The Fanatical Cultists Among Us

There’s a good chance that people aspiring to murder those who disagree with them about politics are, among other things, fanatical cultists. We tend not to view them as such because they espouse no traditional religion, and indeed often profess atheism; but an immovable conviction in the existence of a universe that bears no resemblance to the realities before us isn’t just metaphysical in nature, but fanatically so.

If you believe that everyone deserves state-of-the-art health care and that politicians who stand in that initiative’s way should be executed as murderers, then you’re a fanatical cultist. What you desire is a real-world impossibility. We must all die in the flesh of something someday, and most of us—alas—will be ill on many days along the way to our last one. It’s the human condition. Miracle drugs may come along occasionally, but they are so expensive to concoct in their early stages that not everyone can afford them. A triage of some sort is inevitable. Maybe it shouldn’t be based on degree of wealth… but should it be based on degree of poverty? Maybe the young should go first—but is it not more sane to appeal to the community for charitable donations that a child might be saved than to legislate that the older guy has to get the ticket to the next world?

You’re not living in any world possible within our given dimensions if you refuse to weigh any of these questions, plug your ears, and keep droning, “All for everyone! All for everyone!”

If you believe that anyone who opposes the complete disarming of society is an accomplice to every murder that occurs and hence deserves execution himself, then you are a fanatical cultist. If only cops have guns, then Black Bart can drop a brick on a bypassing cop, steal his revolver, and inaugurate an irresistible crime wave. If you disarm even the cops, then the brick itself becomes a highly effective assault weapon… or a pitchfork or baseball bat or steak knife. A 98-pound female can currently chase off a 250-pound male just by waving her Smith and Wesson. Once we return to the Stone Age, her assailant will not need any weapon at all to do with her as he pleases. Your insistence that things would not degenerate to this point is childish and, beyond a certain point, lunatic. A responsible adult has no right to walk around with a kindergartener’s estimate of human nature. Your lunacy is probably attributable to a cultic belief system… which makes you yourself a potentially dangerous quantity in any society that allows you to vote.

If you say that anyone who obstructs the complete dissolution of national borders is impeding beleaguered people from finding food, shelter, and freedom and hence deserves to be executed as a passive mass-murderer, then consider yourself a fanatical cultist. Among other things, we must consider what diseases an alien population might introduce among us if not screened. Particularly in societies that offer an extensive net of social services, we must realize that thousands will rush our cities to gain access to free food, free police protection, free education, free medical attention, and so forth. Such resources are not inexhaustible; on the contrary, they must be doled out very carefully to those most in need and in a manner that encourages eventual self-sufficiency. Along with the poor and oppressed, as well, a criminal element will be sure to cross any unenforced border to a wealthier community. The situation is a goldmine for evil-doers: gather loot where it proliferates, then skip back across to another territory that will not pursue criminal acts committed “over there”.

If, in spite of all these liabilities, you really believe that we can and must exist as one big happy family in one great house—and that naysayers should be shot like mad dogs because of the obstacle they pose to “real progress”—then you are seriously delusional and a menace to yourself and others. You are a fanatical cultist who has no use for the world as it was made and must ever be.

How many of these are out there, I wonder? And why are we preoccupied with ISIS when our own society is nourishing a variety of fanaticism at least as dangerous and—now, it seems—homicidal?

 

On Pessimism and Misanthropy

Pessimism is the routine expectation that things will happen for the worst (pessimus being Latin for “worst”). Misanthropy literally means “hatred of mankind” in Greek (misos + anthropos)–but in common usage, its tone is somewhat milder, as in “not trustful of people”.

I have been called both of these; and while I certainly haven’t a lot of trust in people, especially in an age where young high school and college graduates are constantly encouraged to “follow their dreams” in idiotic commencement addresses (a recipe for disaster, given the irresponsibility of dreams nourished on video games and Netflix fantasies), I think “the worst” is most often averted when we’re suspicious of our neighbors. The founders of the republic thought the same thing. In my lifetime, it has been the optimists who typically open the door to disaster: the people whose expectations are so absurdly self-indulgent and rose-colored that cynical manipulators run circles around them and create a hell on earth. Then, when the “snowflakes” finally wake up and realize that they’ve been played, they become as naïve in their mistrust as they were formerly in their gullibility. They tend to lay the blame for all that has gone wrong at the doorstep of a certain designated group of villains, in a romantic kind of Manichaeism—good guy versus bad guy—rather than growing up and recognizing that all people have at least latent corruption nestled somewhere within them.

The trouble with optimism is that it can leave those whom it burns stupidly pessimistic. And on their way to getting badly burned, the naïve can get innocent people killed. I won’t repeat my remarks of a few weeks ago about Pope Francis.

Let me toss out just a couple of examples that sailed past my bow this week in illustration of why I don’t feel just all peachy soft and fuzzy about human civilization’s future.

One case stares at me from my Kindle almost every time I fire it up. The murder mystery seems to be to our casual reading public what oats are to a horse. Now, my mother loved mystery novels, and I think most of us enjoy a good crime drama on occasion. I had to give up watching Joe Kenda, however, because at some point I just couldn’t take any more young single moms letting strangers they’d picked up at the bar into their lives and winding up in a dumpster. Real murder, you see, is anything but glamorous. It’s the most squalid crime imaginable. The motive is generally some mix of lust, greed, egotism, and stupidity—with a very strong dose of the last: murderers are almost never evil geniuses. The murder itself is usually a brutal act of superior physical strength asserting itself over a victim screaming piteously, and pointlessly, for mercy. Even the higher predators in the animal food chain show more heart than the average murderer.

Yet nowadays, even as we create safe spaces and trigger alerts to coddle our epidermis-free sensitivity, we willingly accept murder into our amusements as an integral part of escapist fantasy. It’s the sanitization of murder in the pulp romance that gripes me—the degradation of mass taste that is implied in that makeover of human depravity. Joe Kenda’s tales were real enough to leave me mildly nauseated after a while: Joe Kindle keeps insulting my intelligence with teases about the latest “humorous, sexy murder mystery”.

One more quick example: I was looking up the Romanian word for “bull” because I know almost no Romanian whatever, and I needed to make a linguistic point about the modern languages descended from Latin. I’m not kidding you: the first full page of a dozen entries that popped up on my computer screen when I Googled my question offered Romanian street parlance for “bullsh*t”. Seems that we have all forgotten about the male bovine with a bellowing voice and what Jack Falstaff called a “pizzle”. How did we come to the point where coprologisms have more currency among us than basic words for basic realities? What does that say about us?

So, no, I’m not real happy with things. It’s because I can still generate the energy to be upset that the notion of effective action continues to mean something to me. Would we be better off just smiling every time our decadent culture serves us up a dish of “bull” when we ask for bread?

Except for People

Just got in from checking on my garden. The sweet potatoes are starting to send their leave up out of the ground—it happens literally over night. My bell peppers are doing much better now that I’ve transplanted them from the raised, boxed garden with its rich soil into more sandy terrain; they just didn’t take to the high-rent district! My goji bush is exploding; an odd little tree that I think (and hope) has sprung from a jujube seed continues to thrive; and the ever-screwball butternut squash have actually volunteered this spring (after I had given up on them after so many years of wasted time) and are producing plump gourds that, by all lessons of the past, just shouldn’t be there!

One can usually make peace with Nature. If things aren’t growing, there’s a reason, and one may be able to figure it out with a lot of patience—though it would have been even better to have preserved some of that ancestral wisdom which we’ve trashed along with Grandma’s sewing machine. Many times, I have the thought that a large part of our postmodern malaise is owed to our having ruptured our bonds with the soil and the seasons. Life and death, health and sickness, the stages leading to maturity, the rain that must fall so that the sun may give further life… even the electricity released by violent thunderstorms, I suspect, must be balancing out something in the atmosphere that would prove toxic if the weather were forced to be “peaceful”.

Yet all I hear and see in the human world is irksome whining about natural limitation (e.g., our paltry two genders), arrogant rejecting of cycle in favor of strict linear progression (e.g., our looming immortality as human/robot hybrids), and tasteless self-insulating in childish fantasies (e.g., the newly released Wonder Woman—and should she have hair under her arms, or not?). Plants can talk to you through how they look: my bell peppers told me that they preferred the sand when I saw them putting out new green leaves. Their language always makes sense. It’s about sun, and water, and survival, and supplying the next generation. People, in contrast, just don’t make any sense at all to me any more. Their audible language is much easier to assemble—but its message, the combined product of its words, is gibberish.

As I was walking back inside, I had the kind of thought that isn’t typical of me these days—and it came to me so powerfully that I was actually saying it out loud: “God, the world is beautiful… except for people. Except for people.” Yeah, that last part is typical “me”, I suppose, as I’ve now become; but I sometimes forget how Edenic life on this planet can be if you can just escape the clamoring, yammering apes in clothes. The alternative is well worth seeking out.

 

Show Me the Way to Go Home

What should have been a nine-hour drive yesterday turned into eleven grueling hours for my wife and me. The cause of this was mostly the complete absence of adequate signage at critical points, or else the ambiguous placement of signs at spots where they might be beckoning you to take either of two exits or turns. At one point, I simply had to stop and ask directions (especially since the skies were clouded up and I hadn’t the slightest sense of where true north lay). The answer I received was a bewildered, “Well, I’m not sure, but… don’t you have a GPS?”

We did, actually—but the roads had changed so rapidly in certain areas that our unit couldn’t handle all the conflicting information. Sometimes the little box reminds me pathetically of that robot in the Isaac Asimov story walking circles on Planet Mercury and going crazy because the elements of its basic programming have been made contradictory. Funny how you almost feel sorry for your unit at those moments (“in 800 yards, turn left—turn right, turn right”)… after you get over being furious at it and then feeling shame because “it’s not the poor thing’s fault.”

What’s really interesting here is how fully we have already surrendered our sense of direction to the machine. For years, I’ve been hearing people say, “If this keeps up, nobody will know how to read a map.” That day has arrived. Maps are obsolete. The notion of inferring direction from the slant of the shadows at a particular time of day has grown bizarre. Even locals in small towns don’t seem to know how to tell you to get from Sunset Boulevard to the Joe Kowalski Sports Complex. “Well… don’t you have a GPS?”

And apparently the various state and local departments responsible for posting signs don’t care much about the situation, either. Seriously, I think we may be very close to the time when these government entities alert us (to nobody’s great surprise or concern) that they will no longer be squandering funds on signage. Just tell your car’s dashboard where you wish to go, and then listen to instructions—or turn over the driving entirely to the vehicle. That’s another stop or two down the road, but it’s surely coming, as well.

And the technophile will mock, “So what? Why does anyone need to know east from west? Unless your plane crashes in the Sahara and you have no bars and no radio, why would you ever need to know which way to go? Even then, after the crash, your best bet is probably to stay put and wait.”

Yeah, yeah… but what happens when you have to pay through the nose for system updates (the refusal to accept which blackmail was the specific cause of our GPS’s inadequacy)? What happens in the event of a solar flare? What happens if the data are simply wrong for any one of a thousand reasons, ranging from accident to sabotage? I don’t like the sound of a world where I must absolutely have a machine to transit from A to B.

Yet we’re already there: that’s what I learned this weekend.

Animal Planet Peddles More Unicorns

I think “cryptozoology” is a really fascinating subject. The assumption is always made by the general public (and usually fed by professionals in the sciences, who don’t like to admit that something might possibly lie beyond their ken) that we must surely have discovered by now every life form on Planet Earth. This is an ignorant, arrogant leap of faith. Because most of us have now squeezed ourselves into “megalopolis” or into one of the concentric rings of suburbia enclosing it, we can’t imagine any weird creature’s escaping detection. One thing we fail to consider is that our collective influx into cities has left rural areas depopulated. Yes, the explosion of human inhabitants in all quarters of the globe would seem to compensate for any relative diminution in the percentage of people filling this or that corner. I doubt that this proposition is unassailable, however. Comparatively few though we were a hundred years ago, our overwhelmingly agricultural society still concentrated its strength very heavily in the boondocks. Now any drive along a rural highway (and how many of us ever take such a drive?) reveals desolation on all sides. Abandoned houses are falling apart everywhere, and seldom does any new structure rear its satellite dish in their place.

People who should find themselves in the country for some reason are also less likely now to know its sights and sounds. They can’t tell a wolf’s cry from a coyote’s or a crow’s call from a caracara’s. The situation where a tenderfoot thinks he may have seen a chupacabra when he’s only run across a large stray dog often works in reverse, thanks to such ignorance: a person might see an unidentified species and assume that it is a familiar one. Witnesses in shooting incidents almost invariably say that they at first thought the gunshots were a backfiring car. The stronger tendency of the human mind is to blend the unique into the commonplace, not the other way around.

Thirdly, the encroachment of human beings on so many once-remote parts of the natural environment can create opportunities for more resourceful species that were formerly hard-pressed. Squirrels are much more abundant in suburbia than in the wilderness. Humans have chased off or killed most natural predators (foxes, snakes, hawks) while allowing the “cuddly, adorable” little fur-ball to chew up orchards and attics unmolested. If something extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent like a Sasquatch did exist, an invasion of humans that thinned out rival predators like panthers and bears while allowing food sources like deer and squirrel to proliferate might actually improve the outlook for survival.

All of this is merely to say that I was looking forward to the first episode of Animal Planet’s Destination: Mungo last Sunday. Quite a letdown. Once again, we are treated to a showman who expensively, ostentatiously makes his way to some forgotten corner of the planet… and then spends one night in the “hot spot” to see if his infrared cameras are activated by anything larger than a rat. Bwana Mungo hasn’t even heard of the coelacanth, apparently (and hasn’t yet figured out how to pronounce the word, either). In one scene, he contacts his biologist buddy in the States to ask if the Postosuchus, a Triassic ancestor of the crocodile, might really exist today, as Liberian locals are reporting. Responding via satellite through a laptop linked to a smartphone, the suitably bearded academic tells an inspirational story. “Have you heard of the coelacanth, Mungo?” “No, never. Tell me about it.” Oh, please!

In the first place, the coelacanth’s presumed date of extermination was considerably closer to our own time than the late Triassic (by a factor of close to a thousand). In the second place, coelacanths inhabit ocean trenches and would be virtually undetectable to human beings in the normal course of events. In the third place, of course Mungo has heard of the coelacanth! I learned of its lately discovered survival into the present when I was a young boy—a professional wildlife photographer and cryptozoology enthusiast could no more have remained ignorant of the subject than a physicist could fail to have heard of a quark. And finally, biologist buddy’s fishing stories transmitted by satellite, however inspirational, are insufficient reason for Mungo to rise from his laptop feeling new confidence in his quest. He hasn’t garnered a single particle of arcane information about tropical African fauna that might be seen as assisting his search. The whole exchange is highly staged and utterly ridiculous… almost as bad as a mockumentary about mermaids.

So… my quest of credible shows on the subject of cryptozoology continues as we permanently put the Amusement Park of Mungo at our backs. I’m looking for something rarer than a unicorn, it seems. In the meantime, old episodes of River Monsters are far less a waste of time.

He Who Forges Lies About a Knave Is Himself a Lying Knave

I need to make a short “razoo” (as my grandfather would have said: ancient Texan for Italian razzia) to another state very shortly. The place where I always stay is sure to have that pompous, sanctimonious, snarky monument to journalistic anomia, Chris Cuomo, blaring away on CNN in the breakfast room; so I’m packing my ear plugs, and I will either get early dibs on the far table shielded from the TV by a corner or else graze parapatetically in the lobby.

I absolutely can’t stand Cuomo. The last time I stayed at this venue, he drove me from the dining room fuming like an overheated waffle iron. I can’t detect a tinge of equitability in how he covers news. And the rest of CNN isn’t much better. The other day I stared in disbelief as, toggling off of Netflix, I discovered some reporter hot on the trail of an “incident” involving Trump’s thrusting another head of state to the ground. The video showed one man placing his hand gently on the other’s shoulder and sliding past him in a crowded room—but the audio described…

Well, something like newly elected Representative Gianforte of Montana’s decking, choking, and pummeling of a reporter. If you or I had behaved like this in public, we’d not only spend the night in jail (and, upon adjudication, probably stay there the next ninety days), but we’d also see our professional and communal reputation permanently ruined. Here CNN has a legitimate case of newsworthy molestation; and, since Gianforte is a Republican (unlike former Florida Representative Alan Grayson, whose pathological bullying was constantly airbrushed from national headlines), his outburst is being covered around the clock.

Yet Gianforte has now been elected to the US House of Reps. Perhaps even more vexatious, the list of luminaries in the right-wing commentariat who have defended him and/or impugned Mr. Jacobs (the reporter) in knee-jerk reaction to CNN’s feeding frenzy includes Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Dinesh D’Souza, and Brent Bozell, the last three of whom can lay a credible claim to being something more than showmen (though they might not appreciate the word “intellectual”).

Overplaying its hand, as always, CNN wants to maintain that Trump essentially committed the assault—that Gianforte was only his surrogate… which is preposterously absurd, and would be emotionally disturbing even in an early adolescent. (“Mom, it was that Wally who made me steal the PlayStation. I wouldn’t have done it, but I see him cheating on homework all the time.”) I didn’t vote for Trump (or his opponent), precisely because his reactions remind me so much of an early adolescent’s, and a certain amount of this misery has been drawn down upon him by his own buffoonery. But he hasn’t tackled anybody since his highly staged, burlesque drubbing of Vince McMahon on Smackdown.

Speaking of right-wing punditry… I’m really, really, REALLY sick of Limbaugh and Hannity referring to people who made my electoral decision as establishment-Republicans who think they’re better than the working class. Trump’s entire business life has been a long tale of playing insider’s games, and his political philosophy (insofar as he has any) is every bit as paternalistic and nanny-statist as Bill Gates’ or Warren Buffit’s. This kind of “with us or against us” analysis has all the finesse and discrimination of the mob’s decision to murder Cinna the poet after Caesar’s death because one of the conspirators was named Cinna.

But again, accusing Trump of dealing out body slams to foreign heads of state as he navigates through a crowded room is just as idiotic—or attributing to him the blows that fell from another man’s fists. Such idiocy is routine in the mainstream press, and it’s also international. Peter Helmes wrote at his site, Die Deutschen Konservativen, last month of a mainstream German news story titled, “Ferguson Three Years After the Unrest—The Fight Against Racism in Trump-Land.” I wouldn’t even let such tendentious garbage as that title leak into a blog entry (quite ignoring the minor detail that, as Helmes stresses, Trump was building hotels three years ago).

And as brutal and appalling as Gianforte’s assault on a journalist was, where have we seen any story on mainstream news chronicling California professor of philosophy Eric Clanton’s assault with a deadly weapon (a padlock attached to the end of a chain) upon the heads of three Trump supporters—young students all—at Diablo Valley College? The date was April 15. Well over a month ago now. Guess we’re not going to hear Chris Cuomo covering that one.

I’m getting sooo very sick of all of this! I don’t write about politics in this space, and I’m not doing so now. I’m writing about how ashamed I feel to be a human being lately. May I please submit an official Species Change Form to the appropriate authorities for immediate consideration?

Publishing: The Grandest and Vilest of Occupations

As I prepare to put my association with The Center for Literate Values to bed, after a seventeen-year struggle to make it grow, I’m greatly relieved… but also saddened. A lot of stuff in my life seems to be getting bundled off into memory’s attic at just this time. My son is done with college and busy with a full-time job at a location almost a thousand miles away. Who knows when I’ll see him again? I can’t wait to sell this old house and move into a new one built much more to our taste… but my boy grew up here, and every inch of the property stirs its own recollections. I’m about to begin my professional swan song as an educator, and it’s high time for me to bug out before I have to do everything online in semi-robotic fashion… but I had a few successes as a teacher, and I won’t be having any of those after next April.

The Center—and its quarterly journal Praesidium—shared much with my frustrating academic career. I thought we could reach a critical mass of people and help to keep a taste for classic literature alive; but we were forced to wage this war through a website for financial reasons, and people who surf websites generally don’t care about the proper interpretation of Virgil or Ariosto. It often seemed that I was fighting the spread of kudzu across my lawn by whipping new tendrils with vines of kudzu.

I continue to write and translate, and I know now that I can’t stop. But I also know by now that none of the conventional outlets for “success” is open to the likes of me. My translation of three medieval Celtic romances isn’t riddled with neo-Marxism, feminism, or Gay/Queer Theory, but rather juxtaposes the threesome from the point of view of comparative mythology and Christian allegorizing. Try getting that published at a university press today! A novel I wrote last summer represents through fantasy an eternal punishment for wicked deeds, its vision founded in an “absolutist” (what stupid words we’re forced to use now!) vision of good and evil. Try getting some money and press lined up for that from the “creative” community!

In fact, publishers rarely accept anything in any genre nowadays from someone not previously published and successfully marketed (the same old Catch 22 as, “We can’t give you this job unless you have experience”). Now, if your last name were Clinton or Trump or Kardashian and you were willing to tell all—in broken fifth-grade prose—about the intimate workings of certain households, the rule would be waived. Otherwise, publishers want proof that you can make money. The days of a thoughtful editorial board reading over, heatedly discussing, and taking a chance on an offbeat submission probably died somewhere in the Seventies.

Even academic publishers now require a curriculum vitae (what normal people call a résumé) to be submitted with the manuscript. The reason given for the request is completely disingenuous in an age when you can research “Halifax McGarnicle” instantly on your smartphone and see if he’s all he claims to be. No, the purpose of that somewhat creepy requirement is to ensure that the University of Deadwater Press doesn’t say “no” to Professor Gastropod, the world’s leading expert on gay behavior among narwhals.

I’m more and more attracted, then, to the idea of publishing my own stuff as cheap PDF and EPUB downloads—and the stuff of others who are equally sick of the publishing racket. We would do well to make a few dollars’ profit, but we would perhaps reach worthy audiences. And the investment would be virtually nil, unlike the notorious shakedowns operated by vanity presses, whose architects never report your sales to you honestly (as I know from bitter experience). One of the things I need to find out is if software exists to inform collaborators instantly and automatically of sales—for I would hate asking authors to rely strictly on my integrity.  I’ve known outfits whose marketers do this, and then bristle indignantly if you raise a question. Even if you set a trap and catch them in specific breaches of faith, what are you going to do—pay a lawyer to recover the ten bucks you’ve been cheated out of?  How do you prove that it’s more?

The “information for prospective authors” on my site would read something like this:

Aspiring authors are encouraged to submit their work for processing in inexpensive downloads, for which they may set their own price and for whose sale they will receive 100 percent reimbursement. The objective of this system is to draw potential buyers to a site where they may view works reflecting tastes and values similar to those of the author whom they originally came to seek; so your contribution is assessed in shoppers drawn to visit, not in pennies scooped off your sales.

I hope it works. I’m running out of ideas for saving literacy—and out of years on earth to give them a try.