I recently had Keith Preston on the C-Realm Radio show where he made the point that Milo Yiannopoulis promotes a pretty mainstream Republican agenda. According to Keith, Milo's views are not particularly extreme and don't push the rightward boundary or mainstream political opinion on the contemporary American scene at all. His main distinguishing gimmick is that he is flamboyantly gay and makes a big todo of his sexual exploits. He is also deliberately provocative with the language he uses to provoke feminists in his public appearances. But in terms of his actual political opinions, he is pretty vanilla. And yet I hear (and read), time and again, hysterical leftists assert that Milo is a Nazi and that no tactic is off limits when it comes to stopping Nazis.
I am no Trump supporter, and I do take the danger of his authoritarian brinksmanship seriously, but I maintain that talk of fascism is premature and that talk of Nazism is just plain stupid. In a recent post, I described how I am likely to smile and nod and then change the subject when someone refers to Trump supporters as fascists or Nazis around me, but that, in my mind, I judge them harshly. One reader, who is a regular listener to the C-Realm Podcast, scolded me, writing, "...to think negative thoughts towards people who have these fears... is just wrong. Very wrong."
I responded that his focus on my thinking being wrong is symptomatic of the problem with a considerable fraction of the so-called left in this country. My sin, in his view, is thinking "negative thoughts" about people who use irresponsible, hyperbolic, and alarmist language. I don't assault them or attempt to limit where they go, who they meet with or what they do. I don't even say rude things to them. I make silent, private judgments about them. And that, according to my critic, is just wrong.
I cannot violate someone else's rights with my thoughts. Or, going the other way, nobody has any right to dictate what I think. The legitimate limitations that my government, my culture, and my community can place on me only apply to my actions and, in rare and extreme circumstances, to my speech. To demand that I conform my thoughts to some ideal standard is to endorse totalitarianism. That's the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. An authoritarian leader won't hesitate to use deadly force should you do or say something to threaten his power, but otherwise, your thoughts remain your own affair. A totalitarian regime is not content with controlling the actions and speech of its subjects. It demands total subservience in action, word AND thought.
I know that I will have to repeat this idea ad nauseum, and, hopefully, I will find a better way to convey it. The language I've used here makes sense to me, but I am under no illusion that what I've written will satisfy my critic or people who think as he does. I could call them Maoists, but I don't know that the example would communicate very clearly. The Cultural Revolution is ancient history to someone born in the 1990s or later. What's worse, calling a keyboard crusader for social justice a Maoist is the same sort of nuance-flattening hyperbole as calling Milo Yiannopoulis a Nazi. I'll have to do better than that, if only for the sake of my self-respect.
"Is that still a thing?"
I love that expression. I was wondering if the idea that California might secede from the United States was still a popular topic or if its day had come and gone. I opened a new browser tab and started to type my query. I had typed "Cali" when Google offered a list of potential completions. At the top of the list was "California secede."
Okay, so it's still a thing. Or is it? Maybe Google just knows me and my interests so well that it can effectively predict my searches before I make them. As a long-time libertarian, maybe I should be worried about that possibility.
Forgive me, Libertarians, for I have sinned, and continue to sin. Here is my confession:
I'm not all that worried about the government, or Google, or Facebook, or Microsoft, or Netflix, or Amazon.com knowing me better than I know myself. I'm not worried about the Internet of Things which might have my toaster talking to my microwave oven. That's a bad example, as neither of those devices can be found in my kitchen (which is really Olga's kitchen). I'm not worried that diabolical data analysts or their AI minions will ferret out my psychological weaknesses and use them to get me to vote for some odious troll in the next election.
I'm definitely not worried about the fact that my phone knows where I am and is relaying that information to Google or the NSA. I'm probably at home. If not there, I'm at the gym, or the TV station, or the radio station, or at a public meeting in Bellows Falls or a nearby village. Or I might be sitting at Subway reading a book.
I could say that I'm worried that Google maps will never figure out that I always want to avoid the George Washington Bridge when I'm coming back from visiting my kids. It's free westbound, but the eastbound toll is fifteen freakin' dollars! I could say I'm worried about that, but what I'd really mean is that I'm pissed off that Google always tries to take me through that pick-pocket station and that I suspect some sort of payola is at work behind the scenes. Either that or the programmers at Google think it's obvious that a driver would pay $10 to shave an expected 4 minutes off their trip. (I still have to cross the Tapenzee bridge, which costs $5.)
I do kind of worry about identity theft, or, more accurately, I recognize that I am vulnerable to identity theft and that it should be a matter of genuine concern for me. In terms of that topic actually hooking up with a state of emotionally-charged anxiety in me, I don't really worry about identity theft either.
What do I worry about? I worry that I will get into a wreck while driving (because I'm fighting with my phone trying to get it to avoid the heinous GW Bridge toll). I worry that I will slip on ice and break something when I have no health insurance. I worry that my kids will be saddled with debt and will struggle to earn a living in tough economic times. I worry that a cop will piss me off and provoke me into doing something incredibly stupid. I worry that a time will come when I am not able to do the thing for which I receive my modest income and that I will have nothing to fall back on. I worry that my best days are behind me.
In short, my worries are all very self-centered, prosaic, and don't flow from my ideological commitments.
In fact, I'm really pretty impatient with worriers, and I've about had it with people who claim to worry over ideological bullshit. And if you tell me that you are afraid when you are not in any apparent danger, and if the source of your supposed fear has something to do with fascists, or Nazis, or white nationalists, I will likely give you a tight-lipped pseudo-smile and an "mmm hmmm" to acknowledge that you have spoken. Then I will disengage or change the topic of conversation, but in my mind, I will have said something rather rude.
I kinda worry that someday I will lose the capacity to think something without saying it out loud.
I remember reading about the I Ching in the alternate-history SF novel, The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. In that novel, the character who consulted the oracle used the yarrow stalk method to determine which entry in the book to apply to the matter at hand. One can also use coins or even dice to speak on behalf of fate and guide the questioner to the answers they seek.
That was before the internet. I don't own a copy of the I Ching. I just Google it and click on the graphical representation of a button. With the click of the mouse, I engage in simulated button pushing which replaces the handling of physical objects. So long as the internet is working and available to me, it is likely to remain my I Ching of choice. I could order a paper version, but that would put another book in orbit around me, increase the clutter in my sight and in my mind, and give me one more thing to keep track of (or, more likely, fail to keep track of).
I consulted the Oracle the day before yesterday, asking it about how I should focus my efforts. The Oracle directed me to hexagram 41, Decreasing, changing to hexagram 19, Nearing (or Approach). I took this to mean that while it appears that my consistent work has lead to stagnating rewards, behind the scenes, developments proceed apace and will soon give way to the Approach, when I find new power and accomplishment as I rise to new challenges, possibly in an effort to help someone else. That's all good news, but I wanted guidance, not divination, and I don't know how to turn this forecast into a prescription for action.
Given that I meet regular deadlines for creative activity that I set for myself, I continue working even when I'm feeling fallow. With the podcast and radio show, I judge myself to be slacking when I seek mainly return guests for the program. I don't have to introduce myself to repeat guests or craft an email that simultaneously communicates my intentions and establishes credibility. Repeat guests are a known quantity. These are people with whom I have an established connection and who I know can provide entertaining or informative conversation. With a new guest, even if they've written something that I enjoyed reading, there's no telling how it will go. In some instances, it's gone so badly that I chose not to use the interview and had to find someone else to interview or fill the hour with just my own thoughts and voice. That latter option is a lot of work, but it's the kind of work that comes from failing to complete some previous task at the right time. Paradoxically, in the phases where I don't think I'm getting much done, I often have to work harder than I do when I'm really killing it.
Both of the hexagrams my most recent consultation brought to my attention focus on the ebb and flow, the rhythmic pulse of advancement and setback, that is the normal condition of living things making their way through life. This makes sense to me. It's not anything I have to coerce myself into entertaining for the sake of the exercise. Even so, it is at odds with the voice of authority which tells me that the universe is a perfect meritocracy and that if I'm not getting anywhere, it's either because I'm not working hard or smart enough. It is in times like these that I take comfort in the words of Thomas Ligotti, who reminds us that there is "nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be, and no one to know."
Tomorrow: How this experience changed my views on VR
One of the other SIGGRAPH virtual reality experiences put a lightsaber in my hand, and I blocked shots from the practice drone that Luke Skywalker sparred with on the Millenium Falcon in the original Star Wars movie. I couldn't move much, and the scene was probably simpler than I remember it being. I just remember being on the Millenium Falcon.
Today, I stopped by the local community access TV station. I do freelance videography for them, so I stop in most days to pick up or drop off equipment. Sometimes I use their facilities to shoot my YouTube videos. Today, I was just stopping in to pick up a coat that I had left there rather than stuffing it into a locker at the gym, which is just down the hall from the station.
I heard noises which indicated that there was some video game action about to commence in the actual studio (as opposed to the office of the TV station). As soon as I stepped into the studio, which was mostly dark except for some deep purple/red lighting and the glow of an absurdly large flatscreen TV, Colin, who works there, asked me if I wanted to play a Star Wars VR game.
"Fuck yeah, I do," I answered before I realized that I was in a room full of cameras and that one or more of them were likely turned on and recording the encounter.
As I walked into the middle of the studio I saw that there was an AT-AT (AKA an imperial walker) walking back and forth across a blank white void with a mouse droid rolling around at the walker's feet managing not to get squashed by those enormous metal feet. I could only see the walker's feet and legs, not it's body or head.
I sat in a swiveling chair in front of the giant monitor and Colin instructed me in putting on and adjusting the Sony Playstation VR headset and headphones. Once I had them on, Brian, who was operating a camera behind me, said, "KMO, look up."
I looked up with my eyes first, but in doing so, I moved my head a little bit in the same direction, and as it did, my view changed in a way that doesn't happen when playing a game that is confined to what you can see through the window of a TV or computer monitor. I moved my head more and found myself looking up into the underside of the walker. I was in a virtual world, as if I had stepped through the screen or been digitized by the Master Control Program and reassembled in software on the game grid.
I doubt that Eric meant that overpopulation was what makes us toxic to the world we depend on because overpopulation is not what I would normally describe as a "system." Someone directed me to a video by Dr. John McMurtry in which he dispels the idea that the ongoing doubling of human population is degrading the carrying capacity of the planet because the majority poor don't control much in the way of resources.
I don't really know how to do the math to determine how much credence to give that claim. I've heard it said that 8 individuals control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population, but much of that wealth is abstract. Those 8 people don't eat as much food as 4 billion poor people. They don't emit as much carbon, nor inhabit the same amount of space nor have the same embedded energy in their cars and houses as the bottom half of the population. Wall Street hedge fund managers don't cut down trees to make charcoal. Nor do they poach rhinos or kill gorillas for "bush meat."
I'm as eager to blame the billionaire class for the planet's ills as the next person, but when I know that I want something to be true, I try to direct extra skepticism toward it. Wishful thinking is like walking downhill. If you seem to be gaining a lot of ground with very little effort, you're probably losing altitude.
Dr. McMurtry claims that the damage comes from the resource extraction that is driven by the imperative of transnational companies to create commodities with ever more waste. His statements come rapid fire, and I don't have access to them in print, so I can't really be certain that I'm doing them justice with my attempted summation, but it does seem like he's on to something.
The need for economic growth in order to pay maintenance on ever-growing debts seems like a good candidate for that part of the system that makes us toxic to the planet. Because we have debts to service and rents to pay, human beings are driven to find a way to generate economic activity. We have to "work" even though the mechanization and automation of tasks that once required lots of human labor have left us in a situation in which a small fraction of the population is capable of generating all the food, clothing, shelter and manufactured goods necessary to sustain everyone.
That leaves more and more people in a desperate scramble to find some way to make money, but with ever fewer genuine needs to fill, we must invent new wants that can then be construed as needs which we can then meet. This generates a lot of waste, and all the failed attempts to create new markets and new industries generates lots of debt which feeds back into more desperate scrambling to generate economic activity.
I'm not convinced that the sheer size of the human herd is a non-issue, but the part of the system that drives us to strive and struggle to meet artificial needs when our actual physical, social and psychological needs could be met with much less hustle and bustle seems like a prime candidate for the "system" that Eric Toensmeier blames for our toxicity.
Last summer, Olga and I drove down to Holyoke, Massachusetts to record a conversation with Eric Toensmeier, author of The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security. We had a sit-down chat, and then we took a tour of his garden. The last question I asked him was about the concept of "anthropogenic ecosystems."