“Moss grows fat… but that’s not how it used to be”- Part 2

Part 1 featured a whole bunch of disclaimers.  Here’s another:

1) I am not opposed to religion.  I have spent more years than I care to admit to studying the religions of the world.  I know that they hold value for those who subscribe to them and I very much understand how they can offer a framework that provides stability in the face of the unstable and hope in situations of hopelessness.

Emotionally, I understand the comfort in having something like that as a foundation to life.  The fact that I don’t have the luxury of belief and comfort has not made me angry, or bitter, or lacking in something fundamentally human.   People are going to believe as they wish, and, provided that it does not interfere in any way with the rights and freedoms of their fellow human beings or our progression and evolution as we seek to further understand our universe, I say (cautiously), knock yourselves out.

Intellectually, I cannot believe in external, supernatural manifestations of good and evil.  That those two extremes exist in the world is an indicator of their presence within us.  We humans have an incredible capacity for beautiful acts of good and terrible depths of evil.  And, unfortunately, those impulses- standing alone or as a mix of the two (evil is frequently done with the best of intentions)- cause us to do terrible things in the name of belief.

When that happens, we have to root out the causes of such actions and work as a society to prevent them from happening again.

Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone article attempts to do just that.

It is a first step- highlighting some of the challenges faced by immigrant families in a new, multicultural environment, separated from extended family and history and ‘the known’ and left to figure things out without enough community resources to facilitate their transition between cultures.

(My good friend, Farah, has done great work in this field.  Her perspective, experiences and huge store of knowledge on this subject is invaluable.)

Through her interviews, Reitman illustrates the ways in which people can hide their disconnection from the larger community, while seeming to be involved and engaged with those around them.  It shows that someone who appears well-adjusted can lose that sense of belonging when stability is threatened or removed completely.  And that people, when left without that stability, can be influenced by organizations or ideologies that, at base, are all about the search for power through destructive means.

I do have some issues with the article.  Primarily the fact that Reitman labels the subject of her article a ‘monster’.

Words have a great deal of impact and affect our reactions on a very basic level.  Rather than calling the accused to account for his actions, denying the humanity of the person in fact becomes a way of excusing the actions.  Monsters are monstrous because they are MONSTERS.

When people do horrible things there are reasons- however insignificant or incomprehensible or inexcusable.  There ARE reasons.  And getting to the source of those reasons can help us prevent future actions that may result from the same conditions.  Making perpetrators into monsters also abrogates our collective responsibility for the conditions that can lead to heinous acts.

Externalizing evil- making destructive thoughts/actions all about the Other– whether supernatural in origin or sourced in a different culture/religion/worldview suggests that there is nothing we can do about it.

(I’ve begun to examine the origins of this propensity to excuse ourselves from our tendencies toward doing evil hereherehere and here).

Of course there is something we can do about it.  We are pretty awesome at solving problems when we put our collective minds and resources together.

This blog is supposed to emphasize the best of humanity.

Sometimes we have to look at the worst- and figure our where it came from- so that those impulses to act against our fellow humans in such heinous ways can be eradicated.  This requires that we examine the causes of social anomie- including the reasons why a young man, seemingly well-adjusted and from a ‘nice neighbourhood,’ could do something like he did.

Taking one magazine to task for publishing an investigative story suggests that we should be holding our journalists to some standard of sensitivity and morality- one that takes feelings into account- and yet the media has become an hysterical free-for-all of opinion and sensationalism rather than a measured and well-researched exploration of facts, origins, conditions and resulting outcomes.  Post-9/11, media outlets and satirical commentators were silenced for doing what they do- delving into the story behind the obvious extremity and inhumaity of the act.

Although not always the case, there are generally complex issues at play- involving religion, society, myth, culture.

Our illustrious PM, in a turnabout of his expressed opinion that we should not ‘commit sociology’ (I ranted about that here), has changed his tune about searching for causality in a different circumstance.   The causes of one tragedy, but not the other, are, apparently, worth discovering.

Investigating the process by which a young North American college student became a radicalized terrorist is perceived as somehow ‘glorifying’ the act and the actor, although both dangerous and short-sighted to an alarming degree, and is not viewed as being as important as punishing the perpetrator.

Investigating whether or not a terrible accident had its source in negligence or in the government-advocated cutting back of standards in operational procedures on the rails of our country?  THAT will be done, and ‘quickly’.

As I stated on my ‘About’ page, my studies of religion and humanity have taught me that sometimes we have to un-create our gods- or our closely-held ideologies- and create something better and more human. And humane.

Rolling Stone has always been associated with the liberal end of the politically ideological spectrum.  Interestingly, many of the retail corporations and celebrities that have loudly spoken out against the August cover article can be found at the opposite end of that spectrum.

Politicizing our reactions to tragic events is despicable, and is one of those things that we have to change.  It is one aspect of our political system(s), media, and society in general, that needs to be un-created and re-created in a way that takes into account something other than power/influence for its own sake.

Jann Wenner named his magazine after a 1950 Muddy Waters song.  The proverb (credited to Publilius Syrus in the 1st century BCE) that inspired that song “is often interpreted as referring to figurative nomads who avoid taking on responsibilities or cultivating or advancing their own knowledge, experience or culture” while “another interpretation equates moss to stagnation” (according to the Wikipedia).

Bob Dylan used the proverbial image as the basis for the extended piece of poetry that became his 1965 song Like A Rolling Stone.  It is a wonderfully complex song that explores the themes of resentment and revenge, as well as compassion, and the perceived freedom of being without ties:

When you ain’t got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to reveal

How does it feel?

To be on your own

With no direction home

Like a complete unknown

Like a Rolling Stone

Because everything is connected (and because that’s the way my mind works) it’s hard not to see the correspondence of themes in Dylan’s song and the human condition of loneliness and disconnection that can lead to social anomie.

Don McLean’s American Pie (one of my all time fave tunes) has a nostalgic yearning for an era in which things were not stagnant- the time before the Day the Music Died.  Although he is famously elusive about discussing the meaning behind the song, McLean is citing a point in time that is associated with perceived innocence, but also with change and progress.

For the “10 years we’ve been on our own… moss grows fat on a rolling stone, but that’s not how it used to be.”

That was 42 (!) years ago.

We have to keep rolling forward and let the moss of stagnation fall from us as we work together to solve the problems that lead people to the desperation and separation that can lead to acts of terror.  We should be ‘advancing our knowledge, experience and culture’ while refusing to be mired in the past or in created ideologies that prevent this progress.

That isn’t going to happen if we insist on silencing our writers for the sake of ‘sensibilities’ or due to the politically motivated obfuscation of invaluable research and social criticism.

How does it feel?

It’s an important question that needs to be answered.

… and I feel (de)fine

The Eschaton.  The End of Days.  It seems to be everywhere lately.  There are television shows, movies, books and seemingly constant news articles about various ways in which society as we know it might be brought, abruptly, to a problematic conclusion.

There are viruses, plagues, earthquakes, aliens, and, pretty much everywhere you look, zombies!  Zombies!  ZOMBIES!  From the Walking Dead to World War Z(ed)- they are among us and just waiting to rise and make life even more miserable.

I wrote here about societal anomie and how it leads to expressions of anxiety that include apocalyptic stories.  The apocalyptic tradition has provided some of the best, and most enduring myths.  They endure, in part, because periods of great collective social anxiety tend to be cyclical.  As the stresses return again and again, the idea that there is something better (or at least different) that will redeem us while punishing those responsible for the stress- albeit after a period of complete lousiness- is quite attractive.

Some definition of terms:

Apocalypticism is one of the major literary trends in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, often representative of the uncertainty of the of the sociopolitical environment of the time.  As is the case with other hermeneutical categories found in the historical and literary studies of Judaism and Christianity (gnosticism is another such category- we’ll explore that one later), the designation ‘apocalyptic’ is often too-freely or non-specifically applied.

The myths of all cultures reflect the issues and beliefs of the times specific to each composition.  The apocalyptic tradition developed as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and the reality of the societal situation faced by the Jews of antiquity.

Apocalypticism can be defined as “a type of religious thinking characterized by the notion that through an act of divine intervention, the present evil world is about to be destroyed and replaced with a new and better world in which (a) god’s justice prevails.  Apocalyptic schemes usually involve a moment of judgement, in which persons are called upon to answer for the evil of the world and are either acquitted to salvation in the new world or convicted to suffer divine punishment or destruction” (J.S. Kloppenborg, Q-Thomas Reader, 1990).

Dealing with the such realities as exile and diaspora, apocalypticism as a literary expression and theological speculation developed according to societal and religions necessity.  It was used variably as legitimation for political and religious propaganda, and to fulfill a socially perceived need for justice, transforming from a vision of messianic prosperity to one focusing on expectations not being met.

As a nascent religious movement, Christianity arose during a time of upheaval caused by foreign (Roman) domination of Palestine.  The issue of this dominance was relevant to the people involved in the Jesus movement and the authors of the writings that would eventually form the New Testament (along with the many contemporaneous non-canonical myths and writings).  Problems associated with justice and right order plagued the early Christian inheritors of the apocalyptic tradition as it had inspired their authorial predecessors.

Obviously, the current definition of apocalyptic has expanded to include all manner of potential cataclysms- either originating in this world (in evil laboratories or through nature rebelling against the repeated abuses to which it has been exposed at the hands of humanity) or from somewhere beyond (the myriad alien invasions from outer space or the reappearance of Lovecraftian creatures from the centre of the earth).

Regardless, these stories reflect the continuum of a mythological tradition that arises in response to significant disconnects between social expectations and the reality of the day.  Even when presented with tongue-in-cheek humour- think This is the End– now in theatres, or the upcoming, much anticipated (I really would like Simon Pegg to be my best friend) The World’s End.

In a social reality which, in one week (sigh), sees ever-increasing evidence of political corruption and the mishandling and violation of public trust at ALL levels of government and regardless of particular ideological affiliation, it really is no wonder that we are revisiting the mythological themes behind the apocalyptic vision.  When those we have elected to look out for the best interests of all citizens are not delivering the expected level of justice, frustration levels are made manifest in many ways.

Apocalyptic angst- as it appears in popular culture and literature- is a prevalent contemporary use of mythology that clearly demonstrates the truism ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’  We express our anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo through our various creative outlets.

The ideological forecast for the summer seems to be rife with apocalyptic thinking.  It will be interesting to see if such murmurs of discontent garner results in the larger societal context.  They will certainly provide entertainment and something to think- and blog- about.