The Emperor’s New Clothes. Hans Christian Andersen wrote an amusing tale for children, yes, but if we extrapolate a bit — and it doesn’t take much — then we have a model for all sorts of things we adults get up to on a regrettably regular basis. The split between rhetoric and reality is the fundamental issue, and that split gapes wide in the ideology of our modern world like the maw of an enormous hippopotamus. If we’re going to tackle it — and we are, Bridget, so fasten that seat belt, babes — we better eat our spinach like Popeye because damn, we’ve got our work cut out for us. I’m breaking out in a sweat just thinking about it.
This rhetoric/reality split deserves consideration at both the personal and collective levels. That the two levels are intimately involved with each other as partners in this game of yes-it-is no-it-isn’t stands beyond any shadow of doubt. Tracking the linkages between the levels is no piece of cake, however. Let’s start with the personal level and see what’s up, then we can map it to the collective level and see just what nefarious goings-on are at work undermining our health, wealth and well-being, not to mention the survival of the Planet on which we depend for our very lives.
You may be surprised at my choice of entry point for discussion of the personal level, but I find no more apt example of the fragility that ensues when the civilization one inhabits plays fast-and-loose with reality. (You can capitalize the “r” of the last word in the previous sentence, if you like; my point still remains valid.) The example that seems most apt to me is: depression.
We toss that word around liberally these days, usually meaning a state of mind rather than a clinically defined disorder. Its reality in the American population is set forth in some tidy statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Society of America (here). Ostensibly some 40 million people — 18% of the American population — suffer an incidence of depression annually. A statistic from the National Network of Depression Centers says that suicide is the second most common cause of death in the age range 15-44 (here). In the past few weeks we’ve seen in the headlines news of the suicide of two famous people, designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, which has brought public discussion of the issue to a fever pitch. The use of antidepressants in the USA climbed by 65% over 15 years according to an article from 2017 by CBS News (here). Clearly, many of us are not very happy campers. Rather than consider people with depression or anxiety disorders oddballs falling under the wheels of purely private problems, could we say that increasing levels of depression and anxiety might represent a legitimate response to living in a civilization that becomes with each passing year more like a house of cards? What’s defined as “mental health” may simply be an index of the strength of one’s ability to block out aspects of reality that actually are disturbing — and legitimately so. Some people might use the word “denial” to label that deflective ability we define as a state of health that keeps a smile on your face and a song in your heart. And they may just have a point.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Sounds fun, right? We’ll take five people from the general population and sit them down in a room. They come from different walks of life, but we’ve selected them because they represent sectors of the population known for the resilience of their “mental health.” That means, of course, we won’t have any novelists or poets or composers or such ilk, because we all know they’re half looney to begin with. We’re going for Salt Of The Earth here — solid, regular folk you can count on, not wackos who spend their time doing weird stuff because they’re out on thin ice from the get-go. We’ll have in our group of five a soccer mom, a factory worker, a social worker, a clergyman, and an economist/banker/financier type. What we’ll do with these five people is present them with a list of statements they have to accept as facts, because enough evidence already exists to suggest that they may indeed be factual, although we fervently hope that isn’t the case. We’ll require them to read the list three times a day before mealtimes over the course of six months and study it for 15 minutes before going to bed. They also have to discuss at least one item on the list with one person every day. It doesn’t have to be a World Summit, just a brief discussion with somebody in their personal sphere about one of the items on the list. Simple, right? So let’s move on to the list. Here it is:
- The human race will irreversibly damage the Planet’s biosphere within a span of time that includes the lives of the next three generations, whose existence will become increasingly nightmarish
- The capitalist system currently in general force worldwide will prevent any serious change in economic structures that could lower the number of children who die annually from starvation
- From an environmental standpoint it would be best if a goodly percentage of the human race simply dropped dead — say, 80%. Or maybe 90% — because like any mammalian wildlife population they can’t control their urges and the numbers will start to rocket skyward as soon as the die-off occurs
- Income inequality has now reached a degree of severity not seen since the 1920’s, which means those in the lower economic echelons of society are essentially in a state of economic slavery to the top 10% of the population with no hope of escape
- Religion is a major causative factor for political disenfranchisement, continued worsening of overpopulation and the outbreak of sectarian acts of violence
And one more, just for fun:
- Human history in its final accounting shows an utter failure to create a sustainable and enlightened world civilization, so all the beautiful things people have created over the millenia will be destroyed as that failure pushes not only the human race but also the Planetary biosphere itself toward oblivion within a future easily foreseeble by people alive today
There, that should do it.
So, our five guinea pigs have their list. Now let’s carry the experiment forward as they go through their six month assignments. We’ll give them a little pep talk to get them started.
The Soccer Mom
Dear Madam: please remember that every time you start the minivan another member of an endangered species in South America dies. Your children will contribute to the destruction of the biosphere upon which all life depends, so your loins have spawned Planet Killers, which hardly surprises since you’re one yourself. That’s what family values are all about, at the end of the day — the ultimate suicide of the human race that takes all other Planetary life down the drain, as well. Speaking, then, from the standpoint of evolutionary trajectories you are a dead-end. Your descendants will live an existence you would not wish on a dog. You could only have minimized the damage by being sterile or by keeping those ovaries in check — which of course never crossed your mind or any other part of your anatomy. We’re particularly interested in knowing the number of miles per week you drive while carting the kids around to their various activities. Just put it down in the log report, we’ll do the calculations for future biome degradation. Should another pregnancy begin on your part during the period of the experiment, please notify us as soon as possible so that we can revise our baseline scoring to accommodate that change as an exponential factor. Thanks for helping us to determine the future pace of deterioration in the quality of life for everyone. A lot of people not yet born will thank you. At least we hope they will.
The Factory Worker
Dear Madam: we regret to inform you that your struggle for existence is permanent. Every day you go to work somebody in the top 10% of the population gets significantly richer. For every dollar you earn, they skim off 100, maybe even 1000 — in any case, a LOT more than you’ll ever get. You’re basically economic chattel and it doesn’t really matter what you think or how you vote. The entrenched system of economic exploitation will continue to polarize income as it has done over the past several decades, despite the diminishing attempt to create a solid middle class — which is, of course, crumbling as we speak. But you know all about that because you’re smack dab in the middle of it, so never mind. Sorry it worked out this way, but there’s nothing you can do about it. It will be this way until you die. Thanks so much for your valuable contribution to our project. Keep up the good work (just don’t expect to get rich from it).
The Social Worker
Dear Sir: we’re putting on a workshop for social service staff entitled, “Soldiering On In the Face of Futility.” It’s been clear for a long time now that the social causes of poverty, domestic abuse, drug addiction and a whole host of societal ills falling under your professional purview will never be eliminated. It’s highly unlikely they can even be reduced. To put it bluntly, you’re bashing your head against a brick wall. We understand that fact and sympathize. That’s why we’re putting on this workshop, to help participants like you cope with the fact that what they do will never really make any difference in the Big Picture. See you at the workshop, and don’t bring lunch, we’ll have sandwiches catered in. It’s the least we can do.
Dear Sir: it appears that people in your line of work have been up to all sorts for thousands of years. Recent analysis done by our Research Department shows that violent acts by humans against other humans with a basis in religious belief constitute a significant part of the total mass violence humans have perpetrated on each other over the course of human history. Consequently, we’d like you to have a chat with the Boss and find out when you might get that irksome business sorted out and introduce World Peace. We firmly believe that task is somewhere near the top of the bullet list in your job description. Some of us in Project Management opine that it’s long overdue, but we can give you another six months of lead time. If you get word from your Higher Ups earlier, please get in touch. We have Instagram and Twitter, just beep us up at your earliest convenience. Peace be unto you and soon, hopefully, to us all. Ad majoram gloriam Dei etc. etc.
Dear Madam: we thought it appropriate to bring to your attention that as part of your particiption in our experiment you will be asked to provide a table showing the relationship between any increase in profits or organizational assets and the number of children who will die from starvation as a result of that increase. We understand that this measurement is difficult and we can certainly accommodate use of a coefficient of variation. A few more dead children on the plus or minus side makes little difference to you, we can well understand, since the deaths will occur in countries you never visit. That point enables us to offer some flexibility with regard to reporting parameters. Shortly before the experiment period ends we will issue a reminder to ask for your data. Best of luck for your financial success over the next six months, or, as your CFO may put it, “go get ’em, tiger.”
I wager to say that by the end of six months our participants may well exhibit sign of … depression. Just a guess on my part, but surely within the realm of possibility. In point of fact, they should exhibit signs of depression, because that’s the only appropriate response to the realities we have made their daily food. We will have induced that state through the application of fact, of reality to their ideologically charmed lives. The final outcome? They’ll take to strong drink or go on Prozac or engage some other solution to the distressing business of facing the truth of the Big Picture, then they’ll go back to doing exactly what they did before the experiment took place, which will indicate a “cure.” After all, they’re Salt Of The Earth because they’re denial junkies. They’ll get back on the denial bandwagon ASAP. Give them a few months and they’ll have that Hallmark smile on again, as broad as you please, and their cheerfulness will be as unflappable as your alarm at the climate change data you keep finding online — which they tell you to stop worrying about.
Now it’s time for the wackos — the category I’m in — to have their say. We kept them at arm’s length in our thought experiment in order not to taint the data from our Salt Of The Earth folk, but wackos are people, too, and everybody gets their say. Since I’m one of their fold, I’ll do the talking. But I’m calling in help from one of my old pals, the magnificently cantankerous Doris Lessing, an author who delighted in nothing more than pointing her finger at The Emperor’s New Clothes. In The Four-Gated City Lessing wrote an entire novel, the culminating tome in her series of five novels entitled The Children of Violence, on the issue of living in a house of cards. For those of you not familiar with the story, there’s a very good discussion of its main points here. On first reading it made so strong an impression on me I think it did something like a brain tattoo. So I’ll call on Doris to help fill in my blanks as I move along.
We must first establish a couple ground rules. Number one is that the opinion of any given person, no matter what his or her status, is of no importance whatever. That means you. That means me. That means the President of the United States, the Pope, or the Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry. Our survival as a species doesn’t rely on opinions, insights or intellectual acumen, it depends one on thing and one thing only: facts. Because we inhabit a domain of physical reality, there’s always a set of bottom-line facts in operation at both individual and collective levels. The trouble with creatures like us is that we don’t always apprehend those facts in a way timely enough to use our conscious awareness — that much vaunted Flower of Creation, which ostensibly sets us above all other matter in the Universe — to stop bad things from happening to innocent Planets. Or to ourselves, for that matter.
Take ocean acidification as an example (Wikipedia article here). Only recently did it dawn on the scientific community that if we have a major problem with a carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere due to fossil fuel consumption, that increase will affect the oceans, too, since the atmosphere is in contact with the ocean over 70% of the Planet’s surface. Carbon dioxide is soluble in water, where it becomes carbonic acid — one of those pesky facts, Bridget, take a few notes why don’t you? — so carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere will bring about changes in the pH level of the oceans. The knee bone’s connected to thigh bone … da dum dee dum. You know the words. Major scientific research on ocean acidification is a recent phenomenon. It should have started, of course, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Unfortunately, shoulds don’t count.
Ocean acidification is a fact, not a perception or an opinion. It’s not even a discovery, it’s been going on for a long time. We just cottoned on to it recently, but that hardly makes it new in the realm of facts. It doesn’t matter whether the President of the United States thinks it’s a major problem or just another bit of fake news. Facts is facts, and we’re biological facts smack dab in the middle of all the other biological facts in operation on the Planet, including those we ourselves have set in motion. We live or die by those facts, no matter what our opinion of them happens to be. That’s ground rule Number One: nothing counts but the facts.
Ground Rule Number Two is specific to us humans. Imagine each human being as a road map. That approach will allow us to conceptualize a person’s active field of consciousness and to assess its extent. The societal definition of “mental health” discussed above in our thought experiment would map as a city with a ring road around it and nothing going outside in any direction. So on the consciousness map our five participants look like Washington, D.C. with the Beltway. 🙁 Sorry, don’t mean to be a meanie here, but facts is facts. So Ground Rule Number Two is: the map of your field of consciousness is the only determinant of your credibility as an assessor of reality. I need hardly say that if your map looks like Washington, D.C. encircled by the Beltway, you’re barely worth giving the time of day as far as the Big Picture goes. A pity, I quite realize, but there it is.
Some other human beings have very different maps. Take, for example, the Kogi tribe in their perch on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, the only group in the Americas that carries on a culture pre-dating the arrival of the Spanish. They regularly use telepathy as part of their communication network. For them it’s a fact. It’s free and apparently works even better than AT&T, if you can imagine that. The Kogi have twice read us denizens of modern civilization the riot act for messing up the Planet, once in 1992 with the film “From the Heart of the World: the Elder Brothers’ Warning,” (video here), then again in 2012 with the film “Aluna” (video here), which they made because we paid them no attention the first time they piped up. Alan Ereira, the now retired BBC presenter who worked with the Kogi to create the films, emphasizes in talking about the second film the process of getting validation of the Kogi message from prominent members of the scientific community. Some hot shot science guys (no gals, sorry ladies) — Salt Of The Earth types to a man, of course, how could it be otherwise? — listen to the Kogi and affirm that gee whiz, they just may have a valid point. We also find in YouTube support messages from Famous People. It’s surprising to see Joanna Lumley or Julian Lennon go on film telling people to pay attention to a bunch of little brown people halfway around the world. The more important question is, will the Kogi message really be taken seriously at the level of implementation? It’s a film, after all, not legislation, and the scientists who give the Kogi a thumbs up in the film have to keep their jobs. Going on about “aluna” at the next professional conference they attend is likely not the best way to secure their place in the academic scheme of things. Who’s gonna get tenure or a promotion by talking about the mind at the heart of Nature to a bunch of science PhDs?
In the Four-Gated City Lessing has one of the main characters, a schizophrenic under treatment by the medical establishment, emerge as a mouthpiece of reality. Of the facts. But “normal” people cannot, will not hear that voice and attempt to medicate it out of existence because it’s “abnormal.” In other words, “normal” humanity has no ears to hear nor eyes to see factual reality. The Kogi know that now very well. They won’t make another attempt to get their message through our thick skulls. If it fails again on the second attempt, then it’s over. They will know The End is at hand and that we will carry on oblivious to the consequences of our actions in the future, as has always been our wont. The Sumerians got that cycle rolling by irrigating themselves into oblivion, and from that point forward it’s been deja vu all over again. All signs point to the likelihood that we’ll do exactly the same thing, our momentum in that direction appears unstoppable. We’ll continue to play Candy Crush while the house goes up in flames and crashes in on top of us.
The Kogi are not considered looney like the schizophrenic in Lessing’s novel, but in terms of The Establishment they are “primitive” or “traditional” or in some other fashion not quite according to Hoyle. The subtext of such classifications is that such ideas have no legitimacy or credibility in the ideological framework of modern civilization, especially from a scientific perspective, hence the attempt in the second film to get endorsement from the scientific community to legitimize the message on terms our civilization finds ideologically acceptable. In their own civilizational framework the Kogi mamas are the ultimate experts, like PhDs with postdocs who act as mouthpieces of accumulated knowledge and experience that go back thousands of years in a continuous thread of civilization never broken or corrupted by European conquest. Western civilization makes no effort to absorb such alien discourse, rather it uses incommensurability with such discourse as a means of maintaining ideological dominance. Other tools in its ideological arsenal include trivialization, outright dismissal and assignment to the category “abnormal.” So the Kogi stand little chance of getting across their message to the “Younger Brother,” as they call us, because Younger Brother only speaks his own language and, as the consciousness map of Western Civilization repeatedly shows, he doesn’t consider anything outside the Beltway as real. In such a manner the Kogi are neutralized. They exist, that’s impossible to deny, but ideologically they’re rendered unreal because they don’t operate inside the Beltway. Tra la tra la, where were we before we were interrupted by those little brown people from … oops, hehehe … I’m just no good with foreign names, bad me. Forgot to write it down, too, jeez … oh well, we can Google it later …
Through some perverse twist of fate, I’ve always been aware of living in a civilizational house of cards, even when I was young. I’ve seen handwriting on the wall from the get go. Lessing did, as well, as her early fiction shows. Her Canopus in Argos series — which contributed mightily to her getting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 and which, appallingly, is in part now out of print — gave her a vehicle to analyze in depth the frailties of civilizations, just as the Children of Violence series was her vehicle for analyzing the frailties of individuals within a civilizational framework. Reality is uncomfortable for people like Lessing, not a daily confirmation of one’s Salt Of The Earthness. The reason is not far to seek: people like Lessing are concerned primarily with the perception and communication of reality whether it fits inside the Beltway or not. For them a source of facts from outside the Beltway is as good as any inside so long as the facts are judged to be real. Considered in that fashion, their fiction, poetry or music is the equivalent of a scholarly paper, it just lacks footnotes showing the sources. Lest such products of human beingness become threatening by becoming too real, they’re delegitimized as reality inside the Beltway just like the Kogi. Such works may well win international prizes but they don’t lead to changes in legislation. Of course not. Be sensible and don’t talk rubbish. Novels aren’t Science, and it’s clear that Science has replaced Religion as the fundamental paradigm of our modern civilization. It’s now the ideological top dog and will fight to the death to maintain its supremacy. So it’s all very nice that little brown people somewhere — what’s the name of that place again? — go off at the mouth about working to maintain the ecological balance of the Planet, but they aren’t peer-reviewed and published in Science, are they, so let’s not get carried away here, kids. Everything in proper perspective, right? Of course. It goes without saying.
A cursory glance over the modern world as it exists in 2018 shows that the neutralization process has worked very well over the course of the 20th century. We have no more Lessings up in our grill as we did earlier. The urgency I myself felt to confront and communicate uncomfortable reality as it erupted into my awareness has also subsided. At this stage of my game I’m also subsumed under other categories our civilization uses for marginalization. “Retired” and “senior citizen” sound innocuous enough and the rhetoric about life as an old fart is very Up With People, but the reality — unsurprisingly — is quite different. Yet another instance of the rhetoric/reality split. The categories neutralize you as an active agent and mean you’re sitting on the sidelines now, not at the center of things. You’re to enjoy the fruits of your past labors — but that means golf or bingo or some such pursuit, not research on the applicability of Tairona cosmology to modern ecosystem management. Try something like that last bit and you’ll soon find yourself outside the Beltway like the Kogi themselves.
Lessing’s message in The Four-Gated City suggests that society should value its wackos and actively seek out knowledge from other human modes of beingness like the Kogi’s in order to keep its repertoire of reality extended and its awareness limber. Will that happen? Of course not. Ideologically rigid civilizations march blindly on unaware that they’re orchestrating their own demise. As I mentioned earlier, the Sumerians got that production cycle off to a fine start and it’s been going strong ever since. Its deja vu all over again, to quote another Famous Person.
A simple phrase may be set in counterpoint against this sordid state of affairs: get real. That’s all it really takes, I think — getting real. If we as a civilization can’t get to that screamingly fundamental point, and pronto, then we might as well turn out the lights now, because sooner rather than later there will be nobody home.
Oops, gotta run, bingo starts in 15 mins … Oh, and FYI, whoever told you you’re wearing a gorgeous new outfit was leading you down a garden path as wide as Interstate 495, babes. You’re as naked as a jay bird, there’s the bald truth of it. Just saying … anyhoo, here’s hoping this is the night for my lucky numbers! — must dash, ta dolling 🙂