Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hunter S. Thompson Explains Presidential Politics, For Ever and Ever

"...because a man on the scent of the White House is rarely rational. He is more like a beast in heat: a bull elk in the rut, crashing blindly through the timber in a fever for something to fuck. Anything! A cow, a calf, a mare--any flesh and blood beast with a hole in it.The bull elk is a very crafty animal for about fifty weeks of the year; his senses are so sharp that only an artful stalker can get within a thousand yards of him...butwhen the rut comes on, in the autumn, any geek with the sense to blow an elk-whistle can lure a bull elk right up to his car in ten minutes if he can drive within hearing range.
The dumb bastards lose all control of themselves when the rut comes on. Their eyes glaze over, their ears pack up with hot wax, and their loins get heavy with blood. Anything that sounds like a cow elk in heat will fuse the central nervous systems of every bull on the mountain. They will race through the timbers like huge cannonballs, trampling small trees and scraping off bloody chunks of their own hair on the unyielding bark of the big ones. They behave like sharks in a feeding frenzy, attacking each other with all the demented violence of human drug dealers gone mad on their own wares.
A career politician finally smelling the White House is not Much different from a bull elk in the rut. He will stop at nothing, trashing anything that gets in his way; and anything he can't handle personally, he will hire out--or, failing that, make a deal. It is a difficult syndrome for most people to understand, because so few of us ever come close to the kind of Ultimate Power and Achievement that the White House represents to a career politician.
The presidency is as far as he can go. There is no more. The currency of politics is power, and once you've been the Most Powerful Man in the World for four years, everything else is downhill--except four more years on the same trip." ~ From Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72.

With the exception of George Washington--and perhaps George W. Bush--I believe this has been absolutely true. All of our presidents and would-be presidents (except for the two aforementioned Georges, who could not wait to pass the poison cup of power on to the next guy*), seemed perfectly willing to say, 'more please!' after each serving.

I've been reading Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear & Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72' for fun this presidential campaign season, and it has been informative. I wish I could somehow unsuicide Hunter for this election season, and restore him back to his pre-burnt out late 60's and early 70's self and insert him into this current political season, just to read his dispatches. In fact, if we could somehow master time travel, I'd like to put our revived Doctor into the Tardis and have him cover every presidential election from the beginning of America all the way to the end of it. Or maybe that's what hell would be like for Hunter. It's hard to say.

Maybe allowing all of the bull elk in our society to bash each other's skulls in metaphorically--rather than literally--is the only fix to the animal drive for supremacy that seems to animate so many of us--especially so many of Us, here in the U.S.--that allows us to avoid widespread bloodshed and chaos in the streets, but it's definitely a flawed one.

Whatever the case, it's funny to think of Ron Paul as a bull elk.

"Same as it ever was":

*For Washington, enough was enough. For Bush, you have to believe he knew he was in over his head.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Capitalists Need to Make a Decision

We are all still animals, after all. That's not a bad thing, but it comes with other realizations that should make us pause when trumpeting the virtues of certain political and economic philosophies.

Like, say, capitalism. I am a capitalist, because I believe capitalism is the best engine for equality, personal freedom, and individualism. But there are many people--most people, I would suggest--who believe in capitalism simply because they are on top of the system. Like any system, capitalism can be rigged to benefit a few lucky people who were born on third base, at the expense of people who haven't even been drafted yet.

Humans are tribalistic animals. We put things into boxes to distinguish them from each other, and place judgments upon them depending on their ability to give us--and our perceived in-group--what we want. Any system that doesn't take this simple fact into account is a dangerous system. This is why communism failed. This is why the capitalism of today's G.O.P. will also fail: it creates out groups and exploits them. It doesn't do the groups that benefit from it any favors either; they become soft over time, and entitled. Groups that are favored by a system designed to promote them will always fail to understand the complaints of those not empowered by the system, and will typically choose to patronize and feign offense rather than attempting to address systemic inequalities. All the while the favored group becomes softer and more isolated, and out groups become harder and more determined. This is where revolutions come from.

I don't want a revolution. I think capitalism can work, just not in its current form. There have to be checks and balances in place to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed within the system. That means building a strong safety net, and promoting social justice policies that can begin to mend years and years of inequality. That would mean shifting funding impetus away from the military, and into education. It would mean ending excessive inheritance, term limits for politicians, and increased support for the human services. It would mean allowing everyone the opportunity to pursue a top notch education that wouldn't eventually leave them suffocated by debt, and offer all of our citizens with access to quality, free healthcare. Within that context, Capitalism can be great.

People get upset when you start talking like that. 'But it's not real capitalism if the poor aren't rendered completely immobile by medical bills! How will they ever learn to pull ahead if we keep giving them hand outs!' What these people are talking about is not capitalism. It's Social Darwinism, and I doubt they've followed their line of thinking to its natural, blood soaked conclusion.

So Capitalists need to make a decision: are we actually for the tenets of capitalism (free and fair competition, equal opportunity to succeed and fail based upon individual merit, the unhindered pursuit of happiness), or are we for extolling these virtues while quietly stuffing our burlap sacks with goodies while our potential competitors continue to stand outside, rattling the doorknobs and tapping on the windows?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bertrol Brecht on Political Illiteracy

With the exception of framing prostitution as a social ill (I view it as a perfectly acceptable occupational decision), I agree with this statement 100%.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft: Honest Theologian

There is no other experience in literature that rivals reading the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft. The cumulative effect--regardless of the order in which you read the stories--is to gradually open up before you a vista  of complex mythology through hints and gradual revelations, much in the same way the protagonists of Lovecraft's stories discover the horrors of the universe, and the utter insignifcance of mankind. For those of us with darker senses of humor, it is fun.

One of the things that makes it fun is that in Lovecraft we have a few rarely combined elements: we have the mythmaker and moralist. The two things in and of themselves are not dissonant, but the morality that reveals itself in the myths is definitely uncommon. Typically, man looks for vindication and progressive guidance in his myths. He seeks a larger purpose that adds grandiosity to his life, and provides meaning. What we get in the myths of Lovecraft are larger purposes that we cannot fathom, and we see the veneer of meaning stripped away. We are meat-machines (to paraphrase Houllebecq), whose self determination is illusory.

The other disparate combination is that of the theologian and the artist. Again, there is nothing unusual about this combination on its face: C.S. Lewis wrote books of apologetics and sprawling fiction. G.K. Chesterton did the same (although his fictions were far less sprawling). The reason these two men are still so influential, I believe, is that they nearly got the cocktail completely right. Lovecraft did get it right; His worldview is very much reflected in his fiction, but the fact claims hinted at in his fiction don't extend past his own pessimistic, reactionary--possibly schizophrenic--worldview. This worldview may be bleak, but it is one arrived at by personal consideration, without relying on unverifiable and improbable prophecies and visions for confirmation. Lovecraft's worldview may be wrong, but it is honest. It is this key element that separates him from the theologian.

Not that believing theologians are all deliberately dishonest. In many cases they are very honest people with a very honest interest in preserving their whole identity and worldview. Because their identity and worldview are based on untruths, they have to be very creative in the way they protect them. H.P. Lovecraft--possibly because his worldview was inherently bleak--had no need to protect it with fantasy. He used fantasy to illuminate and share his disposition, but he didn't need to believe that the stories he spun were true. Whether or not the idiot god Azatoth squirmed and babbled at the center of reality, Lovecraft abandoned himself to his fears and phobias.

 Chesterton & Lewis's mythologies were more optimistic than Lovecraft's, but they were created as metaphors for untrue things. Lovecraft's mythologies are pessimistic, but they are reflective of the author's disposition, not untruths. Once you leave christianity, the fictions of Lewis and Chesterton can still be charming, but they become a little too precious. Lovecraft, love him or hate him, doesn't give you much to argue with. His work is about feelings, and you don't need to be an atheist or materialist to understand what it means to be isolated, ignorant, and in-over-your-head; we're given that understanding at birth.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tumblr Love

Thanks to STFU Conservatives, and all of the 300+ tumblrites who either liked or re-blogged this quote from my piece 'Activists, Know Thyself'. Extra special thanks to Bridget McKinney, for getting the ball rolling in the first place.

I have been too busy lately to generate very much new writing, so it feels good to get some mileage out of something I wrote back in February:

"There are no saints in this world, and I am glad for it. It takes a certain kind of humility to admit that we have various—and sometimes sordid—motives for the things we do. ‘Every saint should be held guilty until proven innocent’, said George Orwell. ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him’, said Lin Chi. It takes great self-awareness to interact meaningfully with this world, and no person who is adequately self-aware will ever mistake themselves—or the movements they belong to—as absolutely pure of intention. Throughout history, all movements of ‘pure intention’ have led to concentration camps, gulags, killing fields, mass graves, and performance art (all of which are terrible, terrible things).
If we’re going to be effective in achieving our goals, we don’t need saints and messiahs. We don’t need cults of personality. We need real, flawed, self-aware people muddling through the best they can, with an appropriate dose of fear and trembling to keep them honest."

Oh, and by the way, if you're on Tumblr, check out the Drop Inn Center's official Tumblr page. I'm proud to be a part of that organization, and if you're interested in helping us out, consider donating; A donation of 10 dollars feeds 10 residents for 10 days. If there's a better return out there to be had from a 10 dollar investment, I can't think of one.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Activist, Know Thyself

[re-blogged from February]

While the response to my piece ‘Drop Inn Center Needs Help Now’ in the Cincinnati Enquirer has been overwhelmingly positive, there have been a few people who took exception to my claim that ‘there is something sexy’ about protesting.

the section in question:
"We receive a lot of support and advocacy from our community. We appreciate it. There is a time to fight big battles, and there is a time to make public stands. When the moment to rally comes, there are always more than enough people available to hold signs and shout slogans. Rallying is exciting. There is something sexy about it.What is less sexy – but even more necessary – is maintenance. I understand the excitement of starting a new project or fighting a big fight in the public arena. In between these capital moments, however, someone has to sweep the floors. Someone has to pay the electric bill."
In contemporary vernacular, ‘sexy’ is often used as a synonym for ‘exciting’ or ‘hip’. There may be a hint of the reproductive about protest as well, but overall, these two synonyms were what I meant.

No one does anything without ego playing some part in their actions. When the soldier goes to war, she is not just saying ‘I am doing what I need to do to protect my country’, she is also—on some level—saying ‘I am a hero’. When Gandhi was overseeing the salt march in India, on some level he was aware of the romantic image he was cutting in the mind of peace-inclined revolutionaries all around the world. Our self-definitions mean a lot to us, and we derive those definitions partly from the acts that we engage in.

Ego plays a part, and no one gets involved in anything for one motive alone. We are complicated animals; we may not even fully understand all of our motives. But ego plays a part, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. 

So I do believe that there is something ‘sexy’ about protesting, at least in the minds of the protesters. To ‘rage against the machine’ is viewed as heroic. At every ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest across the country, there were countless aspiring Che Guevaras itching to pick up the bullhorn and put their own populist stamp on the national consciousness. There may have been a noble overriding goal to the protest, and the predominant motivation of most occupiers may have been admirable, but there is self-interest at play in almost every decision we make. I also think there is something literally ‘sexy’ about it too, as any honest person who has ever taken a date to a rally—or met a future lover at a rally—can attest.

There are no saints in this world, and I am glad for it. It takes a certain kind of humility to admit that we have various—and sometimes sordid—motives for the things we do. ‘Every saint should be held guilty until proven innocent’, said George Orwell. ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him’, said Lin Chi. It takes great self-awareness to interact meaningfully with this world, and no person who is adequately self-aware will ever mistake themselves—or the movements they belong to—as absolutely pure of intention. Throughout history, all movements of ‘pure intention’ have led to concentration camps, gulags, killing fields, mass graves, and performance art (all of which are terrible, terrible things). 

If we’re going to be effective in achieving our goals, we don’t need saints and messiahs. We don’t need cults of personality. We need real, flawed, self-aware people muddling through the best they can, with an appropriate dose of fear and trembling to keep them honest.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Revisiting an Old Conversation

At one point in time, I wanted to be a short story writer. For a living. Obviously, the odds of this happening were always pretty slim, but I plugged away at it for a good five or six years. Every now and then a kind friend would humor me and ask me about my most recent story. There were a lot of variations in the way this conversation would play out, but I just realized I can summarize all of them as follows:

Friend: Hey, Spencer. How's the writing going?
Me: Good. 
Friend: Are you working on anything right now?
Me: Yeah. 
Friend: What's it about?
Me:What's it about? Oh, uh, ah, er, it's about a's about a guy who doesn't know what the fuck he's doing.
Friend: Cool. Sounds great. 
Me: Really? Yeah, I'm really enjoying writing it. You're welcome to read it when I'm done!
Friend: Oh, that sounds great! Let me know when you're finished!

Many saints have passed through my life.

Monday, May 7, 2012

This Is Fast Becoming My Theme Song...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Death Comes To Those Who Wait (And Those Who Hurry)

(Author's note: You may want to buckle up or just get out of the car altogether, for what ensues is a grim topic: death. I've been told I think about it too much, talk about it too freely, and that it permeates much of what I write. I can't help it. Without death, there is no life.)

To me, every conversation is about death. 'How are you?' = 'I hope not dying!'.  'Good to see you!' = 'I'm glad you're not dead!'. 'What a beautiful sunset!' = 'We only get a certain number of these'. If it was always Autumn, the bright, burning colors wouldn't be as impressive. They are beautiful to us because they are unique, but also because we know what's coming next.

Ever since I was a boy, I have always imagined how I might die. Would I be murdered? Would I die in a car accident? Cancer? Heart attack? Pneumonia? Only in the past 8 or so years has suicide even occurred to me. And then at the funeral, would people cry? Would they laugh? Would they speak movingly about me, or would it just be another catered event? At various times, I've wanted each of these things. I have a little tin box that I keep in my closet that has a bunch of different keepsakes; among them is a mix-CD that I want played at my funeral. I am sure I want to be cremated too, not buried. I am a little fascinated by the Tibetan Sky burial, but I doubt I could coax any family members into going that route with my body.

The transience of all of us is shocking. All of these little moments that flit away, they'll never come back. They'll always be--you can't unlive a moment--but you'll never be in them again.

Americans, I think, have a bad relationship with death. We don't accept it. Humans in general don't cope well with death; we've created all kinds of religions and philosophies to make ourselves believe that we will come around again, or will continue on, or will return to a greater consciousness. We can't handle the thought of an end. To me, the thought that there is an end is a primary motivator. I can exert myself, and grit my teeth, and roll up my sleeves all day long because I know that someday there will be a respite. Not that life is awful; it's not. It's beautiful. It just never stops. It is constant work, and growth, and pain, and moment after moment after moment. I am geared for intensity, and all of my moments--my poor, wonderful wife will attest to this--are packed with it. I wouldn't feel I was respecting the rare gift I have been given--I am conscious matter--if I didn't proceed with great attentiveness.

Even after I realized I had become an atheist, I continued to listen to catholic radio, continued to read books by christian apologists, and continued to talk about religion with anyone who could stomach it. At the time, I thought I was just transitioning from one worldview to another, and might gradually outgrow my interest in the subject of God. It also occurred to me that I might be bitter, because I had dedicated my whole self for years to an idea that I had come to believe was a falsehood. Both of these reasons were contributors to my continued interest, but I also realize that it's often only with the faithful that a person can have a thoughtful conversation about meaning, which is ultimately a conversation about death.

My heroes all share my preoccupation. Woody Allen, Christopher Hitchens, Albert Camus, Kurt Vonnegut, Werner Herzog, George Carlin, HP Lovecraft, Hunter Thompson...death is ever present in their work. Conversely, because death is such an important topic to them, their work strikes me as being peculiarly alive. It's only when we truly embrace our fate that we can create anything vital.

So death is my theme. My pivotal moments all revolve around it. I carry the suicide of a friend around in a satchel on my back at all times. The knowledge of my own mortality spurs me on to be as effective, as aware, and as full of awe as possible. The time I spent as a hospice volunteer honed my ability to listen and gave me a priceless opportunity to be present for those who have had death touch them in the most intimate ways. Now I work with the homeless population of Cincinnati; death is ever-present everywhere, but the line between life and death is particularly evident in this field.

It doesn't go away when we force it out of our minds. It will always be with us, until there are no more us to be with. So why not embrace it? We have to be as bold in this life as we must be delicate. Shine the light everywhere, until the light goes out.

“In the hall of the house of death is a clock with a pendulum like a blade but with no hands, because in the house of Death there is no time but the present…it swings with a faint whum-whum noise, gently slicing thin rashers of interval from the bacon of eternity.”-From the book 'Reaper Man', by Terry Pratchett