Posted tagged ‘society’

The White Album

November 20, 2016

For most of my life, or at least for the greater two-thirds of it, if somebody mentioned “The White Album,” everyone knew immediately what was meant.

It had to mean the only double LP the Beatles released during their existence as a band, in November 1968.  I was in the 12th grade in the very small town of Smithers, in north central British Columbia.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” had been released the year before.  That album exploded into public consciousness.  I remember reading Time Magazine praising it at the time (in the issue that had the Beatles on the cover in September, 1967).  That was unheard of for a mainstream publication to pay such attention to the evanescent and juvenile world of rock music.  My mother was even impressed, who typically preferred Broadway musicals and Louis Armstrong.

We played Sgt. Pepper’s over and over again on on the little battery record player in our log cabin.

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And the album “Abbey Road,” which is my favorite of the Beatles’ works, arrived a year after The White Album, in September, 1969, just after I graduated high school.

It would be hard now for anyone not of that time to understand how important the music of the counterculture, and especially the Beatles’ music, was to many of my generation.  It wasn’t just music to us multitudes who were affected.  It was promise and hope and an undercurrent of something profound stirring.

The Beatles themselves were even caught up in it:  the self-referential lyrics, mysteries associated with Paul, obscure ideas about the egg man….  I think John Lennon’s vehement rejection of the Beatles’ mythology after the band fell apart was mostly because he had been captured by the force of that mythology as much or more than anyone else.

But back in the fall of 1968, the Beatles’ creative power was still flowering and on display in The White Album.

The summer and fall of ’68

That summer I had worked hard with my younger brothers and with the similar aged sons and daughters of a neighbouring prosperous farmer on his large spread.  Us kids (teenagers now) all went to school together.  Hired for a few bucks an hour, we labored long into the hot summer nights putting up hay bales in a number of barns, sweating, covered with chaff, falling about with the bales as we stacked them.

With the summer’s efforts over, my brothers, mother and I visited the farm family one evening that November.  My mother and the mother of this large brood of earthy children were friends who made wine and canned meat together.

The oldest son of the family was a renegade.  I think he dropped out of high school several years before, and supposedly was working in a local mill, but he had a reputation for being involved with drugs and local criminals.  He drove a flash pick-up.  He always seemed to consider us younger ones, including his siblings, as beneath his notice.

But I remember his long greasy hair in a red handkerchief bandana as he beckoned us unexpectedly and excitedly up the stairs of the farmhouse to his room on that evening visit. Young and old, the kids of his family and my brothers and I hurried up.   He had The White Album!  In his large bedroom there was a fancy turntable all ready to go.  He was eager to play the first LP for us.  The barriers among us of age and attitudes fell away a little.  And that was the first time I heard The White Album.  We were all amazed by it.  It was an event. “Listen to this!”

I’ve recently found a  remastered CD version of the album, after a long time of it being completely unavailable in that format. After the excitement of the album’s reception that long-ago winter, I never played it nearly as often as Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Even the Beatles’ last album (in terms of release) of “Let It Be” was listened to more often.

So it’s been a pleasure listening and rediscovering it again.

the-beatles-pr-608x408From what I’ve read, most of the songs came from a period when the Beatles went to India to follow the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation.  The band had come out of a period of ingesting LSD and smoking a lot of pot, and decided they wanted to get away from that experimentation and play it (mostly) straight.

But they eventually became disillusioned with the Maharishi, apparently in part due to rumours of the holy man’s sexual escapades, and returned to the studio with a wealth of songwriting material instead of enlightenment.  Unfortunately, there was often great tension between the members of the band, and the sessions were often difficult.

There is a lot of material online (for instance at the Beatles Bible) about every song that the Beatles ever did, including those on this album, so I won’t repeat that.

But I would like to note the songs that appeal to me and make a few observations.

The Ukraine girls really knock me out

Of course the opening song on Side 1, Back in the USSR, remains a complete rocking pleasure with its Beach Boy borrowings (apparently Mike Love of that band was in India with the Maharishi at the same time as the Beatles) and “the Ukraine girls really knock me out.”

Dear Prudence, the next song, is apparently John Lennon’s plea to the sister of Mia Farrow, who also was in India with the Maharishi, to come out of her cabin where she isolated herself while she meditated furiously in hope of some kind of swift awakening.

There are quite a few songs on the two discs with female names as their inspiration, and every one has its own personality.  They aren’t bland love songs, possibly because they are not always about what you might think.  For instance, the Martha in Martha, My Dear, was Paul McCartney’s old English sheepdog.

And the Julia in Julia, is about John Lennon’s mother who had left him as a boy and reconnected with him when he turned 17, only to die sometime later in a car crash.

One of the dominant impressions of listening to the entire work now is how astoundingly diverse and creative it is.  The moods shift from joy and celebration (Birthday) to deep depression (Yer Blues) to domestic bliss (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) to Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.

I’ve grown to prefer the swinging doo-wop tempo of Revolution here rather than the faster rockier version that came out as a side on a single with Hey Jude (not on this album).

Quite a few songs, even back in the day, were rarely or never heard on the radio.  I’m thinking of Rocky Raccoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, and Cry, Baby, Cry (which really sticks with me now).

And of course there are the songs of greatness: Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR, perhaps I Will; and I’m sure others might have different candidates for that status.

I still don’t get why Helter-Skelter, which was written to prove the band could rock as hard as The Who, should have appealed to the demented, murderous, and failed songwriter Charles Manson so greatly.  He probably could have twisted around any song to fit his predilections.

Number 9, Number 9, Number 9

And then there is the track Revolution No. 9, a sound collage, which as teenagers we were impressed by, but couldn’t be bothered to pay any attention to.  It was mainly famous for the voice intoning, “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.”

I had the impression back then that the track was quite short, perhaps a minute or two.  Maybe that’s how fast I tuned out when it came up.   I’ve realized now, it goes on for over eight minutes.  And, surprise, it’s quite interesting to try to understand what’s going on in it.  There’s everything from orchestral remnants of “A Day in the Life” to honking, conversation scraps, sport chants, and even Yoko Ono’s voice (I know now) quietly saying “You become naked.”

It used to be that following up anyone’s chance statement about a number 9, by saying “Number 9. Number 9.” was immediately recognized as a reference to the White Album and that infamous track.  Not any more.  I did that the other day at work, and the young man looked at me quite blankly, and seemed bewildered about what I could possibly be going on about.

It’s amazing to me to realize that the White Album is almost 50 years old now.  Back in 1968, a similar look back would have made music from 1918 or so of interest, which it didn’t seem to be, even for those who could have remembered it at that time.

It does become bittersweet that all the music I grew up with, and which brought meaning to my younger years, is headed towards the mists of history in the same way, although it’s taking a little longer.

The Beatles.  They were a force.

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At 65

April 29, 2016

To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.
–  Bernard Baruch

So, I just recently turned 65.  I’m officially a “senior citizen,” which implies a general condition of being cast off.  I would prefer to be thought of as an aspiring “elder” with the connotations that native people (or First Nations folks, to be politically correct) give it.

I don’t feel “sixty-five,” whatever that is supposed to feel like.  I am most fortunate to be free of ill-health.  My gait so far is unaffected.  I still retain some lightness on my feet, and my range of motion in general is only marginally shrinking.

I still practice aikido and tai chi to a certain extent, although regrettably I haven’t had the opportunity to do much Western fencing in the last several years.  However, my level of interest in physically demanding pursuits has declined, and that, rather than not being able to do them, has become more a sign of aging.

I am also fortunate to have my wife as a companion of over 25 years: to have someone who cares for me, and for whom I can care.

The main thing about these milestones at 65, or 80, or 30 for that matter, is the opportunity for reflection.  They give an excuse to take the time to consider what the years might mean.

I graduated high school in 1969.  That is a whole cultural era away.  Or maybe more than one.  Mostly I think of the music, how important and central to my life and the lives of many of my generation it was:  the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Electric Prunes.  Wait: you don’t know about Paul Revere or the Prunes?  You’ve missed out.  Perhaps you haven’t had “too much to dream last night“?

The power of music in the culture was a convergence of technology, music industry ripeness, the Vietnam war and the resulting counterculture.  In an era without iPhones or multiple other digital distractions, including not even home computers, hard as that is now to imagine, music was central.

Its rebelliousness, youthfulness and exuberance were constantly being challenged and undermined by the status quo, but there was a balance of sorts for a while.  And, as hard as it was to see at the time, there was even a slow alteration of what was understood to be the “status quo.”

The fragmentation and loss of cultural significance for music as a whole is evident to me looking back.  Those of younger years might think that the efforts to stand out by Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga, or Sia amount to something, but not much really.  A meat dress worn by Lady Gaga doesn’t really cut it, although I do like Sia’s songwriting.  The efforts to get noticed in a fragmented musical environment overwhelmed by the powers of the modern corporation take on amusing forms.

I listen to the old music, and some of the new, as I finally get down to the first draft of a novel that I’ve been thinking about for years.  I am 30,000 words plus into a science-fiction thriller coming-of-age save-the-world extravaganza that, fingers crossed, I will actually finish some day before I die.

It is a time to reflect on mortality.  I like the idea of living as if we will live forever, of plans uncompromised by the reality of some future end.  But the eventual end does give poignancy to what we do, and who we do it with, and how we meet it with our hearts.

I have lived longer than either of my parents.  My mother died of multiple sclerosis in her early 60s.  My father died of a stroke in his mid-forties.  I realize now how short, how brief, their time was here.  I’m proud of them for what they were able to accomplish in their fleeting sojourns on this world, and sad that many of their dreams remained unrealized.

I have often been a late bloomer in my life, although others might not recognize the blooming as of much note.  But I have, and it gives me encouragement as I diligently peck away almost every day at the novel, wearing down that huge mountain, like a bird trailing a scarf across its rock periodically — it will shrink, if time is enough.

Speaking of blooming, one of my colleagues at work (I have yet to retire, perhaps in a year or so) was discussing with me about my plans and his.  Our conversation concluded by him saying, “Well, everything is coming up roses then….”

That caused me to think, “Yes, everything will be coming up roses, or if not, at least I may have the privilege of pushing them up myself.”  That’s not a bad fate, to perhaps someday be a ground for roses, or even more happily to think about, for some wildflowers….

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The Five Stages of Collapse – A Book Review

November 1, 2014

The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit by Dmitry Orlov, New Society Publishers, 2013
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This book is one long challenge to most of the notions we received as part of our schooling and socialization. …It questions what being properly socialized means: is it being able to ignore the obvious signs of incipient collapse that makes you a well socialized individual?
Dmitry Orlov

As the world, or at least many places in it, seems to lurch from one crisis to another, one may be forgiven about thinking about stability and the direction of things as a whole.

I came across this book recently and found it surprisingly objective and cool-headed as it describes the end of the world as we know it.  Orlov anticipates that unsustainable crises will really start to bite by the middle of this century.  The financial, commercial and political systems will crumble, to be followed potentially by social and cultural collapse.

orlovThis is not a “survivalist” book about retreating to the renovated bomb-shelter with your shotgun so much as it is an attempt to describe the mechanisms of social decay in our way of life.  It is survivalist in the sense of that being forewarned may help to ease the transition to the changes that are coming.

I look around where I live on the west coast of North America which in many ways is one of the best places to live on Earth.  But more and more, from transportation systems, to sewers, to water supply, to education (including the universities), to medicine, to communication, to food supply, I find I often whisper to myself: we can’t afford our infrastructure.

In addition, there’s all the damage we continue to do to the land, water and air that sustains us.

Standing Outside the Mainstream

Over the years, I can see that I’ve been influenced by the thoughts of men, and women, who manage to find a place to stand outside the mainstream.  There’s William Irwin Thompson, cultural critic and historian, who out of yogic meditation brought forth his critiques of academia and society.  There’s author Doris Lessing, whose seeking led her to the objectivity of the Sufism of Idries Shah, and wisdom about humanity.  Also there’s Wendell Berry, whose livelihood upon the land gives him an essential grounding that expresses itself in his poetry, prose and politics.  I think of Thomas Homer-Dixon who found useful points of reference in the decline of the Roman Empire and the ecology of forests as a civilizational model to look at our society’s resilience, or lack of it.

In the case of Dmitry Orlov, his perspective and independence of thought seems to come mainly from being ex-Russian.

Orlov and his family left the Soviet Union in 1976, as part of a wave of emigration used by Moscow at the time to rid itself of undesirables and dissidents.

Orlov has observed, and sometimes experienced, currency tribulations, widespread surveillance, the abuses of a police state, and the rise of a criminal/oligarchic class that has now largely integrated with the former KGB agents who currently run Russia.

I’d like to run through a little of what Orlov has to say about each of his five stages of collapse.  He includes fascinating case studies that highlight points he’s making, some of which I find disagreeable.

Orlov appears to have no ideological agenda to further, other than his sympathy for anarchism and family as a means to community.  He says:

“There is no agenda here – just the assumption that collapse will happen, the conjecture that it can be analyzed as unfolding in five distinct phases and, based on quite a bit of research, the conclusion that each phase will require a different set of adaptations from those who wish to survive it.”

Stage 1: Financial Collapse

The result of this first stage is that financial institutions become insolvent, savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.

Orlov’s point is that the global financial system is a mental construct which confidence maintains, and if confidence is lost, as we could see in 2008, it starts to unravel and fall apart.

The financial system is a house of cards built on ever-increasing debt in order to grow.

He sees usury (lending at interest) as the inevitably rotting root of the system.

“…We have become dependent on global finance, which is based on fiat currencies (ones unsupported by any traditional, fixed store of value such as gold, silver or land) that are loaned into existence by banks, at interest.”

Money in our system does not conform to the laws of physics – everything else diminishes with time.  Usury, in Orlov’s view, makes financial collapse inevitable.  Usury is only viable in an expanding economy.  “Once economic growth stops, the burden of usurious debt causes it to implode.”

And so we see the collapse of the economies of sovereign states, such as Greece, on the large scale, and at a smaller scale, the bankruptcy of cities such as Detroit.

The only remedy that central banks of any nation have is to print more money, which inevitably devalues it.  We have seen this up-to-now slow process over my lifetime – a dollar now is worth much less than what it did in 1980, say.   In the US,  the dollar has lost 8000 percent of its value in the last 41 years, Orlov says.

Orlov observes that although our economic system depends on infinite growth, once that endless growth fails to materialize, what then?

He proposes storing value in real commodities although that has its limits.  Are there alternatives to money that  communities can create for themselves?  He looks at barter and other systems of trading.

Although he concedes he may be hopelessly idealistic, Orlov sees the ultimate solution in strong, extended families that pool all their resources and are presided over by elders, who band together and form a larger community and create self-governance by a council of such elders.

The inevitable end of the fossil-fuel era, and the dream of never-ending expansion it engendered, will necessitate a return to older, smaller scale means of exchange between individuals, families and communities.

Iceland as a case study

Orlov uses the instance of Iceland which suffered a financial meltdown due to the events of 2008 and after, and then began to recover.   Iceland is one of the few places in the world still small enough to have direct democracy rather than the degenerate forms of representative “democracy” many of us are subject to.

Iceland’s approach was to let financial institutions go bankrupt rather than prop them up by printing more money.  Orlov argues that Iceland made a heroic and wise decision:  the failure of banks freed up resources for productive activities that benefitted the entire society.

Stage 2: Commercial Collapse

This review will go on much too long if I delve in depth on each of the stages, so I will just touch on highlights for the remainder.  For the intelligence and general contrariness of Orlov’s thought, leavened by his good humour, I urge you to take a look at the book itself.

Our commercial system has become one of increasing numbers of middle men, each scratching to take as much out of the money chain as possible.  It too will not be sustainable.

“… [This] can be characterized as cascaded failure, in which the first failure (which happens when the assumptions underlying contemporary financial arrangements suddenly become regarded as untenable) has a knock-on effect on commerce (due to a lack of commercial credit), which in turn, has a knock-on effect on government finances (through a rapidly shrinking tax base).”

The so-called free market is based on a system of property law, a legal system able to enforce contracts and a law enforcement system that can deter economic crime.

Orlov notes that without the legal, enforceable basis, the Russian experience shows that the free market becomes a criminal market, “where debts are settled for pennies on the dollar by having creditors murdered.”

He ends this section with a case study on the Russian Mafia.

Stage 3: Political Collapse

Political collapse can only be disruptive.  “The ruling classes and the classes which serve them (the police, the military, the bureaucrats) generally refuse to go softly into the night and allow the people to self-organize, experiment and come together as autonomous new groups adapted to the new environment in their composition and patterns of self-governance.”

One obvious result of this is that “for the sake of preserving national unity, a failing nation-state often looks for an external enemy to attack, preferably a weak, defenseless one, so that it poses no risk of reprisal.”

In his discussion, Orlov makes a strong case for anarchism, despite our conditioning to see the typical anarchist as an antisocial and bomb-throwing terrorist seeking violent overthrow of the existing order.

Orlov points out that as a student of nature, anarchism makes sense as a system of cooperation and can be seen everywhere among animals.  He notes the Russian scholar Peter Propotkin’s writings on anarchic cooperation as essential to the success of many species.

Orlov’s personal definition of anarchy is “absence of heirarchy.”  He also draws from recent research into “complexity theory” by physicist Geoffrey West.  It leads him to think that collapse is not an accident but an engineered product by those who “think that a higher level of authority, coordination, harmonization and unity is always a net benefit at any scale.”

Governments are good at certain things, Orlov is very willing to admit: maintaining a national transportation infrastructure, a reliable post office, and a fast internet….

Orlov’s case study to conclude this section  is that of the Pashtuns, who occupy a tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.   They continue to succeed in defying all the empires and nations that have arrayed against them over the past century – the British, the Pakistanis, the Soviets and most recently the U.S.

Their governance is semi-leaderless and self-regulating.  Some of their governing methods date back to Athenian democracy or before.  Orlov admires their hardiness and tenacity.   He doesn’t mention too much about their ties to the Taliban and the related negation of the essential worth of the female population, which really can’t be seen as a survival trait.

Stages 4 & 5: Social & Cultural Collapse

“Few places are likely to remain sufficiently insular to escape the onslaught of internationally displaced groups driven from their land by a variety of forces, from political unrest to economic dislocation caused by globalization to habitat destruction caused by rapid climate change.”

In Orlov’s view, it will be better to concentrate on a safe way to be, with others, rather than some imaginary, for most of us, safe place to go.

Communities who already live with hardships of one kind or another will be more resilient than, say, gated communities of the affluent.

In his discussion of social collapse, Orlov sees organized religion as a binder among people and communities that will endure and may assist in regenerating society.  (I think of the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz in this connection.)

Personally, organized religion appears pernicious, undesirable and unnecessary, but I can also see its utility in building and sustaining a sense of community.

Orlov is not as strong in his thinking in this part of his book, and he admits to that.  If we get to this stage, whatever happens after social and cultural collapse will be up to each of those who survive – there may not be a lot of useful prescriptions.

His case study for social collapse is the culture of the Roma, the Gypsies of Europe and North America who have learned to survive in difficult circumstances.  They are a nomadic and insular, even secretive people, but they are well-suited to thrive in a disordered, disorganized society.

The Case of the Ik

For a case study on cultural collapse, he cites the famous anthropological research of Colin Turnbull on an African tribe called the Ik, which Turnbull published in the book The Mountain People, in 1972.  I remember reading that book many years ago, and being dismayed about the Ik’s profound abasement as a society and what it may show about ourselves.

As Orlov says, the Ik are rugged individualists – to a fault.  Their language is unrelated to any others in their vicinity, but has characteristics of Middle-Kingdom Egyptian.  Under a permanent suntan, their skin is red not black like the surrounding African tribes.

The Ik are a post-collapse society which has been under stress for many, many years.  They were once nomadic hunters and gatherers, but various colonial and national authorities took their hunting grounds away from them and made them settle and try to subsist on barren land of no agricultural value.  The result has been intermittent famine and starvation.

Their language has lost all of its pleasantries and niceties.

Their village compounds consist of concentric circles of stockades penetrated by small and cryptic openings as a defense against their closest neighbours.

They seem to have almost no emotion except for occasional gruesome hilarity at the misfortune of others.  They do their best to eat alone and in secret.  Children are abandoned early and  learn to feed themselves by watching baboons.

As Orlov observes, it is rare to have an anthropologist spend two years with a tribe and come away urging that the object of his study be broken up into small groups and settled far away from their homeland.  Turnbull was traumatized by his stay with the Ik.  Turnbull realized that we all have a bit of the Ik in us, and that people of the developed world are becoming more “Ik-like.”

The Ik show a way of surviving cultural collapse.  It’s better not to have to go that far.

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The Escape Game

February 22, 2014

This is something I hadn’t heard of before:  The Real Escape Room Game.  Apparently the first Real Escape Room Game has opened in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, Canada, where I live, and must be one of the first in Canada.

Teams pay money to be locked in variously themed rooms and must find a way out within a time limit.  It’s a craze popular in Asian countries at the moment and now is beginning to appear more prominently in North America.  The game apparently began in Japan several years ago, and the wave of its popularity has worked its way to China, Malaysia, Singapore and much more recently to a few places on this side of the Pacific.

It used to be that cultural innovation and trendiness might come from the eastern United States, especially New York, or from Europe, say Paris or London.  These days, and what will increasingly be the case, the Asian countries are exerting their own brand of cultural sway over the young and hip.

TimeTravelLab_640It makes sense that the game would appear in Richmond, which has Asians from many different countries but especially China making up about half its population.

The version of the game that just started here has four themed rooms: the Lost Ship, Ancient Egypt, Prison Escape and Laboratory Escape.  Four to six people pay $23 each to enter one of these rooms to work together to find their way out within 45 minutes.

The proprietor claims that it’s perfect for speed dating.  Put three pairs of guys and girls in a locked room with a few clues and they will learn about each other’s personalities in short order.

Apparently only about one percent of the teams are successful.  They are photographed and put up on the Wall of Fame, while the other 99 percent are also photographed and clipped to a Tree of Shame, which is apparently the way it’s played in Asia.

Of course, there can be frustration.  The owner charges $50 for broken props.  He showed off to a local newspaper a table top strewn with broken locks. “Use intelligence, not violence,” he says.

It can be a combination of role-playing, depending on the theme, and those Solve A Murder Mystery parlor games, with considerably more intensity involved.

There’s a few YouTube examples: Escape from the Werewolf Village and Trapped in a Cathedral are just two.

I discovered online at least one other Canadian outfit running the game in Ontario called “Adventure Rooms Canada.”  They describe their way of doing it:

Your group has 60 minutes to find its way out of a mysterious room.  This is accomplished by using logic, searching for clues and using unique items in the room to help you get through obstacles like locks and doors, etc. Once your team makes it through all the of the puzzles contained within the room you will find the final key; and unlock yourself to freedom. Only 30% of teams have escaped so far. Will you?

The adventure is very thrilling, but not dangerous at all.  It contains no horror elements, requires no physical exertion and is suitable for ages 11-77.   Our game is unique in the genre because it focuses on the puzzles and experiments with real objects, rather than being based on a specific theme or story.

We may feel we lack adventure and community in our daily lives, often especially the young, as we put widgets, systems of widgets, or instructions to systems of widgets together, and perhaps commute long distances together in isolation to do so.

This remedy seems a little artificial and perhaps too theatrical for me though.  I think I prefer to go on a good hike in beautiful scenery with my wife or with a friend.  But it might be fun to try it out, as another form of escape.

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Note:

The image comes from an American company called SCRAP in San Francisco, California which runs their version of the Escape Room game.

Totally Benign State Surveillance

July 2, 2013

I read a lot of thrillers, even more than science fiction, and the recent revelations about the the spy agency NSA’s constant surveillance of American citizens and the rest of us have been described in many of them for years.

There have been quite detailed descriptions of the sophistication and methods of such spying in this pulp fiction.  Previously, one might have ascribed the described excesses to novelistic licence rather than of the actual state of affairs which the whistleblower Edward Snowden has now forced the mainstream to consider.

There is a subset of these thrillers that are written by Americans of a jingoistic bent.  They are full of righteous fervor about patriotism and treason, with a worshipful attitude towards The President and the over-riding importance of “national security.”  (These are two words that will in a future time be abandoned for their association with oppression in favor of some other euphemism to cloak abuses of power.)

These are spy and political novels written by blustering proponents of the right wing of American politics, people like Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, even that skilful self-marketer, Glenn Beck.

I picked up and read one of these thrillers recently, written in 2011-12 well before the recent NSA revelations.  It’s Black List by Brad Thor.  Mr. Thor is often a guest, apparently, on Glenn Beck’s show.

Secrecy, Spying and Technology

But I came to the novel with no preconceptions, and I picked it up because I was interested in how secrecy, spying, technology and “black lists” would be handled in his story.   What caught my attention was  his Author’s Note: “All of the technology contained in this novel is based on systems currently developed, or in the final stages of development, by the United States government and its partners.”

He begins with a quote in his preface:

“[America’s intelligence gathering] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left.  Such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.  There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictatorship ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny….”

This is US Senator Frank Church appearing and making a deliberate warning on a TV news show in 1975!  (That reference to telegrams probably gives the era away.)

Counterterrorist as Hero

The novel’s hero is a “counterterrorist” which seems to be an euphemism for a profession of torturing and killing anyone labelled a terrorist.   He embodies cool killing expertise, with an impressive array of weapons, coupled with naive beliefs that those pasting the labels are always right and that due process is a quaint notion.  These appear to be beliefs also shared by the author.

Due to one shadowy and nasty arm of the government plotting against another shadowy and equally nasty appendage, our hero ends up on the Black List.   This list is the official killing list for the government death squads.  The President is involved so it’s all alright.

The author rails against the arbitrary and manipulated nature of this list, and all of the technology brought to bear to fulfill its mission, such as that of the NSA which we’ve all recently learned about.  They’ve got the wrong guy, our hero!

However, when the shadowy limb of the government our hero favors finally prevails, our hero gets promoted to carrying out the requirements of the new slightly edited Black List, and is proud to do so.  The President is involved so it’s all alright.

This is a sad story, on so many levels.

Many know of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech in 1961 about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”  Apparently, he earlier intended to make it the “military-industrial-Congressional complex.”

Here’s how it’s explained by professor Melvin Goodman, a man knowledgeable of the history of American policies:

“The actual drafter of the speech, Ralph E. Williams, relied on guidance from Professor [Malcolm] Moos.  Milton Eisenhower explained that one of the drafts of the speech referred to the “military-industrial-Congressional complex” and said that the president himself inserted the reference to the role of the Congress, an element that did not appear in the delivery of the farewell address.

When the president’s brother asked about the dropped reference to Congress, the president replied: ‘It was more than enough to take on the military and private industry. I couldn’t take on the Congress as well.’

In addition to the Congress reference, an entire section was dropped from the speech that dealt with the creation of a ‘permanent, war-based industry,’ with ‘flag and general officers retiring at an early age [to] take positions in the war-based industrial complex shaping its decisions and guiding the direction of its tremendous thrust.’

The president warned that steps needed to be taken to ‘insure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate national policy.’ “

In line with this and coming back to more current events, I was taken by this comment on the Edward Snowden affair and its aftermath by “mallius62” on a Canadian news site:

I don’t know why people aren’t in the streets screaming, fists in the air and fighting for their rights.

Oh wait… I do know.

People have been cowed. You read/watch/listen to the news and think, wow, that sounds serious. Then you go about your business believing that some entity within the government apparatus will kick in and make things right. After all, that’s what the government is for… right.

Well the government has been co-opted by the intelligence community that’s reliant on public money to exist. This massive apparatus lobbies the government for more funding to continue to show better profits. The lobbying comes in the form of warnings and dire predictions about the future.

A good warning can put their stock up a quarter point.

This part of the military industrial complex enjoys a circular flow of money/control/manipulation of and by elected officials.

All to dial in the American mind to draw specific parallels that keep the money rolling.

The purity of the soldier.

The perfection of the flag.

The glory of the Constitution.

The American security.

And of course, American exceptionalism.

To hold these (truths) as closely to their profits as they can while denying complicity to the heinous actions that accompany them is a careful web of deceit.

Thus goes the empire.  As they continue to take your rights, they will expand the system of control.  And the public pays to build their cage.

Cone of Silence

I always develop a rueful smile when I hear well-meaning citizens and spineless politicians who should know better say something like:  “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to worry.  I hope it helps the guv’mint catch all them damn terrorists out there.”

On the one hand, it sounds like such folks would not object to having a government camera in the polling booth to record their actions at the next election, purely for their own safety of course.   On the other, there is the myth of the ubiquitous terror network, like KAOS on the old Get Smart TV show.  (I think I may need a Cone of Silence as an alternative to my head in the sand.)

There are obvious nuts and bad people with vendettas, religious obsessions and greed causing violent havoc from time to time in North America.  But if there was a real, substantive well-organized group beyond the Mafia and drug gangs, our society would be in tatters, depending as it does on fragile and vulnerable infrastructure around water, pipelines, transportation and electricity.  But terrorism is constantly being raised as a bogeyman justifying the cage.

Snowden himself outlines the danger:

“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. …it’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life.”

Given that the United States is willing to imprison its own citizens at a higher rate than anyplace else in the world and has created and expanded the secret functions of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI (which now runs drones in the US), the CIA and JSOC to name only a few, what kind of place would you say it is now?

I’ve long thought this quote summarizes the issues well:

“In a free society, citizens are entitled to know more about the government than it knows about them; in authoritarian regimes the reverse is true.”

— JR Finlay

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Additional notes:

I’ve written about some of this in a more general way before, in the post Subversive Fiction.

For more detail on the National Security Agency’s plans to make its surveillance even more penetrating, check out this article from Wired earlier this year:  Connecting the Dots on PRISM, Phone Surveillance, and the NSA’s Massive Spy Center.

This lengthy article outlines the development of the NSA’s new data centre in Utah and the history of deception by some of America’s top officials.

And finally, as another sad note, here is Barack Obama in 2007 about the Bush Administration:

“This Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand… That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists… We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”

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