defined, tangible places become “citizens of the world” (and thus of nowhere)? So yes, there is a natural desire for change – for “evolution” -- and it is easily manipulated and exploited by those in power (or by those who want to be). 'Twas ever thus.

But, as I said, the “smart” leader, or ruler, or dictator, or government, or regime, knows when to cool it – when to put the brakes on and assure people that, indeed, all is not lost – i.e. not all that they value (even if they are despised for valuing it). The “agents of change” may laugh at what my father called “flag-waving patriots” but they are not about to take the flags away, or prohibit their use. This is only good strategy – cynical and manipulative perhaps – but good in its way. What we seem to have now, however, is a different animal, and a different philosophy – the agents of change have let out all the stops in the political and social realms, and the Money Power has apparently decided that it's time to cash in and liquidate the middle class, once and for all. And we are expected to welcome all of this (if political and social), or at least put up with it with an attitude of serf-like resignation (if economic). The Regime has, in other words, laid its cards on the table. Our hallowed “right to vote” is now seen, more and more, as meaningless – and no one even tries to argue. The candidates of the major parties are “faces”, and nothing more – chosen in smoke-filled rooms, based solely on their willingness to follow orders. Congress has been reduced to a gaggle of cup-bearers and spittoon-emptiers. The curtain has been torn away, and the man behind it is... well, not a man at all, but a Thing – the Money Power, the Regime, the ruling elite, whatever you want to call it. And they no longer fear exposure, because they have decided – and rightly so, by and large – that the citizenry are too beaten down, too fatigued, too much in despair to care, or to react in any significant way. So yesterday's gradualism has turned into today's monster bursting out of the birthday cake – but we are too powerless to resist (or so they believe). And I suppose that you can hardly blame them, when they see what the American public (and the public in many other places in the world) has put up with so far, with barely a whimper. Whether it's taxes, or social legislation, or the decadent media, or economic pillage – things have gotten to the point where, with just a few minor adjustments here and there, the job can be called complete. But as we all know from experience, it's always that last one or two percent that's the hardest to deal with, and so some “push back” has begun, and the Regime is, I'm sure, at least a bit startled. They were expecting a cake walk – you know, like the one we were supposed to enjoy when we invaded Iraq. But guess what, there are pockets of resistance, and from some unexpected quarters at that. And I'm not talking about the paleocons or the libertarians, who have been dissatisfied for many generations now; I'm talking about “Main Street America”, that – if not exactly up in arms – has started to wake up to the fact that they, and their way of life, are considered expendable. This is exemplified, most noticeably, by the “tea party” movement... which is, as I've said before, more than likely too little, too late. I mean, you can't turn the bourgeoisie into a band of revolutionaries overnight – or in any amount of time, for that matter. But the fact that it's happening at all is noteworthy, and judging by the way it's freaking out the media and the other servants of the Regime, it clearly has them genuinely upset (and I don't think they're just pretending). And this is because, as much as they rely on raw power and intimidation, there is still the residual notion that pulling off a master con job is much more elegant – that it's better to let people dig their own graves based on ideas and delusions than to apply brute force. After all, even the most abject dictators in history didn't rely entirely on violence – there was always a considerable dose of propaganda, designed to change “hearts and minds”. It just makes the job easier. I mean, if Hitler, Stalin, and Mao thought it was necessary why should governments in our time think any different? The old totalitarian ideal of an enslaved public marching in lock-step, dressed in gray uniforms, through the driving snow – that does have its appeal and is an important part of what I'll call “totalitarian iconography” (both pro and con) --- but when it comes down to cases, there is still the nub of a carrot, even when the stick is extremely large. And look at how our own politicians – up to and including the president – scatter to the four winds at the slightest provocation, making excuses for Wall Street and the international financial cartel, and for our foreign policy, and drumming up support for the latest (and there is a new one every day) collectivist scheme. Yes, the people have no choice... and yes, whatever is done will be imposed on us, with stiff penalties for resistance – but there is still that perceived need to convince. And I don't even know whether this is a good or a bad thing. At least there is a cold, clear honesty about plain brute force, but this endless stream of propaganda and BS is wearying in the extreme. I have to say, the most honest agency in the government these days is probably the IRS; they make no bones about it, and don't try to be “nice” -- it's just, pay up or else. At least with them you know where you stand (or lie, more likely). And it's odd living in a police state where the police are the least of our worries – where persons unseen and unknown can do anything they want with your bank account (and your bank) any time they please. We have, truly, moved from a military/police model of tyranny to an economic one (with the social meddling thrown in for good measure). But that, again, is – or was, up until recently – a measure of the cleverness and wile of our rulers. Economic things are more abstract, more difficult to gauge, until the bottom line hits you in the face – and then it's too late. Dictatorships of old, with a guy holding a machine gun standing on every corner – that was too obvious, too primitive. What we have now is a much more refined version – but the ultimate effect is the same, i.e. the total subjugation of the individual to the whims and purposes of the state, or of its rulers and controllers.

At this point, I'm going to inject a brief discussion of terminology, which might also contain some insights. Many of the protesters of our time (tea partiers and others) style themselves “revolutionaries”. There was the “Ron Paul Revolution”, for example. And granted, what they are doing _feels_ like a revolution, since what they are protesting is a system that has been in place for a lifetime. But the truth is, their uprising (non-bloody so far, and unlikely to change) can be better characterized as a counter-revolution. This is because what they are “rebelling” against is itself a revolution – albeit a “revolution within the form”, as it has been put. It has often been pointed out that if the Founding Fathers were to come back to life and walk the earth today, they would not recognize the United States as being the country that they founded; in fact, they would get violently ill. This is perfectly true, even though the technical, formal structure of the country as laid out in the Constitution has not changed – hence the term “revolution within the form”. What has changed, of course, is the scope as well as the intentions and agenda of government – rather than enforcing a minimum of laws designed to protect basic rights, it has now charged itself with making every human activity subject to legal sanctions, for good or ill. But this has been done within the basic structural matrix laid out in the Constitution – which may say more about human nature than about any innate flaws in that document. But the fact remains that the real revolution against the intent of the Founders started at least as far back as the Civil War, and was greatly accelerated by the New Deal (itself a lifetime ago) – but by the practice, in most cases, of gradualism, the ruling elite managed to convince the citizenry, with each new abomination, that it was, in fact, perfectly consistent with the intentions of the Founding Fathers – and was, in fact, what they would have wanted (if they had witnessed the changes the world has gone through since 1776, etc.). So what feels to us like a revolution is, in fact, a claim that somewhere along the way we digressed from what should have been our proper path – and the right thing to do now is to return to that fork in the road, and this time take the “road less taken”, i.e. the one that preserves liberty and human freedom and self-respect. The establishment of our time, of course, takes this as revolution – as rebellion, sedition, treason! -- but they are so transparently protecting their own interests and their power structure that we can safely ignore them, knowing that they do not act according to any known set or principles other than the most self-serving.

Now, as I said, in our time things are happening too fast for people not to take notice – hence things like the tea party movement and “talk radio” (which is overwhelmingly conservative, i.e. just the opposite of “talk TV”). And one could say that the Regime has slipped up – that by going too far, too fast, it has over-exposed itself and its agenda. I don't think that's true, because I don't think anything is going to come of the “tea parties” and suchlike. Oh, they may swing a few elections here and there... but as we all know, no one who has not been vetted by the Regime has any chance of attaining a position with any real power. So the “tea parties” may, in fact, be both the first and last gasp of the dying middle class. And yet it's noteworthy in that, even though the government has not trusted the people for a very long time, what we now have is a substantial portion of the citizenry coming right out and saying they don't trust the government. People have finally awakened to the fact that there is, in fact, a ruling elite, and that they aren't part of it... and that its ways are not their ways... and that it, in fact, cares not a whit for their well-being or for their opinions. This, again, is not unlike the last words of a dying gunfighter in a “B” western – when he realizes his most trusted partner has turned against him. “Bill, you mean you... you... (gasp, gurgle, head rolls to the side).” The end. Roll the credits! It is, in short, a key and defining moment in our history – and maybe the end of it, i.e. the end of the United States as a democracy even vaguely worthy of the name. But wouldn't it be worse if no one saw, and no one raised a voice in protest?

No comments: