Sunday, August 15, 2010

Avoiding My Mother and Leaning Backward Against So-called Progress

The other day some relatives visited, and I thought I should help Mom out with the socializing. As I arrived, she was in the course of explaining my next moves. Her story had a confidence about it. My ears perked up to hear the story, since I continue to have no idea myself what I'll be doing next.

Truth be told, it was mildly irritating to hear the construct. This is - obviously - disturbing to me - my being disturbed by Mom's - all Mom's - need for predictable narratives about their kids. It's my life, and you stay out of it. I'm tired of all the reassurances I have to give all the time (and by the way, could I borrow a few thou?). I should settle down already, so she can stop doing her job - you know, it's no fun to perpetuate that stupid narrative of sneaking around all the time.

Just now I was reading a seemingly well-researched article about why cholesterol-lowering statin drugs are an unmitigated disaster; how the epidemic of cholesterol was a manufactured and highly profitable artifact of  trends toward measurement and highly and perhaps dangerously incomplete models for how the body achieves various kinds of homeostasis. But this article itself veered strongly in the direction of authoritative in ways that must fall extremely short of authority if measured against developments into our futures by future science, right?!? Still, I'm proud of myself for eschewing fruit, just like the article said I should. For taking myself off Lipitor AMA (Against Medical Advice).

Like opposing walls of mrrors, my irritation is apparently endless. I came across humorist Joel Stein apologizing for making fun of the fussy parents of fussy kids who seem to be allergic to everything because  now his own son has had a miserable episode of nut allergies. But then you dig a little bit deeper and it does begin to look as though there is another narrative retreat, since it's really hard to tell the difference between an epidemic of allergies and an epidemic of looking for allergies. Mild reactions to things like nuts might, in other times, have gone unnoticed. How, well, interesting that his kid should be one of the authentic ones.

And then there's the plain fact of our increasingly mono-cultural food system which must be a pretty efficient way to engender all sorts of allergies, not to mention our antiseptic and quite apparently neurotic dirt-shunning lifestyle, coupled with lots of evidence that autoimmune and allergic reactions can be correlated with banishment of all the parasitic co-existing organisms all around us. Aren't we parasites too, on Earth, for instance? I wonder what we're good for, in the end.

We all desperately need narrative frames for our lives and even more desperately want something analogous to a steering wheel to guide them. We are hoist by our own intentional fallacy; the clearly idiotic belief that we can banish all happenstance to the side of our clear path, even as we throw our fate, willy nilly, in the face of every drunk-driving depressed neurotic hurtling toward us on the other side of the road. If we were to apply reader responses to our own narrative about ourselves, perhaps we could take advantage of some of the come-what-may of life, right?

Mostly, it works. The steering wheel, I mean. But sometimes it would be better to wander and meander and keep an open mind/heart/soul about what happens to come along.

What does one make of this famous and super-star Harvard academic whose career might be built almost purely on a narrative frame without a whole lot of evidentiary flesh to make it real? It would seem that the story alone is what has given him his pride of place. He's a good narrative spinner and perhaps not a whole lot more. Chinese, Jewish, pushy mothers, wanting their kids to study study to get and to take the advantage to be taught by the really really good narrative spinners at the top brainpower sanctioning institutions in the land.

What's this rebellious streak I can't avoid? This hurtling down roads on motorcyle into the face of storms in ancient wooden boat without a compass determination that I will meet my fate on my own terms without some superimposed fictitious scaffolding? Someone else's sanction for my fate.

What if the principal quality of human intellect has little to nothing to do with captaining ones own fate? What if luck really is the primary factor and no powerful drugs or gene therapies ever will divert that fact? I enjoy learning about - listening to confident narratives about - how nanotechnology and genetic science will be the things to determine our future. And I think, yeah, spin the wheel and take your choice and nano this! What determines our future is an awful lot more likely to have a moral content and context and be how well we resolve our collective fate, even as we all do continue to prefer the charlatans who tell us what we want to hear. We still think that we can beat the odds and master a nice life's narrative and too bad about the ones trudging alongside our highways.

Then there's Toyota's Flaw:

This should come as no surprise to anyone. Toyota's error was to make an on/off button which uses the universal symbol for digital on/off. It used to be cool, exciting, new-age and wonderful. But we're jaded. Sometimes we just pull the plug because we're tired of the crashes and the mysteries of what the hell is going on inside the box. Has it been taken over by viral terrorists, or is it poor quality control or is it something I did that I shouldn't have done? Most likely it's just that good ol' profit motive, trumping decency of the sort we used to count on.

So, the same federal bureaucracy which can't regulate the oil drilling and which approves deadly new drugs on the sayso of the industry which stands to make billons of dollars off our trust, and which can't enforce the most basic consumer protections on health insurers (ask me about it sometime - I have reams to tell) now tells us that there is no fatal flaw in the design of the Toyotas in question. It's all user error. Yeah, and it's all Lyndy England's fault that we tortured gooks, right? We never meant any harm. Not us! Only deviants in our midst.

Who the hell should we believe? Well, what does it really matter? Did you think there was a car that would drive itself? Wouldn't you panic if your car takes off on you? If someone grim comes at you with a boxcutter? And then they get to control the narrative. And the narrative changes the world, and we think we're in control, what, just because we hold a steering wheel in our hands? Are we nuts??!!! A gun to the head trumps control any day of the week.

As if context doesn't matter? Can you think quickly enough to hold the button in for 10 seconds when you're hurtling down the highway with a car beyond your control? When your files are being eaten away? When the drug they told you you needed to take might be killing you softly? When the oil is gushing? And you haven't been given the chance to add value to the effluent stream by burning it off in your own personal death machine?

But you know, I love this story. The one which has Toyota now losing billions because they got the symbology wrong. The one which brings down the Church because their priests are as messed up as the rest of us. Hell, maybe even more-so. The one which realizes, even if a bit late in the day, that Google isn't any more cute than Bill Gates was. That they're just another behemoth trying to take over the world. Hey surprise!!! What did you expect, sheep in this Hun's clothing??

That other story - the Jesus story - look at what it's done. People guide their entire lives now as though it were a true story, as though it might really matter whether there was such a man. The story was worked out over many different traditions with many different actors and it's not even that great a story, but, well, except for the fact that it's changed the world. Not always for the better, but you can't deny that it's changed the world.

It might have been nice if the capitalist behemoth of these United States could have been brought to our knees by something more imaginative than terrorists killing themeselves and 3,000 innocents in a tower and in planes. It might have been nicer still if we didn't have to even the score on the backs of untold millions of gooks who do our dying for us because we don't think they count. I want my oil and I want it NOW! How hard is it really to bring down something hurtling into its future as fast as we are? Isn't it rather more amazing, considering how many national and cultural narratives we've wrecked, that the whole behemoth holds together at all? Especially in the face of so much rightful indignation. How hard is it to bring down such complexity?

But these are the stories we have. We like to have our heros and our villains and we really don't want to believe that there is some confederacy of dunces in charge, which, by the way, there might actually be. Just not the ones you elected. We don't pay them enough. But hey, there is and always has been a confederacy of psychopaths in charge. Toyota's flaw is our flaw. Not user error, but this insane notion that we should all be in charge of our own little narrative and take credit for what was granted us by fate. You get yours, I'll get mine and then this magical invisible Jesus-hand of fate will take care of all the details.

We should all get on the bus already, or walk or ride bikes slowly.

And that Jesus story, it's the same thing in reverse. As if there's someone ready to rescue, ready to take all our flaws off our backs, ready to blame the evildoers as though there weren't some of that in each of us all the time. I mean it's nice to have somebody to blame, but really, we should pay attention to what we wish for. This apocalyptic narrative is about to finish us all off.

Now, about that health insurance consumer protection I want. Just hold the experts accountable to get and make the payments. To tell us what we'll owe ahead of time for each transaction, and never, and I mean never, stick the patient with a denial or a bill if he's covered. Let the doctor tell you yes or no, and let his staff deal with the insurance companies. And throw in some genuine understanding of statistical odds, and not the ones the writers of advertising copy want you to buy.

Caveat Emptor?? Bullshit! I'm pretty smart, but I'm nowise near smart enough to understand what goes on in the black boxes which control our lives. Why should I have to? User error indeed!!! I want the possibility for honest work, that's all. Not bullshit participation in some scam which pits me against the rubes who buy the shit I'm selling to make somebody else filthy rich. And I don't want to want a car anymore. Well, I don't want one already. I just don't want to need one. Can we at least get that one straight, people? That's a bandwagon worth getting on.

Well, enough soap boxing for a lifetime right there. You know, I'm tired of everyone's marvel that they'd love to see how the world will look in another dozen or hundred years. People actually seem to think this "progress" juggernaut has a chance to keep on keeping on. Twinned with that are the disaster scenarios. Thanks a lot Jonathan Swifty Margaret Atwood and the rest!

I'm pretty confident looking forward to a future of stepping back. Our frontiers are gone, and we just simply don't need to keep up this level of energy consumption. It would be beyond miraculous to find a way to replace the cheapness we get from oil's incredibly dense packaging of power. But we've been turned back at the Left Coast. And we would do better to slow down, rebuild the train infrastructure, live in smaller houses, spend more time in public places.

Was a time you could call the local grocery and they'd come around with your purchases. You could stop by the tailor and he'd already have your measurements - that personal knowledge we're all so excited now to be able to replicate via computer indexes and databases. Each day I get new piles of personalized stuff that I feel I should shred in case someone wants to steal me.  As if I were in cahoots with the Huns against the little local scammer who might go through my trash. We give our initiative away so cheaply, don't you think?

Now that we've abstracted away all the local and dignified talent and skill and lore embodied in the butcher the baker and the candlestick maker. Now that everything can be and is first constructed virtually, on some stinking computer screen, and then put out to bid among idiotized masses of people who are taught that they need an education to get ahead. After they've already been robbed of every possibility for dignity internalized from handiwork and experience and matches to local life.

I look forward to a return of sanity and local knowledge embodied by the ones who understand that IQ is as fictitious as Lipitor's benefits and that it's not mastery of our fates which makes us human, but moral understanding about how to share them.

That's what narrative is for. That's what I'm trying to do here. But I'm running out of gas. I'm in real danger of heading off to China to pander my native abilities with English. Which would be a shame and a waste, but, well, I could, at least, brush up my Chinese. Yeah, I guess that's what I'll do.

Meantime, as to what we're good for, we humans, we beastly species who are so proud as if we were the culmination of Evolution's blind destiny. Well, try on this for size. The soul is a metaphor, rooted best in how it is that a word means. It can't mean a thing standing by itself. It can only mean in context. Which pretty much means that we are as nothing without our entire ecosystem. Not the one we might construct, but the one which could stand to be without us right about now.

So, the problem is not "what does it all mean?" which might imply that each of us is endowed, as if it were a granted soul, by something indelible and personal and about which me need do nothing. The problem is how do we make meaning, and we've been doing that only a very brief while with and by the written word. Now as we proliferate so many words, it might be worth making a few of them mean something, and then along the way we might find a way to mean something ourselves other from destruction of everything about us *except* that supposed soul we'd thought was granted.


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