Friday, October 11, 2013
If "The Purification" occurs, could I still "carry on"?
I do love the civilization I live in, with all of its wonders. I believe that I have been able to offer “The Fifth Dominion” (as Clive Barker calls it) something unusual in terms of all of this analysis. I do not miss the long term committed intimacy that others experience. Others often wonder how I can live in my own world the way I do and not miss what they have. That’s because I do have “what I have”.
So, let’s do an “imagine me naked” (not literally, as in “Modern Family”) thought experiment. No, I can’t “fake it”, and things can go very “cold and dark”. Suppose, for example, I had a previous incarnation as the owner of Tara in the 1850’s. I might treasure the world I live in. In a few years, it is all taken away from me by force. I have to start all over with nothing. I am no better than the people I had “owned” and at one time considered less than me. There’s no gender in this; it can be Mr. or Miss Scarlet. My whole life is “gone with the wind”. True, Miss Scarlet got it back.
Examples are numerous, and, if countable, still infinite. Imagine I’m a prosperous “Christian” Gentile in Germany in 1939. Or Imagine I’m a sensitive Jewish artist living in Poland about that time. Both of us will face total loss caused by the aggression of others, which may or may not be justified in the grand scheme of things. If I’m the artist and I survive and wind up in Israel years later, I find myself not serving my own ideals and ends, but supporting a collective action that is in turn morally suspect – West Bank settlements. Perhaps I live in one. I did not choose the course of my life. But I had to do what I did to protect my family.
The norms of respected behavior – “personal responsibility” (even as Souhtpark depicts it) and civility, presume that civilization itself is stable. That particularly means that the financial system works, and that physical infrastructure holds together. Most of the time it does. But in recent years (particularly starting with 9/11) we’ve had to ponder the possibility that it might not.
Make no mistake. Every one of us (unless it’s possible to become an angel) will die of something, and for most of us, the end will have a medical or age-related cause. And I know very easily how a single careless mistake can deep-six your life. For example, one can cause a fatal accident in a moment of distraction, using the cell phone while driving.
But things can fail. Like the Maya, we can lose our way of life. I’m not referring so much to personal medical difficulties or even “ordinary” career or economic dislocation associated with changes in business and technology with modernization or globalization. As I noted on my “IT” blog yesterday, one can strategize for these within the usual norms of responsible individualism and work ethic. I’m referring more to the sudden losses from natural catastrophe or form aggression by others, which may happen to an entire group of people, or may target one person. It can happen through physical violence, financial fraud, or political coup or “revolution”. In all these cases, despite the person affected experiences a reduced life as reality, even when clearly caused by the wrongdoing of others. In many cases, the person or persons cannot be made “whole” in a meaningful way, even by bringing others to “justice”. Having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis under most unusual circumstances, I take all "threats" seriously, whether they come from North Korea (lobbing nuclear ICBM's), radical Islam, or from our own hyper-partisan politicians, a few of whom think that "cold turkey" would save future generations.
In many cases of sudden "total loss", the “victim” did indeed own (or owe) a moral accountability of some kind. Perhaps his or her previously superior station in life had resulted from an exploitation of others which he did not see. Then he is faced with sudden expropriation, or “purification”. The judgment of history may be that the “plantation owner” really deserved his sudden loss even if brought about by coercion or violence and even if he had sincerely believed he was right according to the norms of the world in which he had been reared. Political radicals often rejoice in seeing the “undeserving” get their comeuppance.
I’ve had, in recent years, had to contemplate how I would “carry on” if a catastrophe does “destroy” life as I know it, or at least my ability to pursue my own self-chosen ends. I didn’t have to think about this much during my working years; as I explained recently on my IT blog, corporate takeovers and mergers actually worked out well for me, even though not for a lot of others. I did have to think about if from my tween to college years, and particularly with respect to the military draft. I was aghast at the idea that people have to come back from war personally maimed, and be able to get others to love them, even become or remain intimate with them. I always said if that happened to me, I did not want to come back. Yes, I used my education to avoid the worst risks when I was drafted, which others had to take (whether or not the Vietnam War as justifiable is beside the point). When I was an assistant instructor at the University of Kansas in the 1960’s before my own draft, I had the “power” to influence how others would fare in this era of deferments and definitely unshared sacrifice. That has moral consequences, and I’ll come back to that.
The most obvious challenge that I could face, at age 70, would be medical. I don’t see this as an existential problem. With many problems, momentum, rather than aggressive diagnosis and treatment, may work and give one a more productive remaining time on “Earth I”. But I would not be a good candidate for some extreme procedures, like heart or bone marrow transplants. My own father, who died of suddenly metastasized prostate cancer just before his 83rd birthday, always said he would ever become a “burden” and saw that as shameful, to the consternation of my mother, whose last three years (until she passed at the end of 2010) demanded constant attention and caregiving. My father did what he wanted and was “productive” until the last four weeks of this life. However, my “physical weakness” as a teen affected my attitude toward myself but especially toward others. If there is an opportunity now to find a medical explanation (like genetic) that wasn’t possible a half century before, I owe it to posterity to go for it. Was it real disability, aloofness, or even just physical cowardice? In any society, there are certain things that have to get done, and it is sometimes easier for those who “do it” if they think that every even marginally capable person contributes to sacrifice and risk-taking, taking responsibility for other people, or else stays out of sight. At least, that seems to have been the “conservative” view of the past.
I think that the brazenness of violence – whether street crime, home invasion, gun rampages, or terrorism directed at “soft targets” – has increased noticeably in many US cities and suburbs since about 2007. Some of the violence seems motivated by extreme indignation over class differences and the lack of sharing of risks and burdens. Noam Chomsky has linked it to "class warfare". There is a feeling with some criminals (and in gangs) that the rules of “real life” (requiring “street smarts”) don’t apply to everyone, so the law need not apply to everyone. During some incidents, individual people seem to have been baited. In one case, a criminal, who would be sentenced to death, said that he thought that his victim had been a coward for not protecting his family when he escaped, as if proving something like this had been a motive for a death penalty crime. Were I to be trapped by such an incident, I do not expect that I would survive, nor would I want to. There are limits to what I can “carry on” from.
As noted above, some of the biggest threats to our way of life are natural; some, but not all, could be related to climate change. The climate change debate will lead eventually to personally ethical concerns about how people who live alone (like me) use energy, which balances different factors (high density living is more efficient, but traveling alone by car is not). It seems curious to me that the “Fundamentalist Right” denies evolution, climate change (and a lot of other science) and, in the current debt ceiling fight, denies that US default could happen right now as a result, but then correctly maintains that “demographic winter” is a real problem, to the point that the idea that everyone should sense a personal stake in the future that follows them (in having children or raising other people’s children when expected to) becomes a renewed component of personal morality. The “Right” would be correct in saying that many threats, like tsunamis (a big one on the Atlantic Coast from the Canary Islands volcanoes is possible), asteroids or comets, or huge solar storms, are not related to climate change but some of these can be mitigated or prevented with enough investment in public infrastructure, which the Right doesn’t seem to want to make. The Right is also correct in maintaining that the gravest potential threats to homeland security may not come from “homemade” nuclear devices (as touted right after 9/11), but from radioactive material itself, or from various kinds of EMP or radio flux devices which can be relatively small and might become available on the street. These are probably a more serious threat than “cyberwar”.
And some of the threat to our way of life is indeed political or economic, as we can see from the dynamics of the recent shutdown and debt ceiling fiasco in Washington. While some “conservatives” may be sincere in downplaying the risk of default with various legal explanations, some hardliners really want to see a “purification”, with enormous sacrifices by some people, so that future generations (to which I contributed no “genetic capital”) will be better off. Any of these scenarios – natural apocalypse, catastrophic terror, personal targeting, total financial meltdown, or political “fundamentalist” coup, could lead to a world in which I really have nothing to offer. Perhaps I would not be around long.
In any of these scenarios, I could be singled out for “sacrifice” – or, as I acknowledge the silliness of hollering before being hurt – I could be thankful that I remained relatively unscathed, and wonder if I should take “victims” in. I can certainly imagine that kind of scenario after a natural catastrophe. (What if I had been living closer to the site of Hurricane Katrina, say, still in Dallas, as I was in the 1980’s?) I wonder how I would feel about being expected to “step up” to make up for someone else’s wrongdoing – even if that came from the dynamics of hyper-partisan politicking. I can’t give a specific answer. But I have responded before. In 1980, there was a lot of talk in Dallas in the gay community about housing Cuban refugees, and I wound up housing a non-refugee, an experience with very mixed results. I was glad when it was over in early 1981, and felt I had my own life back. I have to say, also, that I have encountered the attitude that because I don't have a wife and kids, I should act like an insurance policy for those who do, when something goes wrong for them (even if it is someone else's misdeed). That I very much resent. That's "second class citizenship", but the notion is very double-edged. But others will say, this is not about justice or "equality", it is about the practical needs of living in a community or extended "natural family".
I can look back over several decades, and see the distraction of other potentially disruptive external events. We had the Arab oil embargo and gasoline shortages of 1973-1974 – but I was often in Minnesota on benchmarks while working for Univac, where I had few problems. I was quite preoccupied with the logistics of finding “opportunity” in the gay community after my “second coming” in 1973, resulting of my moving into New York City in 1974, and then wondered if the financial crisis in New York City (they talked about default then) in 1975 could destroy our urban way of life. (Remember, “Ford to City: Drop Dead!”) The Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 may well have been necessary to protect oil supplies at the time, but it also helped set up the political conditions that made a debate over lifting the ban on gays in the military possible when Bill Clinton took office in 1993, leading ultimately to DADT repeal in 2011. That Clinton could even start the debate so soon after the “AIDS tornado” had devastated the male gay community seems amazing in retrospect. And I personally survived exposure to the epidemic, probably the single greatest threat to my own life other than the military draft two decades before. No gay activist today admits it, but HIV in the 1980s had provided an existential threat to our “community” even being allowed to operate at all, as right wing elements in Texas proposed an almost Uganda-like state law against homosexuality in 1983.
Most people say, “They would never let that happen.” True, in my life, most of these crises have been resolved without harming me. But, there is no “they”. Some day, luck could run out. Once it does, my depending on "stable civilization" could make me look like a parasitic fool.
I think that one of the reasons why “external purification” is so terrifying to me is that it can force me into interpersonal relationships that came to find humiliating as I grew up. Perceived as “unattractive” (NIH notes on me in 1962 at age 19 actually used that word) and non-competitive socially (in terms of “protecting” other people), I still found myself pressured to be willing to bond to people in similar straits, and to stop looking up (the “upward affiliation” controversy). I even sense that pressure on the disco floor today! I also, as I noted on the IT blog, sometimes field coercive pressure to give up my own soap box and convert my life to hucksterizing the causes of others. Intellectual consistency and honesty seems to be perceived as a luxury that people with “total responsibility” for families can’t afford.
There is a saying that publishing a book is like having a baby. That may trivialize what families go through, but there is something to this idea of “the privilege of being listened to”. If you use the asymmetry of the Internet to gain influence over policy, then you ought to step up, when needed, to meet the needs of other people, or take responsibility for them, even if such engagement might have been unwelcome in earlier “mind your own business” times. Inheriting an estate, or control of one, can certainly subsume such obligation, even if not specified in a will. I know that this observation can come into play if there is a major disruption of our financial or physical infrastructure and I stay afloat. In fact, the last of the three “short stories” in my upcoming “Do Ask, Do Tell III” the “me character” does wind up with responsibility after a natural and manmade (both) catastrophe, but only after he “gets what he wants” (more or less what Stephen King means by that phrase).
One the other hand, any one of us is one incident away from helplessness (whether or not it is from someone else’s “sin”), from entering the world of dependency on others that we shun others for now when we have the choice of whom we want to relate to. There’s a line in the movie “Captain Phillips” that makes that point. (“Look at me, I am the Captain now … maybe in America, not here.”) When someone has a weapon on you, that someone is in control. That is simply the reality that some people see, and all they see. You still have to “carry on”. Any one of us can learn we are not “better than you”, and unfortunately we learn that lesson from coercion more often than we learn it from reading the Bible or Koran. (I can remember those arguments with my father as a boy about objecting to having to prove I could "hit back"; he knew the real world.) We can’t “reject” people forever and be allowed to get away with it. It seems that having to deal with the practical and inevitable inequality in the real world, and the practical likelihood of having to forgive coercion, motivates many of the most controversial parables in the Gospels (like “The Rich Young Ruler” and “The Parable of the Talents”, as well as Prodigal Son and vineyard workers). It does get very personal, whether we like it or not.
I have to end this post pianissimo, on a little bit of darkness. If indeed my end is ugly, whether the result of another party’s indignation, or “class warfare”, or even hate crime, there is simply no way I can be called a “victim”, ever. I hope no one ever uses that word. “Casualty” might be appropriate. I lost the right to victimhood when I used my deferment and managed not to go to Vietnam. You can’t get out of things forever, or karma will catch up with you. I do believe there is an afterlife (partly because of my concept of the “physics” of consciousness), and something like Heaven may really exist. It may even be true that in “Heaven” (or the “Astral City” as in the big Brazilian film) people are visible as they were at their solstice best. I get the idea of Grace as necessary (partly because coercion is unavoidable), but some of the usual Christian concept of Heaven (or “The First Dominion” as Clive Barker calls it) doesn’t quite make sense, for people who had no chance to get out of childhood and become free-will agents. I didn’t become “social” enough that “Heaven”, as it is usually described, could work for me. The idea of a “Core” makes sense, and so does reincarnation, in some cases, maybe mine. It might be on another planet. It might mean being born into poverty and “starting over”, or maybe being born into a culture that doesn’t even have money as we understand it (call it Purgatory). We may indeed learn the physics of this in another century or so, if we don’t destroy ourselves first. But we will have to learn to transcend physical death and entropy first to find out. Moralists say, that’s why “reproduction rules” and generativity should be a core moral value.