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9/11 revisited, again and again

Many years ago when I was young, idealistic and – not to put too fine a point on it – an idiot, I truly believed that ideas, beliefs (like democracy) could drive action, states, life. I thought that if you had the right attitude then, by golly, the right institutions and governments would follow. As I said, I was an idiot. Most 17-year-olds are.

I now know that it is lives and who we are, how we are, how we live that drives the systems we adhere to. What does that mean? Well, it means that the Bush Doctrine of heading into Iraq post 9-11 to bring democracy into the region – democracy deprived as those poor Iraqis were – then all would fall into place, like a jigsaw puzzle opening up into its full splendour of a sunset over the Rockies.

But it’s not like that.

People’s lives, whether they have enough to eat, a place to live; whether their children can go to school, safely, and come home after without being blown up; it is having decent work under reasonable conditions, living in a place where you can make a life for yourself: it is these that then give rise to political and moral beliefs.

Years ago a psychologist by the name of Kohler (I think that was his name, my lamentable memory) spoke of the slow process through which true moral understanding develops. Another psychologist, Maslowe, spoke of the hierarchy of needs and how it is only after the fundamentals are satisfied is one able to concern oneself with abstract concepts like ethical societies or an ecological metaphor for life. One can only become a person with genuine global, ecological concerns required living in a world where one’s other more basic needs like food and shelter are met.

But we don’t talk much of development or developmental processes these days. Early education is under attack (no matter how much the school day is extended) and our reverence is focused on the gene and its so-called blueprint. Well, if you believe that it’s all there, ready to go, in your genes then why the hell would you even think about development, learning, the ways in which an individual evolves into that wonderful Jewish notion of a mensch?

To care about things larger than oneself one needs to have the basics and the knowledge that more is out there if one applies oneself. This is what the Arab Spring is about and this is what the guardians of terror and nitpickers at airports do not get. As long as entire regions of the globe only see the good life in movies downloaded from the internet or from satellite television – never in their own lives – there will be terrorism and people willing to die because they have nothing to lose.

That was the real lesson of 9/11. Or ought to have been.

There is a thin line between genius and insanity

“There is a thin line between genius and insanity,” said the curmudgeonly Oscar Levant, “and I have erased this line.” We have too – unfortunately, we went straight to crazy without so much as a pause at intelligent, never mind genius.

It seems like only yesterday when a modicum of civil discourse was possible – and one could engage in the odd conversation or commentary on the environment or the economy or health care without people going all apoplectic (or reducing the argument down to infantile levels: t’is too, t’is NOT). Then again, it seems like only yesterday when taking a bottle of water on a plane didn’t set off alarm bells and only crazy people walked down the street waving their arms about and talking to air.

Ah, the good old days, circa 2002  …

So what happened? How did we descend into babbling incoherence without so much as a telethon or ribbon to commemorate the day when sense, like the whales in Hitchhiker’s Guide Guide to the Galaxy, just up and left (without so much as a note saying “good-bye and thanks for all the fish”)?

Maybe it’s just information overload: our 24/7 ability to stay connected, in touch, on line and on top of every gloomy  bit of news as it happens – all in High-Def in all its ugly, excruciating, migraine-inducing hues and garish detail. Or those minor but constant irritants, like having to press 2 and 6 every time we call some company (and end up talking to a nice man in the Philippines who can’t help). Maybe it’s all those cameras everywhere (according to The Economist the number of surveillance cameras in the UK averages out to one per 14 people) or that horrible fluorescent light we’re now suppose to embrace (even though they make everyone look diseased and their flicker gives the rest of us headaches). And don’t get me started on those ghastly SUV’s in the city and those horrid, ugly little cars with great mileage and mean little headlights. Or my favorite: reality shows. Thousands of years of story arcs tossed aside in favour of watching nasty people snipe at each other in contrived situations on desert islands. (Where’s Dr. Moreau when you need him?)

Most of all I object to the sheer, unrelenting dreariness of it all, especially that 24-hour news cycle. All presented with such gravitas that Brangelina’s possible breakup becomes as much of a tragedy as Darfur or Haiti. Sure, the spotlight occasionally goes to some natural disaster that brings tears to our eyes but the resultant overkill is almost as bad. Once we’ve made the donation to Medecins sans Frontieres we can feel better and go watch Avatar.  (I must confess to a modicum of cynical glee when I read the MSF and other charities had asked that Haiti donations be halted as they were unable to use them.)

Not that we ever get the followup. Anyone know what happened with that tsunami thing? Because I sure don’t.

Moreover, we don’t protest or argue, just take it all at face value; rarely if ever questioning the perspective or veracity of those authorative sound bites. So we end up shallow and flat and two-dimensional, just like our technologies.

We forget there’s a world of history and culture out there, the backdrop to those uncontextualized blobs of information we’re fed. The economy or even the markets aren’t just rows of video ticker-tape symbols at the bottom of the screen. Borders did not magically appear on the map – they were the result of years of conflict, colonialism and hardship (not to mention warring interests and powers). Real life is messy, complex and oftentimes boring, containing, as Walt Whitman said in a different context, “multitudes”. It’s not neatly reduceable to a 90-second segment.

And when it’s s not ‘out there’ it’s us: our genes, our aging bodies, our addictions, our telomeres or whatever those stupid things are called (the ones that shorten as our cells regenerate and end up making us old and dead). Not to mention our blood pressure and lipids and body fat index and bones that – any minute now – will fall in on themselves and make us disappear altogether (perhaps a not-so-hidden metaphor for how we tend to disappear in this culture as we age).

This last while it’s been epidemics. Of obesity, of type 2 diabetes, of cancer – and of course the epidemic-epidemics. The ones where viruses are described in metaphors that liken these little chunks of protein to an invading army, lurking, like Stephen King’s Chucky, waiting to pounce on the unwary.

Frankly, I’m surprised more of us aren’t standing on street corners holding placards reading “Abandon All Hope” or “The End is Nigh”.  (Or “night”, given how badly everyone seems to spell.)

So for now I plan to skulk here, in my curmudgeonly corner, making the odd attempt to bring some sense and sanity here and there when things particularly irk me – maybe debunk a bit of  nonsense or two from the mounds of information all over the place: information that’s largely shrill, reductionist, sensationalist, biased and just plain wrong. Not that that ever stops it from streaming out, all assured and authoritative.

Progress, said Paul Fussell, is one damn thing after another.  Well, someone has to say something.