Still Alice and the Backup Plan

I sat dumbly in the car as my wife gave a beautiful, intellectual analysis of how gorgeous the message of Still Alice was as we drove home from the Lyric, stewing in my depressive obsessive sewage of self-pity and fixation on the message of mortality from the movie, my fear and careerism, and how the movie rattled me. I was hearing and missing at the same time the lesson of the movie that Alec Baldwin’s character missed and that Kristen Stewart’s character completely embraced, the living in the moment, the interacting and learning from her mom and what she was going through, and her lack of willingness to have a backup plan and a focus on money in her career. And instead like Alec Baldwin’s character my complete focus was on my career as an entrepreneur, which is increasingly rooted in fear and the desire for financial stability in old age. The fear of being destitute and broken without friends or money to pay for my own medical care and a nice home and travel in old age eclipses all else, all the feelings of sanity from reading and writing and music, the calming of mind I used to feel, all of the peace and a deeper sense of being beyond financial status and stability and culturedness.

Concert review: Ryan Adams Buell Theater 2/4/12

“May the wind blow, may the moonlight know your name.”

“To tell the truth it’s hard enough without a lover
Who you want to hide your darkness from
So they won’t let you down”

“One night at the diner over eggs
Over easy she showed me the length of her legs.”

One doesn’t necessarily need to be able to write lyrics like these ones from new and old DRA classics to be able to put on a presentation like Ryan Adams did Saturday night – but it doesn’t hurt. In truth, Ryan Adams could probably sing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and make it into something spectacular and new.

Adams, or “DRA” as he calls himself on Facebook in prolific posts that come directly from him and focus mostly on metal bands, does write great songs with great lyrics and new twists on typical melodies and chord progressions that have earned him an exaggerated status as a daring artist, but most importantly he sings them live with a gut-wrenching tapping of emotional reserves and Jeff Buckley-caliber vocal control that proves the singer-not-the-song rule and far outshines his recorded performances (which are also excellent). Or, at least he did Saturday night, which is the first time I’ve seen him live.

Having spent a decent chunk of my life trying to do what DRA does, which includes sometimes standing there by yourself on stage with no high-energy bass lines or drum artillery to fill in the spaces, I can appreciate the road he must have traveled to this point. Perhaps we saw something Saturday that audiences in years past didn’t get to see – I don’t know. But I suspect the unforced and at-ease-putting easy genius with which DRA gave his songs and hilarious patter of heavy metal inside jokes and self-deprecation Saturday didn’t come easy. I came expecting an angry prima donna that I had heard often gives good shows and often does not. I had heard about refusals to perform, admonishments of audiences, and selfish behavior. But there was none of that. This was a generous outpouring of artistic talent from a very rare bird. I plan to see him every time he comes back. – jb

Halliburton accusation an example of inverted totalitarianism?

A friend of mine posted this youtube video of a hearing on facebook with the headline, “Halliburton charged with selling nuclear technology to Iran.” The lead to the story: “Halliburton, the notorious U.S. energy company, sold key nuclear-reactor components to a private Iranian oil company called Oriental Oil Kish as recently as 2005, using offshore subsidiaries to circumvent U.S. sanctions.”

My friend’s comment with the link was, “And we wonder why the US taxpayer has ‘had it’?? These clowns circumvent US law to do contracting with Iran – a terrorist state. VP Cheney draws a massive pension from these guys now. They shelter their profits on the Cayman Islands. Does anyone not think its time for a wholesale change in DC? Watch it – in disbelief.”

This example cites the core problem, that DC electoral politics is but a small, and probably non-material, part of the picture. These corporations are multinational (trans-national is probably a better expression) ruling forces that have imposed an “inverted totalitarianism” on the U.S. and other countries that makes use of nationalism but trumps electoral politics. Demonizing Obama or even Bush or Cheney is but a distraction, I’m starting to think. At some point we will have to face up to some difficult facts, such as: 1) to drive an SUV and then intellectualize about companies like Halliburton is just silly; and 2) to believe that in an inverted totalitarian state, where inverted means that economics trumps politics (vs. in classical totalitarianism where politics trumps economics), electoral politics will make a difference, is a naive point of view. An economic solution will be necessary, and a political solution will perhaps fail. I’m not sure if enough of us stops buying oil products like gasoline that that will provide a solution or not. I’m trying to think about what might make a difference, and doing more reading about it. And I’m trying not to assault my facebook friends too much with this stuff so I’ve started a blog and have started to do some writing about it there.

Why I’m suddenly interested in Dostoesvky

February 6, 2011

My family heritage is half Slavic and half British Isles and Scandinavian.

Shame about being a Pole persecuted by the Reds … shame about being from a background of collectivism, while living in a society where a manufactured democracy and a complete artificial squelching of collectivist thought by McCarthyism and the corporate state war machine are our reality.

Chris Hedges says Notes From Underground is probably the most important piece of literature an American today can read. But I’ve always had an aversion to Russian literature, to reading Tolstoy or Chekov or Dostoevsky (except for Notes, which was assigned reading in my freshman humanities class at Colorado School of Mines and had an impact on me), the roots of which I am just now, in my mid-forties, starting to recognize. The reasons Hedges thinks reading Dostoevsky today is important are probably related to why I as a post-McCarthyist American have this aversion to Russian writers and culture, and have been brought up to see Russia itself and the communist bloc (both pre- and post-USSR) as this big, white, nondescript Siberian blah-blur of unAmericanism, not interesting, not applicable, not what we want to be.

The conceptions of democracy, that America is a democracy that needs to re-find its roots, are fiction. The United States was a Republic until after the Civil War, run by white men, hardly a democracy as we are educated. The Founding Fathers thought that a democracy would be a terrible idea. Historian Sean Wilentz’s Rise of American Democracy tells the story of how democracy didn’t come to exist in the U.S. until the 20th century, and Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom looks at the notion of freedom and the political rhetoric of freedom and how they haven’t matched reality in the U.S. These are things that I have started to learn from my wife, a historian and someone who reads a lot more than I do and thus someone to whom I am fortunate to be married.

We don’t even read any more in this country. I don’t want to pretend that I’m an exception to that … I average about 10 books a year, which may be more than some, but is not a lot of reading, and a lot of that is non-“literary” e.g. I am probably not learning a lot about the illusions and delusions of American democracy in my current read of Keith Richard’s autobiography, although I think reading that is just as useful as reading Dickens or Dostoevsky. In any case, I would like to turn over a new leaf. Certainly, I have among my many underpursued pursuits, being a writer is something I have taken a stab at in various ways (a smattering of published things, an unrevised novel manuscript, a few college writing courses, a couple of failed applications to the CSU MFA program, some technical journalism jobs) and an undertaking that, second only perhaps to lack of focused, has been hampered by lack of reading. So I am not well-read, to clarify.

But, I understand there is something out there. I can feel good writing, I think, when I read it, and I know when truths that don’t often see the light of day are made to squint into the flashlight like I think Hedges is suggesting Dostoevsky makes happen. So as a reasonably naïve, politico-centric American whose depression and disillusion are at least partially related to an expired subscription to a mythology that is embedded in the American cultural experience, perhaps following the advice of someone smarter and more well-read than I am (and someone who has had the balls to write in the 21st century) is indicated.

Now, there are so many contradictions and hypocrisies built into the way I live that I think studying history and good writing as a tool for shining a flashlight on those paradoxes and follies is the best I can hope for at this point – after a long time of weird entrepreneurial misfires. For example, how hypocritical is it for me to be asking the defense department for money to research a water treatment technology that can aid and abet the military industrial complex, while making snide comments against same on Facebook? How inconsistent is it to berate Fox’s superbowl coverage with its disingenuous soundbyte-group-reading of the Declaration of Independence and its Super Infomercial for the military-industrial complex, then enjoy the Bridgestone Tire ad where the beaver saves the guy’s life (or for that matter to watch it at all)?

How to fight inverted totalitarianism?

January 28, 2011

We live in a world that is difficult for many of us to understand from a socio-economic and political standpoint. The messages that we receive, or are bombarded by, daily are contradictory much more than they are reassuring. Yes there is global warming. No there isn’t global warming. Being too far left is similar to Nazism. Being too far right is similar to Nazism. The problem is the religious right. The problem is the socialist left. The problem is religion. The problem is government. Too little regulation caused the financial meltdown. Housing regulation caused the financial meltdown. It’s Wall Street’s fault. It’s government’s fault. The Tea Party is the answer. The Tea Party is the problem.

Some of us who would never have dreamed of being so crass as to actually post political sentiments on Facebook have, yes, relegated ourselves to doing so, deleting posts right after we post them, re-posting them with inflammatory language removed, deleting that and posting it again a few minutes later with even more inflammatory language, and so on. Felt bad about it. Felt good about it. Vowed to not post anything political again that would risk alienating or marginalizing our poor innocent friends on Facebook that did nothing more than simply make or accept a friend request. Got in heated discussions with friends’ friends whom we’ve never met and know nothing about. These are weird times; weirder and more divisive and more polarized than any most of us have lived in, particularly those of us who didn’t live through McCarthyism. So rather than just continue to spout emotional rhetoric – add to the emotional rhetoric – on Facebook, after the Tucson shooting I set out to try to educate myself more so I could make some reasoned judgments instead of acting or speaking out of passion or anger alone.


Thus ends my belief in Barack Obama, and what little was left of my belief in either the Democratic or the Republican parties. It has gone much further than I thought. The damage is done, and to think that action at a voting booth is of consequence at this point is simple foolishness.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges quotes the noted political philosopher Sheldon Wolin frequently in talking about the state of the U.S. political situation. It is a complex, counter-intuitive situation where nothing is what it appears, I find as I read and listen more. People talk of plutocracy. People talk of corporate fascism. People talk of socialism. People talk of oligarchy, the shift of wealth from the rich to the poor. People talk of the government being too big, and blame the Democrats. People talk of the financial meltdown, and blame Obama or blame Bush and Clinton. People talk of fundamentalism and extremism and violence. All of this talk contains grains of truth but none of it hits the mark. Until I heard Hedges interviewed on NPR by Steve Inskeep this week, talking critically of the State of the Union address, then did some online digging and heard a talk by Hedges addressing the Media Sanctuary on his new book, The Death of the Liberal Class last October, did I find a phrase and a thesis for what is going on that made sense and that I could start to wrap my mind around. It’s called “inverted totalitarianism.”

In his talk to Media Sanctuary, Hedges said that frightened working class people who want to think of themselves as middle class have been fooled into thinking the right, the republican party, the tea party, are their saviors, with their emotional message of religion (which they actually care nothing about) and nationalism (which they actually care nothing about), and have gathered their support on behalf of the corporate ruling class. Their rage and anger when challenged, and their fondness for apocalyptic violence, are the terror of someone horrified of being pushed back into the reality that almost killed them. The way the anger has been averted from Wall St and directed at government is a brilliant media campaign that has millions and millions fooled. Hedges goes on to say,

“Apocalyptic violence, a belief in magic, an embrace of historical and personal destiny, a culture that communicates through image and spectacle, is a totalitarian culture. We have created, in the words of the great political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, a system of inverted totalitarianism. Inverted totalitarianism is different, he writes, from classical totalitarianism; it doesn’t find its expression in a demagogue or a charismatic leader, but in the anonymity of the corporate state. In inverted totalitarianism, you have corporate systems that purport to pay loyalty and fealty to the constitution and electoral politics, and the language and iconography of American patriotism and nationalism, but have so corrupted the levers of power as to render the citizens impotent. What we have undergone is a coup d’état in slow motion, and we have lost, and they have won. In inverted totalitarianism, economics trumps politics, which is different from classical totalitarianism where politics trumps economics. With that inversion comes a different form of ruthlessness. The commodification of American culture, the commodification of human beings whose worth is determined by the market, as well as the commodification of the natural world whose worth is determined by the market, means each will be exploited by corporate power until exhaustion or collapse. Which is why the environmental crisis is intimately linked to the economic crisis. Societies that cannot regulate capitalist forces cannibalize themselves until they die. And that’s what we’re undergoing.”

Hedges told Inskeep on January 27 that corporate capitalism has hollowed out the country, created a sort of neo-feudalism that has no loyalty to the U.S. but serves the interests of trans-national corporation – very different from penny capitalism or regional capitalism. “Corporate capitalism is supra-national, it has no loyalty to the nation-state. It’s hollowed our country out from the inside. It’s a kind of global neo-feudalism. And it’s corporate capitalism that frightens me,” Hedges said.

In the next blog I’ll talk about some thinking out there about how to act locally to fight this inverted totalitarianism.