The Neurosis of E-Life: An Addendum

What happens when messages can be conveyed easily from one party to another? Messages proliferate. What happens when messages proliferate? Everyone becomes saturated in “information” of widely varying quality. What happens when the good stuff and the bad is all stirred together in the same dumptruck-load of malodorous “communication”? The good stuff gets neglected with the bad. What happens when negligence becomes epidemic? People start feeling isolated and depressed, or even getting chippy and rude. What happens when depression and rudeness suddenly spike? People grow plangent—they want more attention, and they want everyone to apologize to them. What happens to a society of hurt, whining children and sullen, smarting victims? It fragments. You have the children who continue to whine and form groups of whiners; you have withdrawn clams who tune everything out, including the desperate sufferers who are in anguishing need; and you have the whackos who decide to blow themselves and everyone around them to hell since they can’t find an audience.

Welcome to our world.

In a professional context, you also see the multiplication of petty tasks to virtual infinity. Since it’s now so easy to demand that minions and underlings do thus and so, demands grow more numerous. The manufacture of demands, indeed, becomes itself an arduous chore: the tinpot dictators snuggled behind their keyboards actually manage to overwork themselves. They need more supporting staff, so more funds must be allocated to more hiring. At the other end, the minions grow more stressed-out because the day’s hours have not been multiplied to keep up with the rising volume of minute tasks to perform. They cut corners on the work they were intended to do in order to complete absurd surveys, questionnaires, and tutorials. The threat of harsh consequences if they do not accede to every latest demand wears upon their health, as well; for the demands are entirely impersonal and often, therefore, imperious. When you can order someone about remotely, never seeing the person’s face or hearing the person’s voice, you tend to order a little more often and a little more peremptorily. One thinks of the subjects of the Milgram Experiment, turning up the “pain” button on their tortured victims (who, unknown to them, were just acting), because they nestled behind the anonymity of a command chain and a two-way mirror.

Give a man a hammer, it is said, and everything looks like a nail. Give people the capacity to send messages simply and quickly… and you have a society of people who do nothing but “message”, to the extent that they haven’t enough time to live something worthy of report. As a society, the model is pretty crappy, really. I could almost wish for an EMP to wipe it all away; but then, most of us would die in the process.

Then again, are we alive right now?

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The Seventies: Little Determination, No Focus

Perhaps the second most famous World Series homerun of all time (after Bobby Thompson’s Shot Heard Round the World) is Carlton Fisk’s extra-inning walk-off in Game 6 of the 1975 match between the Red Sox and the Reds. I gave my son a DVD collection containing all seven games several years ago. (The Red Sox, of course, found a way to blow the series.) He never watched any of it. His generation doesn’t particularly care about the past, in regard to baseball or anything else. We live in a time of instant irrelevance, when the latest gismo is outdated before the paint dries on it. What the heck—who even watches DVD’s any more!

So, with his having escaped us to attend college a thousand miles away, I finally decided to watch my son’s collection surreptitiously all by myself. It proved interesting in numerous ways that rather surprised me. Never mind that the intricate camera angles and immediate rerunning of every play so routine to us now are absent: I’m ignoring the technical angles here. I don’t even really want to dwell on the umpiring, which was incredibly poor at moments. (It always is, even today. At least then, umpires appeared to put up with a lot of guff without tossing guys out. Our modern prima donnas would have suspended and fined everybody on both sides by the end of the second game, even though—with replay and almost routine appeals—they murder fewer calls.) What I have in mind is the quality of actual play. Atavist that I am, I’d like to testify that those boys of yesteryear would have tied today’s ripped, tattooed, arrogant studs into granny knots on the field… but I just can’t get there. It’s not true. I will hasten to add that Cobb and Speaker and Collins—or Mays and Mantle and Williams—probably could send our boys home whimpering with their tails between their legs. In other words, I do not find it plausible to say categorically that we have gotten better and better. What I’m saying is that the players of the Seventies were disturbingly weak in skills, taken as a whole. The ’75 Series was supposed to have been one of the best ever staged… but it was a close affair largely because two matching mediocrities had a hard time getting and keeping the upper hand one over the other.

Now, Pete Rose was what ballplayers call a professional hitter. I’d pause to watch one of his at-bats if I were running from a tornado. Same for Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench. It’s fun to watch guys like that make adjustments and respond to situations. But most of the others… the Red Sox, in particular, were unhinged whirlybirds (speaking of tornadoes). Carl Yastrzemski must have gotten most of his 3,000 hits by sucking the ball into the vacuum created behind his furious barrel. Fred Lynn couldn’t keep his foot out of the bucket or his helmet out of the on-deck circle… and Cecil Cooper should carry an R rating: unsuitable for impressionable young boys to watch. Fisk—he of the Homerun—seemed the most in control of his AB’s, along with no-names Denny Doyle and Rick Burleson.

I grew curious, and went to the record books. How were other guys making out in the mid-Seventies? Pretty much the same. Up and down the standings, teams might have ONE hitter at .295 or above and ONE slugger with 25 or more homeruns. Otherwise… definitive mediocrity. In the American League, the second-place Orioles boasted of a single starter (Ken Singleton) who reached .300, and another loner (Don Baylor) who landed exactly upon 25 four-baggers. Cellar-dwelling teams Milwaukee and Detroit had no everyday players batting in the .290’s and one a piece reaching 25 homers—Willie Horton on the button and George Scott sailing past the mark to lead the league with 36.

The Scott achievement is indicative of another trend. Even abysmal teams tended to have perhaps one standout. Rod Carew was a batting champ for the miserable Twins with a celestial .359 average. The National League’s top hitter was Bill Madlock at .354—but the Cubs were next-to-last in their division, and only one other Chicago teammate with regular at-bats managed to squeak above .300. The three worst teams in the Western Division featured just one starter above .300: Bob Watson, who was comfortably above at .324. They could claim not a single slugger who had topped 25 homers. An aging Willie McCovey had struggled to 23.

If the pitching in 1975 had been overpowering, then the crop of outliers would have been much thinner. A superstar like Mike Schmidt would raise no brows after homering 38 times… but a gigantic strikeout machine like Dave Kingman would never have been allowed to log 36. Carew and Madlock collected multiple batting crowns at astronomical percentages… but how does Ed Kranepool hit .323 if the Year of the Pitcher had returned?

What I’m seeing in the stats is what I saw everywhere in life as I came of age in the Seventies. Most people were goofing off, phoning it in—having their own version of a good time without putting too much thought into it. The few who had survived the Sixties with an intact work ethic proceeded to sparkle like the Evening Star. For others, the overhang of their shaggy hair and the flair in their low-waisted trousers were of as much importance as anything else in life. Visions were narrow and hampered by blunt hedonism. Egos were large and unfed by real accomplishment. If you were paid big bucks, it was because you swaggered along the sidewalk like John Travolta looking for action on Saturday night and had a garish chain flaming from your three-inch, wide-open collar: it wasn’t because you had to produce any labor beyond being your cosmofabulous self.

If this sounds like our own time in many respects… well, say hello to the parents of today’s thirty-somethings. We’ve used up all the more conventional varieties of drugs and sex, however, and are looking with famished pants for something with a stronger buzz. We’re less namby-pamby and more into blood sport. As athletes, we play warthog-crazy rather than poppy-field high (like Bernie Carbo, who was wasted wacky when he clubbed the game-tying homer that set the stage for Fisk’s clout). I certainly won’t say that we’re any better morally. But, you know… at least we seem to crave something out of life. Something that the next twenty-four hours can’t satisfy.

I didn’t see much of that in the Seventies.

No, Technology Has NOT Made Life Better (If You’re Old Enough to Remember the Better Alternative)

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to make medical records readily transferable from one treatment venue to another. Push a button… and the ER uploads the files from your GP’s office. In practice, learning the software is a nightmare for medical personnel, amending and updating it is a hemorrhage within hospital budgets that cannot be stanched, protocol turns out frequently to require the same old paperwork reproduced now from computer files, and the origin of critical errors is often almost impossible to trace. Time and money saved? Efficiency enhanced? What world are you living in?

One is now vigorously urged to liberate one’s investment accounts from paper. Quarterly reports are posted online: don’t forget your password! And just in case the power grid should go down for any reason, you’d better print out a copy of crucial data, or there might be no record at all of your life savings! I’ve been very happy with my TD Ameritrade account… for the most part. But when the lion’s share of my portfolio was shifted to a companion-operation called Amerivest, I continually had trouble finding my money online. I couldn’t remember that I was supposed to log in with the Amerivest username at the Ameritrade log-in box: there was no separate box for the separate entity. Such a simple conflation of procedures apparently needed no explanation to the site’s designers; but to me, whose typical day does not allow time for checking in, the “skipped step” is a perpetual stumbling block. Now that I’ve actually written a few words about it, I’m sure to remember the way in… but how many other such crucial protocols are easily misplaced or obscured because technicians don’t think like ordinary people? The minutes or hours of panic that result may add up to months or years subtracted from one’s time on earth, since our hearts are still flesh and blood.

Your job requires you to employ a certain software program—but the program’s designers have so overloaded it with firewalls and safeguards over the years that it runs like cold molasses when it runs at all. So your organization decides to shift to a different software provider and orders you to learn completely new protocols. Yet the shift will not occur for several months; so the valuable time you spend listening to software gurus explain vital details (as well as dozens and dozens of functions of utterly no interest to you or relevance to your personal tasks) will prove wholly wasted, since you will have forgotten everything when—six months from now—you need to recall it. In the meantime, you do your job a little less well thanks to all the distraction, and the raises that might have helped you keep pace with inflation are poured, instead, into the handsome salaries needed to attract more high-tech gurus to maintain an ever more complicated network.

Where in all this chaos do we find a poster-child for efficiency and competence?

A government mandate requires that you now integrate a, b, and c into your normal professional routine. A government functionary chides you for not fully overhauling your routine in a timely fashion so as to front-and-center a, b, and c. You ask that a, b, and c be settled into a certain available free space… but no, “studies have shown” that a, b, and c are most effective when everything else is organized around them. So, essentially, your thirty years of experience doing what you do must be jettisoned, and you must follow in the footsteps of every other tyro who serves a remote, faceless bureaucracy of power-brokers blissfully unfamiliar with what you do. The “studies” show that the new program of indoctrination indoctrinates better if the surrounding program in which it’s delivered does little but echo its messages. Well, duh.

Yeah, duh. Also know as “efficiency” these days.

Like it? You like this brave new world? You like what’s it’s doing to your nerves—how it bends to your will and rushes in to assist you in tasks that you have identified as important?

My New Year’s resolution to drop f-bombs from my private vocabulary has been bombed to smithereens… and we’re not yet to February! I never used to let loose with anything worse than “damn” and “hell”: now I swear like a sailor as e-life tells me daily, in a thousand subtle ways, that I don’t exist, that my opinions don’t matter, that my contribution isn’t recognized or wanted, and that the fruits of my labor no longer exist. I still run a clean act in public… but secretly, I’m smoldering all the time. It’s the way we’re over-using and abusing all this damn “smart” technology. I’ll leave it at that.

Databases Give Us Quick Answers But Don’t Teach Us to Ask Good Questions

I haven’t much time for this tonight… but the subject of technological sabotage eating away at my daily contentment has preoccupied me lately with maybe a dozen pretty powerful examples.  I’ll save the list for a better moment.

Just a footnote, then, about a conversation I had today with a librarian–and it was more of a guilt trip that I was being led along for not linking up my students to an online tutorial about the library’s databases.  Great stuff, those databases… kind of.  Sometimes.  If you have just the right keyword phrase, they save days and even weeks of time.  Take you right to the doorstep.

But what if you have no such handy little golden key?  When I was a very young man, I recall running across a reference in the Gaelic poetry of the sixteenth-century Scottish bard Rory Morrison to a peculiar legend–almost a unique one.  A king was about to execute three men when a young woman approached him and implored mercy for her brother.  Ther king was puzzled by her request, since the other two men were her husband and her son.  Why so much concern for the brother, he asked.  “Because I can get another husband,” answered the woman, “and I can bear another son, but I’ll never have another brother.”  The dazzled monarch released all three men.

This tale is rather precisely analogous to one that Herodotus told of the Persian king Cyrus about two millennia earlier.  Otherwise, it makes no appearance anywhere in the lore of Greece and Rome–or of Germany.  (Of course, Herodotus himself was a Greek… but he heard the story from a Persian.)  It’s one bit of evidence in a long and complicated–but convincing–brief that the Celts were once cultural nextdoor neighbors to Easterners who would become Persians and Indians.

Or I might mention a tale I ran across just last week in the medieval Silva Gadelica.  It has Caoilte relating to Saint Patrick an account about the Fianna’s favorite hunting hill, where the two of them are standing at that moment.  Just to prove his point, Caolite gives a wild yell that summons every game animal from the surrounding forests.  It occurred to me that the short tale would make a very nice footnote to my translation of the medieval Welsh romance Owein, at the point where a one-eyed, one-legged giant bangs a stag over the head until the beast’s bellows bring every animal in the woods.  Both figures are shamanic “masters of the hunt”, fulfilling the same role in a mythic paradigm.

Here’s my point.  How would I ever have happened upon either one of these parallels using keyword searches?  What database could yield the results that wide, serendipitous reading once did for great scholars of myth like Alfred Nutt and Stith Thompson?  Or how many scientists will be struck by the possibility of a new cure or a new cosmic force if they give up messing in the garden or didn’t ride in something like Einstein’s trolley?

Electronic databases can take researches instantly down paths that have already been traveled, and then the travelers can perhaps venture a bit farther.  What they can and will never do is teach minds how to think through sketchy, highly speculative associations rather than through shared words.  And in foreclosing a certain kind of scholarship, they will also suffocate a certain kind of human being.  Our machines will make us think more and more like a machine as their designers are claiming to make them more and more like us.  I’m sure the two will meet somewhere soon–but not on a turf that would have been considered fully human a few years ago.

Hollywood: Feeding On What It Most Hates

I doubt that the creators of War Dogs are remotely aware of the title’s Shakespearean allusion, which is as accidental as every other connection with the past in our post-culture.  You probably saw the commercial fifty times in October.  A couple of punks are getting rich selling arms to the U.S. government that they’ve bought from shady sources all around the world (e.g., Albania, awash in Chinese weapons and ammo after the Cold War).  The central plot is supposedly factual.  The Bush Administration deregulated arms sales in a manner that would allow small dealers to pursue government contracts… and this blow on behalf of efficient spending of public funds and against crony contracting with mega-corporations is–of course–represented by the film as corrupt and incompetent.  The two f-bombing idiots might have stepped straight out of the scenes of at least half a dozen recent Wall Street/Jordan Belfort movies: thinking of nothing but money, doped up for half their waking hours, and aware of what they’re doing only to the extent that they understand themselves to be doing nothing–to be playing a shell game with no pea under any of the husks.

My son wanted to watch the flick over Christmas break, and I have to disclose that I myself didn’t make it through to the end.  I’m really more curious to know what impact this kind of fare has on his generation than to find out how the cartoon ends.  (As a student of cliche, I pretty much know that after twenty minutes.)  When popular culture surrounds you with images of businessmen either boring each other to death in gray flannel suits or snorting coke and plotting how to get at the pensions of widows, how can your impression of reality not be affected?

To say that the entertainment media are undermining the morale of Western capitalism is itself a cliche, I know.  It would be far more interesting to spend some time reflecting on how capitalist greed and amorality have created the entertainment industry.  All I feel inclined to jot down for the moment, though, is that I can’t really see any coherent, premeditated conspiracy behind the demoralization.  People tell me that academe is also trying to subvert our way of life, and I respond the same way: I believe the “establishment-bashing” is more accident–more being part of the club (the anti-establishment establishment) than deliberate sabotage.  It’s the sort of ganging together that you observe on any playground.

Hollywood’s case is uniquely interesting to me, however, in that it makes enormous profits off of what its operatives see as humanity’s worst tendencies.  Violence is evil–but a film without violence is a bore and a bomb; so Hollywood creates visions of violence that exceed almost anything perceptible in real life, and then either blames the causes of violence on the “evil class” or celebrates the violent rebel for blowing up that class.  Exploiting the vulnerable is evil… so Hollywood exploits females in sexual displays approaching or surpassing the pornographic and the sadistic in order to paint the exploiters as arch-villains.  You live only by representing the thing that you most hate, so that you may both legitimize it as a real and formidable presence in the world and cast yourself as the constant, faithful crusader against its dark power.  Like the Puritan censor whose job is to smell out smut and send its producers to jail, you keep your nose in the dirt 24/7.  If the dirt should suddenly go away, your perverted vital energies would gnaw themselves into oblivion.

Will we ever take a good, hard look at how we amuse ourselves, how our amusements are leaking into our souls, and how we allow clowns and impersonators to have such influence over our cultural life?

What’s to Celebrate, About THAT President or THIS One?

I think I do a pretty good job of staying away from politics in discussions among mixed company.  If I can do it, why can’t others?  Why do I have to open the mandatory e-mail in my workplace and find a missive congratulating Barack Obama on a job well done?  There was no analagous message wishing luck to Donald Trump.  When I reflect that a few responsible people have been trying over the past decade to get Congress to remedy our exposure to Electro-Magnetic Pulse events with no success whatever at the federal level, and that a single such event could kill 300 million Americans within a year, my blood boils.  Granted, George Bush II was on watch when the alert was first raised: his administration led the charge to do nothing (being preoccupied, apparently, with monitoring all of our private communications).  Under Obama, however, not only has understanding of the impending threat deepened and been more broadly disseminated (no thanks to the mainstream media); the man has actually equipped Iran–one of the two most likely perps of an EMP attack in the near future, based on our observation of missile-development programs–to become an active threat.  Meanwhile, he’s wasted months and months of precious time and treasure-loads of precious resources ginning up concern about climate change.  Manhattan may be under water in 2075!  That’s obviously a far greater issue than the death by thirst, starvation, hypothermia, and rioting of nine out of every ten citizens, possibly by 2020.

A job well done… really?  Define “job”, please.

Contrarily, newscasters on all the FOX sister-stations produce queues of talking heads communicating the hope of “ordinary Americans” that President Trump will “make their lives better”.  The problem, it seems to me (as an American and a Constitutionalist), is that one man should have so much power as to be able to make our lives better or worse.  I don’t want anyone making my life better.  I want bureaucracies everywhere to get their fingers the hell out of my life, so that I may make it better if I have the energy or worse if I commit errors rich in good life lessons.  I want to be treated as an adult instead of a child; I don’t want a new daddy-figure who artificially supplies work for me instead of intrusively choosing my diet for me.

A student told me yesterday that you can’t collect water off your roof in these parts for filtering and drinking.  He said that it’s illegal.  A little research suggests that he was wrong in terms of state law.  Nevertheless, he may be right in terms of certain municipalities and subdivisions, which have all kinds of patently unconstitutional restrictions on what one may do.  Government entities on both the micro- and the macro-level are busily gnawing into our basic freedoms.  If you look hard for them (i.e., outside the mainstream media), stories are superabundant about the Bureau of Land Management telling a rancher that he can’t water his cows because of a rat or an owl.  My brother-in-law claims that the county in which I hope to build a retirement home will require me to have an outlet capable of servicing an electric car, even though I have no intent of ever owning such a car.  (I may drive ten miles, perhaps, in a month.)  All of these “do-gooders” are stifling the very resourcefulness and independence that will be needed to confront… oh, say, a major EMP event.  And if such an occurrence were to happen naturally (as it certainly will within a few decades–lead-pipe cinch), then it might ultimately wipe out the human race.  In the meantime, though, our keepers will have nudged us benignly toward vehicles that don’t directly use fossil fuels… and those marginalized voices who protest, like Dinesh D’Souza (a man of color, by the way), will find themselves not-so-benignly doing significant prison time on some trumped-up charge relating to improper completion of complex paper work.

I don’t see the Trump Administration flashing any signs that it will reverse the “job well done” by Barack Obama in these areas.  Trump isn’t abolishing any of the more oppressive and dictatorial departments: he’s just replacing their directors with his partisans.  So… my assessment is that you’re pretty much on your own.  Chacun pour soi.  Filter your own water without telling anyone, grow your own garden and hope that ATF’s drones don’t misidentify it as a marijuana plantation… and, in general, put your hope in your own two hands.  Get over the celebrations: there’s nothing to celebrate here.

Nazis, Judgment, and Picky Details

The Netflix documentary, What Our Fathers Did: The Nazi Legacy, follows EU administrator Philippe Sands on a strange odyssey as he persuades Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter–both sons of high-ranking Nazi officers–to join him in revisiting the past.   Frank eagerly embraces a wholesale condemnation of his father as a vicious animal.  The son indeed seems to have much axe-grinding to do against his father for deserting the family and chasing sycophantically after Hitler’s will and whimsy.  It’s not a great leap to suppose that at least some of Niklas’s righteous indignation at his father’s active participation in the Holocaust is a Freudian resentment.  He admits to a tinge of sympathy when sitting in the cell from which his father was led to be hanged after the Nuremberg Trials; yet even here, he inclines more to believe that Hans (a.k.a. “The Butcher of Poland”) was staging a religious conversion in his final reported words rather than preparing to meet his maker.  That’s a pretty hard verdict to pass on any man, but especially for a son to dish out upon his father.

Sands is the agent provocateur of guilt and resentment throughout the doc, rather like a tormenting angel of vengeance who demands that facts be recognized in their bare truth.  Perhaps he has a right to that role, up to a point: his family was virtually exterminated in the Warsaw ghetto.  He and Franks grow progressively peeved with Horst for seeking to whitewash the memory of his father Otto.  I find these sequences of the film particularly difficult to watch at times.  I want to shout at the screen, “Okay, so Horst wants to believe the best about his father!  Otto von Wachter really did regret much of what he was doing, in all probability, yet really did tell himself that he should continue doing it rather than be replaced by a more ruthless executioner.  And you two are right that such equivocation really is a pretty weak moral defense for the man.  In a way, it’s an additional indictment; for having recognized the evil of rounding up Jews for slaughter, von Wachter is even more guilty than some of his psychopathic comrades.  But why do you insist that the man’s son join you now in spitting on a long-gone father’s grave?  What exactly is the son to gain from that–and what do you gain from it?”

Otto von Wachter, as a historical figure, raises some fascinating moral issues.  He reminds me of Amphinomos, the one suitor of Penelope’s many in the Odyssey who seems to be a genuinely decent human being.  Yet as his name (“split-minded”) suggests, Amphinomos can never quite motivate himself to leave the bad company he’s in, even though Odysseus himself–disguised as a beggar–pleads with him to do so shortly before taking a deadly vengeance.  There’s a point in most of our lives when we have to stop trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and concede that the fruit is not only bitter but–in the case at hand–rotten.  Even if von Wachter had supposed himself to be facing execution should he refuse to obey orders (and very few Nazi officers ever suffered consequences for such resistance, as Hannah Arendt has observed), he should nevertheless have accepted execution.  He should have, that is, if he were a moral hero, or anything other than a moral coward.  Passive surrender to unjust punishment can give very eloquent and influential testimony.

Sands and Frank didn’t appear to be much interested in introducing the younger von Wachter to this perspective, however.  He needed to say the magic words, “My father is burning in Hell…” and he never did.  I’m not sure on what authority the other two are trying to force him into the judgment seat.

And Horst does have a ghost of a point when he says that the circumstances were complex–that you had to be there.  It remains a quibble in this case; but what about the surprising celebration he receives from Western Ukrainians near the film’s end when they find that he is von Wachter’s son?  Decked out in Nazi uniforms themselves for a commemorative event, these men see the swastika as a symbol of their struggle against Stalinist domination.  Today, right now, we’re supposed to be embracing their struggle against Putin’s efforts to revive the evil Soviet empire… and yet, the same voices in the pro-Ukrainian EU denounce anyone who criticizes their open-door immigration policy as a Nazi!

It doesn’t hurt to know some of the picky little details… or rather, it hurts a lot–but it’s good for the soul.  Horst von Wachter needs to face facts about his father; but those who would deplore his “father fantasy” might consider plucking the beam from their own eye on occasion.