Thursday, December 1, 2016

"How Did We Get Here": A Cultural History of the 21st Century Episode 0 - First Quarter Rewritten

I leant upon a coppice gate 
      When Frost was spectre-grey, 
And Winter's dregs made desolate 
      The weakening eye of day. 
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky 
      Like strings of broken lyres, 
And all mankind that haunted nigh 
      Had sought their household fires. 

The land's sharp features seemed to be 
      The Century's corpse outleant, 
His crypt the cloudy canopy, 
      The wind his death-lament. 
The ancient pulse of germ and birth 
      Was shrunken hard and dry, 
And every spirit upon earth 
      Seemed fervourless as I. 

At once a voice arose among 
      The bleak twigs overhead 
In a full-hearted evensong 
      Of joy illimited; 
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, 
      In blast-beruffled plume, 
Had chosen thus to fling his soul 
      Upon the growing gloom. 

So little cause for carolings 
      Of such ecstatic sound 
Was written on terrestrial things 
      Afar or nigh around, 
That I could think there trembled through 
      His happy good-night air 
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew 

      And I was unaware. 

Thomas Hardy was born a little too late. He was a generation younger than the great Victorian intellectuals who represented Merry Old England at the optimistic zenith of its Victorian Era; writers and thinkers like Dickens and Thackeray and Tennyson and John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold and George Eliot and Cardinal Newman and Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin and Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone - men, and at least one woman who took a man's name - so influential that they defined a country and a century. The world has moved on from their overly proper and priggish optimism and their peculiar and pecuniary liberalism, but it was, for better or worse, probably the best the world was going to do in the 19th century, and a hell of a lot better than what lay in store at the start of the 20th. 
The only way that a still greater and more equitable liberalism than the Victorian liberalism that allowed for the vicissitudes of imperialism and would ever be born was to emerge from a meat grinder of death - a blood sacrifice which demanded more than two hundred million victims and made no distinction between the conservatives who held a more equitable world back, the progressives who aimed to create a greater world, and the already oppressed of both the European lower classes and the oppressed of imperial rule in Asia, Africa, and occasionally Latin America - the very people who could have benefited most had they survived the great harvest. Was it worth it?  

Hardy was one of nature's great pessimists. English Literature was ruled at the mid-19th century by Charles Dickens, the ultimate optimist and a poet of hope, who passed his characters through terrible tribulations so that they might emerge more triumphant in the end. Late century English lit was ruled, if by anyone at all, by Hardy. 
Two thirds of the way through his career, at roughly the Century's turn, he abandoned novels for poetry, perhaps because he had too much gloom in his outlook to render any longer his sour thoughts on life with the ambiguities that narrative demands. When he wrote those immortal sixteen couplets of The Darkling Thrush, was his foreboding for his own soul's future, was it foreboding for people he loved, was it for Englands, the world's? 

We are now 116 years after The Darkling Thrush, and there are three people alive in 2016 that were alive in 1900 - none of whom was born before 1899. No one is alive today who can tell us whether or not living in 2016 feels like living in 1900, but I would imagine that a certain kind of liberal felt a foreboding that could not be quenched. 

The historian Niall Ferguson, no liberal he, wrote of 1901 that an "inhabitant of London could, as he sipped his breakfast tea, have ordered a sack of coal from Cardiff, a pair of kid gloves from Paris or a box of cigars from Havana. He might also, if anticipating a visit to the grouse moors of Scotland, have purchased a 'Bradalbane Waterproof and self-ventilating Shooting Costume (cape and kilt); or he might, if his interests lay in a different direction, have ordered a copy of Maurice C. Hime's book entitled Schoolboy's Special Immorality. He could have invested his money in any one of nearly fifty US companies quoted in London - most of them railroads like the Denver and Rio Grande (whose latest results were reported that day) - or, if he preferred, in one of the seven other stock markets also covered regularly by The Times. He might, if he felt the urge to travel, have booked himself passage on the P&O liner Peninsular, which was due to sail for Bombay and Karachi the next day, or on one of the twenty-three other P&O ships scheduled to sale for Eastern destinations over the next ten weeks - to say nothing of the thirty-six other shipping lines ofering services from England to all the corners of the globe. Did New York seem to beckon? The Manitou sailed tomorrow, or he could wait for the Hamburg-America Line's more luxurious Furst Bismarck, which sailed him from Southampton on the 13th. Did Buenos Aires appeal to him more? Did he perhaps wish to see for himself how the city's Grand National Tramway Company was using - or rather, losing - his money? Very well, the Danube, departing for Argentina on Friday, still had some cabins free. The world, in short, was his oyster."

Where stand we in 2016? An inhabitant of the Washington DC metropolitan area, as he, or still depressingly seldom she, sips on their Sunday brunch mimosas, can whip out an I-phone and go on Amazon and there they can order five pounds of replica fat for $70, an old Asian man peel and stick wall decal for $30, a Nicholas Cage pillow case for $8, two ounces of weed for $5, a Kaylen's hand butt plug for $30, a fifty-five gallon drum of lube for $1350, a Roswell New Mexico soil sample for $16, a badonkadonk land cruiser for $20,000 and $500 shipping, an infant circumcision trainer for $192,1,500 lady bugs for $6.25,  a sexy inflatable sheep made to look like Dolly the first cloned sheep for $7.50, a stegosaurus dog costume for $28, 32 ounces of wolf urine for $100, an underpants dispenser for $11, a complete body unitard for $70, and uranium ore for $40. If they wanted to book a trip anywhere in the world, they could find literally hundreds of websites devoted not only to saving money on the trip, but earning money by taking a trip. They could find online classifieds houseswapping and housesitting and dozens of websites to advise them on how to get the most value out of it, they could be subsidized for years by a non-profit to volunteer and fundraise on a development project, they could look at online forums for hitchhiking and carpooling and many websites devoted exclusively how to do either/or of them safely, message boards for staffing yachts and advice on how to crew it, applications to crew a cruise on any major cruiseline's website, they can inquire onto car rental websites for people who've just moved and need vehicles driven from the place they live to a far off place, they can offer to work at a hostel rather than pay it, they can organize a group tour for which they act as both agent and guide.

Some people would say that this is the way that the world's true masters anesthetize us to the world's truest concerns by dangling consumerism and commodities in front of us and forcing us creative types to hustle our way into the lower middle class while the less imaginative and risky of us reap the world's true benefits. Many others, including me, would say that this is evidence that the world is particularly our oyster. The reason we focus on how to procure our own trivial delights not because we are slaves to the world, but because we are its masters, and once again, the world may demand remittance on our trivial concerns with a payment not in in dollars or coin of the realm, but in pounds of blood.  

(cue music)

Greetings, salutations, welcome, and all due appropriate sentiments to this episode #0 of "How We Got Here: A Cultural History of the 21st Century." 

Let's start with the first thesis of this series, and then divert enormously from it. We have just emerged from the Television Era. I believe that in the past generation, it is not movies or music that has represented us most accurately, however well some in each field of the Arts do, and it's certainly not fiction or art. Far more than any other medium, TV gives its creators the freedom and diversity to show our lives accurately, and I aim to show that as best I can.

This podcaster was born at the cusp between Generation X and Millennials, we were not only born in the television era, but even our parents can't remember a time before television. But our parents grew up with three basic networks, we grew up with thirty, and by the time we became adults, we had 300. I would imagine that we are now in the Podcast Era - hence why I'm here. But in some ways there is as great a difference between TV and Television as there is between either of them and podcasts. TV is entertainment, Television is art. TV is escapist, Television is cathartic. TV exists to comfort us, Television exists to drive us mad. 

I would date the emergence of Television from TV to somewhere between the final episode of Seinfeld in May 1998 and the pilot episode of The Sopranos in January of 1999. Something in the American air changed sometime during the last seven months of 1998 much as they seemed to change again around the Fall of 2014. 

The thirties were the decade of fascism, the eighties were the decade when Communism fell. The nineties were the decade of the blowjob. The 'quote-unquote Great Event', the most famous of 1998, and indeed, of the whole decade, was the Lewinsky investigation and the Clinton impeachment, which everyone both Right and Left agreed, represented an absolute low in American discourse - during a period so seemingly prosperous and indolent that the country had nothing better to do for an entire year than talk about the President getting head underneath the desk of the Oval Office. Nevertheless, this roughly seven-month period between Seinfeld and The Sopranos set much of the stage for everything that would later come - no pun intended, honestly.

The great political development of that period was the emergence, and a word like 'emergence' hardly does justice to the effect it had on America, of the Drudge Report. Traditional news, even 24-hour TV news, even FOX News, could not possibly keep up with the proliferation of trivial but distracting political stories, or entirely made up stories, that cater to and inflame the prejudices of people who believe in the inherent bias of traditional respectable journalists who practice journalism through the same process since the founding of The Spectator in the 1720's - and if not that many millions of people believed that traditional news had no bias before the Drudge Report, then the Drudge Report alone convinced millions. No newspaper, not even the Wall Street Journal, no yellow journalism, not even the Daily Mail, no television network, not even FOX news, could ever shape hearts and minds with the ferocious prowess of an aggregating website that could send its audience down a rabbithole of information, often false but certainly not always, that was available to them at the click of a mouse.

But if you think Drudge Report isn't a substantial enough event to mark the passing of one era to another, then for this period that contributed to American life and history - one should remember was that this was the period when the bulk of debate was conducted over whether to repeal the Glass-Steagal act, a financial act passed barely more than three months into the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Glass-Steagal was the most important substance of the Banking Act of 1933 which established a wall between commercial banks and securities firms. What Glass-Steagall meant in laymen terms is that a commercial bank at which middle class people could store their money with expectations that the money would stay put, could not itself be invested in stocks and funds so that banks could potentially make more money for both the bank and for its customers. In theory, eliminating the separation can reap incredible financial benefits to both bankers and their customers, and in practice, that's exactly what happened until The Great Recession of 2008, just as it's exactly what happened until The Great Depression of 1929. Both times, it was shown pretty much definitively that commercial banks trying to increase their holdings through the stock market was spectacularly irresponsible.

I suppose I'm giving away my political bias right at the beginning of this series - are there really that many conservative podcasters anyway? You'll quickly see that compared to most progressive podcasters I'll seem downright conservative, but I am a liberal, through and through, clinging to it like a religion in insecure times precisely because liberalism is the most insecure of all philosophies, a coreless, constantly evolving and debated theology that ultimately seems to adapt itself from era to era for the specific needs of that particular historical moment. But regardless of whether one is liberal or conservative, moderate or progressive, alt-right or intersectional warrior for social justice, everyone seems to agree that something extremely dangerous happened in American life during this period - even if we all disagree about what the particular dangers were that we passed. Whatever the center of American life was, whatever America's basic expectations and routines were, it seemed to be hollowed out sometime around that infamous year of 1998.

Around the corner was the twenty-first century, and while America is still unquestionably the world's only superpower, we are all the more vulnerable because of our indispensability, and every American would seem to agree that the 21st century beset our country with an endless parade of hopelessness. Not hopelessness by the standards of history, but hopelessness by the standards of the most prosperous and wealthiest nation in the history of our planet. Nobody knows what 2017 will bring, but there is no question, even in 2016, even in December 2016 (!), that a person desiring to make a success of him or herself has the best possible chances right here, and right now, to rise and lift oneself from poverty.

Lifting oneself up from poverty does not mean alleviating one's hardships through social programs while still contenting oneself with little more than a minimum though living wage as progressives like to believe, and contrary to what conservatives believe, it can be done while still respecting the economic rights of communities and refraining from the exploitation of others to achieve one's goals. But to rise in financial security and status to a place of self-respect and pride, and to create an identity, a security, a future, a career, and a freedom for oneself, is still something that has happened in America tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of times more often than any other place in the world.

Since I would imagine that it is mostly liberals, progressives, and socialists, who would listen to this, I would like to point out to them a certain quote. "The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America."  This quote was from the 1935 State of the Union address, it was given by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The human spirit,... spiritual and moral disintegration,... how old-fashioned, how out of touch, how quasi-religious and conservative, how bourgeois those terms sound to the enlightened modern ear which can't help but hear the echoes of Bill O'Reilly or Newt Gingrich or Margaret Thatcher talking about the corrosive effects of dependence on a citizen's ability to lift himself up by the bootstraps. But what other option has there ever been? What other motivator moves a society to prosperity? Socialists and Marxists, and sometimes even Progressives, would have us believe that a dream of self-respect is just something which we would all have innately if companies and their advertisers did not constantly deny them to us. According to such people, these are all part of the lies told from inside the whirlwind of the great neoliberal machine, which gives us feelings of security and freedom and achievement precisely by taking these feelings away from us, and always depriving us of any real version of all three.

The various substrata of leftist religions can never seem to agree upon a solution to this matter, the reason being as clear as day to its Doubting Thomases that there can be no solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Neither corporations or governments can deprive us of self-actualization when they are both extraordinary products of the human mind and its miraculous powers of organization. Both private and public organizations can be and are used for good and ill, and both are used for good and ill billions of times every day. The problem is neither corporations nor governments, the problem is the messy minds that thought of them both, organized them both, keep both running, use them both, exploit them both, and heal them both. Just as President Obama says that we are the one's we've been waiting for, we are also the ones keeping ourselves waiting. It is neither possible nor desirable to eradicate either or even shrink them significantly. But even if it were, it would be in the interests of every living being on the planet to keep both of these literally superhuman entities which simultaneously control us and are controlled by us to operate in good health and be as representative of our interests as any organization can possibly be by being so inflexible in how both are regulated that we endow both with the flexibility to check the most oppressive impulses of the other.

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