cartoon by David Sipress from (of course) the New Yorker
I don’t read much ‘news’ anymore. I read articles and books that promise new knowledge, insight, ideas or perspectives on the huge energy, economic and ecological challenges facing us now, as our civilization accelerates into collapse. I read articles and books that offer practical actions that go beyond protesting and signing petitions. They’re pretty rare these days, and seem to be getting rarer.
I continue to skim the headlines of the NYT every day, and pick from them the articles and op eds (perhaps one every couple of days) that would seem to meet the above criteria. And I read the New Yorker every week, focused on the lead editorial, James Surowiecki’s column when he’s in good form, and an average of one in-depth report each week (some of them are small-book length), though the quality of the reporting is variable and the trend is discouraging. And of course I read the cartoons.
The alt-media resources I read mainly for local news (the Tyee, Vancouver Observer and Vancouver Media Co-op mostly), to keep abreast of recent corporate and government atrocities and the utter inability of our political system to deal with or even acknowledge them. There’s an election for a new Provincial Government next week, but in our FPTP system my vote is wasted, since the outcome in my constituency is already certain. I will keep alive my 43-year-long streak of always voting, and of never having my candidate even come close to winning. I’m confident that the new government (the NDP is expected to win by a wide margin), which purports to be pro-labour and light-green, will change essentially nothing, as they did(n’t) last time they were elected. I keep my expectations low.
Lately I’ve found myself rushing through the NYT and the New Yorker as quickly as possible, and I wasn’t sure why until this past week. I’m used to this with the dismal and unactionable articles in the ‘alternative’ press, and now only subscribe to indymedia aggregators, and race through their headlines, out of habit, just hoping to find something non-whiny or actionable. But my Links of the Month still often contain links to intriguing articles in these two publications, so I was puzzled by my impatience at wading through them.
The first clue was when I realized the NYT was, at the same time it was including articles and op eds about the inevitability of disastrous climate change, constantly trumpeting the need for ‘economic recovery’ and ‘new sustained growth’. The paper, I guess in the interest of keeping a broad swath of readers happy, as well as their advertisers, seems content to include articles with totally irreconcilable worldviews and contradictory messages and ideas, often on the same page. And this cognitive dissonance is not confined to the unreal writings of their three token conservative op ed writers (Brooks, Douthat and Friedman), which I never read.
What does it do to your brain when you read one of Paul Krugman’s pro-growth exhortations, and then flip the page and read that that growth is precisely what is precipitating the destruction of the natural environment, the critical exhaustion of natural resources, the obscene and ever-widening chasm between rich and poor, the spiral of unrepayable debt (financial, social and ecological) we are loading onto our children’s shoulders, the desperate economic state and ecological exhaustion of most ‘third world’ nations, the stretching of our economy to a horrific and inevitable breaking point, and the disastrous and accelerating emission of carbon into our atmosphere? Yet the reader of the NYT is left with no choice but to wonder if they are (or the NYT is) missing something really, really important here. It’s like the right wingnuts who are somehow able to reconcile support for the Patriot Act with opposition to background checks for people buying assault rifles. It truly boggles the mind.
My guess is that most of the editorial staff of the NYT are still in denial about the inevitable collapse of our energy, economic and ecological systems, and hence our civilization culture. A few have probably read the books and articles of ‘collapsnik’ writers and acknowledged that they might just be right (but hope they’re not), but while these few enable some of the reportage of collapse to get into the pages of the NYT, none of them is prepared (or, most likely, allowed) to point out the total cognitive dissonance between these reports and rest of the reporting in the newspaper. What would it take for a publication like the NYT to report that we’re fucked, and explain every day why that is? It would render almost everything else that appears in the paper trivial. So they just go on obliviously, I suppose hoping that no one will notice and call them on it, at least until it’s staring them in the face and the advertisers have all gone south.
This week’s New Yorker contains two articles that evidence the same kind of cognitive dissonance. The first is The Deportation Machine (full article, alas, is behind their paywall — here’s a precis), by William Finnegan, which describes the almost incredible ordeal of a wrongfully deported man (a life-long but dysfunctional US citizen with cognitive disorders who’s been severely damaged by childhood trauma) and the massive machinery that systematically and horrifically abuses citizens and immigrants under the guise of homeland security, and how these abuses have become much larger in scale and more flagrant under Obama than they were under Bush. He describes a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that works hand in hand with a bloated and run-amok security apparatus that is desperately trying to justify its existence and a cynical fantastically profitable private prison corpocracy that feeds off fear, violence and the abuse of power. The US is now deporting a record 400,000 people every year, in an impersonal, dehumanizing, brutal, mechanistic mass process that would make any observer or student of history shudder. The reader’s reaction is inevitably: This is insane. This is evidence of a state in the advanced stages of self-destruction and collapse. We have to find a way to stop this, and other abuses, soon. The globally embarrassing, intractable Guantanamo situation, the failure (and vulnerability to unwinding) of even modest health care reform, the debacle of attempts to put a lid on epidemic gun violence, and the militarization of the police and brutal repression of non-violent protests such as Occupy (all subjects covered in the New Yorker in the past couple of years), are all chapters in the same story, the story of a nation that has lost its reason and lost control of its agents of authority.
Yet a few pages on in the same New Yorker edition is a George Packer article called Don’t Look Down (also behind their paywall), ostensibly about reportage of the current economic turndown versus reporting of the 1930s Great Depression. The article is all over the place, very briefly reviewing more than a dozen books from the 1930s and a similar number from the current ‘recession’. There seem to be two theses: (1) That it’s nowhere as bad as it was in the 1930s, and isn’t likely to ever be; and (2) That the reason there have been so few protests or mass movements this time around is that today there is “a lack of a vision of the future… and the moral and intellectual energy such a vision confers.” My response would be (1) Just wait a few years, and in the meantime read your colleague Finnegan’s article to see how dissent and desperate poverty are likely to be handled by your country’s enforcers of law and order; and (2) If the Occupy mission of ending abusive corporate personhood, and ending the obscene disparity of wealth and power that is killing the economy and the planet, isn’t a vision, what is?
But I read on, and finally got a sense of Packer’s real worldview of the society that Finnegan’s article exposes, as Packer ridicules Chris Hedges’ Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, supposedly for its “inflated prose”, but mostly because Hedges dares to talk about what underlies the desperation, the fear, the bewilderment, the lack of direction or purpose, the sense of hopelessness, the anomie that pervades modern American life. Here are two passes from Hedges that Packer picks out for special scorn, dismissing Hedges as someone who “can’t describe a dilapidated house without pronouncing damnation on the corporate state.”:
Those who carry out this pillage [mountaintop removal] probably believe they can outrun their own destructiveness. They think that their wealth, privilege, and gated communities will save them. Or maybe they do not think about the future at all. But the death they have unleashed, the relentless contamination of air, soil, and water, the physical collapse of communities, and the eventual exhaustion of coal and fossil fuels themselves, will not spare them. They, too, will succumb to the poisoning of nature; the climate dislocations and freak weather caused by global warming; the spread of new, deadly viruses; and the food riots and huge migrations that will begin as the desperate flee from flooded or drought-stricken pockets of the earth. The steady plundering of the natural world, the failure to heed the warning signs of the planet, will teach us a lesson about the danger of hubris. The health of the land and the purity of water is the final measurement of whether any society is sustainable. “A culture,” the poet W.H. Auden observed, “is no better than its woods.”
What would cause a New Yorker reporter to ridicule such writing? I think it’s a fear of acknowledging the cognitive dissonance that allows the New Yorker to publish exposes like Finnegan’s sandwiched between greenwashing ads for Shell and Chevron. Here’s the second passage from Days of Destruction that Packer mocks, after setting it up this way: “Hedges takes [Occupy] for the first tremors of a revolutionary uprising against the long history of corporate and state atrocities described in his book. He ends with a dramatization of his arrest at a protest in front of the Goldman Sachs building…”:
To be intelligent, as many are at least in a narrow, analytical way, is morally neutral. These respectable citizens are inculcated in their elitist enclaves with “values” and “norms,” including pious acts of charity used to justify their privilege, and a belief in the innate goodness of American power. They are trained to pay deference to systems of authority. They are taught to believe in their own goodness, unable to see or comprehend—and are perhaps indifferent to—the cruelty inflicted on others by the exclusive systems they serve. And as norms mutate and change, as the world is steadily transformed by corporate forces into one of a small cabal of predators and a vast herd of human prey, these elites seamlessly replace one set of “values” with another. These elites obey the rules. They make the system work. And they are rewarded for this. In return, they do not question.
Those who resist—the doubters, outcasts, renegades, skeptics and rebels—rarely come from the elite. They ask different questions. They seek something else—a life of meaning. They have grasped Immanuel Kant’s dictum, “If justice perishes, human life on Earth has lost its meaning.” And in their search they come to the conclusion that, as Socrates said, it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. This conclusion is rational, yet cannot be rationally defended. It makes a leap into the moral, which is beyond rational thought. It refuses to place a monetary value on human life. It acknowledges human life, indeed all life, as sacred. And this is why, as Arendt points out, the only morally reliable people when the chips are down are not those who say “this is wrong,” or “this should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.”
There are streaks in my lungs, traces of the tuberculosis that I picked up around hundreds of dying Sudanese during the famine I covered as a foreign correspondent. I was strong and privileged and fought off the disease. They were not and did not. The bodies, most of them children, were dumped into hastily dug mass graves. The scars I carry within me are the whispers of these dead. They are the faint marks of those who never had a chance to become men or women, to fall in love and have children of their own. I carried these scars to the doors of Goldman Sachs. I had returned to living. Those whose last breaths had marked my lungs had not. I placed myself at the feet of these commodity traders to call for justice because the dead, and those who are dying in slums and refugee camps across the planet, could not make this journey. I see their faces. They haunt me in the day and come to me in the dark. They force me to remember. They make me choose sides.
In order to justify writing this off as “inflated prose”, Packer has to dismiss the entire Occupy movement with two sentences: “But Occupy turned out to be a moment of its time — a cri de coeur, stylish, media-distracted, and… not so hardly wounded as easily killed… [w]ithout an idea of the future that’s genuinely shared by large numbers of people, a real and lasting solution to the conditions described in these books.”
It’s hard to imagine how Packer, if he indeed spent any time at Occupy at all, or had researched the ongoing work that Occupy is doing fighting against foreclosures and helping hurricane victims (far more effectively than the state did, and yes I appreciate the irony that this link is from the NYT), or had read any of the cogent analyses of what Occupy did and is now moving to do, could say anything so outrageous. Unless it was to cover his own outrage, his own unease at having someone else draw the sensible, terrible conclusions that the New Yorker’s dystopian portraits of a country in collapse lead you to. While the New Yorker itself draws back, afraid of being too radical, too dark, of scaring off its complacent and respectable readers and rich corporatist advertisers. The cognitive dissonance is jarring.
I still read them, the New Yorker and the NYT. Now that I understand what they can add (some rare and often penetrating investigative reporting in the New Yorker, and occasionally brilliant ‘guest editorial’ writing in the NYT), and what they can’t, or won’t add (a stark and unvarnished acknowledgement of what it really means), it’s less troubling to have to turn from their work to the work of the ‘collapsniks’ who have moved past that denial and fear, and the absurd demand for “real and lasting solutions”, to provide the terrible knowledge of what has begun, and what is inevitably to come, and what we must do now to prepare for it.