Friday, December 22, 2017

A Christmas Carol

Update: The Scrooges at YouTube have erased this video and all versions of the Sims' movie you don't have to pay for one way or another.  Bah, humbug!

The modern Christmas story has to be Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  First of all he wrote it just as the kind of Christmas traditions we observe today were becoming standard.  That includes Christmas carols themselves.  The first collection of now familiar carols was published less than a decade before he wrote this, and it would still be another 30 years or so before they were widely sung--by the Salvation Army on the streets first, and then in churches.

It's a classic story, even apart from Christmas.  Some writers and critics have tried to reduce the number of story plots to a basic minimum.  Author Robert Heinlein chose three plots to which all stories adhere, and the exemplar of one is A Christmas Carol--by being confronted with harsh or inspiring facts, the protagonist changes.

Dickens wrote it in 1843, the first of his annual Christmas stories, although he wrote about Christmas--and ghosts--throughout his career.  He depicted a Christmas celebration in his first serialized novel, The Pickwick Papers, which made him famous.

Ghost stories were an even older tradition of the season, probably a remnant of the winter storytelling of the ancestors that was part of Indigenous cultures.  Dickens combined them with a particular social conscience about the gap between rich and poor, and the huge difference in their lives in London.  It was a feature of the industrial age that we have inherited, adding new elements of it to what's being called income inequality in our time--as well as poverty and homelessness.

The shared responsibility to deal with this systematic suffering was becoming a Dickens passion in the 1840s.  He was working on his novel on the theme of selfishness, Martin Chuzzlewit, at the time he wrote A Christmas Carol.  But in Scrooge's memories of his childhood, Dickens worked with memories from his own childhood that he would write about more specifically in a later novel, the celebrated David Copperfield.

There have been many dramatizations of the story, which often turn the empathetic elements into sentimentality. Still, some movie versions do better than others, or have some overriding feature that sets them apart.

Probably the most famous adaptation is the 1951 Scrooge with the most famous performance of the title character by Alastair Sims.  It's the YouTube film at the top of this column, in a very good black and white print.

The most recent retelling I know of is the Disney animation of a few years ago, which I have not seen.  I'm partial to Patrick Stewart's 1999 movie, which I've got on tape but can't find in a decent version on the net for free.  The 1984 George C. Scott version is pretty good.  Scott starts out as a familiar modern Scrooge, with the awful charm of the ruthless businessman--it's not coincidence it was made in the 1980s.

David Warner brings some credibility to Bob Cratchit in this version, and though much of the storytelling is pedestrian, it's all worth Scott jumping on the bed when he realizes he has been given a second chance.  It's not really up to the Sims version but it has its moments.

This video below is the best I could find on YouTube.  You have to deal with periods of commentary (by two western Pennsylvania dudes with the accents I know so well) and there's some distortion in the picture but overall it's a pretty good print with excellent sound. Merry Christmas everyone.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Dark Age Now

The significant holidays in many existing traditions that occur around the time of the winter solstice suggest the enduring importance of this solar event within the living year.  At the center of customs or rituals in most traditions for these particular observances, including those that preceded today's major ones, is some form of light--light in the time of increased darkness.

Light also for warmth in the cold time.  One Indigenous tradition--and probably others, if not all--see winter as a time for the Earth's sleep but also of its pregnancy, the light in the body that will emerge as the new life of spring.
In those older traditions in parts of the world where winter is forbidding, when little grows to be harvested, and hunting and fishing slow or stop, the solstice began a season of people being together around the fire and listening to stories--stories of a people, of its history, of the origins of animals and how things got to be as they are.  Stories that provide the backbone of the living culture.

Though there are cultural values and aspirations embedded in, for instance, Christmas stories as well as religious texts read at this time, they exist more strongly in the institutions of our large scale complex culture, and in shared knowledge--including the standards for judging what is known.

A Dark Age in our culture is a time when such knowledge is forgotten and such institutions slip into chaos.  Late last year I suggested that signs pointed to the likelihood that we are entering such a time, and this past year has only added evidence of that.

I've called the incumbent president by a couple of names, still accurate.  Lately I've settled on "the anti-president," to reflect the complete extent to which he is relentlessly destroying the presidency, destroying the federal government and our sense of being one nation.  He does the opposite of what a president should do; he is the opposite of what a president should be, and even more, he is the opposite force, like anti-matter to matter: the anti-president.  This ongoing process of erasure is the preliminary to the self-reinforcing Dark Age.

The two most important elements are: replacing knowledge with ignorance, and flexible order with alarming chaos.

Knowledge it seems does not alone protect us.  What's being done is known, or at least knowable.  The anti-president's lies are doggedly counted and described every time he opens his mouth, but it doesn't seem to matter.  He keeps lying, about everything (including easily ascertained facts, and what's in his own proposals, etc)  and his White House backs him up.  Each time he lies, the truth dies, including the functional concept of truth.

 We can even identify other strategies that have been defined in popular fiction, like Orwell's Newspeak, which was at least as much the eradication of words as the addition of new mandatory ones.  Early on we've seen the erasure of climate change information from government websites, including the forbidding of the very words "climate change."  It has since disappeared from national security strategy.  Now there's a report of other banned words: the CDC has instructed staff to avoid seven words, including diversity, vulnerable, evidence-based and science-based.

Due in part to the anti-president, and in part to the impact of a certain social movement, right now all of our institutions are close to chaos, with decreasing resilience, and especially with fewer voices that can summon any kind of national understanding, consciousness or dialogue.  There is a leadership vacuum, including in opposing the anti-president and his supporting infrastructure.

But this year was just the preliminary, the softening up.  The possibility of real crisis increases in the coming year, and likely for years after that.  We may well face an authoritarian crisis by this time next year.  Everything is lining up for one.  Nobody knows how events will play out, but the elements are assembling, and we're vulnerable.

Yes, that's one of the forbidden words.  In fact, you can pretty much track where things are going on the right by what they want to forbid, and what say about the left.  They are very good at mirror accusations: being guilty of what they accuse others, or signaling their goals by accusations.  Right now the buzzword on the right is "coup."  It's often the justification for an authoritarian move--an anti-Republic to save the Republic.

Diversity is another forbidden word, for the institutions--including the rule of law and its principles-- that regulate and therefore keep alive a society with a diversity of identities and ideas, are under primary threat in any kind of authoritarian regime or culture.  Apparently rational, authoritarianism is most often driven by basic if not base emotions, from avarice to rage, that determine what may seem to be rational justifiable judgments.  It's pretty clear that such emotions are increasingly taking over.  The question is whether we survive these storms.

Certain kinds of absolute allegiances that are forms of identity can be set in opposition to others, which also sets up the chaos that can lead to an authoritarian "solution."  As we lose knowledge, allegiances, beliefs that we can hold in common, and as we lose faith in the fairness of institutions (particularly when they do become more unfair, more beholden to ideology or favoritism) we invite the chaos that is the pretext.  Then under pressure and in panic we face the dangers of devolving further into smaller group allegiances.

We haven't lost it all yet.  The national response from the top to this year's climate disasters has been grossly inadequate, but on the level of community--as in this southern California fire--there is still the unquestioned impulse to help.

Yet this all is unraveling at a time when life as we know it on our planet is in mortal peril from the climate crisis, and we're all but ignoring it, and certainly failing to do what we should be doing with the required urgency, attention and sense of purpose.  Some people talk of the next step in human evolution. Chances are slipping by that we will ever get to a next step. So far the prevalent evidence is that humanity is flunking evolution altogether.

At this time of year, people still gather to renew bonds, share stories and hope to provide a sense of light to the young.  As the new calendar year gets closer they may consider how they can represent the light and bring it to their times.

 These holidays in contemporary America are normally fraught with the resurrection of old conflicts, dashed if unreal expectations, push buttoned reminders of past hurt, and traditions of our culture that are conflicting to a point well beyond irony.  This year we have the added anxieties of deep turmoil in our country that is spiraling out of control, apparently headed to a Dark Age.  We huddle one more time around the light, hoping we're with the people who will still be with us in that different darkness.  

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Interview

Bill Moyers is retiring--again.  But at age 83, this time he may mean it.  He's been away from TV for a few years but he continued his unique brand of journalism at his website, Moyers & Company.  But now he's shutting that down, too.  We're losing another significant voice, with a breadth and depth and point of view that we need.

Among the many things he did well was the interview.  First of all, who he selected, and then, how he conducted the interview, the questions he asked, the kind of dialogue he elicited.  I've watched, heard and read his interviews since the original Bill Moyers Journal and through all his minseries, like World of Ideas.  Moyers has been a key player in my relationship to these times.

He posted what may well be his last interview, and it's major.  Here's how he introduces it:

"Our times at last have found their voice, and it belongs to a Pakistani American: Ayad Akhtar, born in New York, raised in Wisconsin, an alum of Brown and Columbia, actor, novelist, screenwriter and playwright, with an ever-soliciting eye for the wickedness and wonders of the world."

The occasion is the play now ending its run in New York, by this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.  It's called Junk, and the subject is high finance in the 1980s.

Moyers asked him why he set his play in the 80s--why not another era of financial mania, like the 1920s or the 19th century Guilded Age?

Akhtar: Oh, there could be a fascinating play about the robber-baron era and maybe even the relationship between JP Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt. There was a back and forth then between politics and capital. But in a way, those stories are not as relevant ultimately to us today as what happened in the 1980s. I think the difference in the ’80s was that the philosophical soil of the earlier American psyche was ready to embrace unfettered individualism as the rubric of behavior and decision-making. The collective mindset experienced a fracture in the ‘80s that we are still dealing with."

Okay, I quote this partly because I have known this since the 80s, and so have others of my generation, but it's exciting to hear it from a younger voice.

The 80s created the church of finance, worshipping the god of the economy, for the economy really is:

"... an abstraction that we placate and that we observe with holy attention on a regular basis whose well-being tells us more about our well-being than our own well-being tells us. When the economy is healthy, we are a hopeful people. When the economy falters, presages of doom are never far off. It’s mythic thinking. Through statistics and analysis we have substituted an abstraction that somehow is speaking eloquently about every aspect of our national and political and personal lives."

Akhtar and Moyers talk about this out loud--this assumption that is so basic that it's just accepted as "reality," as if nothing else ever existed.  To say this stuff is like fish defining water.  It's the reality we swim in, without questioning it anymore.

Moyers quotes lines from the play and Akhtar repeats some of them in explaining the premise:

"Those oppositions go to the heart of a money-obsessed culture: Upgrade your place in line or your prison for a fee. Rent out your womb to carry someone else’s child. Buy a stranger’s life insurance policy and wait for them to die. What she’s suggesting is that the entire compass of human existence is now defined by the imperative to monetize every possible interaction. This is what the system has created; it’s created this aberration where everyone is looking to benefit in a financial way off of every transaction they are having with everyone else. This is the ideal. And then people wonder why don’t we have a society anymore. Why is there no sense of mutual well-being? Because we are pitted against each other like merchants."

Akhtar defines in stark terms what this means for people in the prime of their working lives:

If you are a person of endowment confronted with fears about how to make your way in the world, Bill, there are really not enough opportunities for you to exhibit your excellence and secure your future. So you make the choice that puts you into the system. The system is the thing redistributing wealth. When you are in the system, the system works one way. It does not work two ways; it does not work five ways. It works one way. And working that way, with maybe a flavor of compassion if you want, or a flavor of ruthlessness if you want, depending upon your personality — that’s what’s going to ensure your success."

He talks about the scary implications for the future, as the ways to earn incomes shrink through technology, and capitalism eats the world.  There's more and you can read it, at least for awhile (I'm not sure what all will be eventually archived, but that's the ultimate fate of this site.)  But if for nothing else, the interview is classic for this one insight about why people who don't get wealthy support this culture, what benefit do they expect to get?

"What could be that benefit? And again the answer hit me: The lowest price. Offering people the lowest price has become the new promise, the new covenant, socially. Once that was usually offered to a member of society as a citizen: You have the right to representation, to certain social goods. No longer. What you have the right to now is the lowest price. So you see the rise of Amazon as the corporate centerpiece of contemporary life, because it’s servicing the only system that any longer makes sense: a system of customers. We have all been transformed, fundamentally, from citizens into customers."

Could this be the defining statement of this era?  Once again, Moyers is on to something.  We're really going to miss him, even when we don't realize it.  In fact, especially then.