Monday, January 28, 2013

The Master Meme

     The gentlemen and ladies of the meme-o-sphere, where collective notions are birthed like sleet from clouds, have decided lately that the USA has entered a full-on broad-based bull market - a condition of general happiness and prosperity as far advanced beyond mere "recovery" as a wedge of triple-cream Saint-Andre cheese is advanced over a Cheez Doodle. It has become the master fantasy of the moment, following the birth of some junior memes such as... we have a hundred years of shale gas and the "housing sector" (i.e. the suburban sprawl-building industry) is "bouncing back." What a sad-sack nation of credulous twits we have become.

     You can be sure that when a nation is led by the reality-deficient, unhappy outcomes are a sure thing. They will systematically destroy trust in the way things actually work and beat a fast path to either tyranny (where reality doesn't matter) or anarchy (where reality cannot be managed at all). This is what happens when nations go mad. Even when they are led by people later-determined to be "evil" (Hitler, Lenin) this sad process is allowed to happen because it just seems like a good idea at the time - which is the central political tragedy of human history. To the beaten-down Russians, Bolshevism seemed like a good-idea at the time. To the bankrupt, hopeless Germans, Naziism seemed like a good idea.

     I'm not even sure what to call the current disposition of unreality in the USA, though it is clearly tinged with different colors of grandiosity ranging from the plain dopey idea of "American exceptionalism" to the wishful claim that we're about to become "energy independent," to the lame assertion so popular in presidential addresses that "together we can do anything." Speaking of the inaugural, in all the Second-Coming-of-Lincoln-Meets-MLK hoopla of the grand day, with the national mall lined by gigantic flat screen TVs (an Orwellian nightmare), and the heartwarming displays of ethnic diversity, and the stridently inoffensive songs and poem, there was the genial Mr. Obama at the epicenter of the huge ceremony delivering a bouquet of platitudes so stale and trite that it could have been composed in a first-year Harvard Law School ethics skull session at a back table of Wagamama. Despite all the blather about his graying hair, and the wisdom of age, and the supposed music of his rhetoric, I couldn't detect a single idea in Mr. Obama's inaugural address that wasn't either self-evident, or devised to flatter some "identity" bloc, or an imitation of old tropes out of the "Great Speeches" book.

     What's obvious to me is what I have been fearing about this country for some time now: that all the disorders of our time would prompt a campaign to defend the status quo at all costs and to sustain the unsustainable. That is really the master wish behind all the political hijinks of the day, especially the pervasive accounting fraud in all high-order money matters. We see the comforts and conveniences of modernity slipping away and we'll do anything to try to hang onto them, including lying to ourselves to such an immersive degree about what is really happening that we suppose we can manufacture a happy counter-reality. That's at the heart of zero interest rate policies, and Federal Reserve manipulation of markets, and statistical misreporting from all the national agencies charged with adding things up. So, the Fed pumps its $90 billion-a-month and the Standard & Poor's index inflates like an old tire while ten thousand more families get added to the food stamp rolls, and the banks sit on enough foreclosed property to fill the state of Indiana, and another 25-year-old college loan debt serf ODs on vodka and Xanax because he finally understands that even bankruptcy will not save him from perpetual penury.

     Apparently, there are moments in history when nations just get lost. I maintain that things would go a whole lot better for us if we acknowledge what is actually going on, namely: a major shift of direction into economic contraction after 200-plus thrilling years of expanding energy resources and easy-to-get material riches. It's in the nature of this world that things cycle and pulse, and we have entered a certain phase of the cycle that demands certain responses. We have to make the scale of human activities smaller, finer, simpler, and more rooted to the local particulars of place. We have to let go of WalMart and globalism and driving cars incessantly and attempting to manage the affairs of people half a world a way... and we just can't imagine engaging with this endeavor. That is true poverty of imagination.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Up in Durant OK...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Commitments and Obligations

     Conservatives have a legitimate gripe about America's excessive "commitments and obligations" to "unfunded liabilities" but their focus on Medicare and social security misses the larger point: our disastrous commitment to the current national lifestyle, in particular suburban sprawl and everything it entails.
     This point came across vividly in a video recently released by the usually level-headed David McAlvaney titled "The Fuse Is Lit Part 3 - an American Reckoning." In it, the smooth and articulate McAlvaney is shown behind the wheel of his SUV tooling across the picturesque small town in Colorado where he lives inveighing against the public that elects politicians who deliver the voters cash benefits. This dynamic is surely deadly, and implies Democracy's tragic self-limiting nature. But McAlvaney suggests if we could come to grips with the fiscal quandary of "entitlement" spending, American life would just rock on. 
     This is plainly not so, but it also reveals the tragic shortsightedness of even thoughtful conservatives - and there are some out there, indeed we need them, indeed one of the political tragedies of recent American history is the surrender of conservatism to religious hysterics, professional ignoramuses, military chauvinists, and flat-earthers. A true conservative would recognize the land development pattern of the millennial USA as a consequence of tragic collective choices, a living arrangement with no future, a trap every bit as lethal as Medicare and social security.
     The catch is, we're not going to unbuild suburbia and all its accessories. There's no way to legislate it away. We're stuck with it. The suburban entitlement will fail even more dramatically than the social entitlements that conservatives grouse about because there's no way to "print" cheap oil or well-paid livelihoods the way you can monetize public debt to support social spending. You can "print" mortgages, of course, for people with little chance of paying them down, but that only leads to the financial hostage racket called too-big-to-fail banking, and we know where that's gotten us.
      Around the Internet, in the vale of financial podcasting, you can hear voices cheerleading the "return" of the house-building industry. Is it a good thing that real estate speculators are banging up yet more housing subdivisions in the hills around San Diego? I can tell you why they are doing it: because that is the only way they know how to build anything in California. They're stuck in the habits and practices of the 20th century, building more car dependent stuff for a society that is already dying a slow death from living that way.
     In the collapse of all these rackets, bad habits, and brain-dead behaviors that is sure to come, historians will have a hard time sorting out what exactly brought down the empire. The big element that will not be so visible is the poverty of imagination that set the tone for it - especially among public figures and spokespeople who should have seen and articulated these relationships, and extra-especially among self-proclaimed conservatives.
     This happens to be the day when the articulator-in-chief gets his official new lease in office. Genial figure that he is, I don't think President Obama has a clue where all this is heading. I suppose he'll argue for stricter gun laws today, but that horse is already so far out of the barn it's in the next county. We don't seem to realize that America is now fully armed. Additional firearms are just superfluous at this point. And to some degree the people armed themselves in direct consequence as their government tinkered with due process, and sent drone aircraft into the American skies, and commenced computer hacking operations over every business transaction in the system, and voided the rule-of-law against criminal uber-bankers who creamed off the nation's wealth while holding the economy hostage. Since the armed public is not ready to mount an insurrection against this impudence, the dangerous tension is expressed in morbid and tragic episodes of mass shootings by maniacs against the innocent. What I want to know: where is the lone swindled rancher who waits to bushwhack Jon Corzine of MF Global in the parking lots of Easthampton, since the law won't touch him?
     I suppose we'll hear about immigration reform today. It will surely be some cockamamie proposal to legitimize the "undocumented" by shanghaiing them into the military (think: mercenaries), and otherwise keeping the welcome mat down for more newcomers waiting politely at the front door. This is insane, of course. The USA needs to reduce its population consistent with the tremendous economic contraction underway world-wide. There are too many people for the world to support and shifting them into this country from regions more rapidly affected by contraction is just dumb -- but we have our cultural myths to defend... and voting blocs to appease.
     It seems obvious to me that in the, say, four years ahead (one presidential term), we will not come to grips with any of the forces of reality bearing down on us. We will lose control of the money system; we'll go broke trying to keep up our oil supplies; the American public will get more economically desperate and angry; and pretty soon the practical matters of daily life will become rather harsh. And at that point faith in the system finally evaporates and people fight over the table scraps of a failed polity.
     Many of us around the country are hoping for a better outcome in the successful downscaling and re-localizing of American life, but those questions are just not in the arena. Hence, the arena itself will probably have to topple and crash before life is reorganized outside of where it used to stand.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Going To the Movies

I don't go to the movies much anymore, alas, because the nearest mall cineplex -- owned by a company named Regal that runs the place like a self-storage facility -- is a dump with broken seats and teenage employees who forget to turn out the lights when the movie starts. But the weekend weather here was sloppy, and this is the movie awards season, and I wanted to get an idea of what Hollywood thinks America is about these days, so I hauled my carcass over to see Django Unchained andZero Dark Thirty, in that order.
     Years ago I rather admired Tarantino's Pulp Fiction for its rococo storytelling method and comic expansiveness. The sheer volume of gore and mayhem strained my suspension of disbelief, but I was charmed by the audacity -- for instance the scene where a character played by Quentin himself repeats to the two hit men with a dead body that he's not in the business of "dead nigger storage," which was in there, I'm sure, just to rub a lot of sanctimonious minds the wrong way.
     Django Unchained is something else: perhaps the most incoherent movie ever made, but in a way that nicely represents the culture that it comes out of. For the uninitiated, the movie tells the tale of a slave named  Django ("the D is silent," actor Jamie Foxx informs another character) rescued from a slave coffle by a German bounty hunter named Schultz posing as an itinerant dentist. Together they ride forth to slaughter white people involved in the slavery business to 1) make a lot of money off bounties, 2) free Django's captive wife Broomhilda, and 3) enjoy many acts of bloody revenge.
     What you notice right away is that the filmmaker has no sense of American history or geography. One moment you're in the Sonoran Desert, the next moment the Montana Rockies. Huh? Of course the line on Tarantino by film savants is that hisweltanschauung is a gleeful composition of movie history pastiche. That is, his ideas come only from other movies (or television), not from the so-called real world and the record of goings-on there. So in this case they are derived from previous movies made by earlier auteurs who got the details wrong about mid-19th century life. That may be so, but the difference is that the earlier movie directors, however mis-educated or befuddled by convention, might have cared about the milieu they attempted to represent. Tarantino is content to be wildly wrong about just about everything. Or rather, the details don't matter as long as the fantasy satisfies portions of the brain where ideas are not processed.
     What interests me about all this is how perfectly Tarantino's mental universe reflects the current situation in our nation, in particular the infantile disregard for the facts of life, the self-referential inanity of our culture, and the complete absence of authenticity in anything. What disturbed me about the movie was the sense that Tarantino has set the table for race war, like a jolly arsonist playing with matches and gasoline in a foreclosed house. He won a Golden Globe award for directing last night.
     Zero Dark Thirty tells the tale of a CIA unit based in Pakistan and its laborious efforts to track down Osama bin Laden, perpetrator of the 9/11 airplane attacks on the USA and other misdeeds. It focuses on the doings of a female American agent, uncelebrated in the annals of this long, strange "War on Terror," who pored over the minutiae of cell phone records for a decade before locating the messenger who led CIA watchers to bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, where Navy SEALs finally sent him to his eternal reward of feasts and virgins.
     The movie, directed by Kathryn Bigalow, is a bloodless recounting of some very grim and bloody business from recent history. The controversy around it comes from the extensive scenes of "extreme interrogation" carried out by American officials against captured jihadists in "dark" locations. Critics have objected to the movie's lack of a moral position about these brutal activities. Was it right? Was it wrong? The movie simply asserts that it happened that way. Some politicians have objected as to whether the depiction of all these matters is correct in the first place. Nor is the killing of bin Laden treated as an occasion for fist-pumping histrionics. If anything, the event leaves you with a hollow feeling and a bad taste for the time we live in. I admired especially - for the first time in many a movie - the absence of techno-triumphalism involving computers.
     The contrast between the two movies is extremely interesting to me: Tarantino the populist, shall we say, reveling in a splatter-film Americana with barely a tenuous connection to reality, either historical, cultural, or emotional; and the assiduous Bigalow laying out the very serious business of capable adults engaging with a world that consistently terrifies and disappoints. Kathryn Bigalow didn't win an award for directing at the Golden Globes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Along the riverfront outside of Uncertain TX...

Monday, January 07, 2013


Along Hwy 80 eastbound...

Some Sunny Day

    The story behind the "fiscal cliff" melodrama and the much-memed handwringing about the "good-for-nothing congress" is probably not quite what it appears -- a set of problems that will eventually be overcome by "better leadership" armed with "solutions." The story is really about the permanent disabling of government at this scale and at this level of complexity. In other words, the federal government will never solve its obvious problems of mismanagement and bankruptcy and is now only in business to pretend that it can discharge its obligations (while employees enjoy the perqs). It's just another form of show business.
     The same can be said of most of the state governments, too, of course, except that they have a lower capacity to pretend they can take care of anything. They can and will go bankrupt, and then they'll go begging to the federal government to bail them out, which the federal government will pretend to do with pretend money. By then, though, the practical arrangements of daily life would probably be so askew that politics would take a new, darker, and more extreme turn --among other things, in the direction of secession and breakup.
     The wonder of it all is that there hasn't been civil disorder yet. When I go into the supermarket, I marvel at the price of things: a single onion for a dollar, four bucks for a jar of jam, five bucks for a box of Cheerios, four bucks for a wedge of cheese. Is everybody except Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, and Mark Zuckerberg living on store-brand macaroni and ketchup? It's hard to measure the desperation of households in this culture of rugged individualism. At social gatherings friends rarely tell you that they are two months behind in their mortgage payment and maxed out on their credit cards. And that's the supposed middle class, at least the remnants of it. I can't tell you what the tattoo-and-falling-down-pants crowd talks about in the parking lot outside the 7-Eleven store. Perhaps they swap meth recipes.
     Civil disorder would at least mean something, a consensus of dissatisfaction about how life is lived. Instead, we only get mad outbursts of tragic meaninglessness: the slaughter of innocent children in school, or movie theater patrons mowed down by a lone maniac during the coming attractions. Life imitates art, as Oscar Wilde said, and these days television is our art. Hence the United States is now equal parts Jersey Shore, Buck Wild, the Kardashians, and Honey Boo Boo. That's not really a lot to work with in terms of social capital, especially where radical politics might be called for. 
     Does anybody now breathing even remember radical politics? Whether you liked them or not -- and I was not crazy about the whole "revolution" of the late 1960s, which I lived through -- it at least represented a level of seriousness that is now absolutely and starkly absent today, especially in young people. Who, in the West, besides Julian Assange, has stuck his neck out in the past ten years? And please don't tell me Ron Paul, who had ample opportunity in congressional hearings over the years to really call out the banksters and their government wankster errand boys, and all he ever did was nip around their trouser legs.
     So I stick to the point I made in The Long Emergency and again in Too Much Magic: expect America's national and state governments to only become more ineffectual and impotent. They will never recover from the insults inflicted on themselves. Events are in the drivers seat, including things unseen, and the people pretending to be in charge have arranged things into such a state of fragility that accidents are sure to happen, especially involving the basic structures of money. In case you don't know it yet, you're on your own now. Put whatever energy you can muster into finding a community to be a part of.
     Meanwhile, reality stands by with mandates of its own. Do people like Barack Obama and John Boehner think we're going to re-start another round of suburban expansion (a.k.a. the housing market)? That's largely what the old economy was based on, and what Wall Street fed off of parasitically the past twenty years. That is so over. Do they believe that when absolutely every task in America is computerized there will be any gainful work outside of a sort of janitorial IT to tend all the computers. We've already seen what happens with the telephone system: after 30 years of techno-innovation in "communications," it's now impossible to get a live human being on the phone and robots call you incessantly during the dinner hour. Anyway, we don't really have the energy resources to supply the electricity for all this crap indefinitely, or probably even another twenty years.
     All the tendencies and trends in contemporary life are reaching their limits at the same time, and as they do things will crack up and fall apart, whether it involves the despotic reach of a government, or a tyrannical corporation, or a hedge fund server farm stuffed with algo-crunching computers sucking the life out of every honest market transaction until the markets are zombies. The euphoria that greeted the end of the fiscal cliff ritual has settled back into the feckless collective state-of-mind that we call "bullish." It's all noise and the madness of crowds now. And black swans shitting on your head some sunny day. 

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Continuing to work a little on Milky Way images from trip to Caddo a few weeks back, since Milky Way is nothing more than gas clouds to begin with this can be tedious...

Not to bad for a first try I don't guess, but there is way more light trash in the bottom image than I anticipated...