Category Archives: Thinkers

Mr. Fish: The cartoonist as King Lear’s Fool

As folks who come here with any frequency quickly learn, we think Mr. Fish [or Dwayne Booth, according to his driver’s license] is the best editorial cartoonist of the age — or at least that part of it crossing our gaze.

On the surface his images, are generally graphically simple — more like wall posters than the typical newspaper cartoon, the works of Mr. Fish sear themselves into the visual cortex and worm themselves deeper into the brain, koans of interlinked images and words. [For a comprehensive look at his works see his website, Clowncrack., where you can also buy his books and other icthyous paraphernalia]

When Chris Hedges sat down with Mr. Fish for an extended interview of Days of Revolt, we knew we were in for a treat, and we came away with an even deeper appreciation for the artistry and complexity that is Mr. Fish.

We were at first surprised to learn that before he took up the graphic arts, Dayne Booth saw himself as a provocative philosopher in the making, reading deeply in the field, a heritage that helps us understand the deeper complexity beneath the surface of his works.

So sit back, set the gear knob to a high definition resolution, click the image to full screen, and prepare for a provocative pleasure.

From teleSUR English via the Real News Network:

Days of Revolt: Mr. Fish

From the transcript:

HEDGES: Why do you, why do you run into such friction, do you think?

BOOTH: I think because it’s difficult to–when you have an image, right, when you have an image that is inflammatory in any way, it’s really difficult to, to recast that in such a way that it, to contain it. To contain it. Once an image is released, like I said, it resonates with people and it looks like reality. So it’s really difficult to verbally contain an image once it is, it is released. And so what images tend to do, since they are not verbal and they are not intellectualized, until after the fact, is they enter into a person’s, into a person’s mind. And it explodes your belief, and it turns your comprehension of what is being addressed in the drawing into shrapnel, and then you have to put it back together again.

And you have to put it back together in a way where you have to question your previous thoughts before you looked at the image. And that’s, people don’t want to do that. People like to base their political opinions on, on fashion, on allegiance to a, a, to your team.

HEDGES: Well, also, you’re imploding the very meticulously managed image that these figures in power have created for themselves at great cost, expense, and time.

BOOTH: Yeah. Yeah. And they’re also, it’s interesting, you just made me think. If you look at society, okay, where this is sort of a broad analogy. If you look at society as a chess match, right, we’ve got power represented by certain people, and we’ve got people who have less power. And they function in the rules of this game, right, that’s how society works. Art does not–it doesn’t have to rely on the rules of the game and all the expectations that people have, because it’s thinking outside, it’s questioning the folly of the game in a way that is unique, right.

So I try to do cartoons that look at that chess board, right, and make it a tragedy to understand that you cannot play chess with somebody where you’re not forced to sacrifice some of your own players, where you’re not going to–you have to, you have to attack the other opponent. Right, those are the rules of society, right.

So if you’re looking, and you’re living inside of a society that functions like that, it’s the job of the artist, or even just the radical thinker, to question the folly of this game. And with images when you show the brutality of how this game is played, that’s when people are going to see it as being much more believable than if you’re trying to convince them with an intellectual argument.

HEDGES: You’ve spent a lot of time illustrating the American military machine. That, you know, seeps into a lot of your work.

BOOTH: Yeah. Because it’s a difficult conversation for people to have. I did cartoons leading up to the invasion of Iraq that I never got any hate mail about. This is before the invasion. So I was questioning the obvious catastrophe that was about to happen. And I was also questioning the job of the, of the soldier. When the, when the invasion was, began, that’s when I started to get death threats, because I continued questioning what the, what, you know, how do we perceive the troops? You can’t just, okay, we have to support the troops.

And I did a cartoon that depicted individual troops. And I wrote, good guy, good guy, good guy, good guy, good guy, and I put a big bracket around it to group them all, and I said bad guys. Because the conversation is such that it’s not an easy conversation to have. And if you’re a responsible cartoonist and you know how to do that, you know not to, to–. As a cartoonist and a joke-teller, you have license to step outside of the box. It’s what humor does. And if you’re a good humorist, the stuff that you do is not funny. Because I think that great satire, and great art that is under the umbrella of satire, you have the responsibility to avoid making it just about finding the punchline. Because mirth cripples rage. And when you’re trying to inspire people to recognize what’s wrong with the government and do something about it, and get–put bodies in, to step out into the street and raise your first in the air, you can’t give people the phys–their physiological, the relief of the laugh.

HEDGES: That’s like the fool in King Lear.

BOOTH: Right.

HEDGES: Who speaks the most naked truth about Lear, throughout the play.

BOOTH: Yeah.

HEDGES: Which, you know, is coming from a point of satire, but also is, because it is a naked truth, twinned with a kind of painful recognition. Which I think is what your work does.

BOOTH: Yeah, and I think that people want to see that, because it does feel more honest. You know, I think people in their private moments, when they’re deliberating on these notions and on the reality of history and what’s happening in the world right now, they know that it’s screwed up. They know that there’s a problem and they know that there’s a lot of pain, right. Once you move into a public space where it’s impolite to complain as loudly as you want to complain, and when you want to speak truth to power, which is considered impolite, there’s a time and a place, you become much more conservative than you really are at heart.

So showing people art and getting them to look at an image, it happens internally. When you look at an image, your reaction to it is inside yourself.

The brink of crisis: Globalization reaches a peak

The world may be on the brink of another financial collapse, this time with the Chinese economy as the likely catalyst, and with Britain holding $500 million in Chinese debt, the “sceptered isle” may bear a major portion of the impact.

One thing is certain: The world’s economy can’t continue with an agenda of unlimited development and endless consumption of throwaway goods, given that limits to extractive resources may have already peaked.

British radical economist James Meadway has been tracking the state of the globalized economy, and he sees major shifts already underway as China shifts from its economic roles.

Meadway, formerly an economist with the New Economics Foundation, described his concerns in a September essay for the Guardian:

Has globalisation peaked? Two fundamental factors suggest it may have. First, the financial crisis itself revealed the systemic weaknesses inherent in an over-extended financial system. Major financial institutions, banks chief among them, are now significantly more wary about reaching beyond their home bases. In the event of a future crisis, they will require strong, supportive states ready to back them up. This has drawn banks and states closer together, with weak states and weak banks propping each other up, as in the eurozone’s “sovereign-bank nexus” (the strong links between government debt and banks).

Second, states themselves are acting strategically. Globalisation was associated with a belief in the supreme merits of government inaction on the economy, but governments are increasingly strategic economic actors.

China is attempting an immense shift away from its decades-old role as low-cost exporter to the world, expanding both its domestic market, and seeking to create a new, regional trading block around the new Silk Road. The collapse of its stock market, naturally, necessitated a huge (if deeply flawed) government intervention. Protectionism is on the rise, whilst yuan devaluation has raised the spectre of “currency wars”. The German state, meanwhile, is an assiduous defender of its own interests as a manufacturing exporter.

Failure to address the looming crisis will only make the crisis worse, he explains.

In this, the latest edition of Taiq Ali’s Telesur English series, The World Today, Meadway explains his concerns as well as possible reforms to adjust the world’s economy to the new realities of the 21st Century:

The World Today: The State of the Economy

Program notes:

Tariq Ali talks to James Meadway, radical economist, about the global economy, the failure of world leaders to effectively resolve the financial crisis in 2008, and the probability of another crisis occurring in the future.

Quote of the Day: Edgar Allan Poe, cosmologist

Just how unique was the mind of the poet who created the modern detective story and wrote poems that speak to the hearts of every teenage Goth? Consider this from American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, writing in the New York Review of Books:

Poe’s mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt—if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which “radiated” the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe.

This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and “duration” are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series.

All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-first century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning—therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe’s thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry.

Eureka is posted online in full here.

A melodious voice, provocative insights

John Henry Faulk was a remarkable character, an academic fokloristic who became a humorist, and who waged and won a seminal battle against the Hollywood blacklist, a secret database used by the entertainment and electronic media industries to bar people whose beliefs were deemed threats to national security to be barred from public screens and airwaves.

He’d have turned 100 last August if cancer had finally stilled his rich, melodious voice, conveying sophisticated thoughts cloaked in idiom and Texas dialect.

Here’s Faulk in a wonderful 1985 conversation with Frank Morrow for the legendary public access series Alternative Views:

FAULK AT HIS FINEST: Meet Uncensored Humorist John Henry Faulk

Proogram notes from AlternativeViewTV:

Austin’s beloved folk humorist tells tales from his new book The Uncensored John Henry Faulk. The stories, which range from childhood recollections of life on a South Austin farm to commentary on political figures, embody a populist, egalitarian spirit. Some of these stories are from Faulk’s well-known one-man show Pear Orchard USA. Through the use of these folk characters, Faulk is able to make political commentary which is palatable even to people who might disagree with the message, such as the anti-Nixon stories which he has used before audiences of businessmen. The last section of the program is a Faulk mini-retrospective, featuring clips of the humorist’s past appearances on Alternative Views.

One of esnl’s favorite folksingers, Phil Ochs, paid him tribute in this 1962 song:

Phil Ochs: The Ballad of John Henry Faulk [1962]

From the lyrics:

And you men who point your fingers and spread your lies around,
You men who left your souls behind and drag us to the ground,
You can put my name right down there, I will not try to hide —
For if there’s one man on the blacklist, I’ll be right there by his side.

For I’d rather go hungry to beg upon the streets
Than earn my bread on dead men’s souls and crawl beneath your feet.
And I will not play your hater’s game and hate you in return,
For it’s only through the love of man the blacklist can be burned.

Quote of the day: Amazon and the Panopti-con

From a Jonathan Franzen essay for The Guardian, “What’s wrong with the modern world”:

In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels? As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).

But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers. Plus it’s possible that the story isn’t over. Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers. Maybe an economically significant number of readers will come to recognise the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony and go back to local bookstores or at least to, which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics. Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes. Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.

Quote of the day: Bucky Fuller on earning a living

From our old friend R. Buckminster Fuller [previously], quoted in New York Magazine, 30 March 1970:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.


Our moment of Zen: Alan Watts in conversation

The late British-American Zen philosopher and Sausalito houseboat owner Alan Watts in a 1971 telecast “A conversation with myself, discusses the addiction to technological solutions and the fundamental flaw in our understanding of ourselves and the world.

A fascinating monologue, worthy of our time.

Assange, Chomsky, and Ali: On popular risings

Though Julian Assange may be holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, waiting for word on his bid for refuge in that land, he’s still at work, as witnessed by the latest of his interview webcast for RT.

It’s an important discussion about the rise of popular movements, primarily in Latin America and the Middle East, among Assange, MIT prof and provocateur Noam Chomsky, and Tariq Ali.

The Julian Assange Show: Noam Chomsky & Tariq Ali

The program notes:

A surprise Arab drive for freedom, the West’s structural crisis and new hope coming from Latin America. That’s the modern world in the eyes of Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali, two prominent thinkers and this week’s guests on Julian Assange’s show on RT.

Quote of the day: The true nature of the beast

From “CANCER CAPITALISM: Humanity’s Evolution or Destruction. Regaining Social Control Over the ‘Real Economy,’” a remarkable essay by John McMurtry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Canada, posted at

[T]he system has run far beyond society’s control and knowledge of its workings. It destroys the life-world by its nature. Its ruling global corporate conglomerates are, in fact, lavishly subsidized and armed-force defended by states to pollute the world at every level, draw down its non-renewable resources, competitively disemploy and underpay workers across cultures, systematically shirk public tax obligations and run down public infrastructures, destroy the habitat of species, and so on. There is no mystery as to why, although no-one says it in public. Every vector of global life-system depredation is corporately driven by roaming money-profit “investors” whose rights are the sole rights recognised in trade and investment treaties, and which governments are now structured to ensure even if they produce nothing – as with the ruling big banks which governments endlessly save at the rising life costs of their peoples.

Read the rest.

H/T to Moussequetaire.

Quote of the day: A year for wakening?

From a Michael DeLang essay in the always-provocative Swans Commentary:

One of my favorite blogging gadflies likes to describe the prevailing American socio-political-economic condition in the following terms, “There’s a Club, and you’re not in it.” This may represent an oversimplified summing up of an exceedingly complex structure, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to hide or deny the plain, succinct truth that underlies the core of this sentiment. Looking back, certain events of the past year seem to contain signs that a growing portion of the American populace is finally beginning to wake up to the inherent economic disparities created by an unregulated capitalism driven by the consumerist illusion of limitless growth.

Read the rest.

Quote of the day: On the death of academia

From recently resigned University of Middlesex senior lecturer Rachel Malik, writing in the London Review of Books, a quote starkly reminiscent of UC Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela’s essay on the privatization of the University of California:

Many university departments simply could not function without the energy, talent and goodwill of part-time lecturers, but the pattern of a skeleton permanent teaching staff supported by part-timers and those on teaching-only contracts has become a model for staffing in many institutions, and not just because it is cheaper. Those small numbers of permanent staff are increasingly going to be employed to develop, write and monitor courses that they will not teach and that exist primarily as units for sale or rent to a variety of markets, national and global. Little, if any, thought has been given to the impact of this on teaching and learning by the universities adopting this model. This commodifying of a course or a degree programme or a set of quality procedures is bad news. For one thing, the majority of academics and students are becoming ever more remote from the places where knowledge is produced. It is now seen as naive to insist on the natural connections between teaching and research.

Further, the global market, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a very conservative place: the role of self-censorship, the weeding out of anything that might prove controversial, is a necessary consequence of the edu-business model.

Headline of the day: Hi, Maugham!

We can’t help but admire a good literary pun, especially when we discover it atop a New York Times essay by philosopher Simon Blackburn about an influential Scottish thinker:

Of Hume and Bondage

It’s Sunday videos! Three animated diagnosticians

Three more of those delightful RSA Animates, created from talks given at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce by some of the day’s leading thinkers. The common theme: Things we shouldn’t take for granted.

Slavoj Zizek: First as tragedy, then as farce

Political philosopher Zizek looks at the flawed heart of “charity capitalism” and finds in the searing critique of Oscar Wilde the sharpest riposte to today’s feel-good consumerism while pointing towards another path towards creating a more truly human society.

Matthew Taylor: 21st century enlightenment

RSA’s Chief executive ponders ways to restore the human capacity for empathy, the essential human value in an increasingly globalized world. A nice line: “If you want to be happy, don’t read self help books; hang out with happy people.”

Steven Pinker: Language as a Window into Human Nature

And an always timely reminder of the depths underlying our words from one of the world’s leading linguists, including the reason rebellions usually begin  in public squares.

Have fun, and if you’d like the see the full lectures from which the animations were excepted — plus much, much more — at the RSA’s You Tube page.

The most important video to watch in 2011

In which Tad Patzek debunks the Green Revolution, the agrofuel myth, and the whole basis of modern economics.

Please watch this video. It’s by far the clearest, most graphic explanation of our present plight as a species.

Tad Patzek’s a scientist and professor at the top of his field endowed with impeccable credentials, a deep capacity for empathy, and a wide-ranging and truly global intelligence.

He uses those skills to look at the world we live in and arrives at an alarming conclusion: “This planet has no more capacity to do more for us. . .we have to understand that we have reached the limit.”

The only solution, he says, begins with the acceptance that we have created a delusional economy, premised on the earth’s ability to endlessly surrender resources and eternally tolerate our dumping it all back as noxious waste.

We are now beyond a point of no return. Something has to give. . .and that is our energy use. We’ve going to have to rework the entire structure of our society, where we work, how we life, what we eat. Instead we are being told every other day that there’s a another new magical solution that will save us. Especially for people who were born here, the word “technology” has this religious connotation: Technology is going to be some good for us that’s going to save us.

Well, let me tell you what I think. Many of the problem’s I’ve been talking about today have no technological solutions. None whatsoever. Because we have gone beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, and there is no technology that will reverse that. And so we’re going to have to do things differently.

One of UC Berkeley’s saddest losses, and a personal one for us as well, came when Tad , a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, left the city by the bay to take up a new post at the University of Texas in Austin, where he serves as Lois K. and Richard D. Folger Leadership Professor and Chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department. We particularly miss his great good sense, his exceptional empathy, and his sly wit.

The occasion of our acquaintance was a campus political battle we we reporting for the Berkeley Daily Planet.

As a former employee of Shell Oil, Tad knows the fuel industry from the inside, so it was perhaps ironic that he became one of the eloquently outspoken critics of the largest oil company research grant ever given a public university, the $500 million BP funding bonanza handed UC Berkeley to develop agrofuels, transportation fuels derived from plants.

Tad and other colleagues waged a valiant but ultimately doomed challenge to a project destined to give the corporations yet another big bite of what is becoming, increasingly, a public university in name only.

The video is of a talk he delivered to the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University on 14 May 2008, which he begins with a definitive debunking of the agrofuel myth.

While he deftly refutes the notion of agrofuels are a “green” energy source, his deeper concern is the certainty that transforming vast swatches of the earth’s surface into fuel plantations will bring and misery to the world’s poorest.

His message is critical to the world today, when the world is torn about by anger over rising food prices while the corporations of the world’s developed countries are rapaciously grabbing up land throughout the developing world to fuel their cars, trucks, planes, and trains.

His science is impeccable, and the only logical conclusion is the one he draws: Growing crops for fuel is not only scientifically preposterous, it’s morally repugnant, making food vastly more expensive at the very time the world is rendered asunder by billions of hungry and righteously angry people.

But he goes further, ripping apart the sacred myth of the Green Revolution, revealing it as a precarious and only temporary boost in agricultural production, dependent of vast amount of chemicals and fuels which are becoming increasingly costly and are yielding ever-diminishing returns.

[And listen very carefully to the quotations he cites from Chris Somerville. That’s an important name to remember, because he’s the “bioengineer” who made millions developing genetically modified soybeans for Monsanto before tanking the helm of that $500 million BP project he runs for UC Berkeley, grandiosely named “The Energy Biosciences Institute,” or EBI. And as EBI’s then-chief scientist said, BP’s looking at the green parts of the globe to plant the resulting fuel crops.]

We are seeing a global catastrophe, Tad warns, in which billions are left hungry, their children stunted in mind and body by malnutrition, and their economies in collapse.

“There has been a systematic breaking in democracy, science, and common sense in dealing with global food supply and energy production.” Do not become hopeless victims of other people’s delusion, he implores. Take action.

And that, we think, is what the people of Egypt are doing.

Here’s the tagline from Tad’s blog, LifeItself:

In this blog, I continue to write about the environment, ecology, energy, complexity, and humans. Of particular interest to me are human self-delusions and mad stampedes to nowhere.

The latest post begins like this:

Lies, health, hunger, and biofuels

“Cowardice is the worst vice of men,” Yeshua Ha-Nozri said softly to the fifth Procurator of Judea, the cruel knight Pontius Pilate, when they met at the Herod’s palace on that fateful, unbearably hot 14th day of Nisan. If you do not believe me, please read that crown jewel of all literature of all times, “The Master and Margarita,” written  some 80 years ago by a Russian doctor and writer, Mikhail Bulgakov.

Yeshua is of course Jesus. But what does His quiet remark have to do with food, biofuels, poor health, hunger, and politics as usual by the rascals who have Jesus’ name smeared all over their campaign slogans, even when they try to consume our souls?

We are cowards because we loath to resist the more powerful in our lives, even when we know they are wrong. As importantly, we are cowards because we are afraid to think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.  Since we are cowards we are eager to accept half-truths, or blatant lies, if they sooth us and make us avoid difficult choices.  With time, lies that surround us soak in through our skins and become parts of who we are.  This is how we elect and re-elect most politicians.  This is how we eat bad cheap food and buy expensive vitamins and mineral supplements to make up for what we miss. This is how we come to believe that the food-like edible substances we purchase in the centers of all supermarkets are actually food.  This is how we maintain that burning freshly killed plants is morally superior to burning the ancient ones.

Read the rest.

Mirror neurons: The biology of empathy

Since it seems to be brain day here at esnl, here’s a fascinating talk by Gustaf Gredebäck, psychology professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University and director of the school’s Babylab, explains one of the most intriguing discoveries of neuroscience, the mirror neuron.

Countless metaphors describe the phenomenon of empathy: We’re implored to walk a mile in her shoes, to see a situation through his eyes.

As Gredebäck explains, empathy is linked with goal-directed activity, and arises from the motor neuron system and the capacity it creates to allow us to put ourselves in another’s place by imputing goals to another’s actions.

Neuroscientists are slowing shedding light into the black box concealed within our skulls, providing a constant stream of evidence and insights into the way folks are much more alike than we’re encouraged to believe.

In contemporary American culture, we’re constantly encouraged to differentiate ourselves from the mass, to see ourselves as special and unique. The unspoken flip side of this semantic assault is the message that we are isolated and alone, only able to connect with other special and unique folk through the act of branding ourselves by the consumption of products.

The irony of these post-Modern times inheres in the awareness that the very tools we need to understand ourselves are being deployed against us to ensure that we never put them to use. Instead, we’re presented with endless consumable distractions. And because they can never truly satisfy the underlying needs the greed-merchants are peddling, all we can do is consume more, ensuring both profits for the peddlers and immiseration for their marks.

We’re born with a passion for learning, and science shows how the structure of our brains wires us in ways that compel us to crave understanding. There’s no greater ability than child’s astounding drive to master language. Infants learn at an astounding pace that parents sometimes don’t appreciate because, after all, the children are only doing what comes without thinking to mom and dad.

Consider: The human brain is the most complex object we’ve found in the universe. Neurons wire and rewire, sending out connective tendrils that link, disconnect, and link to yet more fellow neurons at an astounding rate, creating shifting patterns as our needs, abilities, and passions ebb and flow with changes in both the phenomenal and existential realms.

In a truly responsible culture, children would be encouraged to develop the art of critical thought, to refine and empower the hunger to understand and to connect both with our fellows and with the larger world into which we are born.

One of the words most associated with genius is childlike. The passionate mind, alert and willing to embrace the unexpected, is the child-like mind.

The discoveries of the neuroscientists have much to teach us.

H/T to The Situationist.

Johnson and Orlov, two prophets of collapse

If the current crisis teaches folks anything, it’s that the United States is an end-stage imperial power.

Human history tells the stories of the rise and fall of empires, states endowed with powerful militaries compelled by the necessity of maintaining power to engage in endless wars of collapse until the costs of imperial overreaching led to conflict at the periphery and decay at the center, followed by the inevitable collapse.

Every empire falls. If there’s any such thing as a “law of history,” it’s that no empire can sustain itself over time.

Some lasted longer than others, but all failed, leaving behind a landscape of newly independent states jockeying for place and power, and setting the stage for the rise of new empires, which often arise on the periphery.

Rome arose at the margins of the Greek empire; the Mongol empire at the margins of the Chinese imperium; the American empire at the margins of the British empire; the German empire at the margins of the Holy Roman Empire. Energized by the conflict with the imperial power and empowered with its technologies, the new empires arising at the margins repeat the same cycles as those that rose and fell before them.

One noun often applied to the United States is “exceptionalism.” As a people, folks here are brought up to consider our country as an exception to the rules of history, a type of entity never before seen in the long. We are the biggest, the best, the brightest, the freest — you know the drill.

So it’s going to be hard for many folks to recognize that we’re just one of a long train of historic empires, following the same general patterns as those that have come before.

As one of America’s greatest writers [a former California newspaperman named Twain] once said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Two prophets of collapse: Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson is one of the country’s most insightful writers on the subject of empire. Once a consultant for the CIA back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Johnson later headed the Center for Chinese Studies here at UC Berkeley. Currently, he serves as president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, which he cofounded.

We here at esnl have read and learned much from his superb triology: Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic.

One the occasion of the publication of his latest book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope , Johnson wrote an essay for Tomgram entitled “The Guns of August, Lowering the Flag on the American Century.”

As perhaps the foremost chronicler of American imperial decline, Johnson deserves serious consider.

Here’s how he describes his work of the past two decades:

My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her. I wish I could be more optimistic about what’s in store for the U.S.  Instead, there isn’t a day that our own guns of August don’t continue to haunt me.

So what does he see ahead?

Thirty-five years from now, America’s official century

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Kurt Vonnegut: ‘How to Get a Job Like Mine’

Between the smiles and the laughter, Vonnegut reveals himself as a latter-day Luddite: “I need a typewriter. There is no longer such a thing, anywhere.”

Such a pleasure, seeing and hearing the writer his 80th year, and five years before his death in 2007.  The talk, “How to Get Job Like Mine,” meanders like the Mississippi, the river that so dominated another great American writer Vonnegut grew to increasingly resemble as the years passed.

It’s a wonderful ride, and at just under 52 minutes, it’s much too short a journey through the witty insights of a passionate curiosity joined to a quietly powerful, humorous voice.

Recorded at a lecture at Albion Collage.

A favorite line: “If you really want to upset your parents but don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, at least you can take up the arts.”

Another: “We are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anyone else tell you any different.”

H/T to Metafilter.

In memoriam, three American originals

Two deaths of note today, and one birthday.

A cartoonist with a point

First, Harvey Pekar, a unique and outspoken cartoonist who proved himself willing to speak truth to power. Invited on the Letterman Show as an occasional guest of the sort of eccentric the host could mock, Pekar had the great temerity to confront Letterman about the misdeeds of his corporate employer, network owner GE, in this memorable segment.

Leterman declared him banished from the show after a second visit, where Pekar refused to give up his point, knowing i could result in his exile from the only national forum he had:

Tuli Kupferberg, frontman for The Fugs

As featured here in April, The Fugs were one of the great underground groups of the 60′s, and had still been recording until Kupferberg was stricken with a stroke that cost him his voice. esnl first heard the band soon after their debut album came out in 1965, The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction.

Here’s one of the greatest hits, still timely, “Kill for Peace”:

Finally, Happy Birthday, Bucky!

Today would’ve been R. Buckminster Fuller‘s 115th birthday. One of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century, Fuller was an inventor, an original thinker, a poet, and an inspiration. It was esnl‘s great honor to have known him, and to have worked with him on our first book, Fuller’s Earth.

Money and the malignant myth of endless growth

After you hit age 20 or so, growth is something we no longer desire and begin to fear.

It’s the transition between “Oh my, how tall you’ve grown” to “I’m afraid you have a growth.”

Maturation is the most natural of processes, culminating in that point when the focus of our metabolism switches from development to maintenance.  We have “grown up.”

Funny that we don’t see our economies the same way.

What’s natural for a biological organism is declared unnatural for the way we go about the business of living. Growth, rather than a means for reaching maturity, becomes an end in itself.

What if we looked at things differently?

What if we looked at our institutions in the same way we see ourselves?

What if, for example, we started to ask ourselves if our corporations and our banks have metastasized into growths? Into cancers on our social bodies?

Every corporation, every bank, now exists to fulfill one prime directive: to amass ever-greater profits — to maximize the returns on investor dollars, pounds, euros, shekels, yen, yuan. The actions taken to maximize profits are secondary to the profits themselves.

Growth in an of itself has become the driving force of the most powerful institutions we’ve created, and these same institutions will zealously employ every means at their disposal to ensure that the growth of profits continues unhindered.

When profit —growth — becomes the driving force of the institutions of power, other considerations fall by the wayside, relegated to the realm of “externalities.”

But if we have learned anything from our exploration of the world around us, it’s that there are no externalities.

A wise man I was once privileged to know said that the greatest gift science had given us was the ability to recognize that we are all inhabitants of a finite “Spaceship Earth,” equipped with finite resources, and, ultimately, faced with two alternatives: Utopia or oblivion.

As Buckminster Fuller saw it, we were endowed with just enough resources to allow us to reach maturity, at which point, we would either learn to shepherd our natural larder or surrender to a ruthless competition that would end our brief span on the planet.

We are now reaching the critical moment. The inexorable downslope of the Continue reading

Howard Zinn: Put away the flags

The late Howard Zinn offers cause for reflection on this national holiday. From The Progressive:

On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blesse

Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

These ways of thinking — cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on — have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours — huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction — what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.

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Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.

That self-deception started early.

When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans cited one of the Psalms, which says: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Earth for thy possession.”

When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: “It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.”

On the eve of the Mexican War, an American journalist declared

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