Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The "Awakening" When Coming Back to a City

I have written before of how thought-provoking it can be to come into a city after a lengthy spell in the backcountry. The greatest difficulty in doing a good job at this is to belittle it right from the beginning: "Oh this is just some kind of thought experiment. It isn't practical. I don't want to waste time by acting like a kook, in his own little mental playground..."

Recently I experienced a special version of this. I was visiting a small metropolis that was big enough for a tumescent growth of big box retail stores on the edge of town. The Republican party's debate was in the news. As tempting as it might be to throw mud-pies at each specific runt in the debate, it is more important to ask something more fundamental: if Democracy were so great, and if Americans were so suited for it, how could a country as large as the USA and with all its achievements and deep pool of talent, produce such a pitiful list of candidates?

Something is fundamentally wrong with our 'system.' You only think of things like that when you come in from the backcountry. But here is the hard part: try to hold onto this fresh and independent thinking as long as you can. Keep looking at the situation like you are seeing it for the first time. 

What would Washington, Jefferson, or Madison think if they were stuffed into a time machine, and watched a modern debate of presidential wannabees? In what ways have Americans changed from what we started as?

Try as you might, in a couple days you start to backslide into 'normal' thinking.

Have you ever watched the movie, "Awakenings", made in the 1990s, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams? It takes place in a long term mental hospital which had a lot of people whose central nervous systems were damaged by a childhood disease. They were apparently doomed to live out their lives in a catatonic state.

But a researcher-turned-clinical practitioner came to the hospital and began experimenting with large doses of a new drug. And it worked, spectacularly! But then the patients starting slipping back into their catatonic non-existence. It was a real heart-breaker to see that happen.

It feels somewhat the same to see it happening to myself on the second or third day back in civilization. Whatever else we might think of experiences like this, let's not laugh them off as 'silly', but rather, appreciate in them what Thomas Hardy would have called "a negative beauty of tragic tones."

But if Hardy is too dark for your taste, then focus on the upswing of this kind of "Awakening", and hope that it becomes more frequent or more intense.

The most cheerful attitude is to switch metaphors, and see this type of experience as one that permanently transforms an individual. Consider its similitude to Arnold Toynbee's "Withdrawal and Return", in one of his chapters of "A Study of History." (Extra credit to any reader who finds the chapter.)

Friday, October 2, 2015

Are the Uni-power's Glory Years Over?

Most people probably don't talk about geopolitics and world events with family members. Who wants to have an argument with your own mother about politics? Perhaps that is why I still remember when my mother talked about the dissolution of the Soviet empire circa 1990: "...it all seemed so easy!" 

After all, most of her life had been spent during the "Good War" and its aftermath, the Cold War with the USSR. It must have seemed strange to her to realize that the world had suddenly become something quite different from what she had known.

So too it must seem to people, say, 35--45, whose adult years have been spent during the era when Washington DC was the great Uni-power, the mighty Hegemon of the world. It was a time with no "first world" military opposition. Washington could take over any country it wanted, on the flimsiest -- and phoniest -- excuse. The financial cost meant nothing -- they just borrowed whatever they needed.

I was astonished when the news came out that Russia was becoming overtly involved in the Syrian civil war. I'd gotten used to the Russians being "non-players." Surely Putin must be taking advantage of the presidential election year in the USA. The financial markets and the real economies are falling these days. The president in Washington can not risk making this worse by having a major confrontation with Russia. The best he can do is make it look like this is Washington's idea, and that the Russians are doing our dirty work for us.

If the Russians behave well, they might get eager cooperation from the Shia axis from Lebanon, to Syria, a Shia-dominated Iraq, and Iran. Just imagine the enormous and deep hatred of Washington that must exist there and elsewhere in the Mideast! The outcome could be a Mideast, or even a world, that has learned how to fight back against the open-ended cruelty of Washington.

It isn't often that 'world news' looks hopeful. For the sake of all those miserable people in countries destroyed by Washington, let this be one of those times.