‘When everyone’s talking and no one is listening how can we decide?’

Four years, and too little has changed. My gratitude and sincere remembrance has not.

colemining

 

This is the week that we wear poppies and take time to remember the sacrifices made by all those who have fought to institute and maintain freedoms that we value pretty highly. November 11th is Remembrance Day in Canada.

Our neighbours to the south call it by another name, and the messaging is also somewhat different. But we set aside the time to remember. Lest we forget.

That need for remembrance was brought home to me in a very real way on Tuesday – and again the following morning, when I realized that I hadn’t been imagining what was happening before I called it a night and shut off the tv at midnight. I didn’t sleep well – I’m not sure if it was my thoughts about what was happening or actual nightmares that were keeping me awake. Those two things became inextricable in the harsh…

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Four Long Years, or It’s the End of the World as We Know it, and I Feel Fine.

Back before the global pandemic, a group of us used to get together on Tuesdays (why Tuesdays? That’s a story in itself…) and four years ago we convened, per usual, in order to watch the election results come in from that country to the south of us.

I admit, I’d been complacent enough to believe that the result of the 2016 election was going to be straight-forward. I couldn’t imagine any circumstances that would give the leadership of the US to an accused sex-offender with a history of dubious business dealings, who most of us knew – almost exclusively – from his appearance on a reality TV show.

Suffice to say, things didn’t turn out as expected.

As we headed out into the streets of Toronto for the short walk home – a few hours into the counting and projections – I was stunned by the quiet apprehension that seemed to be hanging over the quiet streets.

I was numb. I was astonished. It might have been projection, but I don’t really think so. That night marked a shift – and I wasn’t confident that we’d survive it.

I’m an historian, but, other than a general awareness of the history of the US that comes with proximity and the fact that historians gonna history, I could not, then, understand how that result could possibly be a thing. A real thing. Something that was going to affect the world – in ways we couldn’t even imagine at that point.

Before trying to sleep that night I had a text exchange with a friend in which I expressed a growing sense of complete and utter dread. That the US – even with their ingrained mythos of exceptionality and holier-than-thou-ness – could slip into the darkness that would follow the election (I knew, even then) was beyond my comprehension, and, if I’m honest, beyond my naive belief in the desire of people to support their communities and the betterment of other human beings over the selfish needs of individuals.

In the last 4 years I’ve had the opportunity – and have accepted the necessity – to delve into the reasons why such a thing came to pass. It has involved a great deal of reading – and a new understanding of the history of the US in the years since WW2. Particularly the decades which saw the rise of the religious right and their usurping of the American political process.

That’s my wheelhouse, you see. Religion, and its effects on society and governance and the systems that support the ways in which we live together. A big part of that has to do with the rhetoric that religious movements create in order to assure dominance and social controls. It doesn’t matter – much – that the religious movements I spent most of my adulthood studying are centuries/millennia removed from the 21st century. The patterns and the manipulations of the discourse remain the same. Plus ca change, and etc.

It is facile to try to distill such things into a blog post – at least one of reasonable length and that’s all I’m up for tonight (I anticipate that tomorrow will be a late one) – but the overarching message I’ve been seeing, as Trump and his enablers persist in regressive actions and re-actions, is that we are, truly, at a point in history that is witness to the deconstruction of social realities that a minority of people have claimed – along with the benefits and privileges that accompany that societal structure.

What we are witnessing is an ending – and, with hope and hard work – the potential for a new beginning.

Historians don’t write history, they interpret history. Human beings – for all their strengths – are not great eye-witnesses. Any forensic specialist can tell you that – and lawyers count on our inattention to detail when presenting arguments for the innocence of their clients. Our books of history – such as they are – generally rely on data that is removed from the first-hand. Even those who write about personal experiences of history do so through a lens of context. Their own reality shapes those things they see – and the perspective that that brings is unreliable – best efforts notwithstanding.

All history is story – and (I know this will get me comments) all history is fiction. Even the advent of on-the-spot reporting and cameras represent a particular perspective. News is reported by people. And people have agendas. Even if agendas aren’t de facto slanted to present misinformation (fake news) the voice of the author finds its way into every story told.

Think about it (and this may shock some of you): the historical mentions of Jesus of Nazareth can be counted on one hand, if we don’t include those accounts written in the generations that followed, by men who had never met the guy. Does that mean he didn’t exist? That his message wasn’t important? Not in the least. But it does demonstrate my point – that much-used tautology that history is written by the victors – and that it is interpretive and interpreted by those who will use its lessons to advance an agenda of power and submission.

The truth – and we are seeing it now, here at what is likely the end of things – is that ‘history’ isn’t worth more than the paper it is written upon. That other tautology – that those who do not know it are doomed to repeat it – misses a key element: that history is nothing more than story – and that it is in those stories that we need discover what to do and what to avoid. STORY, not history, is the key to understanding humanity – and ensuring its continuance. 

Nostalgia is treacherous – since it is rarely based in real history. The ‘good old days’ may have been good for the few – but the many would legit beg to differ. ’Fake news’ is a thing. I don’t discount that. I would add a caveat though – that most of that which is ‘fake’ is being created and spread by men who are out of time. 

And what does that mean, you ask? I mean those men who know that their time is ending. The stories they’ve been telling – that have allowed and secured their ascendancy in this world – are being challenged by other experiences of history – stories that speak against things like exceptionalism, and manifest destiny, and superiority based on human-constructed lines designating us vs. them.

THEY are out of time. And they are scared. Terrified. And grasping at whatever they can to ensure survival in a world that knows they are all but extinct.

Unfortunately – for all of the rest of us – though they may be next on that same universal hit-list that took out the dinosaurs, they are the ones who control most things (unlike the dinosaurs, who had few concepts of social order and hierarchy).

They have their followers – as has always been the case – and will not release that control willingly. Out of time, they will try to take the rest of us down with them if they cannot preserve their self-created carved-out place in the social order.

Fear is the father of hatred. Hatred comes from nothing other than fear. That’s another tautology for you. These men (and the women who stand by them) have been made deathly afraid by the reality that they are out of time. And deathly fear is always deadly. Always.

If I were to self-describe that place where my passion and my interests most lie I have to acknowledge that I’m a student of apocalypses. Gnostic apocalypses, to get really specific. No longer a ‘practising’ historian, I remain a gatherer. And the stories that I’ve been gathering over the past four years are stories of apocalypse and endings.

But. The studies I’ve done in the years I’ve had at my privileged disposal have made me understand that the stories that bring us to the end times also, when well-constructed, (and this is key) describe what could come after.

We are in the end times now. We can work together, and I will participate, where I can, to help shape what comes after. 

The present is no longer tenable. Genies won’t be stuffed back into darkened bottles. We are in an age in which all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun are seeing the light of day.

“Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.” 

Stands up, that does. And we’re here, at the end, because of that disconnect between expectation and reality. Qoheleth knew what he was seeing. And what we witnessing now, at a distance of 2500 years (or thereabouts).

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What do people gain from all the toil

    at which they toil under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes,

    but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun goes down,

    and hurries to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south,

    and goes around to the north;

round and round goes the wind,

    and on its circuits the wind returns.

All streams run to the sea,

    but the sea is not full;

to the place where the streams flow,

    there they continue to flow.

All things are wearisome;

    more than one can express;

the eye is not satisfied with seeing,

    or the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be,

    and what has been done is what will be done;

    there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,

    “See, this is new”?

It has already been,

    in the ages before us.

The people of long ago are not remembered,

    nor will there be any remembrance

of people yet to come

    by those who come after them. 

Over the weekend I had backyard visits with a couple of friends. Interestingly, both spoke about interpretations of where we are and where we might be headed. One cited the Book of Revelation (It’s a cool story and all, but I remain much more partial to Ecclesiastes, as indicated by the descent into bible study up above) – and the ways in which we might be moving toward an apocalypse of biblical proportions (and now I’m quoting Ghostbusters. Can’t say I’m not diverse in my interests and textual recall…).

I’m staying far away from commenting on the application of Revelation to contemporary realities. There are far greater voices – with lived experience and scholarly-specifications – that can speak to the beliefs of the American Evangelicals who are driving so much of the reactionary politics at this point in history (I’ll include some people to follow, below, in case you’re interested in hearing some of those voices*).

I have my own contextual interpretations of the stuff that John of Patmos came up with – and they are all about how they are sourced in and in response to, the social issues of HIS day. But I get that people are going there. There are too many people whispering in the ears of those who hold power in this world to deny the legitimacy of such connections.

The other conversation I had centred around that ever-timely and somehow ageless tune by REM. It IS the end of the world as we know it. And, depending on how it all plays out south of our border tomorrow, I MIGHT, for the first time in 4 years, feel fine.

It’s remarkable, really, the way the lyrics still resonate. Or is it? Is the fact that the song is as impactful now as it was when it was written representative of the stuff I’ve been talking about? That we have been on a trajectory toward this end since they wrote the song in 1987.

World serves its own needs
Don’t mis-serve your own needs
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no, strength
The ladder starts to clatter
With a fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, representing seven games
And a government for hire and a combat site

Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light

It’s been coming for a long time, now.

We can stop those who seek to hold up their interpretation of history, and plot a path for a better, more equitable and inclusive future. I’ll be watching, tomorrow. And not just because of concern for my American friends. Parts of Canada – people in Canada – have been falling for the rhetoric that enables the illusion that outdated social constructs and social constructors aren’t out of time, but that a ‘return’ to something fictive is the way to be heading.

Six o’clock, T.V. hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, bloodletting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a motive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crush, uh oh
This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline

And then, once progressive order is asserted, we can address the systemic overhauls that are required to collectively create the new solutions and alternative that our stories tell us we can move toward.

*If you’re interested, these two Twitter accounts are a great place to start:

@C_Stroop

@mpgPhD

Virology

Something sort of weird happened yesterday. I responded to a tweet – on @Mikel_Jollett’s twitter feed. Reflecting on the the rally about to happen in Tulsa, he commented that it smacked of cultic activity – and he cited his own history having been raised in, and then escaping from an actual cult – Synanon – a story he tells in his recently-released novel Hollywood Park (check it out if you want a heart-rending read – and add to the experience by reading the book while listening to the accompanying album of the same name by The Airborne Toxic Event).

He said:

I’ve spent a lot of my life studying cults. I was born in one, we escaped when I was very young. We witnessed mass denial, magical thinking, abuse, violence. And I just want to say for the record there is a cult gathering happening in Tulsa today.

This is a screenshot of my reply and his response:

Screen Shot 2020-06-21 at 12.44.36 PM

In addition to being a remarkable writer – of songs and articles and, now, his first memoir – Mikel shares his strong voice with his many followers on twitter. My comment –  referencing my days in academia, has now been seen by closing in on 100 000 people – and liked more than 2300 times.

I know that those numbers aren’t particularly high in the relative scheme of the social media world/s, but in my little corner of twitter, with my 300-some followers it’s a pretty significant jump in the number of interactions I usually get.

But this isn’t about my 15-minutes of (relative) fame in the twitterverse. A couple of things have come out of some reflection on the response to an observatory tweet drawn from my experience and research in that former academic life.

I touched on the subject of cults and charismatic leaders a couple of posts ago. Cults come from the same place that births apocalyptic thinking.

Historically and sociologically, apocalyptic thinking develops as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and societal realities. When we are unhappy in our current situations, we project a better scenario to come at some future date – if things are fulfilled as prescribed.

In historical literary and religious traditions, the better scenario generally comes after a cataclysmic and status changing event of some kind that trashes the social or cultural system that is causing the disconnect between expectations and reality. The new reality is posited to be one of justice – as perceived by the person who is unhappy with the current status quo. Religious apocalypses promise salvation as the aftermath of the period of trial and unhappiness.

Cults gather followings out of this same feeling of social anomie – and the same promises made that are found in historical apocalypses. A charismatic leader plays upon the discontent and disconnect of people and promises better things as long as they follow and obey.

The demands of the leaders don’t start off as extreme. Most humans do not seek out opportunities to do harm and violence. Soon though, the blind allegiance that is demanded escalates until abuse (of self and others) and violence become ‘reasonable’ if such things will permit the restoration of rightful place in a society that has rejected them.

Many of Trump’s followers feel threatened by a progressive move away from the guarantee of their privilege based in the colour of their skin. He is a figurehead who promises a return to the days in which they held their ‘rightful place.’

Some who cling to the idea of the feasibility of the current GOP are simply protecting their own interests – ensuring that their wealth remains untaxed, and their investments in health care for-profit, private education for-profit and fossil fuels (obvs for-profit), to name a few examples, are unthreatened. (And also that their places of worship don’t have to pay taxes – and can exert as much influence over politicians-for-sale as possible, despite what Jefferson had to say about ‘separation between Church and State’ and mis/interpretations of that First Amendment thing – which is taking a beating these days. But that’s a rant for another day).

But many of the followers of Trump’s messaging and movement are just trying to fit somewhere in a world which is leaving them behind. This messaging and movement are destined to fail – they just aren’t tenable. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, too many bells have been rung to permit any real unringing. It doesn’t mean the struggle isn’t over – and it certainly doesn’t mean that the path to social change will be easy in the days, weeks, months and years to come, but I’m really starting to believe that this backslide movement is running on fumes.

Trump’s Tulsa rally, which, as we know today, was incredibly poorly attended – despite early reports of 100s of thousands of tickets having been purchased (bravo all you young folk who bought tickets with no intention of attending) – smacks of the last gasps of desperate people. After 3 1/2 years his followers aren’t, actually, seeing a reversion back to their perceived golden age when they lived high off the hog. Or were, at least, ‘better’ than those Black folks over on the other side of town.

Despite the Jones-esque attempt to lead thousands to death-by-COVID-infection, the fact that the turnout to what was supposed to be the reopening of the campaign to continue the cult was so sad and pathetic makes me feel that even the cultists are starting to get it. That guy is all about that guy. Not the little guy. No matter what the propaganda says.

The other thing that offers a bit of hope in these exhausting times is that for all the views and likes on my viral-ish comment of yesterday, there were only a handful that were violent and hateful in nature. And those few that were got handled quickly and comprehensively by others in the threads – I did not have to feed many trolls at all. I muted a few – and reported a couple of obvious bots, but for the most part the discussions were polite and, seemingly, legitimately interested.

There were also some positive interactions – and sincere questions – that are making me think that people out there are doing more than just reacting. I had a brief discussion with a woman whose bio says she is a former Senator – a former GOP Senator – who wanted to know how to ‘deprogram’ these followers once a new government is installed after next November. She was gracious and respectful in her questions and responses.

Unfortunately ‘deprogramming’ isn’t a thing. And there will be no quick fix. This is going to require generational change, based in equitable access to education that teaches actual history – not the narrative that most were raised to believe. Willful, selfish ignorance has been the norm for too long.

The narrative that has been shared in public school curricula has significant gaps in information that is required for people to think independently and critically. They can’t do so with a redacted history. We need to ensure that those who set the curricula don’t get to leave out the bits that make them personally uncomfortable – things like genocide, and systemic anti-Black racism. We need to emphasize the reality that both race and religion are human-created constructs – and, as such, can and should be deconstructed.

The Wikipedia says ‘virology’ is the study of viruses – particularly their “structure, classification and evolution, their ways to infect and exploit host cells for reproduction, their interaction with host organism physiology and immunity, the diseases they cause, the techniques to isolate and culture them, and their use in research and therapy.”

Cults and viruses share a lot of characteristics – which makes right now a particularly appropriate time to examine the structures, classifications, evolution, exploitation and interactions of both. Doing so will help us see through to the other side of both this pandemic and the cultic subversion of humanistic values that promote progress and equity.

Rooting out and overcoming disease takes time and investment – and listening to those who are experts at isolating the causes of infection and using the findings to produce the therapies needed to overcome the virus. I’m optimistic – cautiously, but optimistic nonetheless – that we are beginning to have the conversations and take in the in-and output of those who are expert and experienced in the ways to affect significant and positive change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virology

Something sort of weird happened yesterday. I responded to a tweet – on @Mikel_Jollett’s twitter feed. Reflecting on the the rally about to happen in Tulsa, he commented that it smacked of cultic activity – and he cited his own history having been raised in, and then escaping from an actual cult – Synanon – a story he tells in his recently-released novel Hollywood Park (check it out if you want a heart-rending read – and add to the experience by reading the book while listening to the accompanying album of the same name by The Airborne Toxic Event).

He said:

I’ve spent a lot of my life studying cults. I was born in one, we escaped when I was very young. We witnessed mass denial, magical thinking, abuse, violence. And I just want to say for the record there is a cult gathering happening in Tulsa today.

This is a screenshot of my reply and his response:

Screen Shot 2020-06-21 at 12.44.36 PM

In addition to being a remarkable writer – of songs and articles and, now, his first memoir – Mikel shares his strong voice with his many followers on twitter. My comment –  referencing my days in academia, has now been seen by closing in on 100 000 people – and liked more than 2300 times.

I know that those numbers aren’t particularly high in the relative scheme of the social media world/s, but in my little corner of twitter, with my 300-some followers it’s a pretty significant jump in the number of interactions I usually get.

But this isn’t about my 15-minutes of (relative) fame in the twitterverse. A couple of things have come out of some reflection on the response to an observatory tweet drawn from my experience and research in that former academic life.

I touched on the subject of cults and charismatic leaders a couple of posts ago. Cults come from the same place that births apocalyptic thinking.

Historically and sociologically, apocalyptic thinking develops as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and societal realities. When we are unhappy in our current situations, we project a better scenario to come at some future date – if things are fulfilled as prescribed.

In historical literary and religious traditions, the better scenario generally comes after a cataclysmic and status changing event of some kind that trashes the social or cultural system that is causing the disconnect between expectations and reality. The new reality is posited to be one of justice – as perceived by the person who is unhappy with the current status quo. Religious apocalypses promise salvation as the aftermath of the period of trial and unhappiness.

Cults gather followings out of this same feeling of social anomie – and the same promises made that are found in historical apocalypses. A charismatic leader plays upon the discontent and disconnect of people and promises better things as long as they follow and obey.

The demands of the leaders don’t start off as extreme. Most humans do not seek out opportunities to do harm and violence. Soon though, the blind allegiance that is demanded escalates until abuse (of self and others) and violence become ‘reasonable’ if such things will permit the restoration of rightful place in a society that has rejected them.

Many of Trump’s followers feel threatened by a progressive move away from the guarantee of their privilege based in the colour of their skin. He is a figurehead who promises a return to the days in which they held their ‘rightful place.’

Some who cling to the idea of the feasibility of the current GOP are simply protecting their own interests – ensuring that their wealth remains untaxed, and their investments in health care for-profit, private education for-profit and fossil fuels (obvs for-profit), to name a few examples, are unthreatened. (And also that their places of worship don’t have to pay taxes – and can exert as much influence over politicians-for-sale as possible, despite what Jefferson had to say about ‘separation between Church and State’ and mis/interpretations of that First Amendment thing – which is taking a beating these days. But that’s a rant for another day).

But many of the followers of Trump’s messaging and movement are just trying to fit somewhere in a world which is leaving them behind. This messaging and movement are destined to fail – they just aren’t tenable. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, too many bells have been rung to permit any real unringing. It doesn’t mean the struggle isn’t over – and it certainly doesn’t mean that the path to social change will be easy in the days, weeks, months and years to come, but I’m really starting to believe that this backslide movement is running on fumes.

Trump’s Tulsa rally, which, as we know today, was incredibly poorly attended – despite early reports of 100s of thousands of tickets having been purchased (bravo all you young folk who bought tickets with no intention of attending) – smacks of the last gasps of desperate people. After 3 1/2 years his followers aren’t, actually, seeing a reversion back to their perceived golden age when they lived high off the hog. Or were, at least, ‘better’ than those Black folks over on the other side of town.

Despite the Jones-esque attempt to lead thousands to death-by-COVID-infection, the fact that the turnout to what was supposed to be the reopening of the campaign to continue the cult was so sad and pathetic makes me feel that even the cultists are starting to get it. That guy is all about that guy. Not the little guy. No matter what the propaganda says.

The other thing that offers a bit of hope in these exhausting times is that for all the views and likes on my viral-ish comment of yesterday, there were only a handful that were violent and hateful in nature. And those few that were got handled quickly and comprehensively by others in the threads – I did not have to feed many trolls at all. I muted a few – and reported a couple of obvious bots, but for the most part the discussions were polite and, seemingly, legitimately interested.

There were also some positive interactions – and sincere questions – that are making me think that people out there are doing more than just reacting. I had a brief discussion with a woman whose bio says she is a former Senator – a former GOP Senator – who wanted to know how to ‘deprogram’ these followers once a new government is installed after next November. She was gracious and respectful in her questions and responses.

Unfortunately ‘deprogramming’ isn’t a thing. And there will be no quick fix. This is going to require generational change, based in equitable access to education that teaches actual history – not the narrative that most were raised to believe. Willful, selfish ignorance has been the norm for too long.

The narrative that has been shared in public school curricula has significant gaps in information that is required for people to think independently and critically. They can’t do so with a redacted history. We need to ensure that those who set the curricula don’t get to leave out the bits that make them personally uncomfortable – things like genocide, and systemic anti-Black racism. We need to emphasize the reality that both race and religion are human-created constructs – and, as such, can and should be deconstructed.

The Wikipedia says ‘virology’ is the study of viruses – particularly their “structure, classification and evolution, their ways to infect and exploit host cells for reproduction, their interaction with host organism physiology and immunity, the diseases they cause, the techniques to isolate and culture them, and their use in research and therapy.”

Cults and viruses share a lot of characteristics – which makes right now a particularly appropriate time to examine the structures, classifications, evolution, exploitation and interactions of both. Doing so will help us see through to the other side of both this pandemic and the cultic subversion of humanistic values that promote progress and equity.

Rooting out and overcoming disease takes time and investment – and listening to those who are experts at isolating the causes of infection and using the findings to produce the therapies needed to overcome the virus. I’m optimistic – cautiously, but optimistic nonetheless – that we are beginning to have the conversations and take in the in-and output of those who are expert and experienced in the ways to affect significant and positive change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#ItIsSystemic

I have spent the last few days listening to voices who have experiential knowledge from which my privilege has shielded me. Right now I need to be listening – since I need to learn how best to continue to contribute to this war, so all I will say is this, to those who might be less-inclined to listen to those who know, first-hand, what the hell has been going on, but might listen to me.

As both an historian and as an educator, the denials that the events of the week (and the month and the year and the decade and the century and the millennium) are examples of systemic racism are as delusional as they are shameful.

Anyone who thinks ‘things aren’t really like that’ is about to have an awakening that has been too long coming. All those who still subscribe to the beliefs that have permitted the perpetuation of (white) human-created racial divides needs to be listening to people who are making their voices heard right now.

Race, like religion, is a completely human construct. The amount of melanin in one’s skin, or the geographical location from where one originates, has nothing to do with intelligence or entitlement and certainly nothing to do with rightness or ‘better than.’

Differences in skin colour or culture or where we came from or what gods one might think are the best have always been used as a means of othering – a way to ensure that in our narratives and our history we (as opposed to them) comes out looking like the righteous victor and legitimate inheritor of the Earth, or manifest destiny, or American Exceptionalism, or whatever other supremacist bullshit we have written to justify the subjugation of our fellow human beings.

We made that shit up. We can unmake that shit – but it requires a conscious understanding of its existence and our imperative need to do so.

Jane Elliott put it succinctly: white Americans who grew up within the systems and communities of the US who are not racist are only not racist because they took the time to educate themselves about the systemic inequities upon which the US was built. Growing up within the system did no more than teach them about the system that was stacked in their favour – to the contrived and concerted detriment of all BIPOC.

And, while the US is playing out the truth of this fact right now, the rest of us need to examine our own systems and the inequities upon which they were built and which still drive the ways we live together.

This pandemic is shining light on all kinds of concerns about gaps in freedom and access to services and the ways in which we interact with one another. Many of us have a lot of extra time on our hands right now. Let’s use it to listen and effect change that will let us change the narrative to one that is not based in anachronistic ideals of colonialism and supremacy.

A very short list of the people I’m hearing right now.

@jessewente

@AOC

@AylanX

@IjeomaOluo

@JamaalBowmanNY

@TTMProject

@nhannahjones

@LenardMonkman1

@WendellPierce

@theyoungjoo

@TanyaTalaga

@Pam_Palmater

@TaranaBurke

@Luvvie

 

Voices Carry: Next Steps

Well it’s been an interesting few weeks since I first started trying to articulate what I hope to do with this project. I have, already, had some great conversations that will, I hope, lead to larger ones that will focus positive attention on the change-seeking that should come with the restructuring that will be required as a result of the pandemic. Change that can come if we isolate and analyse the inequities and shortcomings of our societies and their will to address those dark places that have been exposed.

It was a rough week, personally, as my family lost one of its members. This was not unexpected – but that doesn’t make the loss any easier. It has lead to a whole lot of soul searching (or soul mining) as I come to the realization that the number of people who have known and loved me since I was born is rapidly dwindling.

Uncle Ken was Dad’s best friend – and we spent a whole lot of time with his family while we we growing up. Even once we were well into adulthood, he and Aunt Marcia took their roles as godparents to me and my sisters very seriously. When a long-term very toxic relationship came to an end, Aunt Marcia acted in Mum’s stead as comforter and provider of hugs and sweets, while Uncle Ken said one of the things that shocked me in its starkness at the time, yet has proven to be a reality that continues to be a source of strength and purpose. He said, “you are not a victim.”

This assertion seemed abrupt and almost harsh in the state I was in – I was still in the wallowing stage of things, I guess – but, as was usual for him, he cut through to the heart of things and reinforced his belief that I would move beyond the situation with the help of my own strength and the support that I could call upon from family and friends. He was a keystone of that support in the years that followed – as we saw Dad through his last illnesses – and I haven’t fully integrated the fact that we will no longer have that support. That’s going to take some time and some focus that I can’t command right now.

Still, the sadness and reflection has helped to shape my thoughts on some potential next steps for this project. I think that these conversations will likely take the form of podcasts  on a series of the necessary changes identified. It is still early days, but the recruitment process has begun, and I’m drawing up some questions I’d like to start sending people to think about in advance of really setting the stage for the chats to begin.

One of the things that wants examining – and one of the proposed topics of discussion – has to do with our unhealthy cultural obsession with celebrities – and those who hold a public spotlight, in particular the propensity to think that said celebrities can do wrong and don’t need their words and actions examined with a critical eye, if they are to be held up as exemplars to which we should aspire.

As is so often the case, reflection on this issue got me thinking about a story – a biblical story (unsurprisingly – I’ve been returning to my research roots more and more lately) that talks about the perils of investing too much unexamined faith in others – especially those who are only superficially worthy of such reverence.

My fave Babylonian king (you know his name. Say it – ‘Nebuchadnezzar’) once had a dream that both baffled and disturbed him. None of his own courtiers or wiseguys were able to interpret the dream for him – since doing so required the input of the gods.  And they didn’t seem to be forthcoming with any guidance – much to the distress of the wiseguys. Distress that grew, quite significantly, when it became clear that Neb was going to execute the bunch of them for their inability to help him sort it all out.

As they were being rounded up (as I re-read the passage I had an image of the Brute Squad clearing out the Thieves’ Forest in The Princess Bride, for some reason), Daniel asked the Captain of the Guard what was up with all this. Once answered, Daniel then asked Arioch to hold off on the whole executing-the-wiseguys thing, and to give him some time to figure out the troublesome nightmare.

Granted the time, Daniel and his Judean buds prayed to their god for mercy, and the meaning of Neb’s dream was revealed to them. Daniel was taken to the king and recounted it fully, before beginning his interpretation – which, he noted, he was able to do because of the guidance of his god. Who was better than Neb’s gods. Just a BTW.

Nebuchadnezzar had dreamt of a great figure – with a head made of gold, upper body of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet made partly of iron and partly of baked clay. A stone – uncut by human hands – came along and smashed the feet of clay, causing the entirety to topple and shatter – with the precious metals being blown away by the winds, as the stone became a mountain which then filled the whole Earth.

Daniel tells Neb that he, the king, is the head of gold. He has been given his dominion by god and is great among men, in his power and glory. After his time, another kingdom will arise – one inferior to his. And then another. And another. Then will arise a kingdom that is divided – and the weakness caused by this division will lead to its downfall – by another kingdom, established by god, that will smash all the others to bits.

Neb was so happy to have his dream interpreted, he made Daniel his chief wiseguy and lavished rewards upon him and his friends (Daniel wasn’t one to forget his buddies…).

There are all kinds of interpretations of this dream and what Daniel had to say lay at its root. The separate sections of the figure are generally thought to represent specific nations – Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, as one example – and, as such, is more of the same sort of social commentary you find throughout the narrative of the Book of Daniel.

But… as is often the case with such things, strong mythological images develop nuances of their own outside of the context of their creation.

‘Feet of clay’ is colloquially used to reference a character flaw – usually one that is pretty darn significant. The fragility of the feet – the flaw – caused by the hubris or ego of the figure – endangers the whole. Up to and including its wondrous head of gold. The (self-) perceived beauty and wisdom and charisma cannot remain standing under its own weight when any sort of stone shows up to smash into that problematic and fragile underpinning.

We invest so much in our public figures – in those personalities who keep us entertained or informed, or those who seek to lead us in our day-to-day lives. When their clay feet are (often inevitably) revealed, we tend to react with either 1) hostile doubt and by lashing out at those stony accusers who dare to imply anything less than golden about the figurehead they love, or 2) with knowing self-assurance that the idol was always destined to be toppled from his lofty height.

Those who make of themselves a cult of personality do so at their own risk. We like them, until we are presented with reasons to despise them – or their behaviours. But sometimes we cling to the illusion, regardless of the weight of evidence, and maintain the defence long past all logic or rationale (I could cite so many examples of this right now, but I’m sure they wouldn’t scratch the surface of the daily demonstrations that prove that this is a pervasive social issue), hoping that the object of reverence will remember the loyalty when returned to power.

I actually hated this song when it came out. Although, really, that largely had to do with the fact that one of my uni housemates played it All. The. Time. (Until Fletch stormed downstairs and turfed it far out into the snow of the backyard, that is. I think I need to buy him a drink in remembered thankfulness for that…). I’m still not sure I like the song all that much, but its lyrics stand up as well today as they did back in 1988.

Neon lights, Nobel Prize
When a mirror speaks, the reflection lies
You won’t have to follow me
Only you can set me free

I sell the things you need to be
I’m the smiling face on your TV
I’m the cult of personality
I exploit you, still you love me
I tell you one and one makes three

You gave me fortune
You gave me fame
You gave me power in your god’s name
I’m every person you need to be
I’m the cult of personality

And that title.

The song is about psychology and politics. And ‘cult’ is a loaded term that is, generally (i.e., not academically), used negatively. A cult of personality happens when a person uses things like the media to construct an idealized image. It is based in charismatic authority and has connections with narcissistic leadership.

So. If the shoe fits… Perhaps it can be used to cover up those fragile tootsies. Although my recommendation would be that we cease the irrational adulation that permits the rise of such cults – and let them crumble as they should.

It’s time to end our cultural obsession with the lives of people who proclaim their importance and expect us to fall into line to worship based on their self-assessment and the media’s assistance in the development of the construct of their false narrative.

I’m confident that we will have some interesting conversations around this topic – and perhaps come up with some solutions – from journalists and other members of the media, along with those who find themselves in the role of ‘celebrity’ – as to how we can change the narrative and crumble some clay feet – and those who walk around on them – in a constructive way.

Send me a message if you’re interested in participating in the project. Enjoy the sunshine this weekend, stay safe and please stay home as much as you can, and keep your distance and wear a mask if you need to be out. The trends around here are becoming more alarming each day.

 

Voices Carry: The Project

My all-time most-read post, years later, still gets the hits due to the super-distinctive lyric I used as its title. Everyone knows the song, it seems. And it’s one of those that winds and weaves and takes the listener through a complicated journey that winds through time-and-space with a cast of characters that rivals those in that all-time favourite of mine, The Weight.

I originally wrote that post because one of my BFFs had been spending a summer night reflecting upon a park in New Jersey and she posted a line from a particular little ditty as her status on the facebook. It got the song running through my head, of course – the super-rhyme-scheme is catchy as all get-out – but the version that popped in there was Manfred Mann’s cover of the tune, rather than Bruce’s original.

Which, while not surprising perhaps, got me thinking some interesting things about creativity and muses and suchlike and the fact that sharing and interpretation and reinterpretation are one of the best things about music.

Before she became a brightly-coloured musical instrument (usually associated with circuses) Kalliope/Calliope was the Muse in charge of cool things like epic poetry and eloquence. Capital-M Muses were the Greek goddess-types who provided the inspiration for all those things I like best – art, literature, music, history – you know, those things that we create that connect us as humans.

Shrines to the Muses – museums – are pretty much the closest I tend to get to entering places of worship on anything like a regular basis, and as anything other than a tourist. I like museums. A lot. They are places of reverence to me. And they feel like home. The Muses are definitely ladies after my own heart – even if their influence has been spotty at best lately.

The Romans picked up on the idea of the daughters of Zeus (the Big Boss) and Mnemosyne (Memory- in goddess form) and assigned them particular roles. Historian that I am, I’ve always been a wee bit partial to Clio (with her scrolls and all), but all props need go to Kalliope for inspiring the epic-ness of Mr. Springsteen’s well-rhymed song.

Kalliope is generally pictured with a writing tablet – reflective of her importance to those who wax poetic – and was called, by peeps as important as Ovid, the Chief of all the Muses. She was mother to Orpheus, and the inspiration and whispering Voice in the night that drove Homer to write a couple of well-known ditties – about a guy named Odysseus and about a conflict in a town called Troy – of his own.

My beloved Dante spoke well of her: But, since I am yours, O sacred Muses, here let dead Poetry rise again, and here let Calliope sound, a moment, accompanying my words with that mode, of which the Pierides felt the power, so that they despaired of pardon…’ (Dante references the first Battle of the Bands- won, natch, by the Muses, who then turned the upstart Thessalonian daughters of King Pieros into magpies for their extraordinary presumption in challenging them to a sing-off. Think Pitch Perfect, but for keeps).

Kalliope is usually described as the eldest of the sisters – something I know a little something about. She’s also considered the wisest… but I’ll leave that one alone, lest my own wee sisters take offence.

I’ve been more than a little short on the inspiration and harmony lately. I’ve mentioned all that in more posts then I can count, and the current circumstances are making it hard to focus on productivity of any kind. I can usually prod through a work day with something to show for it by the end, but none of it seems to hold much value, if you get what I’m saying.

I’ve given some thought to sources of inspiration and creativity- and, funnily enough (that interconnection thing again), I flippantly referred to a friend as my (small-m) muse, since he has been more than a little responsible for a number of posts – and for exposure to a whole lot of the music I’ve been listening to as I shelter in place. I used a winky-faced emoticon when I said it, but some emoticons hide truth, sometimes, methinks.

Bruce wrote Blinded by the Light because his record company insisted that Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J, his debut album, needed something a little more single-y, more hit-esque, than the songs he’d already come up with. He wrote the lyrics first – unusual for him – using a rhyming dictionary. The result is pretty damn clever, indeed – especially for someone like me who loves playing around with words and who can recognize mastery of the craft. The language-play is full of images and stories that leap at the listener as the song unfolds, reminiscent of some of Dylan’s coolest poetry-set-to-music.

For all Bruce’s undeniable prowess, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version is arguably better-known – and contains one of the most frequently misheard lyrics of all time. Interesting how certain things translate well, while others can become indecipherable when the origins are messed with. The piano line(s) – and the interlude of Chopsticks – are instantly recognizable.

The steam piano that, with unpleasing sneezing and wheezing, crashed to the ground in both versions, is noted for its volume. Powered by steam or compressed air, calliopes were primarily used on riverboats and circus carousels and the music carried for miles, suggesting that listeners should come closer. Check it out. But, since pitch is affected by the steam, they are almost always out-of-tune on the higher register.

So. Loud and off-pitch. And associated with circuses and all the, uh let’s say down-homey, atmosphere that they can conjure. Sort of totally the opposite of that other Kalliope- what with all her wise, grand, poetic harmony… Yet the instrument entices, and encourages, and draws us in, as it rasps across great distances.

My fave lyric from the original doesn’t appear in the single version – or the cover – of the tune:

‘Yes and Scotland Yard was trying hard, they sent a dude with a calling card who said, “Do what you like, but don’t do it here”
Well, I jumped up, turned around, spit in the air, fell on the ground
Asked him which was the way back home
He said, “Take a right at the light, keep goin’ straight until night, and then, boys, you’re on your own”‘

The play on light and darkness, and the implied aversion to creative expression in the person of the police officer, evoke so many cool things that resonate with the paths down which my thoughts have been traveling.

Inspiration can come from any number of sources. I tend to find mine, most often, in other people. With our contemporary state of communication being what it is, social media can be, for all its faults, a sometimes-useful tool to catch up with the important peeps and tap into those things that are driving them forward. Or just keeping them going when we can’t meet face-to-face.

Our muses can be myriad – if we take the time to pay attention. I’ve been bad at that lately. But I’m working on it, and listening to those Voices I love. Even if the things they say are off-hand, or ‘thrown-away’, or representative of nothing more than a current playlist – it’s a pretty fruitful place to start.

As is memory – that Mother of all Muses – perhaps especially when the memories seem to be placeholders of regret. The ‘way back home’ does, at times, require treading in the darkness of night, but we shouldn’t be hanging out there, eschewing the light, for too long.

‘Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is’

What sights does our sun see when it looks down upon its third planet, after all, but the wonder that is us, and all our human potential? Whether it involves cutting loose or revving up (though not, hopefully, ‘wrapping up like a douche.’ Never that…) it’s time to listen to those shooting stars, sitting in sidecars, humming their lunar tunes, and realize that they can point us in the right direction. And, perhaps, make things all right. Even when those boulders on my shoulder have us all feeling older.

Bruce knew what he was talking about. It starts with sticking together and being sources of inspiration and creativity to one another. All runners in the night – chasing our Kalliopes, and calliopes, wherever they may lead.

It’s a hard time. An unprecedented time. There is a lot of noise out there, serving as distraction – not that we don’t need some of that right now. I feel like we spend each and every day looking for an end – all that apocalyptic thinking I’ve been talking about. But I’ve been feeling this week that what we should be talking about is starting things. Not prematurely REstarting stuff – but shaping new beginnings and new approaches and new thinking into tangible expressions of lessons we have learned.

I’m trying to ignore those infuriating noise-makers who have nothing to contribute beyond vitriol, out-dated/ill-informed rhetoric or toeing of party lines that are working to the detriment of all of us. Focusing on the trolls (internet or otherwise) is doing nothing more than raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels. So I’m instead going to focus, on rallying the cries of those who are speaking the about the good and the progressive and the positive and take the time to invest thought and time in their actions and reactions to the world around them and start some discussions – dialectics, if you will – that can lead us to positive change.

Dialectic is not synonymous with debate. The latter involves a measure of persuasion – and, often, an emotional investment in the perspective – that is required in order to ‘win’. Dialectical methods search for truth through reasoned argumentation. They involve discourse between two or more people with differing points of view but who wish to use logic and rationality to work toward the common goal of gleaning the best possible truth of a matter.

It’s not about who yells loudest or most persuasively. Unlike debates, dialectics do not require an external judge to determine a ‘winner’. Consensus is reached through discussion rather than hammering the other side with talking points and statistics.

Politicians use debate and rhetoric to inflame the emotions of those who bother to listen to them. They appeal to the often-base desires of voters in order to motivate that electorate to continue to support them – since they suggest that in so doing ‘the people’ support themselves (and not necessarily the despised ‘others’). There’s a lot of that happening as people politicize the pandemic and most of us seek slow and reasonable re-starts. The lies and self-interested bullshit abound – as the privileged call for sacrifice (of others, of course) so that petty discomforts can be resolved.

As all of this plays out on screens around the world, many of our politicians seem completely disinclined to participate in any sort of reasoned discussion with those who hold opposing views. Those of us who wish to approach this world of ours with reason and fairness have to wonder what it is they are trying to hide as they avoid discussions and favour more insidious forms of rhetoric. Some of them, evidently, aren’t capable of listening to anything more than the sycophantic soundbites that support their own mandate and position.

We need to talk. But we also need to listen. Some of that means returning to stories we’ve already heard – and interpreting them for today’s environment.

I started this post referencing a song and its best-known cover version. The Weight is one of the most interpreted songs that I know of. Playing for Change‘s version – with contributors from around the world – hit deeply before I’d even heard the word ‘Covid’. It’s a tangible example of the ways in which we can come together from different backgrounds and disciplines and cultures and share in the experience of being human.

As I’ve mentioned in a many recent posts, as a way of coping with lockdown and distancing and uncertainty some of my favourite musicians are inviting us into their homes and their processes and demonstrating that music, at its best, can be a powerful force for change and awareness-raising – and can tell stories about particular times and particular ways of viewing the world, while leaving us with themes and tunes that resonate regardless of time or place. They continue to create. Musicians gotta music.

Last week, Matthew Ryan released a cover version of his own.

Although I am, of course, familiar with Belinda Carlisle’s version, I was well into the first spin of Matthew’s iteration before I connected the two in any way. His revisiting of the song, in light of the sadness that is the frightening and frustrating nowness of 2020, offers the same optimism and light – and the video shows us examples of perseverance and history and continuity.

Music gives – comfort and insight and entertainment – allowing us to take what we need and leave the rest for the next person to enjoy and use as they might require.

In a speech accepting the MusiCares Person of the Year Award (2015), Bob Dylan had this to day:

All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.

Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down and you’ve just got to bear it. In a sense everything evened itself out.

Music shouldn’t divide. Not when it’s reflective of the best that it can be. I’m feeling like we need some evening out hereabouts these days. Some equatable sharing of the load – whatever that load might be. A lot of us carrying pretty heavy, right now.

All of this is to say that I’m hoping to start something – something small, but in keeping with these themes – of connectivity, dialectic, interpretation and re-interpretation, history and story. But most of all a discussion about those things that unite us and how we can work really hard to make manifest our collective knowledge and innate, emotional connectedness, based in those things we all, as humans, share.

I don’t, yet, know exactly what this will look like, but I’m leaning into my own strengths – perhaps rediscovering some of them after a period of disuse – and counting on some help from friends who can bring their own talents and approaches and wisdom to the table. I’m confident that we can share what Matthew calls our ‘intelligent generosity – both intellectual and emotional.’ And maybe contribute to the necessary reshaping of the world as we come through this latest re-volution.

I write this on a day on which one of the most distinctive and innovative voices of the 20th century has been silenced. Little Richard changed everything. It’s not hyperbolic to say that that the music we listen to and love now wouldn’t sound the way it does were it not for Richard Penniman.

There’s no one like Little Richard. But if we follow his example – which included openness, innovation, humour and mentorship, among so many other things – we can shape our own changes.

Please watch this space – and send me a message if you want to join in the conversation.

 

Ordering Chaos

It doesn’t seem like there is anything else on the menu, lately. Everything is in flux and new and different and not in a good and exciting way.

All of us are struggling with the reality of Covid-19 – and the ways in which we deal with the chaos are as myriad as our personalities and life situations.

I tend to like order.  Not to the extreme of stifling creativity or preventing spontaneity, but, overall, I like to have things organized.

I’m not sure that I’m really truly a control freak or anything. I can go with the flow with the best of them. I’ve been known to drop everything and take chances/switch plans/directions at the drop of a hat – proverbial or otherwise (hats HAVE been left behind on occasion).

Before anyone starts thinking that I’m perhaps protesting too much, let me just say that I am well aware that my Virgo-Nature (as one of my BFFs – and fellow-Virgo – terms this propensity) sometimes gets the best of me. I’m eminently self-aware about that little character trait.

I think it’s why, actually, I tend to gravitate to the mythologies of the Ancient Near East and Egypt. The belief systems that came before and heavily influenced the beliefs and the worldview that would be recorded in the bible – those Testaments Old, New and extra-canonical – were based in the foundational dichotomy of the need for maintenance of order to stave off the constant incursions of chaos in the known world.

The myths – and the societies that developed according to the worldviews contained therein – saw the primeval forces of the universe as sourced in chaos. In Mesopotamia this tradition was found in the stories of Tiamat – Mother-goddess of chaos and origin of the world as we know it. As in the world was created out of her defeated carcass. Still, such was her power that even after Marduk’s victory her influence continued to be felt since we – and the planet we rode in on – were carved out of her physical remains.

We like chaos. Or, at the very least, seem to gravitate toward drama and the exaggerated over-turning of societal norms – those same societal norms that were instituted in things like the Code of Hammurabi, those Ten Commandments, or the more numerous and somewhat onerous Levitical Laws. They all served the same purpose: order vs. chaos

But the laws are all about the maintenance of the balance of the two, not the eradication of chaos. That would mean self-destruction, after all, coming as we did from the body of chaos herself. Our rules are set out to ensure the careful manipulation of behaviours so that order can keep it in check.

If the rules aren’t followed the influence of Tiamat comes creeping back in to mess with the nicely ordered society that the gods – and the kings/priests/leaders who act on behalf of the gods- have created. For our own protection, of course. But also for the greater glory of those who hold the earthly power.

I get this – atavistically, and also because it suits my personality. We need rules – be they rules of morality or practicality. We also need to understand that rules are contextual in nature. They are based on specific needs and sourced in specific times/places and, as such, should be subject to change as our context does so.

Somewhere along the line, the order/chaos dichotomy got changed into one of good/evil. I’d argue that came about under strong influences from Zoroastrianism and its dualism, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

Bottom line? Those things associated with order became the rules that described what is good. Acting outside those rules became all about the evil.

Example? That little story about the Garden of Eden and getting kicked out and that whole, much later, Augustinian nonsense about Original Sin? Yahweh gave them one rule – ‘don’t eat from that tree. The one over there. All others are fair game, but leave that one be.’ And what did they do? They violated the prescribed order/rule and ate from that tree.

It’s called a ‘cautionary tale’ for a reason.

Right from the get-go we were being influenced by that crafty Tiamat (or her minions, who were myriad and took the forms of demons, ill-winds and, sometimes, serpents) to break the rules and let her get a little of her own back.

That’s an image of her up there ^^^.  It’s also the image that appears on my homepage underneath the name of the blog. I believe in facing my fears head-on (I’m really not kidding. One of my cats was named for the embodiment of chaos herself.  was thinking along the lines of ‘naming something robs it of its power’. Didn’t quite work out that way.  My Tiamat was pretty chaotic. I blame myself for the misstep). Please note that she looks like a great big snake, herself.

‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.’

My fave OT dude wrote that in Ecclesiastes (1.9).

Yep. We are nothing if not a lather, rinse, repeat sort of a species. We beg, borrow and often steal the stuff that came before us and apply it – generally willy-nilly – to our own social contexts. Does that really sound like a remotely rational plan?

Despite my deep-seated appreciation of order, the need to examine from whence our conceptualizations of that order might have come is the very thing I’ve been (over-) thinking about of late. For a long time now we have been letting our community leaders tell us what we should be watching/buying/doing and how we should be thinking/voting/spending our spare time without any sort of examination or thought given to the context from which these prescriptions are coming.

Since we aren’t (last I checked), in fact, a Bronze Age culture trying desperately to assert our national identity among hostile ‘foreigners’ (whose land we’ve come to take) and therefore beholden to any notion of having our actions dictated as we are expected to blindly follow someone’s notion of what is ‘best’ for us, we really have to be looking more closely at these things.

We have so much opportunity and access to information that we HAVE TO make our decisions based in this cultural/social context rather than one that had its day more than 2000 years ago, half a world away.

That doesn’t mean that some of the rules – and the lessons contained within the rules and the stories that support them – mightn’t reflect universal truths and maintain some validity. I’m not saying that at all.

But c’mon. Too many of the people who want to make the rules (especially in that country to the south of us) are basing them on interpretations of those ancient documents in complete disregard of their – or our – cultural and historical contexts.

If we take the time to weigh all sides/voices/contexts we can see that we have, in fact, progressed from the city states/nomadic/monarchic civilizations that came so very long before us. We have evolved.

There is a devolution of society that seems to be happening here and there that is beyond distressing in the face of this reality.

We need a paradigm shift. Bigtime. Let’s forget about the whole externalizing/personification of evil/assumption of the existence of absolute good that we’ve inherited from later iterations of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian worldviews. Time to let go of childish things – like devils and demons and primordial gods (although not the cats who bear their names – two of my current feline besties are named for Canaanite deities) and take responsibility for our role in the balancing act that is life in the 21st century.

The maintenance of order is important.  It balances the chaos – of our own natures and of those things IN Nature over which we can exert no control.

And, unlike evil – and the way in which we tend to pass the buck by labeling and externalizing actions/people as such –  chaos will always remain a part of the world and its perpetual motion. We can stop with the evil. It is a purely human construct.

There are things beyond our human control and creation. Yep. There are indeed. The way we react to these incursions of chaos in our lives is completely in our hands.

In citing the historical tradition of leaders who created laws as a function of control, please don’t think that I’m saying that there aren’t leaders who make rules for the preservation of their people then or now.

We are in a period that is completely outside of our usual experience – most of us in the West, anyway. Rules have been put in place in efforts to keep us – as individuals, families and societies – safe and healthy, and to keep us from overwhelming our health care systems. Most of us seem to understand the origin of and continuing emphasis on the need to maintain physical distancing. These conditional rules have an origin and purpose that should be pretty easy to comprehend.

Unfortunately most is not all. There are ongoing murmurings – which are getting louder the longer this goes on – regarding the need to reopen the economy and get everyone back to work and producing and consuming at pre-pandemic levels.

I get the concern. Except that there can be no economy without society – and we are still in the process of ensuring the maintenance of that last part. The narrative of the ‘need’ to get back to working/living as ‘normal’ is being dictated by those who have financial mandates – rather than ones having to do with moral or ethical considerations. As has always been the case – in spite of how far removed we might be from the Bronze Age Near East – the most adamant supporters of movements dedicated to opening it all up right now are from the privileged strata of society, and those they persuade (or pay) to wave their flags of consume consume consume.

Sacrificing those in the most tenuous economic positions is a tactic that is much much older than capitalism, to be sure. It’s at play right now, though and it’s a manoeuvre that the kings and priests of the Ancient Near East would recognize and applaud.

We have the unique opportunity to create right order through all of this. We are recognizing the gaps that could lead to the failure of all of society – something that some of the powers that be seem to be willfully ignoring for the purposes of financial expediency.

Public health care, accessible education, fair wages for those who provide us with our food and safety, support for those who keep us entertained and informed. The struggles of these groups (and many others, of course) are demonstrations of the innate failure of capitalism as an equitable societal model.

The tension between doing what we’re told for our own safety and that of others and being forced back into dangerous situations under threat of not being able to eat, or pay rent, or provide the basics of living, requires a great deal of balancing between the dichotomous actualities of our present-day order and chaos.

Messages about continued vigilance and new statuses quo for the foreseeable future are daunting and, frankly, depressing for those of us (all of us) who want to be back out in our communities, supporting our neighbours and contributing responsibly to the economic health of our shared society. When placed beside the narratives coming from people who seek to gain all while sacrificing nothing themselves through forcing a premature return to previous states of consumerism, the former need to be our ongoing priority.

We have to trust in the people using educated and evidence-based forecasting to set the rules which will keep the chaos in check for us all. Listening to those who want the bucks off the backs of the rest of us will lead to a complete disruption of the order that comes with society.

We have no control over what is happening right now – and that is really really hard for a lot of people. Me, for one (see above, re. Virgo-Nature). We, here, are fortunate (for the most part, there are outliers, to be sure, and don’t get me started on the embodiment/s of chaos in the States) that the rules around vigilance are the ones that are being enforced – and, as hard as it has been (and it’s not getting easier by any stretch of the imagination) are the responsible, human response to the situation at hand. It is not our natural state to live in isolation – we are social beings and the entirety of our societal interactions and institutions are structured based on that reality. But we are also rational, thinking beings – and we are able to weigh the necessities of the current situation against the sometimes-bigger voices who are shouting for their own benefit to the detriment of those of us not part of the 1%.

Those who would rather we rush to open in spite of the subsequent chaos such orders will produce might want to consider the source/s of those directives and ask if they are, really, suggesting such steps for anything other than their own mandates and for their own selfish desires.

Order happens when choices are made – and we are having to make some that are really hard right now. There is much to be weighed and measured in order to strike the best balance possible. We have the unique opportunity right now to make the choices that can reframe our society in ways that lead to more equity, equality and inclusion. The voices of chaos might be louder – and they might be persuasive – but we have the power to ensure that our leadership is listening to the rest of us as we work together to get through this crisis and figure out how we go on living together once we can truly be together again. We can change the menu to one that is more varied and palatable for the entirety of our community.

Mene Mene (especially you, MAGAts)

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m doing my best to catch up on reading and paying attention to things that used to inspire and entertain, both, as I navigate the challenges that have come along with this physical distancing and isolating thing. When I’m at my most optimistic/least anxious, I feel lucky to have the extra time to revisit writings and readings that were the focus of my life for a couple of decades. It’s making me miss the stories and the studies and the research and the people I got to work and interact with, if not the time/place in which I did the studying and research. That period of my life was a mixed bag, to say the least.

Still, the opportunity to reflect – and hopefully refocus so that I can plan some personal next steps once we are on the other side of this – is something for which I am grateful. I am re/learning lessons about prioritization and the value of stuff that find important – regardless of whether or not others can understand that value.

The focus of my academic life was pretty esoteric. I get that. It’s not something that everyone gets or cares about or views with any degree of import. It wasn’t practical – by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been asked, more than once, ‘but what can you do with that kind of a degree? What can you actually do?’ And that was from ‘friends’. Once outside of academia I had no illusions that I’d find employment in an area involving my subject matter expertise. I’ve lived with that for a little over ten years now. It doesn’t even bother me. Most of the time.

The societal crisis we’re experiencing right now is making me really examine how much value I place on my current role, and it’s resulting in some pretty deep soul-mining. I can’t stop thinking about the need for the creation of a new normal that we will have to undertake as cities, provinces, countries and as a global community. And I don’t really think that the job I do right now will permit me to contribute to the required paradigm shift in any meaningful way. I can’t overemphasize how much we need to rethink the ways we determine value – starting with all our frontline essential folks – in medicine, home care, food delivery, emergency response, cleaning and sanitation… the list goes on – but not forgetting our creatives.

So, with time on my hands and the inability to sleep, I’m going back to what I know. And what I love and what I value. And we’ll see where that has taken me once the dust settles.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had something come up in the course of business calls and email back-and-forth that was irrationally irritating (to a ridiculous extreme that is indicative, in part, of the tension of isolation, to be sure), so in the spirit of getting it off my chest so I can stop fixating on it, I’ve decided to address that irritation, here.

People keep saying ‘(they’ve) seen the handwriting on the wall.’ It’s making me nuts.

I get that that’s pedantic to the extreme, but I also feel like it’s illustrative of the ways in which we miss the salient point because we misinterpret or misunderstand its context. The reference comes from one of my most favourite bibical texts – one I’ve written about before. I went back to that post (waaaaaay back to 2013!) and, after cringing at some of the writing, realized that the story is super-relevant to the times through which we are living right now. As are so many of our human stories – regardless of when or where they were written.

The Hebrew Scriptures have a lot of pretty cool stories that contain some really cool characters and memorable lines. I’ve been studying the texts of the OT and NT and the Apocrypha, and Pseudipigrapha, and the literatures of neighbouring countries (Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, and etc.) for so very long now, it’s tricky trying to single out what (and who) makes my absolute top of the pops of ancient literature.

I have resolved my love-hate relationship with the particular text(s) that served as the basis of my doctoral thesis – and I’m back to hanging out and having fun with my gnostics, in all their ‘heretical’ glory. Man, did those guys know how to spin a tale.

The NT and I remain estranged – there are still some residual hard feelings left over from my Master’s thesis, and, to be honest, I’m even more convinced that Saul of Tarsus and I will never see eye-to-eye on things. The Revelation (no ‘s’ – again with the punctiliousness) has a lot of fun stuff, but it’s being used all over the place lately (those Evangelical nutbars in the US are tiresome with their citations taken out of context), so I’m feeling like the over-exposure and forced interpretations take it out of the running for revisiting right now.

I’ve always been fascinated by the character Daniel. He’s a guy you can really cheer for – and the book about him marks the real, canonical, beginnings of apocalyptic literature in the biblical worldview. I’d rather not get into an argument about whether or not the book belongs with the prophetic books or the writings. Some day, perhaps, I’ll talk a bit about biblical prophecy being not so much – or at all – prophetic but very much about the social commentary of the time in which it was written – and therefore a type of early apocalypticism – but right now I’m grooving with Daniel, who belongs with the writings as a proto-apocalyptic.

Next to my gnostics, I love the apocalyptic- and prophetic-types  best. The genres and stories tend to overlap a fair bit – hardly surprising since they arise out of discontent and disconnection with the society when the texts were written.

When people are pissed with the status quo things often get a little apocalyptic (I talked about this the other week, in the context of our current state of unrest and anxiety). Daniel – and the pseudonymous book about him – was presented as a harbinger of a whole lot of discontent and attempts at change and it gave us one of the most interesting images of the whole bible.

The narrative tells the story of Daniel, who, as a member of the Judean nobility, is serving some time in the service of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He, and three of his pals, refused to succumb to the lures of the food and wine provided by their captors, and maintained the mandates of their heritage and religion, even while in exile. They catch the eye of the king, who declares them to be superior to his own wise men at court and enlists them to his service. Daniel soon gains a reputation for the accuracy of his dream interpretations, and, since Nebuchadnezzar (I love that name. Just typing it makes me happy. Saying it makes me smile) frequently needs his dreams analysed, he eventually appoints Daniel as his Chief Wise Guy.

While Nebuchadnezzar had his good qualities (like his name. I love his name), he did steal the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem (during the destruction of the city and the beginning of the Exilic Period) and brought them back to Babylon with him. While Neb deals with his demons (7 years of crazy, living like a wild beast and all that) his son Belshazzar (the Book of Daniel is the only source that lists Belshazzar as Neb’s kid – other historical sources list him as the son of Nabonidus – but we can let him be Neb’s son – no harm to the story) acts as co-regent, and then king in his own right.

One night Belshazzar and his sycophant friends throw a big party – and use the sacred vessels plundered from Solomon’s Temple as pint glasses. They make toasts to their gods – mainly inanimate deities – using Yahweh’s own sacred vessels. Those of you who have read the Hebrew Scriptures up to this point in the continuing story have to realize that this is not a good idea.  Yahweh does not (generally) take kindly to his word, his people or his stuff being messed with (Shoah and millennia of antisemitic bullshit notwithstanding).

To the horror of the collected party goers, a mysterious disembodied hand appears and starts writing on the wall.  Still reeling from the strange apparition, neither Belshazzar nor his assembled guests can figure out what the writing says, so he calls for Daniel to come and have a look.  Daniel, the best-of-the-best and Yahweh-favoured Chief Wise Dude, reads the words as Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin. At first inspection they seem to be meaningless references to weights and measures, but Daniel interprets them as the verbs that correspond to the nouns: numbered, weighed, divided.

As such, he explains that god has numbered the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom and decided that they are at an end. The kingdom (and its king) have been weighed and found wanting, so it will be divided between the Medes and the Persians. Like now.  Right now. That very night Belshazzar was killed and Darius the Mede became king.

Generally the story is used (‘the writing on the wall’, ‘the hand writing on the wall’, ‘Mene Mene’) to indicate imminent doom, originating in misbehaviour or inappropriate governance. Those who attended the feast – and shared culpability for the bad politics and decisions – were able to see the hand as it wrote on the wall, yet were totally unable to understand the message that was being imparted. The interpretation had to come from someone who wasn’t in any way responsible for the negative behaviours – or the misuse of the vessels and the sacrosanct ideology behind them. Only Daniel was able to give warning and explain the impending collapse of the Babylonian kingdom by reading the writing on the wall.

Increasingly, these days and with the societies and systems of government that we have created and institutionalized, fewer and fewer people are able to see the imminence of danger as we continue headlong down a path that is becoming less and less equitable and more and more as dictated by those who hold power. That those in power were, ostensibly, chosen by the people (rather than through hereditary ascension, as in the Babylonian example), makes the systemic problems all the more glaring and frustrating.

We are not doing enough to hold our leaders to account while they choose to ignore the disembodied hand and its message entirely.  We need to see both the message and take note of its origin – the existence of the hand itself warrants attention.

Before COVID, claims about improvements to the economy (while myriad citizens remain in situations of un/underemployment and the middle class continues shrinking while the divide between the haves and the have nots become more pronounced), to the housing market (as home ownership is increasingly an inaccessible pipe dream in most major Canadian cities), and the short-sighted politics that reflect immediate self-interest rather than long-term nationwide benefits were standard fare for politicians of all stripes.

These things, as serious as they are, only scratch the surface of the current crises we are facing. The entirety of our economic systems will have to undergo revision – as will the way we view essential work and workers. We, in Canada, are fortunate in our leadership. Responses while not perfect, have helped us to come to the right side of the curve more quickly than projected.

The situation in the US is inexplicable – except when you look at hi/story and its many examples of clownish rulers who demand only those things that benefit and enrich them and their intimates directly. That there are those who support them without seeing any direct advantage has to do with lack of education, critical thinking and awareness of hi/story. They barely understand the message – and never even acknowledge the messenger.

As I say over and over and over again, our myths – and their interpretations – have a whole lot of wisdom to offer, if we bother to take the time and pay attention to what those who came before us had to say. Especially since we keep on making the same sorts of mistakes, driven by greed and one-upmanship and the ever-increasing need to hear ourselves speak (or yell) over the voices that might be offering an alternative (and better, more equitable) perspective.

In February 1964, as a response to the assassination of JFK a few months previously, a young lad named Paul Simon wrote a song. The Sound(s) of Silence (the original title was plural) shares an enduring sense of futility and awareness of the dangers of silence – the problems that arise when people fail to effectively listen to and speak out about the cancers growing around us.

As we continue to bow to our own neon (or orange) gods, perhaps we need to take time to listen to this song a little more closely. It might help us to see the hand and decipher the message it is continually writing on the walls that surround us.

And the sign flashed out its warning, in the words that it was forming

And the sign said, ‘the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls’

And whispered in the sounds of silence.

Mene Mene. Take heed, while we have ample time on our hands to be considering the past and planning next directions. The hand is getting pretty emphatic with its messages. Our governments are being weighed and the days of many of them are numbered – if we can look past our own interests and understand that the divide is what is causing our most significant systemic problems. We might have more time than did Belshazzar, but not much. This current crisis is highlighting the fact that we need to look for solutions to all of the sources of our societal discontent once we are released to do so. The signs are all there.