Western Culture Collapses
U.S. Leaders Express Profound Confusion
by Turk Studzel
Could it be that the pseudo-election of George "Shrub" Bush Jr. and the 2001 World Trade Center disaster are millennial omens that we are entering an era of suicidal stupidity in the history of the human species? Where the greed and moronic impulses that have long beset our kind now find easy fulfillment through technology eager to pander to our most infantile desires? We entertain now the possibility that the Bush presidency is prophetic of a larger movement towards Cultural Cretinism, and that those twenty hijackers armed only with box-cutters were spectres of a paradoxical de-volution coming to the fore in the world. So much high-technology, so much information, so little common sense -- as novelist Don DeLillo asks in his 1985 White Noise, "Were people this stupid before TV?"
Terrorism shares with the advertising industry a desire to have the highest Nielsen-ratings and largest market-share within a gullible, confused, and easily-led "target" audience. Both terrorist and ad-man appeal to the lowest common denominators in the human psyche -- fear, stupidity, ignorance, greed -- and both depend intimately on the mass-media to spread their simple-minded messages. Last year, the congruence in modern life between terror and marketing found striking expression when American leaders told the public that shopping was the best way to fight back. If we would all just flock to the malls and empty our pockets, Al Qaeda would soon be defeated. Is there not a profound pathos in the idea of shopping as a national battle cry?
During the months following the September 11 attacks, in one of the crassest and most blatantly opportunistic TV ad campaigns in recent memory, Chrysler-Jeep made a direct equation between, (1) the heroism of the fallen firefighters and police, (2) the freedom symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, and (3) the consumption of its so-called Sports-Utility-Vehicles. To the pop-tune "Heroes," a Jeep Cherokee drove up the side of said Statue, utterly cheapening the love, compassion, and bravery displayed on that terrible day. But today such trivialization has become second-nature -- as Ivan Illich writes, "Money devalues what it can't understand.” Is naked self-interest (i.e., greed) an adequate ethical foundation for a culture?
Are we beginning to notice that the old compensatory mechanisms of capitalist society -- those institutions which gave people’s lives meaning beyond work and the marketplace -- are no longer quite functional? That the Family, the Legal System, Politics, Religion, Education, Art, perhaps even Sex and Romance no longer serve to offset the depredations of the almighty Dollar, but have been streamlined and automated to meet the economic bottom-line? A major task of the 20th century was to translate most aspects of social existence into the machinery of profitable marketing, and today this project reaches its reductio ad absurdam in the emergence of “statistical reality” – that is, the calculation of all values -- ethical, emotional, social -- by the statistical average.
What do the Enron Scandal, George Bush (Jr. and Sr.), Dick Cheney, global warming, the perpetual Mideast Crisis, the booming market for SUVs, and the World Trade Center attacks have in common? Any schoolchild might guess the answer: Oil. Those now in power in the U.S. seem hell-bent on dragging the world into yet another full-scale war, and like the Gulf War of a decade ago, it will be fought over petrodollar profits. Again, marketing and violence meet in the paramilitary SUV, that suburbanized Humvee for the mass consumer. Echoing the worldwide arms-buildup, the arms-race on American streets is a sign that we’ve entered an oil-driven State of Pure Ware – the militarization of everyday life. The violence implicit in these behemoth machines radiates outwards in waves across the planet, melting the glaciers and permafrost in Alaska, promising war in the Persian Gulf, waves of sludge on beaches around the world, the coagulated blood of greed.
One year after the grim events of last September, as we remember the 3,000 lives lost on that day, the sad fact is that many Americans just do not get it. "What goes around comes around," as the elementary-school proverb so succinctly puts it, and what many Americans don't seem to get is that there's a price to be paid somewhere for this nation's gluttony. The statistics are unequivocal -- 5% of the planet's population consumes one-third of the planet's oil, propping up brutal and corrupt regimes all over the globe to maintain the profits from this immense flow. Should we be surprised that such a conspicuous display of imperial wealth and power breeds hatred and human time-bombs? Just what sort of desperation drives teenagers to strap explosives across their chests, or young men to steer airplanes into skyscrapers?
Remember the Shah of Iran, installed by the CIA to protect U.S. oil assets in the Mideast, rumored to have fed political prisoners to the lions he kept in the palace dungeon? Saddam Hussein, gassing his own Kurdish citizens while financially supported by the U.S. in his war against a newly demonized Iran…the 1991 Gulf War against the same Hussein to liberate the Kuwaiti oilfields for the Kuwaiti royal family and maintain a flow of cheap oil…Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban friends, also on the U.S. payroll for those years they fought the collapsing Soviet Union…This list of petrodollar-inspired misconduct could go on, and perhaps will, as “Shrub” Bush gears up for another war for oil…
Ecology is usually a word we use in connection with the idea of a "Nature" somehow separate from and "below" us, as when we talk about ecological crises disrupting the habitats and life-ways of various animal species. But there is an ecology in human life-ways too -- an ecology of culture, of ideas -- and like many species in the "animal kingdom," we too are suffering from an ecological crisis. In essence, the scientific principle is simple: "What goes around comes around." And if what goes around is ugly and deadly, what comes back may be even uglier and deadlier. Again: Is naked greed and egoism an adequate foundation for a culture or civilization?
In This Issue:
The Church of Stop Shopping
K* & Ando Arike:
Download PDF of Entire Print Issue
With work by:
Bill Not Bored
Reverend Billy’s Peace Journals
The following is excerpted from the Reverend’s forthcoming book, “What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store?” to be published by The New Press in March of 2003. More information is available on http://www.revbilly.com/
1. WHAT IS THE INVITATION TO PEACE?
In the weeks before the first anniversary of September 11th, Peace activists have an unusual mix of exhaustion and hope. The lack of fight sits in us from the Bush boys’ insistence that we’re still back in the bloodiest century, in thrall to their schticky Western which promises to extend the bloodletting until some final extinction. We’re boggled that it’s being done so obviously and yet so easily. Our hope? It is there too – but of course it feels less designed. The hope is something we give each other, to keep marching. But if Peace activists look out from this anniversary ritual, not at each other but out into the eyes of the world, then our hope is, as Tennessee Williams said in “Night of the Iguana,” --- on the fantastic level.
We feel like we’ll have to stop a bomb in mid-air.
“Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from a airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those bombers flew up backwards to join the formation.
“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote area. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.”
Where is Kurt Vonnegut when we need him? He knew how to count backwards from ten to zero and then wake us up. Last fall, in our “Stop Bombing” performances, Kevin, the 9 year-old son of one of our volunteers, Ms. Rachel Oyola, came up on stage for our “Reading of the Word” and read this section of Billy Pilgrim’s adventures in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Kevin gave us a jolt of hope from his reading. It was the words themselves that were powerful, certainly -- he took a big breath at the end of each sentence, as if that forced the bomb materials farther backward – but more than this it was his youth and the newness of the words as he carefully pronounced each syllable with that unpracticed bravery. To call it “good theater” gives theater way too much credit.
2. SITTING IN A CIRCLE, THINKING UP PEACE
The 1st anniversary event of the tragedy of September 11th is looming. It will have happened before you read this, and I will read this too, and look back. The event, essentially a long series of memorials but called here a “funeral” in an attempt to demystify it – will have the kind of media production that the Time Square Millennium had, with rose petals and tears, not confetti.
This chapter is a planning document. But at this point the planning is mostly a question. What will we do? How would a message be sent out from here that there are people seeking peace in New York and in the states? We will ask for advice from those who have made vivid meaning before their pages or the stages were pushed into official silence. So we ask the very best to come into our Peace Room. Kurt Vonnegut, Mahatma Gandhi, Luis Bunuel, Jesus Christ and his producer Mary Magdalen, Chief Joseph, Dr. King, Granny D, Pete Seeger, Andy Kaufman and his mentor Crazy Horse, and lots of people who are famous to me, Rachel and Kevin Oroyo, Martha Wilson, William Etundi, Stephen Duncombe, Savitri and Basem and the Church of Stop Shopping friends who sat with us in a circle and tried to create the right drama for the day that this funeral in the great pit would go out to the world.
All over the city the Peace groups are meeting, slogan after catchy phrase rising and falling as they try to re-interest the public. What is the right rallying cry? Strategies for symbolic actions are accepted and rejected and become a blur as the meetings go on into the night. At the Church, we have wondered if the church name itself should be changed. It had been “The Church of Radical Forgiveness” in September and October of last fall, then shifted after October 7th to “The Church of Stop Bombing.” In the meantime the consumerization of war, especially its very precise service to the oil and weapons industries, made the Anti-Consumerist and the Peace movements evolve into one and the same thing. So we stuck with our old title, “The Church of Stop Shopping.” As for our headline at the top of the press release: First -- look at the best ones through the history of this struggle for Peace.
AN EYE FOR AN EYE MAKES THE WORLD GO BLIND!
-- Mahatma Gandhi
LET THE DEAD BURY THE DEAD
-- Jesus Christ
A scathing comment on George Bush and Rudy Giuliani’s role as funeral directors for the 11th.
-- Chief Joseph
Amen! In an honest man’s mouth, forever is forever. And that means he wouldn’t be fighting today.
“Our Grief…” from the Artist Network Refuse and Resist. and “Not In Our Name,” which is a chant, a placard and the name of a Peace group all at once – these phrases have been the most useful phrases for the Peace movement since October of ’01, and they remain so true now. But, our grief has been amortized over time, into a sort of mist. It’s been a year now of this bellicosity, and they went ahead and did go to war – in our name. Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney and their WASP version of “The Sopranos” – they encourage not just the bombing of Afghanistan but client-state violence in Palestine and Kashmir and Indonesia and Columbia. So many more have died than did that morning a year ago.
3. TODAY IS AUGUST 23, 2002, AND
I’m in New Mexico writing this, in the San Cristobal Mountains north of Taos, and this chapter will be impacted by the natives, the Taos Pueblo Indians. Writing here in this place, I can’t help but notice how these “little wars,” which really started with the Indian Wars but have been modernized since Ronald Reagan in Panama, Grenada, Libya, etc. – how they are against people of color, with a demonized leader who appears in endless unflattering newsreels on CNN, whether Noriega or Kaddafi or Saddam. Milosevich is the exception that proves the rule. The endless wars of America have followed the same plot, and so often drive the commercial information industry, 24-hour news, movies and books, video games, “content.” These wars are simple profit centers now, very streamlined, the President doesn’t even have to declare them. They are products arranged by the largest company, the USA, which also offers the “Democracy” aura to make the sales go forward.
The little-war-against-people-of-color is so regularized now, with Osama’s action thriller a new scale of blockbuster, it can immobilize activists with a feeling of hopelessness. The normalization of this scenario may leave the government and big bucks cronies somehow more vulnerable. Although they have learned 57 varieties of censorship since Viet Nam, I believe that they are vulnerable to Peace strategies from their smugness. For instance, George Bush and his violent mentors don’t really believe that there is an independent media. They believe that all information is commercial. But that is only one chink in the Yale cheerleader’s armor.
….2 and a half weeks to go, a sketch of the itinerary…
During the daylight hours of 9/11/02 we will witness the nation goose-stepping at Ground Zero, and our countering of that will take place in the political centers of downtown. We will stage lie-ins, speeches, sing-alongs, vigils and the rest at, especially, Union Square, at 14th and Broadway, a place that has focused so much of the Peace activity in the fall of ’01. What our particular affinity group does in these daylight hours is still undergoing debate in that circle that thinks up Peace.
That is the bare stage and the frame of time. As we look across these two weeks at Wednesday the 11th of September, 2002, we feel the lives that are at risk. The thing about Peace work is that every once in a while you feel the immediacy of it sweep through you. People are dying. It isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a life. They glance at the sky in those villages that have been called Evil, and we are scrambling to find the real stage. We’re trying to get the bullhorn to work. Damn it needs batteries! What will we do?
The big stage is Ground Zero, the towers burning and falling a thousand times that day. That hypnotic, traumatizing lake of fire. The President and Giuliani then stand where the towers stood, they replace the 3,000 people that had brilliantly lit that stage for them, and they begin their weirdly gleeful performance, in which they threaten thousands more.
That is a difficult bomb to reverse. But I’m glad we have to face this conundrum, because it is not different than what we are facing on less dramatic days of the year. In fact it demonstrates the impossible landscape of Peace in this time. How do we make a statement in 2002? What is the membrane we must break?
First of all, what to say?
Whenever 9/11 is in the room, and it is now, there is this impulse to be “realistic.” Be soft-edged; make accommodations for the mass sorrow. My fellows Savitri and Basem are going ‘round and ‘round with me on the question – what would be our bold-type language, the title of this thing? And very quickly, with 9/11, that question morphs into a misguided attempt to be courteous. How direct can we be? Very soon, we sit there facing the riddle that’s been baffling us all year. Must our open opposition to the Bush idea of “wartime” become somehow disrespectful of the 3,000 martyrs? The riddle hasn’t been solved as of this writing in late August. They’ve got us checkmated. It’s as if George retro-actively recruited the dead to sing in a choral extravaganza called “Up With Big Oil.”
9/11 has made us afraid in so many ways. But my partners in The Church of Stop Shopping have an easier bravery. They say, “No, we have to wake up from this year-long hypnosis; and that means a harder hit.”
4. OBSERVATIONS ON THE STRANGE STAGE THAT FACES US
We talk on into the night, wrestling with the distance that we feel from Peace in this country. There is one fact that leaves us alone. There are no visible political leaders who espouse Peace: Dr. King and John Lennon and Malcolm are assassinated, as Peace leaders so often are. Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day are fading with their great words. We simply have no Peace leaders in the world at this time. The argument for Peace isn’t even offered as an alternative or balancing idea on talk shows.
The absence of leaders who speak of Peace is only one facet of this lack of international and national support. In this country we don’t seem to encourage Peace as a goal in the imagination in our children. It has been allowed to become a weird word, marginalized and faintly embarrassing. In the United States and the surrounding culture that we imperially dominate, Peace is seldom considered an over-arching solid idea. We are building and selling weapons at record rates, movies and high schools and psyche wards are charged with the idea of war as never before. What we will call “the 9/11 hypnosis” depends on the absence of authority given to Peace.
This is what has happened from our habit of staying nice and apolitical, the American way going back across our history. As my church circle goes back and forth with possible slogans, do we really need to nuance things -- be realistic -- a year later, after all the violence from American policies, to spare the feelings of the WTC survivors and their friends? Yes, in fact -- that colors our message mightily. But it is the weakness of Peace itself as a worthwhile tradition that allows this nonsensical linkage to their possibly upset feelings. Is being for Peace supporting Osama bin Laden? This is all a part of this quickly mutating violence that we must out-think, out-vision.
LET US ESCAPE FROM THIS FUNERAL!!
A chant we considered. But – is it ham-fisted? Well we’re imprisoned in Ground Zero in a sense, and we will want to escape the part of it that exports funerals everywhere else.
But we feel this too -- we have to respect the dead. It’s just that somehow war-makers have dictated what form that respect must take. We have to be polite/patriotic or it just comes off as whiny lefty screaming. We would be like the children they couldn’t keep quiet at the funeral which the rest of the world is attending, including a joint session of Congress, Abraham Lincoln and Bruce Springsteen.
What is shutting us up? What’s the cause of this massive hushing? John Ashcroft hasn’t got me bugged yet. Why the quiet? Why not something like this
WE BURY THE HEROES EVERY DAY
WE INVADE BAGHDAD EVERY NIGHT
PEACE NOW! NOT MIGHT MAKES RIGHT!
5. THE PRESS, TALKING ABOUT PEACE TO THE WORLD
Peace isn’t even reported when there ARE leaders articulating it, or when there ARE those who can talk about Peace as a right-thinking tradition. Writers in public venues, print or electronic media, have demoted Peace methodically.
Our evening at St. Mark’s in the Bowery is the part of our planning that seems to make sense right away. Giving the Peace workers a place to gather – New Yorkers Say No To War, The War Resister’s League, Artist Network Refuse and Resist, Not In Our Name, Revolutionary Alliance of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), The Living Theater, Women In Black, I. E. the groups that either invented themselves or became emboldened between 9/11 and the beginning of the bombing campaign against Afghanistan on 10/7, gives impetus to our hope to return to straightforward reporting about the Peace movement. Perhaps the presence of all of them in the same room will make a difference, in the sense that some critical mass will be reached and noted by the illustrious members of the 4th Estate.
This gathering is like a couple others on 9/11, notably Michael Moore’s presence in Washington Square Park at the conclusion of the 24-hour Peace vigil – we are daring the commercial media to report that there is a Peace movement at all. Our own independent media, and European and international press, of course, will. We’ll have Channel 2 Paris and BBC and Channel 5 Milan and El Faolo from Brazil and Aussie documentarists and Toronto reporters and Pacifica, WBAI and the Independent Media Centers. There are media venues in this country where announcers say the word Peace and it still has the force of its meaning. Presumably they have listeners who have a feeling of hope from the great word.
Is it so far-fetched the American commercial press would come to the point where they would admit the existence of a Peace movement? Will they cling desperately to their suspicious polls that declare the essential violence of the average American? In New York we’ve had 10,000 strong marching for Peace with the Times refusing to mention it, but still they must have seen us. The New Yorker has also featured its opinion that there is no Peace movement in this country, also within days of thunderous marches. Not just within days, but within inches. The great marches of fall 2001 usually started at Union Square en route to Times Square, and the Times and Conde Nast buildings were surrounding by a sea of Peace-ful (and very loud) citizens.
Perhaps now at this first anniversary the commercial press would finally comment on the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld hope that their version of Wag The Dog will be enshrined as American foreign policy. At some point doesn’t their idea of patriotism become just too damn comic? I f Osama disappears, well there’s Saddam, Arafat, and a cast of “dirty bombers,” “20th hijackers,” John Walker LIndh and various anthrax Frankensteins… and – can you get North Korea on the phone? Would they be Evil again?! If only we could meld child porn and Al Queda. Then we could have a sting on every news cycle.
In recent months, as their accounting begins to show, Bush’s boys aim their lawyers, lay pipeline and throw Evil-doers onto the front page with increasing desperation. The Axis of Evil has become -- pick up the usual suspects but keep picking up someone, in fact pick up anybody who had a bad shave on their Passport. Bush must be desperately glad that 9/11/02 arrived when it did. Ground Zero returned, just in time, to lift him up toward that money shot with the families and the flag.
HOW MANY PEOPLE WILL DIE WHILE YOU WAG THE DOG?
Yes, Ground Zero is the stage. Do Peace advocates have a place with that force in it? Ground Zero is the stage, and how can Peace be poured over that lake of fire? Well, we’re in the streets, and parks, and a church. A famous old church, but… it’s not Ground Zero. How do we get into that bomb crater six blocks wide, when it’s ringed with gun salutes and tears? How to question authority in such a setting? The towers are like two great erasers – they smear clean our words of Peace. How do we create a turning-point phrase? Could even Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King send a memorable phrase out to the watching world? What is the nature of this censorship?
6. THE SILENCER
The following is an excerpt from a sermon written and performed as a part of the “Church of Stop Bombing” series, in November of 2001, not long after the bombing of Afghanistan began. My co-stars were a remarkable conga-and-horns afro-carribbean band from Hunt’s Point Bronx, called The Welfare Poets, an asian-american duo Dementia and Hypno (you might call these two “breakdancers for Peace”), and on this particular night, The Living Theater:
Children of Peace, let’s think about what happens to language in a war. There is a feeling some of us feel, that language is dulled, memory fades – there are varieties of censorship taking place right now that we feel but we don’t know. Let’s go back to a violent moment of this current war. Let’s ask ourselves, what happens when a bomb falls?
When a bomb falls there, a bomb falls here.
Two mothers are talking in a Pushtan village square and a bomb issues from the twilight sky. The airplane has flown non-stop from Missouri, and it cannot be seen. The decision to drop the bomb here is made at an office desk which is floating in a 6,000 ton war theater complex in the ocean to the south.
Two mothers are having a conversation at sundown because this has been the time of day when the Americans have not been bombing. They are discussing the logistics of food, the closing of borders, the sleeplessness of children.
When a bomb explodes there, a bomb explodes here.
We wonder -- what has happened to the American language? Where is its impact? Have jingoistic politicians and ad departments finely overwhelmed the common sense of talk? Has the surplus of over-trained actors in commercial messages finely made an honest emotion something we can’t get across? What has happened?
We drop bombs to destroy original language. A bomb’s language is as dumb and meaningless as the great belch of a murderer, and the conversation it is a part of only makes sense to other murderers with other belches, that is, other organizations with explosives. The delicate singing language of the two Pushtan mothers is made this dumb. The bomb fell at the verb of one sentence and the subject of that sentence is still in the air, hovering above the bomb crater. The subject of that sentence is still looking for its object, the completion of its meaning, in the compassion that mothers have regardless of the violence the fathers. But the verb of the sentence is a hole in the ground 30 feet across. A piece of bright cloth floats down like the piece of a lost word.
This invisible muteness comes into our lives over here, where we pay taxes to make the jet, the computer and the bomb. We don’t know how the bomb comes back to us, we didn’t think that it would. We don’t see the bomb breaking our sentences until a surveillance camera tells us to shut up. We don’t feel the explosive impact until the cop tells us to “move along,” or our website is black-holed, or a network anchor can’t say the word Peace. Our original language is encouraged when we are apolitical, but an exercise in freedom becomes watched by recording devices, informers, security officials and distant computers.
America is powerful because we can create stunned silence anywhere in the world. We make whole landscapes dumb and quiet. We are powerful because we are then free to fill the silence with our own words. We move into that dumb silence with the second thing that comes down after the bomber. We move in with our replacement language. First of all, all the dumb silence between where the mothers stood and the computer on the carrier, everything in that gap is now filled with the terrifying word “Democracy.”
Back here in the states that glorious word grows tired in our mouths. If we say the word in a prayer or a shout that carries too much of its original freedom, we are stopped.
When Democracy falls there, Democracy falls here.
7. DEAR CIRCLE OF PEACENIKS
… August 24th, down to 18 days….
I realized that I kept looking for the stage in all the wrong places. I'm looking in the wrong country. Ground Zero isn't here. Most of the people didn't die in those towers. Ground Zero needs to be moved. It needs to be split. It's a question of seeing. The bombing of the two mothers, the reversing of the war footage by Billy Pilgrim. We must try to look into George Bush's eyes from the point of detonation, from the point of the consequences. Be at the killing and don't die, SEE. Outmaneuver the flying fire and the whistling metal out at the far edge of George Bush. See through that. Custer didn't expect Crazy Horse to appear on that ridge. He thought the ridge belonged to him. Bush expects the chants from the edge of his Ground Zero, but he has those miles of silence, huge dead-quiet shapes where there had been mothers, weddings, and great numbers of people, targets or not. He counts on that silence. That is where we must appear, looking into his eyes and speaking of Peace.
We must walk up to the two mothers and stand there with them. Introduce ourselves. Ask them their names. We must talk into the silence when the Roman Empire a la America begins its holding pattern with "Democracy," but can barely hold back the bankers, ad departments, and willowy blondes with products. We must say into the silence the mothers' names.
The lives of those women are very powerful. They are hard workers, and they can teach us to gather the flesh and burned cloth and shrapnel back into the bomb, and with their prayers and imagination, we will send the bomb up away from their twilight talk. The bomb will sing straight up into the blue where the stealth jet will fly supersonically backwards back to that air force base in Missouri, where it will land backwards, amazing technological feat, as family and friends walk backward out of their cars and wave hello. Peace.
We will build a platform out of common loading pallets, painted white. In the center of the small stage will be a scroll with the names of those who died in the towers and those who died in Afghanistan in the weeks and months that followed. People will step upon onto the platform and read one name of a person from WTC and the name of a person from Afghanistan. Then they will I identify themselves, say their own name. Then they will say “I pledge not to forget these people and I will work for Peace in this world.”
… the two mothers…
Their names are Rahna and Sayeda. They lived in Kunduz. We will not forget them and we will work for Peace this world.
The Williamsburg Incident
Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir on the corner of Bedford Avenue and South 5th Street last summer, protesting the rumored opening of a Starbucks in Williamsburg. Ten minutes into his sermon, the police arrived, giving the Reverend fifteen minutes to finish speaking – that or be arrested. Tensions mounted as cries of “Kill the Pigs!” issued from the gathered multitudes, but the Choir’s joyful rendition of “Just Stop Shopping” both calmed and uplifted our spirits…
photos: Ando Arike
The Intrusion of Private Life
upon the Public Domain
Something is Buzzing in My Pocket
(but I’m not that happy to see you)
By Roman Stoad
It was another gloomy night—rain, bad TV. I was surfing one of those Internet dating services. The ad read “Good looking woman of indeterminate age, into the arts and baseball games, seeks lethargic guy for aimless evenings of idle conversation. No cell phone monkeys need apply.” I was intrigued, partly because the lack of a cell-phone habit is also one of my own personal dating priorities. Of course, that eliminates 95% percent of eligible women, the remainder falling prey to the “must read” clause. But it was really the monkey reference that caught my eye. It seemed to suggest a certain de-evolution of human mannerisms demanded by the new technology. We have all seen those documentaries on ape intelligence in which a chimpanzee or a gorilla sits dumbfoundedly pecking away at some device the scientist has given him.
Still I didn’t quite have the visual I needed for the conceptual miscegenation, until one day I walked into my local laptop, reggae, and khaki coffee shop and had me a vision, kind of like Piers Plowman but without the alliteration. I saw in my mind a futuristic Planet of the Apes scenario (a la Thomas Pynchon). Not that the cafe was covered with Charlton Heston posters, or even Mark Wahlberg. But everybody was gazing moronically (or was it mournfully?) at the lit screens of their cell phones searching for scraps of self-validation. It seemed like a lab of some sort, wherein the communication gods had given the race a new breed of toys. I was more than a little upset by the rhyme scheme my thoughts were forming, and so I moved forward in time to a more prosaic reference—that being postmodernism.
It was then those lines from The Crying of Lot 49 scrolled across the digital readout screen in my head, something about, “voices . . . searching ceaseless among the dial’s ten million possibilities for the magical Other who would reveal herself out of the roar of relays.” It was a mystical moment, and a tragic one. I reacted the only way I could. I felt lonely, and had the urge to light a cigarette. Then I remembered I’d quit smoking years before.
A friend of mine has an existential explanation in which cell phones have taken the place of cigarettes in our health-conscious world. I suppose it is possible. When I used to smoke, a lot of what fed my habit was a certain feeling of emptiness which I filled with the private ritual of lighting up. I could be standing around at a party or in a bustling railroad station—maybe I didn’t know anybody, but I had a cigarette and that was my friend. Now people have their little cell phones. Awkward types can immediately begin making calls at the least sign of social discomfort. Of course the film industry will have to adapt. Your contemporary neo-noir character no longer holds the match flame to his fag-end as a sign of alienation. He flips open his Nokia and gazes into the blue light of his soul.
So, I says, if that’s the case, if cell phones are the new cigarettes, what about the health issues, what about the threat of second-hand conversation? You can’t honk your car horn without getting a fine. You can’t even smoke in an outdoor baseball stadium. You can however light up your cell and disturb your neighbors anytime you want. Of course the fanatical vegetarian anti-nuke, anti-fur, anti-smoking types oddly enough don’t seem to care if they pollute someone else’s space with their frivolous egos.
But let me be the one to ask—is anyone looking into the prospect of brain damage due to second-hand cellphone chatter? The fact that every individual is now subjected to dozens of inane conversations every day cannot do a lot for the collective intelligence of the country. On top of that one is hearing only half of a conversation—there is, therefore, a disconnect in the perception of normal cause/effect relationships. No wonder the country has become more conservative. We’ve grown used to accepting only half of an argument, of seeing one-sidedness as an acceptable mode of deciphering events.
The exponential increase of pre-occupation is another problem. The population has learned to see this as something to aspire to—the more preoccupied you are the more important you are. However, though also advertised as a type of freedom, pre-occupation is actually a way of keeping a people ignorant of what is happening to them. The constant interruption of thought, augmented by the cell-phone phenomenon, facilitates the ability of the government to do whatever they want. Check it out: in the absence of public attention, corporate monopolies have flourished, people’s savings and investments have been robbed, we have gone to war; the country has entered a conservative paranoid slide, and the rich and poor are further apart than ever. Public concern about anything other than personal comfort, profit, and who’s meeting who for dinner, is at an all-time low. All the while people proudly yak away on their cells in the name of corporate-defined freedom. What would Braveheart think, disemboweled before the crowd of British subjects. (Sorry for the film reference, but there will be more to come.)
What’s the attraction? I couldn’t say. Maybe its about what the real estate agents have been saying for years: location, location, location. Indeed there are theories—that cell phones are part of a larger government sponsored program of surveillance, by which the population voluntarily announces its whereabouts and divulges private information on the airwaves. The italicized word is an understatement, because it seems to be with absolute glee that people decided to freely offer their privacy up to public scrutiny. And many of these are the same people who deplore the proliferation of surveillance cameras all over the city. Maybe they believe that the records of their calls and the accompanying FBI files will outlive them and are therefore a form of immortality.
But I’m not paranoid. There is another explanation, and that would be the general world evolution toward theater, which is accompanied by the individual’s evolution into character-status in the script of life. Shakespeare saw it coming four centuries ago. He himself no doubt had to deal with uppity actors, but it was a smaller percentage of the population. Now that everybody is an actor, everybody is important. Then again, perhaps the cell phone obsession is the predictable result of talk show culture. After all, the glut of talk shows on TV and radio has made people feel inadequate if they are not constantly exposing themselves to the public, testing the entertainment value of their most mundane moments. Even though there is nothing I would rather do than eavesdrop on personal conversations. I just don’t like being forced to. That’s my take on personal freedom.
But there’s more to this phenomenon than government conspiracy, or the absurd tolerance of any kind of annoyance in the name of a healthy stock market. I’m talking about the invasion of private life upon the public sphere. After all, doesn’t it make you uncomfortable to have to watch people making out, or urinating in public, or carrying on a lover’s quarrel at the theater? I for one do not really want to have bear witness to the private life of non-acquaintances. It’s usually a lot more boring than what you can watch on television.
Maybe humor is the answer. I was thinking of making a book about cell-phone “types” something like the parodies and social caricatures – for example, the drawings of Grandville -- which circulated in nineteenth-century Paris. But this would just be cell-phone people, twenty-first century.
1) The Mover and Shaker: This super important fellow struts about the room like a cock, taking and making his very important calls. These guys are always on their phones, doing big deals, arranging deliveries, complaining about incompetence, talking to JR. or Jimbo or whoever such people talk to with their exaggerated urgency.
2) The Cell-DeSade: This group could include the former but with a more sadistic bent. These sadists make the lives of everybody around them just a little more miserable. They take their business or bad sexual relations and make it your problem. They get a kick out of forcing people to listen, standing as close as they can while they blather away, watching you suffer. They are closely related to the following two species:
3) The Emotionalist: We’ve all seen the type who parades back and forth engaged in airing his personal laundry at a public volume. Fighting with his so called partner. They are closely related to the Cell-DeSade except that it’s masochism more than sadism that drives them, a need to whip themselves in public as if to prove to you that they have emotions and can suffer.
4) The Contra-Space Invader: These guys will get right in your face and make a call. Then they give you a look as if you’re not giving them the privacy our American constitution guarantees, as if you’re the one invading their space. Provoking a war of attitude.
5) The Yuppie Ball-Capped, Khaki-Short-Wearing Carroll Gardens Dog Walker: Related to the above by volume. Usually a woman, always with a head set—this gal is on the go. She can’t be a nanosecond removed from the network because just like her Virginia Slims ancestors in self-assertion, she’s new and she’s in control. You’ll also see her on buses and trains, talking much louder than she needs to. She’s the first one to whip out her phone when the subway comes out of the tunnel.
6) The Pseudo-Psycho: There are many species of this type, but the most prominent is the guy with the head-set walking down the street, seemingly talking to himself. Anybody who lived in New York in the 70s or early 80s is familiar with the profile. Except those mad people were talking to God. The Pseudo-Psycho has no such spiritual agenda and is more than likely just making his grocery list seem critical.
7) The Verizon Hippy Clone: This species is more virtual than real and yet they exist, mindlessly flashing what used to be called a peace sign but what is really the sign of pacification. And last but not least are:
8) The Cell-Phone Couples: These thoroughly modern lovers are now, or always were, completely bored with themselves. We’ve all seen them on the street, in cafes and bars, tuning each other out in preference to absent company. And what about cell phones dates. There’s another nail in your coffin of male/female communication failure.
This list could go on. Needless to say, I didn’t do this project. Firstly because it was too cynical and I’ve been told cynicism is out. Secondly because I can’t draw and such a project seems to require funny pictures. Thirdly because I thought the whole thing might work better as a Times Square peep show. The exhibitionist desires of the cell-phone animal are so prominent they probably don’t care about or need the money. But in today’s culture there probably are hundreds of pervs who would pay a quarter for a few minutes to gratify themselves by watching. it would be a symbiotic relationship.
But maybe the real point of cell phones is simple protection. Cell phones offer a shield against any actual experience or emotion. You can virtually walk (or talk) your way across the phantasmagoria of New York and not be aware of anything but the discussion you are having about where to eat dinner. The issue of displacement is also involved—the movement of presence to an abstract location beyond the physical. But the phenomenological ramifications of this are more than I wish to address right now.
Let’s look at a romantic example in which some of these problems are addressed: You’re about to tell the woman you love exactly how you feel. You’ve been preparing the speech for days. You’ve even read some “literature” to get ideas. The moment arrives. But she gets a call. “Hold the thought,” she says. She has to go out and pace the sidewalk for awhile talking to her “personal life-agent.” The moment deflates. The emotion is tainted. The time permanently stained. Displacement and protection combine and the possibilities inherent in interpersonal reactions are “bled” off into the endless relay switches of capitalist bred desire.
The amazing thing is how all this is so easily absorbed. There is absolutely no resistance. One would think young people would form protest groups, but they don’t. The anarchists are too busy crashing their skateboards into pregnant women. (I’ve actually seen this) while they chatter with their peeps. Down the street the super important Billtown boutique owner (a recycler and believer in Gay rights and feminism) drifts casually through a red light in the middle of an important call, causing another car to skid up onto the sidewalk traumatizing a child who could well have become the next Che Guevara for the oppressed American underclass.
Indeed, the amount of distraction only mounts as the decline of public ethics, coupled with the slow degeneration of the American mind causes a downward spiral in social behavior. In fact leisure-time, (when it was considered normal to be polite) has already been converted into business (when indifference is the order of the day). People act as if they were perpetually at some heavy-duty cocktail party, looking over each other’s shoulders for somebody more important to talk to. The cell in their pocket may provide the technological equivalent of walking away from someone in the middle of a conversation, but now you can blame it on financial anxiety and not social covetousness.
And what about the general deflation of ego? Yes Derrida and Lacan would have a ball with the psychoanalytic/Marxist ramifications of these devices. Id, super-ego, libido, and anima are all involved, as is the idea of the supplement that replaces (absents) reality. And what seems to increase on the basis of ego gratification actually serves to perpetuate the opposite—challenging the importance of ego. How many times, after all, will you let yourself be abandoned mid-sentence while your buddy or your date puts you on hold to take a call? This attack on self-esteem feeds back into the system. The offended person will eventually go out and get a cell of their own, if only for payback. Thus vengeance enters the equation as leisure time begins to look more like work and various dramatic tropes enter the marketplace in the simulation of theater.
It’s been a given for quite some time that we all eventually be reduced to low level managerial thralldom, over-worked blithering minor executives at what amounts to perpetual “meetings,” in the business of our lives. The participation in which somehow, has come to resemble our “value” as people. The truth is that now you can be at work all the time. You can be producing all the time. To hell with the 35 hr workweek. Liberal weeklies like the Village Voice of course condone any such behavior as fills their pockets with advertising revenue, and so why not promote the “freedom” side of the controversy as opposed to the “mind-control” or the “respect” issue. But hypocrisy is no stranger to these papers, condemning the exploitation of women on the front page, while on the back page displaying the sex ads that pay their bills. The old cliché that if “One takes money from the enemy, one is in fact the enemy” meets with nothing but smirks in this kind of distorted social/economic system.
Of course, my complaints are also already clichés. The young Billtown scenester knows this. Still, offended by the blatant attack on his values, he may well ball up his copy of the Williamsburg Observer in disgust. He knows his financial and emotional solvency depend upon constantly being in touch with all possible people at all times, as if the market, of which he is the prime evolutionary specimen, demanded a certain impersonal distraction, a kind of chicken-coop behavior which keeps the novelty flowing and the products coming on fast and thick in his roller-coaster hipster world. “Cynicism is dead,” he proclaims loudly. Nobody hears him, however, because everyone is talking to somebody else.
Okay, I’m over-reaching here and I admit as much. Williamsburg hipsters may not be taking up the cause but there are some people around capable of creative paranoia, people who can still get all bug-eyed about social decay. One such friend asks, “Has anyone noticed that “cell” rhymes suspiciously with “sell”. Don’t you get it? It’s a prison cell man,” he says. “The phones are shaped like dollar signs. They’re kidnapping everyone. The aliens are here!” He looked suspiciously like Dennis Hopper when he said it, but I didn’t let that distract me
Indeed, I have lost friends to cell phones—people I haven’t seen in years, even though I see them regularly. We go to bars or cafes when it can be arranged (alas, the commitment level is so low). But all they do is sit and stare at the pale indigo light of their Motorola or Verizon, wondering if they have any messages—if their stock sold at a profit, or if Britney sprung a leak, or Bobby made it home with the cheese tortellini. If they printed grainy images of lost minds on the backs of milk cartons these people would qualify. William Shatner could interview their friends on some reality TV show. “It’s funny,” the friend might say, “he seems to be there. I can see him. But he’s not there. It’s as if someone put a drinking straw in his brain and sucked it out.” Then to complete the Charlton Heston motif, in a Soylent Green twist, we discover that the indigo glow of these digital displays is made from a fluid distilled from human brains. Milton said the mind is its own heaven and hell. Somehow these polar extremes, and indeed all space, has collapsed into this glowing fluid. Action at a distance, that old bugbear of chaos theory, returns in a hyper-animated sitcom optimism. It’s Hal, the murderous computer of 30 years ago. He doesn’t have anything new to say except his voice sounds suspiciously like the voice of Time-Warner (who probably owns both Heston and Shatner): “You got mail,” he says, and for a second it seems as if time stops, right at the very moment of joy.
Roman Stoad is a writer and philosopher.
to Petrodollar Profits:
A Modest Proposal
for the 9/11 Memorial
by K* and Ando Arike
In the understandable rush to memorialize those who perished in last September’s attack on the World Trade Center, architects and designers have generally minimized the larger geopolitical issue looming behind the catastrophe – the continuous conflict over oil engulfing the Mideast for the past half-century and longer. Last year, as he launched the “War on Terrorism,” the Texas oilman turned U.S. President gave the world this ultimatum: “Either you’re with us, or you’re against us.” Isn’t it time to look beyond such simple-minded formulas towards the bigger picture?
With 5% of its population, the U.S. consumes 26% of the planet’s yearly production of oil, 2/3 of which is burned in transportation. How much longer can we afford to ignore the human costs and ecological consequences of the American addiction to oil? How much longer can we afford to go to war over petrodollar profits?
K* is an architect and 3D artist.
Ando Arike is editor of the Williamsburg Observer.