Today I want to highlight a recent review, by Alan Roxburgh, of a recent book written by Chris Hedges. Hedges is a leftist thinker, one who deeply engages contemporary US and Western culture. I've always found Hedge's to be a very helpful commentator, and a number of his books can be found on my shelves, including The Wages of Rebellion, which is the book Al reviews.
"...As the expectations of a better future recede for more and more people across the West (e.g. shrinking middle classes, jobless or part-time minimum wage economies, austerity) there is a growing loss of faith in the primary narratives undergirding Western social, political and economic life. With this situation comes a weakening of the capacities or will of elites to provide leadership. The cumulative result is a growing undercurrent of rage, confusion, and frustration roiling just under the surface, waiting to be catalyzed into revolution.
For Hedges these conditions now exist across the West. The hope that we'll, somehow, get through it all with a new fix misses what is happening. In Hedges' analysis what is occurring is no longer amenable to adjustment. As the basis of people's hope keeps being hollowed out, existing social, political and economic structures can collapse at a dizzying speed. This sense of collapse is now happening, but it's not primarily at the level of rational, abstract analysis. Rather, what is occurring is that the emotional experiences and convictions of people are changing as witnessed in events like Brexit or the US election. When this happens the soil is ripe for revolution. Revolutions are about emotions not primarily new ideas. As has been said revolutions come about when people feel that established power structures no longer serve the common good. The language Hedges uses here is drawn from the American social theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr who used the term sublime madness to describe a force which gathers inside people who 'disregard immediate appearances' and, with 'nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and "spiritual wickedness in high places"' (211). What was prescient about Niebuhr's own evaluation was his recognition that traditional liberalism (which has made a come-back in Canada in its last national election) is a 'useless force in moments of extremity' (211)..."
The first book of Hedges that I bought was his War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002). The most recent is Unspeakable (Oct. 2016) which is a transcript of Chris Hedges conversation with David Talbot (He is the founder and former editor in chief of Salon).. It covers all of Hedge's areas of focus and interest and should be a good introduction for anyone not familiar with Hedges and his writing.
I was disturbed by a 2016 lecture by Israeli Historian Yuval Harari (b. 1976) who specialises in World History and macro-historical processes. I listened to it yesterday. He is the author of the September 2016 published Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He is apparently also a practitioner of Vipassana Meditation.
“The industrial revolution gave us the working class. Harari believes the digital revolution will create the useless class as technology destroys millions of jobs. Speaking at the RSA, the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, he says that social inequality will grow unless we make different choices now. Otherwise the future could be ruled by a super-elite of technocrats.”
The following excerpt, from Tim Adams’ Guardian review of Homo Deus, will give you the flavour (you can find Adams’ complete review here:
“…The new longevity and super-human qualities are likely to be the preserve of the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe. Meanwhile, the redundancy of labour, supplanted by efficient machines, will create an enormous “useless class”, without economic or military purpose. In the absence of religion, overarching fictions will be required to make sense of the world. Again, if nothing in our approach changes, Harari envisages that “Dataism”, a universal faith in the power of algorithms, will become sacrosanct. To utopians this will look a lot like the “singularity”: an all-knowing, omnipresent data-processing system, which is really indistinguishable from ideas of God, to which humans will be constantly connected. To dystopians it will look like that too. Harari is mostly, thrillingly or chillingly, sanguine about this prospect…”
Even if I found it disturbing, the talk is well worth a listen. You will find the downloadable podcast here. I wondered too what reponses Christianity might want to make in response to Harari's talk?
I enjoyed listening to Hugh Mackay’s 2017 Gandhi Oration. It was delivered at the University of New South Wales on January 30 and was titled: The State of the Nation Starts in Your Street.
I’ve always believed the importance of the local, but I think it’s important to reduce it further; reduce it to smaller constituent parts. The state of the nation starts in your home; it starts with your family relationships; your relationship with your partner; your relationship with your children; your relationship with yourself. A healthy self opens up the possibility of healthy and life-giving familial and intimate relationships. The health of these in turn open up the possibility of healthy and life-giving neighborhood relationships and so on and so forth.
I’ve lived enough of life, and through enough sad and difficult personal and relational realities to observe the truth of these statements time and time again. I’ve seen time and time again the way that personal ‘ill-health’ (an unwillingness to face into our own shadow and brokenness) flows into relationships and damages those.
Damaged personal relationships and ways of relating impact neighborhoods, towns, cities, and nations. If we can’t make our intimate and familial relationships work, if we can’t healthily overcome their inevitable dysfunction, if we can’t enact the practices of open listening, trusting, loving, supporting, believing the best about others, reconciling, holding, caring, openness, compromise etc. etc. then in my humble view there is little real hope for the neighborhood, the workplace, the city, the nation, and the nations. I feel very very sad about that.
Anyway, have a listen to Mackay, read his books (particularly his social psychology and ethics titles), reflect, start with self (but don’t stay there; don’t underestimate, for your own health and well-being, the importance of putting others and their needs ahead of your own), and work outwards from there. Couple this listening with listening to an article written by Olivia Laing on e future of thloneliness, and then check out her brilliant book, The Lonely City: Adventures of Being Alone.
You’ll find the audio recording of Mackay’s oration here, an edited (written) online copy of the talk here, and the reading of an article written by Laing in 2015 here (you’ll find the article here).
Today, a post in its entirety from Chris Erdman (Thanks Chris. His blog can be found here). I reminded me of a conversation with good friends a couple of weeks ago. One of those friends was Gareth Higgins, and one of his contributions to the conversation included talking about “Porch circles…” In “Porch Circles” a small group gathers for 90-minutes around food and four questions:
What's most alive in me?
How could my life be better?
What opportunities have I had in the past week to embody my purpose to serve the common good?
How can we help each other?
More from what Gareth’s up to in my next post:
And here’s Chris:
“…Feeling passionate but alone? Here's a way to contribute to the common good
Circles of Strength are small, intentional gatherings of people drawn together by a desire to co-create the kind of world we wish to live in. We gather around two essential goals:
We identify our desires to improve our world, and together, we grow our sense of strength so we can make a difference.
Around us, millions of Americans are rising up to meet the environmental, social, and political challenges of the 21st century.
Rather than feeling disempowered or disillusioned, people like us want to do something useful to transcend barriers, overcome hostilities, and create programs, products, movements and opportunities that contribute to the common good in our neighborhoods, cities, nation, and around the planet.
Circles of Strength are small gatherings of 3 or more people (no more than 5). They are intentional in that they meet at least every other week for at least an hour to check in with each other around a series of questions like:
What am I feeling passionate about? And why?
What is a problem or injustice I cannot allow to remain unchallenged?
What would I like to do about it?
What gifts do I have to address it?
What gets in the way or holds me back?
What progress have I made since we last met?
What do I need to take the next step?
Circles don’t need a trained leader, but they do need a common commitment from each other to listen more than give advice, and to help others find their passion. Through meeting together and talking about our desires for a better world, we help foster accountability, hope, and follow-through. (And when we fail or repeatedly bang into walls, we help each other find new direction.)
Find a few other people, create a circle, and begin to change your world.”
Summer is always a time to reflect for me, and each year my focus is a little different. This year, it’s been politics that has captured my imagination: politics and the interface between justice, community-building, and human thriving. I reflected a little in late December, and have continued to read and listen. Deepening inequality and injustice profoundly concern me. I’m concerned by the rise of fascism. Thinkers like Tim Jackson have entered into the conversation. Other conversationalists have been Pope Francis, Noam Chomsky, US-born Iranian film director Ramin Bahrani and his profound 2015 film 99 Homes(spoiler alert – review here), Michael Moore, and US-historian Thomas Frank (his most recent book is a stunner and is sure to be both provocative and controversial (for some) - Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (March 2016)
Documentary filmmaker and author Michael Moore, always controversial, does a fabulous job at getting the issues out on the table in his 2009 film Capitalism: A Love Story (watch for early Bernie Sanders, who back in 2008/09 still made a lot of sense). While featuring Barack Obama in a positive light (Obama having in 2008 becoming the US President-Elect), I imagine Moore would have had a very different take of him at the close of his second term if that documentary had been released in 2017. Certainly I’ve been deeply disappointed by Obama’s two-term Presidency. So much potential for change squandered and allowed to be bought. I watched Capitalism: A Love Story for the first time earlier this week. Worth re-reading, this side of the US-elections, is Moore’s prescient“Five Reasons Why Trump Will Win” (from memory it came out around July 2016)
There have been numerous other documentaries well worth watching, e.g. 2005’s The Corporation. Or 2011’s The Inside Job. Or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
I also highly recommend listening to Thomas Frank, here (The US Election and those who have been left Behind) and here (Thomas Frank and the New “liberal”). Neither conversation is particularly long, but both pack a punch. While his latest book focuses on the US Democratic Party, it nonetheless has real relevance in other Western countries such as my own.
And again, another link to an earlier post highlighting the recent lecture series delivered at St. Martins-in-the-Field, London (Sept-Nov. 2016). Specifically, I want to highlight the lecture delivered by US Theologian Stanley Hauerwas. It was delivered ahead of the 2016 Presidential Elections, and as a “yellow dog democrat” his early vote had been for Hillary Clinton. His hope, along with many many other people in America and all around the world, was that she would convincingly beat Donald Trump.
But as we all know, that wasn’t to be the case and the US (and the wider world) has to contend with President-Elect, and soon to be 45th President of the United States of America Donald J. Trump.
Hauerwas is well worth listening too and he offers some useful theological / Christian insights into Trump and the state of the US, John Milbank and a range of other subjects. So, I particularly want to single that talk out from the other fine lectures delivered by equally fine thinkers.
You’ll find his talk (audio) here, along with the question and answer session. You’ll fine a ‘hard’ copy of his address here.
Following on from this Maria Popova post and in particular her first “learning”, allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind
I want to highlight an Atlantic article by Eric Liu. His title is Americans don’t need Reconciliation – They need to get better at Arguing. While it has civic application (America post-2016 election), I think it definitely has much wider application.
Liu, in his article, rightfully acknowledges the significant differences in context between America 2016 and South Africa post-apartheid (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and offers a way forward for American’s or indeed for any groups in conflict).
‘…Reckoning—“facing history and ourselves,” …means naming the inherited power inequities that have brought us our contemporary conflicts. This is the “truth” part of “truth and reconciliation,” the phrase made famous by the process South Africa undertook after apartheid to reckon with its past. Truth is the hard part because it’s about accepting responsibility…
… In the United States, reckoning is by orders of magnitude more complex. There are no clean breaks in recent American history between good and evil, no single line of culpability that leads to a single large group of living Americans being called perpetrators…
… You can’t easily get to reconciliation without truth. But in America you can’t easily get to truth…
… That’s why I propose a different way forward. It involves three steps: more listening, more serving, and—perhaps counterintuitively—more arguing.
[First Step] When I say listening, I don’t mean “debater’s listening,” in which you pay only enough attention to get the gist of the other person’s point so you can prepare your rebuttal. I mean radically compassionate listening: without judgment, without response.
Imagine forming citizen “talking circles” all across the country, where people of differing world views agree simply to listen to one another. The point would not be persuasion or conversion. The point would be presence. And the method would not be to discuss ideology explicitly. It would be to address a simple universal question—something like “Who influenced you, and how do you pass it on?”…
… This brings us to the second step: doing stuff together. This is the genius of national service. It gets you and me together not to work on you or me but on a third thing. That thing can be cleaning an abandoned lot, tutoring immigrants, helping disabled seniors, preventing youth suicide—whatever it is, if it brings people together across lines of race, class, and politics, it will bring to the fore our common humanity…
…If we listen more and serve more we’ll be ready for the third step: arguing more. More? Most people would say we have such dysfunction today because we already argue too much about too many things. But that’s a misdiagnosis of what ails American politics. We don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones…’
“Leonard Cohen was the first artist I discovered by myself. He is the symbol of my musical independence. The sadness of Cohen was inspiring; it gave me a lot of energy. I always remember all this when someone says that my records are morbid or depressing.” – Nick Cave
Today, I want to link to a reflection written by Maria Popova, resident in New York City. Popova, as many of you will know, is the founder of Brainpickings, an online site I subscribe to, and regularly visit. It feels fitting for me too that it will also serve to mark the passing of one of my literary and musical heroes, Leonard Cohen (21st September 1934 to 10th November 2016). I’m so very grateful for his poetry and song, for his many published interviews, and for the chance to see him live in concert in Auckland on the 22nd January 2009.
Popova reflects of the “left-out” lyrics of his powerful song Democracy. ‘Nowhere’, she writes, ‘is this interplay of darkness and light more nuanced, nor more prescient, than in Cohen’s song “Democracy.”’
‘Today’, she reflects, ‘as the world’s greatest superpower elects a bigoted bully with fascist tendencies for president, many of the lines Cohen left out pierce with their pertinence — lines like “Concentration camp behind a smile” and “Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay? / Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?”
A quarter century ago, Cohen speaks to our time with astonishing prescience — for any great artist is at bottom a seer in dialogue with eternal human problems:
‘I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy. So I wanted to have that feeling in the song, too.’
Using songwriting itself as a laboratory for democratic discourse, Cohen wrote several verses he chose to leave out of the final song. He gives as an example a verse in which he explored the relationship between black and Jewish people:
First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues.
This gutter people always in the news,
But who really gets to laugh behind the black man’s back
When he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified.
Like the fingers on your hand,
Like the hourglass of sand,
We can separate but not divide
From the eye above the pyramid.
And the dollar’s cruel display
From the law behind the law,
Behind the law we still obey
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
You can read the rest of the reflection online here. The cartoon accompanying this post was published yesterday in our regional newspaper.