21 April 2021

Are Americans free?

This quote from David Bentley Hart, from the article Three Cheers For Socialism: Christian Love & Political Practice has been making the rounds lately.

Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.”

Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions.

This is at once the most comic and most tragic aspect of the excitable alarm that talk of social democracy or democratic socialism can elicit on these shores. An enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete.

They are far more vulnerable to medical and financial crisis, far more likely to receive inadequate health coverage, far more prone to irreparable insolvency, far more unprotected against predatory creditors, far more subject to income inequality, and so forth, while effectively paying more in tax (when one figures in federal, state, local, and sales taxes, and then compounds those by all the expenditures that in this country, as almost nowhere else, their taxes do not cover).

One might think that a people who once rebelled against the mightiest empire on earth on the principle of no taxation without representation would not meekly accept taxation without adequate government services. But we accept what we have become used to, I suppose.

Even so, one has to ask, what state apparatus in the “free” world could be more powerful and tyrannical than the one that taxes its citizens while providing no substantial civic benefits in return, solely in order to enrich a piratically overinflated military-industrial complex and to ease the tax burdens of the immensely wealthy?

04 April 2021

The Crocodile Epiphany and the case for socialism

A plush toy I saw in a shop window back in the 20th century made me so angry that I became fully devoted to socialism.

The shop was a “gift shop”, and there in the window was an little plush crocodile, a few inches high, wearing a T-shirt with a pun on it. It was ugly, and the joke was bad.

Croc ’N’ Roll

Someone was going to buy this “toy”, and give it to someone as a gift. They would chuckle for a moment over the bad pun. It would sit on their desk for a week or a month or a year before getting tossed into a landfill. This was its purpose. That was the plan for it.

Croc ’N’ Roll

In a sudden epiphany, I pictured the meeting in which it was decided that things would be set in motion so that I would see this crocodile.

A designer, with a drawing or a prototype. Some manufacturing expert, ready to consider the logistics. A manager with priorities to weigh. Sober discussion. What shall we do? What shall we make?

Yes. Yes, let us make this.

Croc ’N’ Roll

In my epiphany, I thought of all the people and machines which had done the work to put this crocodile before me. A factory with people making crocodiles all day. Crates full of cheap joke gifts loaded onto container ships. Big trucks driven through the night. Distribution centers bustling with forklifts and people with clipboards. Purchasing agents, making choices. Big boxes of crocodiles getting opened with boxcutters so that the crocodiles could be put into smaller boxes. Small trucks. All along the way, barcodes going bip bip bip. Shopkeepers setting crocodiles onto shelves and into shop windows.

Croc ’N’ Roll

In my epiphany, I thought of all the work which made all of that work possible. Miners digging through rock and great furnaces and crucibles to make the steel which went to factory to be sharpened into the needles which sewed that crocodile. I thought of the people who had built the sewing machine. The human ingenuity which had invented the sewing machine. And so too for the container ships and the containers on them, the forklifts, the clipboards, the barcode scanners, the trucks, the shops with the windows. Plus the petroleum wrung from the Earth which powered all this.

Croc ’N’ Roll

Telling this now, I think of Ouspensky, who doubted Gurdjieff’s theory of the human mind … until he saw a truck full of prosthetic legs.

Gurdjieff had said that we are machines, slaves to certain natural laws and processes that are as mechanical as a motor car. If people were remotely awake they would never submit to going off to war and likely death. The leaders of great nations are likewise sleepwalkers through the strange workings of unknown dynamics.

Ouspensky had difficulties with these ideas until an event he witnessed brought them to life. He saw a truck loaded with artificial limbs on its way to the front. They were for legs that had not yet been blown off but it could be calculated that they would be. There was something so mechanical about this process, something so lacking in conscious awareness, that the insanity of the situation was revealed in all its ludicrous horror. If those legs hadn’t been blown off yet then why on earth did they have to be? The process was surely stoppable.

Croc ’N’ Roll

Telling this now, I think of the god Moloch.

Like all good mystical experiences, it happened in Vegas. I was standing on top of one of their many tall buildings, looking down at the city below, all lit up in the dark. If you’ve never been to Vegas, it is really impressive. Skyscrapers and lights in every variety strange and beautiful all clustered together. And I had two thoughts, crystal clear:

It is glorious that we can create something like this.

It is shameful that we did.

Like, by what standard is building gigantic forty-story-high indoor replicas of Venice, Paris, Rome, Egypt, and Camelot side-by-side, filled with albino tigers, in the middle of the most inhospitable desert in North America, a remotely sane use of our civilization’s limited resources?

Croc ’N’ Roll

Telling this now, I think of Gil Scott-Heron’s brilliant, funny lament in the face of one of the greatest achievements of human history.

Was all that money I made last year
For whitey on the moon?
How come I ain’t got no money here?
Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon
Y’know I just ’bout had my fill
Of whitey on the moon
I think I’ll send these doctor bills
Airmail special
To whitey on the moon

Croc ’N’ Roll

I was awed by all the human capacity and effort which went into that trivial little toy, a bit of waste made to deliver a tepid joke, a trivial byproduct of the power we hold over the material world.

I gazed into the crocodile’s plastic eyes and remembered every time someone said to me, “No, you naïve bleeding heart, we cannot provide for all! Some must live shoeless, hungry, and deprived because there is just not enough Stuff for everyone.” They were wrong. They are still wrong. Not just mistaken, but profoundly wrong, spake the crocodile.

Croc ’N’ Roll

I would have vowed never to forget, but having had the Crocodile Epiphany I need no vow. I know it deep. There is enough. There is so much that even our crumbs of crap are mighty.

We can provide for everyone. Their needs. Their dignity. And since we can, we must.

Croc ’N’ Roll.