Saturday, July 6, 2013

Turning In Circles

      Henry David Thoreau cheated. And while, like so many other wayward youth, I too dove headfirst into Walden and its mystical idealism, age has brought with it a more complete understanding of that book.
      Despite the beautiful portrait that Thoreau paints, the reality is that Walden pond was only a few kilometers (within easy walking distance) from a relatively established town; hardly the pure nature that Thoreau depicted with such Platonic zeal. Thoreau himself was heir to a quite substantial fortune from his parents, a privilege he never relinquished even as he shed the other material and monetary bonds of society. In the end, the rejection of established norms and the quiet rebellion that is the heart and soul of Walden is only skin deep and for me at least, it has been hard to read Walden the same ever since I began to understand the context of the book as well as the true disposition of its author.
      Still, Walden is a defining book of the transcendentalist movement (in the end I think that I prefer Emerson more anyway), a movement that in itself represents a deep yearning for authenticity and youthful angst that comes with its lack. It crystallizes a phase that I believe most thoughtful people go through at some point in their lives, although they may all encounter and experience it somewhat differently. But the failure for most people is that it never amounts to more than just that: a phase. Perhaps we are all caught up in the same web as Thoreau, with all the idealism and desire to taste a true reality, but too mired in the vines of society so that it is ultimately impossible to completely untangle oneself. We feel that urge, that primal instinct to flee our social captivity, but we are capable of only words, however eloquent, and pipe-dreams, however bold, and weak alcohol-induced tirades against something that most of us will never truly be able to escape, even momentarily. Maybe the fact is that most of us are actually too afraid to let go of that lifeline even though at times it feels more like a noose. In that way, we are all Thoreau. He is the archetype of privilege.
      And make no mistake, such a rejection of society can only come from someone who is in a position to reject such things. Put another way, you can only dispossess what you already possess; if you are hoping to shed the artificiality of material things, it is cause you are blessed enough to have them in the first place. There is hardly such existential crises among those struggling to survive; it may exist, but its manifestation is completely different as a result of the basic material conditions. The transcendental experience is coupled with privilege, some might even say it is a product of such privilege, and its fundamental meaning is derived in relation to privilege itself.
      Allow me a brief caveat: I am not using the word “privilege” in a negative sense, although there are many other academic usages in which it is certainly not invoked positively. Privilege, in the sense I am trying to use it (and forgive me if I am not doing so faithfully), is only the relative material comfort that some of use are lucky enough to have. Having such privilege does not make one inherently bad or ungrateful—though it most certainly can—but it is a position in life that many people (the majority of people in the world, as it were) do not have. As a typical middle class American citizen, I am privileged with the means to a good home, enough food to eat, I am a member of a relatively functioning and uncorrupted state with my rights and freedoms guaranteed. Many people in the world can only dream of such privilege.
      So what is the point of the transcendental experience? If those who of us who encounter that same calling as Thoreau are just privileged citizens of decent societies, is our existential yearning just nothing more than spiritual self-indulgence? No. Or not necessarily, at least that's what I think.
      To me, the undercurrent of transcendentalism is a turning inwards towards the self, towards a deeper spiritual understanding of one's soul through nature and solitude (hence, the emphasis on the rejection of society). For all of us, those of relative privilege or otherwise, such a journey is probably as essential to personal happiness as food is to the body. But for those of us who find that such an authentic experience is possible only by first turning away from privilege (people such as myself), I believe that we must also carry with us an extra responsibility along the way: the expectation of reciprocity.
      Allow me to explain using myself as an example. A lot of my Peace Corps experience so far has been spent alone, in a personal solitude where I have had the opportunity (i.e. little distractions and few other options) to cultivate myself and invest in my own personal and spiritual well-being. Sure, I have done development work and contributed innumerable hours of my life to helping people in my community, but 2 years is a long time and there have been many, many hours spent alone. Such is the nature of the Peace Corps.
      When I was younger, I used to have a goal of going off into the woods and living alone for some time to accomplish the same thing—my own little Walden-type experience. Now, I am quite satisfied that Peace Corps has provided me with more than enough of that sort of “turning inwards” if you will. At times, I feel guilty for spending such time on myself, especially as I am living in a situation where I am surrounded by such blatant, abject need. The reality that I have come to accept is that there is only so much I can do to address the problems in this community, many of them are systemic and quite beyond my capacity to influence as a Peace Corps volunteer. At the same time, I have come to realize that such time of personal growth is, in some ways, just as necessary as is my development work.
      The fulfillment of this process, the true realization of the transcendental experience, does not come simply from the “turning inward” but instead, once this phase is complete, an eventual turning outward as well. To a certain extent, society can be, maybe even must be, rejected at some point by those of us from privilege called to experience life in its raw authenticity—let's call this the spiritual baggage of the modern man in a consumerist world. But unless we eventually apply the deeper personal understanding towards alleviating the material need and spiritual lack in the rest of the world, we will have walked a selfish path and committed the great treason that is taking our privilege for granted.
      The Buddha, after achieving pure enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, did not choose to live out the rest of his days in spiritual solitude, though he would have most certainly been at peace had he chose to do so. Instead, he acted as a mentor to others, using his profound spiritual experience to give back to the world. In that simple choice, he defined the nature of Buddhism; to this day, compassion, through spiritual and material means, is a cornerstone of the Buddhist faith.
      I don't mean to say that we are all Buddha (although Buddhists would say just that), but the message is the same. We are all lost and wandering souls in a great, big, chaotic world—spirituality (and I am specifically saying 'spirituality' instead of religion) it is implicit upon the human condition. Our personal experiences with that spirituality may take many forms, go by many names, or perhaps even be entirely unnamed and indescribable, but at their core, they all derives from the same place.
      For me, as a child of privilege, the transcendentalist experience is what called to me most, what first caught my mind and captivated my imagination. After years of my own small and quiet rebellions against society, my many moments and hours of personally-reflective solitude, I honestly hope that I have begun the process of sharing part of myself with the rest of the world. I don't believe that the cycle of turning inwards and outwards with ever stop—it is a process that will likely continue until the day I die. But with every turn of that wheel, may it take me one step closer to being that much more at harmony with myself and that much more selfless towards the world.

From Walden,
little hupo

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Revolution for the Post-Modern Age

       The next revolution will certainly be televised, but when it is, it will already be old news. Long before the cameras and the reporters arrive in the midst of the action, it will have been Facebook-ed and tweeted and Instagram-ed around the entire planet, probably even before any one has any idea what's really going on. It will enter the incessant global data-dump alongside pictures of cats, status updates about "goin out wit da girlz", and news-feed sports statistics, where it will be left for the sifting by ordinary people, journalists and governments alike.

       In a way, this makes it all sounds cheap: the story of people in some distant country facing armed police repression being prioritized just below those comforts and mindless indulgences of privileged youth. But in another way, what could possibly be more authentic, more free? What has the capacity to generate more potential social-energy, and around the entire world, not just in some urban square or on a single university campus?

       What would Trotsky think?

       Speaking as a member of this young generation, a thoroughbred child of the technology age, it seems almost unimaginable to try and conceive of a world without such limitless capabilities. And yet, social media are simply the newest manifestations of the already explosive monster that is the internet. We've become used to having our news, whether merited or inane, in less than an instant and are enraged when it is not. 

       How quickly the world owes us something that didn't even exist 5 years ago. 
       However, this is more than just a technological surrogate for social interaction or another source of inexhaustible entertainment; or at least it can be. While yes, most of us are still preoccupied with the innocuous details of our everyday life, and while yes, most of the internet is pornography (perhaps the truest and most blatant representation of human priorities), there is a whole other facet to this phenomenon and that is how social media is being harnessed by youth as a weapon against oppression and injustice.

       The world is shrinking through globalization and commodification and neo-liberalism, but if we ever had any delusions that such comprehensive and unbalanced economic and social changes would spread across the world without a stir, let these past few years be our evidence to the contrary. We have felt such a backlash before, in any number of countries and theaters, and the mighty US military has responded in kind (with variable support form the UN, NATO and our allies). But the game is changing and there are not enough bullets or bombs in the world for what is coming.

       The internet is the Trojan horse of the new-age revolution, but instead of Troy, it is the household and the consciousness of any and every person with internet access that is being infiltrated. These are the new unexplored frontiers, the wild and uncharted depths of human democracy with no one holding the reins. There are no more gatekeepers.

       But don't get me wrong, it is not for lack of trying. The laundry-list of scandals, from Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, the work of Anonymous and now the latest with Edward Snowden, show just how easy it is for any person with basic knowledge of a computer and a legitimate bone to pick to severely disrupt the government's attempts to command and manipulate the flow of information. There is just so much information out there, being multiplied exponentially on a daily basis, that the only way to try and control it all is by adopting increasingly authoritarian and invasive measures. 

       In the old days, a government's propaganda department printed and disseminated just the information it wanted, subtly silencing those dissenting voices (union workers, communists, anarchists, etc.) by other means. Today, such a feat is absolutely impossible despite the best efforts of the Obama administration or anyone else. The number of "dissenting voices" has grown beyond the limits of activists handing out pamphlets in the streets. Dissent itself has been re-born in the modern age, baptized into the secular cult of the internet along with WikiLeaks and Facebook. Amen.

       The internet has opened a new arena, an Emma Goldman-type anarchist space in both structure and function, and, in that sense at least, perhaps the purest democracy in the world. It is building bridges across continents, connecting causes, creating relationships, and raising consciousness to the point that the traditional role of the state in this area and many others is being slowly renegotiated and not on its terms. On ours.

       For the powers that be, in the absence of effective top-down approaches to information control, the best alternative is a flanking maneuver that strikes at cultural and human weaknesses. It's a let-them-eat-cake sort of philosophy, and, in at least some cases, it does well to take up the slack that autocratic measures inevitably leave behind. By indulging our inclination for entertainment over self-awareness, our love of concise answers that don't challenge too radically our well-constructed and fragile world-view, this other method has proven quite potent. The idea is that instead of controlling the information-flow, any particular government, regime, or administration will simply add to it, but with a louder, more appealing, and well-funded voice of its own.

       In the US, it seems the major news agencies have been co-opted (hijacked and violated is more like it) by corporate interests, which by happy coincidence happen to mirror the government's own interests. They provide their castrated, doctored versions of news, call it thorough and impartial, and sell it like they would a cup of Starbucks coffee (and at as equally an absurd a price). The false controversy they present as "unbiased reporting" mimics the perverted and catty nature of our own bipolar political system, but like any reality television show where the caricatured participants fight over scraps of cheap, momentary fame, it adequately satisfies the needs for entertainment and so we go seeking no further.

       It is a coordinated effort between governments, corporations, and our own complacent dispositions, and it is very effective. Still, it is impossible (or at least imprudent) to ignore the fact that there are many corners of this world where such an inflated message is drowned out in the light of bigger forces. Take the recent protests in Brazil and Turkey, for instance.

       As opposed to the protests and civil disobedience that characterized the US during the civil rights movement and Vietnam war, and the independence movements of former colonies following World War II, this new age of protests seems to be less centralized on a specific issue, less organized and more spontaneous. These characteristics can be good or bad, depending on a number of factors, but regardless of their merit, this seems to be the reality of modern social upheaval.

       The protests in Brazil and Turkey were both set off by relatively minor issues (rising bus fares and the bulldozing of a park, respectively). These seemingly insignificant problems mushroomed into mob protests against government corruption, authoritarianism, globalization, poverty, inequality, racism, and oppression, literally overnight. It took a small crack in the government armor to open the flood-gates to enormous nationwide explosions of pent-up popular discontent. There was no planning, little warning, and hardly any preparation on the part of either governments or demonstrators. These protests, in both their spontaneity and comprehensiveness, would likely not have been possible without the communicative capabilities of social media and the internet.

       This is the power that an ordinary person now has at hand: a high school kid in the West Bank can video tape Israeli brutality against Palestinians on his cell phone and upload it to Facebook in an instant. Before that offending soldier even gets back to base there is an international scandal with human rights groups and a couple hundred thousand views. This is unprecedented individual power, unimaginable social potential, and we are all still learning, governments and citizens alike, how to capitalize on this largely untapped vein of energy.

       Here is another example, one a little closer to home for me. I am a Peace Corps volunteer serving in a remote and isolated community in the relatively unheard of South American country of Paraguay. In my community electricity is sporadic, running water unreliable, poverty ubiquitous, and education nominal at best. And yet, thanks to modern cell phones and cell phone towers, I can access the entirety of human history and culture without leaving my little brick hovel. Any one of my neighbors can do the same with a cheap Korean-made laptop and a jury-rigged internet modem. In the backwaters of underdeveloped and impoverished countries, people are coming online in huge numbers. The internet is no longer just a luxury of the privileged elite, it is increasingly becoming the forum of disenfranchised people as well, the very marginal populations onto which this world has externalized its most egregious costs.

       I am not trying to say that all the information being put out there on the internet is somehow inviolably valuable or true or inspired. But somewhere in that massive chaos of information sharing exist nuggets of clarity, of reality, of truth. It might be buried or obfuscated or overshadowed by an amazing amount of disinformation, but that is the case with any truth anywhere. History textbooks go out of date as fast as Science textbooks, and that is saying something.

       What we can say about this new information age is that never before has the truth existed with such abundance and variety and possibility; and at the same time, never has there been so much untruth heaped on top of it to cover it up. But combine that truth with the human-energy that social media has released, and the result is bound to be real Truth.

       What the Arab Spring showed us, what perhaps these new protests in Egypt are showing us (led by the fearlessness and defiance of art), is that while success is not a guaranteed outcome of these new-age, internet-sparked revolutions, it is a definite and undeniable possibility. The unstoppable reality is that the world is getting younger, smarter, and more connected; the future doesn't look bright for the dictators, autocrats, and entrenched powers of this world.

       The vanguard of political control has always been education, information indoctrination from the earliest age. As the US continually de-funds and destroys its educational system and as education in many countries remains locked in a traditional "pedagogies of oppression", the shackles are being circumvented in other ways thanks to the internet. It is fomenting a social-geology that thrusts up from the core a million little active volcanoes that aren't definitively going to erupt, that might not even be that dangerous if they do, but just as well they may lay waste to our political order like a modern day Pompeii.

       Whether this internet-phenomenon becomes complacent like Huxley's Brave New World or authentic and revolutionary is yet to be seen. One thing is for certain: it will not be contained. It will writhe against the bars of any Orwellian dystopia that might try to control it.