Is War On The Horizon?

Hindsight is, as the saying goes, 20/20.  We find it amazing that the cataclysmic world events of the past were a surprise to anyone because, of course, what was about to happen was obvious to anyone with eyes and ears.

This said, I have lately begun to wonder whether we are wandering into a catastrophic period of international warfare.

The worldwide immigration/refugee crisis is generally treated as a stand-alone issue, and we sometimes fail to remember that tens of millions of people around the globe are now afoot in order to escape the armed violence that has forced them to flee. Europe is dealing with theaftershocks of warfare in Syria and Libya that has shattered the entire region and is still each minute killing and maiming many. The United States is seeing refugees fleeing the breakdown of civic order in Central and South America.  Africa is dealing with never ending civil wars in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, and The Philippines has been fighting insurgents and drug gangs for many years.  In China and Myanmar, religious and ethnic minorities are dealing with horrific persecution because their beliefs and cultures are seen as a threat by their own governments.

And let us not forget the saber rattling and economic jousting now taking place between the U.S. and three long term and implacable competitors/enemies: China, Russia, and North Korea.  The potential for conflict with each on its own is enough to cause a sleepless night or two.

To blame Donald Trump for the rise in world tensions is like blaming your umbrella for a rainy daythe cause and effect is flipped the wrong way.  These regional and international problems existed long before he came on the scene, and it may not be all that bad that he has, as is his habit, blithely torn off the scabs of so many festering wounds.  The veneer of calm that hid so many major issues from public view while we obliviously argued about mindless marginalia was probably not to our benefit.  Ignoring Chinese industrial espionage or North Korean nuclear weapons tests did nothing to enhance Americas long term security, but we apparently felt a lot better about ourselves when Michelle Obama was mom dancing with Jimmy Fallon on late night television, our children routinely received a shiny trophy for the dull distinction of being the least uneducated child in their school, and Facebook was still that sweet and innocent place where we posted photos of our dog wearing a Santa hat.

The anxiety that the sudden realization we occupy a dangerous and disturbing world has induced is remarkable, and the rapid policy shifts around the world as powerful nations have mobilized to defend their borders and national interests have given many a case of the heebie-jeebies.  This is understandable.  Ignorance can be bliss, and being forced to now deal with the reality that cut-throat competition is sometimes necessary to win a fight is both frightening and astonishing to those who thought every problem on our planet could be solved with a harmony circle.  The coarsening of our national and international political dialogue is both unfortunate and necessary. A winner-take-all world is by definition going to be just a tad short on pretty please and thank you.

Although old school bullets, bombs, and bayonets still inflict much of the daily misery of war, the amazing hi-tech weaponry available now makes armed conflict much more likely because a first strike can be decisiveand nuclear weapons need not be involved.  Sinking an enemy aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic rail gun, disabling a regional power grid with a graphite bomb, or shutting down a nations entire communications network with a satellite attack can end a battle before it begins, and the hardware and techniques of mass destruction that are still unknown to the general public are likely more devious and devastating than we can possibly imagine.

Nations occasionally fight wars to defend great principles, but most conflict is motivated by money, self-defenseor the defense of money. Right now most major nations are jostling for position in a world of rapid economic change, scarcities of vital resources, population pressures, and fears of being overwhelmed by aggressors who see benefit for themselves in the weaknesses of others.  America, Russia, and China are each seeking regional domination, market access to drive economic expansion at the expense of one anotherand are all hanging the threat of military action over the course many supposedly civil discussions.

The trade wars of history have typically led to the shooting wars that allowed nations to dominate.  The rise of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and up to the First World War was, for example, built upon a trading empire backed by cannon fire.  The American Centurywas created by industrial might that produced both Buick sedans and B-52 bombers in abundance.  The ancient kingdoms of China garnered unimaginable wealth and power at the point of a sword and maintained their riches through terror and torture.  To presume the world has magically outgrown brute force as an instrument of state policy is the most delusional and dangerous sort of wishful thinking.

I am not a war monger, and I hope that an all-out shooting war involving two or more of the worlds great or near-great powers is further away than it seems at the moment.  However, it could be the case that greed and stupidity will once again be more in evidence than reason and common purpose.  If this occursfor not the first time in the bloody span of human historywe will see the fabric and function of our daily lives undergo a stark and fundamental shift that will continue long after the peace treaties are signed.  Nations at war rarely emerge unscathed or unchanged.

Advertisements

Is Technology The New Creativity?

I am of two minds about living in America today.  Setting aside any discussion of politicswhich I am glad to do for the momentI find that I cannot escape my belief that our popular and fine arts and entertainment are, by and large, horrifically bad and stupendously boring.  However, this shortcoming is more than made up for by the near-magical world of technological innovation we live in today.  Although we clearly have our problemsevery age doesI can firmly assert that I do not wish to live at any time other than now.  Our daily cultural life may be a wasteland, but our work and play are made immeasurably better by the incredible creativity in technology that has relegated most fine arts and popular entertainment to a purely secondary role in early 21st century American life.

A while back I was appalled to discover that a total of sixSharknadomovies have been made.  I cannot believe we actually needed even the first, but this odd phenomenon brings a stark fact of the universe of popular entertainment into sharp focus: New ideas are typically few and far between.

There are, of course, many reasons that endless iterations of so many idiotic ideas plague our modernity.  One is that investors and entertainment companies are desperate for a sure thing, so they reason that if Sharknado 3 made money, there is some likelihood that Sharknado 4 will as welland, for reasons that surpass understanding, they often do.  By the same token, the business executives who green light this kind of falderal presume that a flop will be more easily excused by their bosses if it can be presented as a wise decisionone derived from a sensible expectation based upon prior successesthat for reasons beyond their control simply failed this one time.  Money in the arts and entertainment tends to chase conservative investments, and gambling with the cash provided by your corporate overlords is not a prescription for a long career in this business.

Consequently, artists and entertainers who long ago lost their edge are recycled beyond the point when they have any work truly worthy of our consideration.  Even if the caviar of their early career has now degenerated into stale corn flakes, it has some intrinsic worth as a known brandthat can still make a buck off name recognition and former notoriety.  This explains why the late work of Pablo Picasso, which basically was terrible and derivative, continued to sell well and the tours of aging rockers still command premium prices despite the suspicion that their current artistry owes much to the wonders of lip syncing and hip replacement surgeries.  We know what to expect and fill in the blank spots from our own memoriesand so the illusion survives.

We are, in addition, now besieged by recycled drivel simply because there are so many more media outlets in need of contentany contentto fill in the spaces between infomercials.  Cheap and disposable entertainmentcontrived and packaged to present the best possible platform for advertisements or to encourage streaming subscriptionsrules a great deal of the entertainment world today simply because there are twenty-four hours and seven days in a week that must be programmed.  No one plays the National Anthem and turns off their transmitter at midnight anymore because dead air is anathema in a culture where constant stimulation is the norm—and necessity.

However, as much as the traditional forms of creativity—music, sculpture, poetry, theater, dance, etc.—seem to have landed in a ditch today, we do live in an age of mind boggling technological inventiveness that has transformed every facet of our livesand which provides sufficient compensation for the dreary state of our arts and entertainment.  

I sometimes shake my head when I think about growing up in a world of land line telephones, rabbit ear antennae on boxy cathode ray tube televisions, clacking typewriters, and rooms filled with library card catalogues.  Medical care was often diagnosis by stethoscope and exploratorysurgeries because there were no wondrous medical imaging technologies available beyond a simple x-ray.  Cars, which were attractive but unreliable, could not instantly tell a mechanic via a computer link what was wrong with them.  Our connection to news and events in the outside world was a daily newspaper tossed on the doorstep in the morning or the six oclock newson a black and white television.  K-12 education was all pencil and paper, and the height of workplace computing technology was punch cards and slide rules.  Carbon paper was still a common office tool, and eager young women strove to master shorthand (how many even know what this is today?) prior to entering a heavily hair sprayed career as a secretary.

It is, of course, quite natural that technology will outpace the arts when it comes to the application of creative power.  Customers demand cutting edge innovation to justify the investment of their hard-earned cash.  However, those tired souls seeking mere distraction from their daily toil are content with that which is as comfortably familiar as a pair of worn house slippers  Therefore, the artists of each age tend to move as a herd so as to not stray too far afield from the tastes of their audiences, but the technological innovators become rich precisely by bringing new and wholly unfamiliar products to market.  

There is, of course, always an audience of elite tastemakers who seek out edgy art and culture, but there is an obvious reason why The Monkees sold many, many more records than John Cage ever didthe art that is the most popular is always that which soothes rather than assaults.  Middlebrow is always where the money is to be made, so this is what will always dominate as long as artists need food and shelter to survive.

Although the pace of creativity in engineering, science, and medicine may move faster or slower at any given time, it is always moving in one directionforwardand this is precisely what humanity demands.  There is little market for nostalgia except as it pertains to the collection of key technological artifacts of the pastclassic cars being one obvious examplein order to preserve and enjoy the genius of a particular age.  

However much we may still watch the plays of Shakespeare or read the poetry of John Milton, no one wants to again live in an age when travel from city to city meant days of bouncing along rutted roads, fire was the only source of heat and light, and surgeries were performed without the benefit anesthesia or antibiotics. The worlds that people inhabited in the past may have been more elegant in some very limited ways, but the vast majority of human lives were stalked by hunger, disease, vermin, and pain.  Our knowledge and understanding of the actual daily misery of those days have their limitations, but we are willing to look past all that for a few hours of engagement with the music, paintings, or plays of centuries gone by.

Therefore, before we get too carried away complaining about the world we live in today while romanticizing some time period long ago, perhaps it is worth taking just one small moment to celebrate the many wonders of the world we have right now.  We may have to occasionally endure the existence of the Kardashians, but we can also microwave some popcorn, stream some Miles Davis music through our ear buds, and read a classic novel on our iPads.  I have to admit, it works for me.

 

 

Waiting For The Wonderful Future That Never Arrives

I recently read that the CEO of Uber is confident that we will have flying cars within the next 10 years. As predictions about the future go, this one is likely no more daffy than so many other previous guesses about future technologies that never actually came to fruition. However, it points to themes common to so many of these wild prognostications: an overconfidence in both technology and our ability to control it to our advantage—combined with a belief that new inventions will inevitably usher in a brighter and happier future

When it comes to technological advancements, the law of unintended consequences is typically in full force. Small changes often have surprisingly large effects, and groundbreaking innovations—brilliantly yet myopically devised—create turmoil that alters the very fabric of our lives for both good and ill.

In our lifetimes, the most obvious disruptor has been inexpensive, pervasive, powerful, and convenient computerization. Now our personal and professional lives are both enhanced and circumscribed by omnipresent technology that simultaneously puts the world at our fingertips, destroys semi-skilled employment opportunities, improves our daily productivity, erases boundaries between our work and personal lives, provides opportunities for innovation that were previously impossible, and spies on every aspect of our existences—a decidedly mixed bag of blessings and curses.

The specific impacts upon a variety of economic sectors has likewise been profoundly confounding. To look at but a single example, the advent of technologically-driven medical practice has completely changed both our expectations and our outcomes regarding our healthcare.

Illnesses and diseases that were once invariably fatal are now manageable chronic conditions— or in some instances a total cure can be attained. Joint and organ replacements are now routine surgeries, and even the worst injuries can now many times be treated with some degree of success. Computer modeling now allows drug therapies to be developed with lightning speed, and non-invasive imaging technology allows doctors to see problems that once would have required risky exploratory surgeries or blind guesswork to treat. However, we have also learned that miracles can be incredibly—if not prohibitively—expensive, advances in treatment can cause a cascade of other medical problems to occur, and endlessly extending the human lifespan may, in fact, be somewhat inhumane in actual practice.

Looking at a hypothetical situation that mirrors the reality for many today, we are now compelled to ask whether it is better to allow a patient to die simply and comfortably at the age of 89 or use powerful drugs and multiple difficult surgeries to extend that person’s lifespan to a painful and disoriented 90 years that is characterized by depression, dysfunction, and disillusionment. Looking just a bit further down the road, rapid improvements in gene therapy—soon to result in the actual modification of our genetic material—is going to open many doors through which we are not even vaguely prepared to walk, and the many moral and ethical questions that lie ahead are likely going to challenge our very notions of what it means to be human.

Taking everything into consideration, is it unreasonable to worry about these flying cars? Setting aside the obvious possibility that the necessary technology will simply never materialize (I still remember my 7th grade Science teacher cheerfully explaining that my generation would be spending our golden years playing shuffleboard on a moon base), one has to wonder whether unleashing these airborne vehicles upon our world would be nothing but an invitation to crash into trees and power lines, land abruptly right on top of homes and pedestrians, and discover new and terrifying consequences of operator or mechanical failure.

I am by no means a Luddite, but an airborne pizza delivery fills me with dread more than wonderment. Presuming that our well-documented inability to use technology wisely and well will remain constant, I can easily imagine a time when we will begin ask whether our energies should be expended elsewhere. Repairing our roads might be more helpful than scheming to fly right over them, and I would rather that poorly managed states and cities—desperate to attract investment and jobs—not be suckered into handing out massive tax breaks and incentives for the honor of creating a future few will want. The “next big thing” might, in fact, be something as quotidian as learning your neighbors’ names, reading a good book, planting a garden, riding a bicycle, or filling the spiritual void so many feel today. I strongly suspect that the awe long inspired by sheer gadgetry has just about run its course in our modern world, so we will increasingly focus on the less technological—yet highly significant joys—that give form and meaning to life. Spending time with a loved one is, for example, far more interesting and meaningful than endlessly updating a Facebook page.

Whatever our collective technological future may be, what is wrought or fabricated will be either a tool or a toy—nothing more and nothing less. Our ability to fly will always be limited by the law of gravity, so we must eventually make our peace with the time we spend walking upon the earth. The eternal promise of a wonderful, shiny future always will land somewhere short of utopia because it overlooks the basic fact that the daily duties we owe to ourselves and others will always occupy the vast majority of our time and energy—which is just as it should be.

Silicon chips can help to manufacture many clever and helpful products, but it is the quality of the time we spend among our fellow carbon-based life forms that provides the purpose and pleasure in all of our lives. This will never, ever change.

Let’s Talk About Sexual Harassment

 

The list of powerful and prominent men who are leering, suggesting, groping, fondling, and forcing expands every day. This has resulted in a necessary national conversation regarding behavior that ranges from the boorish to the criminal, and many Americans will recognize that this is both helpful and instructive.

However, now that we find ourselves at this cultural and social crossroads, one that perhaps has some chance of changing both our private conduct and public institutions, it is probably worth asking a single, pertinent question regarding our fifty year forced march toward ever greater freedom to act upon our every impulse: Have we been helped or harmed by the sexual revolution and those who have encouraged its progress throughout our cultural and educational worlds?

Sex has, of course, always preoccupied the human mind; few of us would be here today were this not the case. However, we have experienced a profound and fundamental break with our past because the primal urges that animate our lives have been, thanks to the signal technological improvements of the past century—photography, film, video, and the internet—commodified and monetized to a degree almost beyond comprehension.

What was once private is now very public, what was once pornography is now mainstream entertainment, what was once perverse is now commonplace, and what was once healthy restraint is now unhealthy inhibition.

The coarsening of our culture is a documentable fact, and the outright salaciousness of much of our mass entertainment is undeniable. Perhaps this is simply due to the fact that basic cable now needs to compete with 24/7 streaming pornography for eyeballs, but the graphic—and many times violent or sadistic—nature of the sexual content in shows that purport to be mainstream fare is both startling and disturbing. It is impossible to ignore both the corrosive influence this type of material has on our psyches and the frightening normalization of behavior that is worthy of nothing but our condemnation, not because I dislike sex but because I condemn connecting its beauty with the brutishness, heartlessness, and callousness that has infected so many facets of our mass entertainment and culture.

Of course, any suggestion that restraint and subtlety might be worthy of our consideration is met with howls of “censorship” or “Puritanism” from those who are profiting from producing explicit material to satisfy our natural prurient interests, and sadly it seems the actors involved are willing (if only because they need a job) to tolerate the filming or photographing of their breasts, buttocks, and whatever else is there to share. Some are, of course men, but the bodies most commonly put on public display are female—often in the most gratuitous manner possible. Perhaps the intentions are pure and movies today are trying to teach women helpful life skills—investigate every strange noise downstairs at night while wearing as little as possible and always leave the curtain partially open when you shower—but I somehow doubt this is the case.

Our attitude toward the transformation of our mass entertainment into soft-core porn is a bit of a puzzle. We celebrate the “strength” and “bravery” of the public displays by well-paid entertainers, but we would condemn the same titillation were it provided for free as being nothing but base exploitation of a person’s body. Perhaps it all boils down to the paycheck: That which is sexually explicit in word or deed, regardless of content or intent, simply cannot any longer be considered indecent in America today if the pay is good. This is a particular trap young females in the entertainment industry. Men, it seems, can still choose to keep their shirts on, but for women this possibility many times does not seem to exist unless they are already old enough to play the District Attorney.

Therefore, if only because we and the entertainers somehow need to justify their exploitation, we now celebrate the commercial display of the female form as “empowerment” as long as the women involved are well-compensated for their exertions, and those who can figure out a way to turn sex into major cash can—as long as the pay is high enough—enjoy some degree of respectability. Depending upon your viewpoint, we today live in either a wonderful nation that judges none and welcomes all or a dystopian and immoral country that worships money instead of elevating humanity.

Looking around at the epidemic of sexual battery and assault that now seems to be baked into every strata of our nation, one has to wonder whether this coldly capitalistic attitude toward a fundamental component of our personhood helps or harms both individuals and our society. Some would argue that the frequency and severity of sexual assault is the same as it always was—we are just more aware of the problem—but I find this explanation unpersuasive and exculpatory.

Any society where entertainers are celebrated for attempting to “break” the Internet by posting nude photos of themselves, female college students go online to seek out “sugar daddies”, and young women auction their virginity to the highest bidder through a website has clearly lost sight of any reasonable boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It should not be a surprise that abusive sexual behavior (typically, but not exclusively, by men) has become much more common at the same time any sense of personal responsibility or propriety has apparently flown out the window for many—but thankfully not all.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to making the cultural changes that are needed to promote more respectful attitudes and behavior; there is simply too much money to be made by the shameless entrepreneurs among us—mostly thanks to our nation’s dysfunctional status quo that continually confuses freedom with abuse. Moreover, given that our educational and social science establishments have thoroughly embraced the idea that sexual liberality in attitude and behavior will inevitably lead to personal growth and societal benefits, we are now encouraged to accept that which only a couple of generations ago was unacceptable.

Hence, our nation’s colleges provide helpful workshops on anal sex and BDSM lifestyles in order to promote more “sex-positive” beliefs—which seems a huge difference from only a couple of decades ago. Some of these activities certainly have a legitimate public health function, but there in a fine line between informing and proselytizing, and it seems to me that many involved in these efforts simply do not understand the difference.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of this to change. Encouraging restraint is nowhere near as popular or profitable as promoting licentiousness, and a “party all the time” post-secondary norm keeps the seats filled—regardless of how outrageously high the tuition bill might be—while permitting many educators to preach the “transgressive” values that allow them to believe they are freedom fighters instead of enablers.

No one should be surprised if the trade-off for these no-strings-nor-consequences-attached cultural norms is a toxic environment that encourages the worst sort of personal behavior. These are simply two sides of the same coin, and we are now paying the inevitable price for allowing this nonsense to become our ugly daily reality. Unless we are willing to leverage this unique cultural and political moment into a broader discussion of our broken and misguided personal and societal values, we will see no end to the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse in our nation.

We have lots and lots of laws; we now need a counter-revolution of respect for ourselves and others.

 

Fragile Youth?

Cause flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth, our flag is flying higher and higher and higher
Kiss, Flaming Youth (1976)

If one is to judge from recent studies and data, our adolescents and young adults are far less fiery than they once were. In fact, those who track such trends argue that young men and women are far more depressed, anxious, and troubled than at any time in our history.

One aspect of this question that needs to be first considered is that we live in the age of Big Data, and there has never been a time in human history that had the tools we now possess to chart and graph every fluctuation in our individual and collective moods. Americans were not tweeting at Gettysburg, and nobody was using Snapchat to document their daily activities during the Great Depression.

Our incredibly outer-directed existences are a marked contrast to our more circumspect ancestors, and any comparisons between our very demonstrative present and a past where it was considered peculiar to share every detail of your life with total strangers inevitably crashes into both epistemological and methodological difficulties that are inherently unresolvable, so our collective happiness or unhappiness relative to the pre-Internet world of only a few decades ago is basically unknowable.

There are, however, those who argue that we live in times so tumultuous that it is driving our youth and young adults to the brink of madness, and this is the reason that so many young people need medication, therapy, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and soothing affirmations to struggle through to the end of each day—which tends to do nothing but make their elders shake their heads. Folding up into a quivering, sobbing heap because of the results of an election makes no sense to your grandfather, who at your same age was leaning out the door of a helicopter gunship near Da Nang and hoping not to have his head blown off before his boots hit the ground.

It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that a great many of those who have come of age in America over the past several decades have been more cushioned from harm than could ever have been imagined by any previous generation—which hasn’t been altogether good. Perhaps all the soft padding underneath the monkey bars and participation trophies have done nothing but create young adults who are simply unfamiliar with the bumps and bruises that are an inevitable by-product of life. A familiarity with failure helps prepare young people for the rigors of life outside of the nest, and parents who insist on plowing every possible obstacle from their children’s paths during their formative years should probably be less astonished if their precious offspring crash and burn when they attempt “adulting”.

In addition, we likely need to wrench the cell phones out of our children’s hands because their voracious consumption of social media has turned them into a bunch of lab rats frantically pushing the lever to obtain a food pellet. Tying your self-worth to how many “friends” you have or how often your posts are “liked” by total strangers has produced a lot of unnecessary angst for a lot of young people who fail to recognize that a life lived online is no life at all. There is much to be said for a life less-connected, and transforming the normal insecurities of adolescence into a 24/7 addiction to the approval of others via an iPhone is a prescription for nothing other than misery for millions of teens. If one were to set out today to design a system as insidiously damaging as possible to the emotional health of our young, I will wager no one could come up with anything worse than Facebook is right now.

However, we cannot blame all of our children’s problems on over-protective parenting and Mark Zuckerberg. It is a tough world out there, and misguided social experiments and government policies have quite often backfired and made it even tougher for many. Having watched a great many adolescents and young adults parade through my classroom over the years, I can readily assert that divorce is a disaster for many, the ever-escalating costs of living put incredible pressure on individuals and families, and the pathological financial irresponsibility of our leaders has had—and will continue to have—real and lasting consequences for everyone. Thankfully, I still see many young men and women who have their heads screwed on just fine, and this helps me to take all the clucking about “kids these days” with the healthy dose of skepticism it truly deserves.

This does not, however, mean that we do not have real problems that are causing real pain to our young. We are, sadly, well-past the point of easy fixes, but perhaps we can yet be convinced to roll up our sleeves, work cooperatively, and reclaim our lives and our nation for the simple reason that we honestly have no other choice. We owe it to ourselves, but we really owe it to our children most of all. We need to do what we can to hand them a country a little less screwed up than it is right now, and we must not allow their flaming youth to simply go up in flames. They deserve at least that much from their supposedly-wise elders.