Friday, February 10, 2017

Death etc.

I have recently turned eighty. That’s 80 years or eight decades on this planet (not counting the three-fourths of a year or so when I was gestating). And though there has been no apparent change in either my physical or mental capacity (well, not obviously; though I have been noticing subtle changes in my balance and in my endurance at simple tasks, and others may well notice less than subtle changes in my mental ravings), there has been just today a change in my thinking about endings. About death. It’s something most of us are reluctant to contemplate most of the time. Too depressing. We all know we’re mortal. We all know we’re going to die. Some day. But usually throughout most of our lives, we are able to set aside that some day to an indefinite “later.” I’ll deal with that later. For now, there’s too much to do, too much to see, too much to enjoy. Too many people to take care of or whatever momentary crisis needs our attention. With the passage of my eightieth birthday, however, thoughts of death have arisen unbidden. And I no longer have the inclination or the capacity to shove them aside.
            So here we are. Closer to the fulfillment of a lifetime than ever (notice how I just avoided that dreaded word “end”). And though most popular discussions about such times focus on accomplishments, or how much one has enjoyed life, or whether there’s still something one wishes to do or see or accomplish, it now seems to me that those questions are really only more attempts to put aside the real question. And that question is: what happens? What happens when I am no more? What happens to whatever it is I am when the most obvious manifestation of “what I am” has turned cold, immovable, inert?
            And here’s where we get into problems. It’s not so much that I fear the end, as Woody Allen once said (he added that ‘I just don’t want to be there when it happens’—which is another way of saying I’m afraid of the pain of death). That’s not the real problem. Because if the end is truly painful, then the release of not being there anymore would come as a relief. As something sought. No. The real problem with thinking about death is that we have no tools with which to think it. It is the great unknowing. For every other state that seems analogous to “not being,” such as sleep or being put under some consciousness-blotting drug (and the new ones are simply fantastic), we have the comparison that comes when we “wake up.” We come out of sleep or we come out of anesthesia, and we can think back to what we can remember or even not remember, for not-remembering is a kind of remembering: I don’t remember a thing. And we compare that with the state of non-consciousness in whatever way we choose. The problem with death is that there’s no comparable comparative state. Once we die, that’s it. There is no waking up (unless we happen to subscribe to the comforting notion of heaven or Valhalla or reincarnation or whatever myth we’ve been taught, all of which seem pretty obviously moot here). There is only the full stop. Death. Period. End of story.
            That is the hard thing to contemplate or comprehend. The impossible thing. Because, again, we have no waking state from which to view it. We’re gone, our ability to contemplate or comprehend is gone with us, and all that’s left are the people and world we’ve left behind—if we can even say they exist any more, because once our ability to see or sense them is gone, we don’t even know whether they, or the world itself still exists in any meaningful sense. Does it? We don’t know. We have no way to judge. No way to reason about it. It’s gone because we’re gone. Our contemplating of goneness is gone.
            And so we come to a dead end—all puns intended. And thinking about that dead end is what I, what we all fear more than anything else. The non-existence of ourselves. Of our ability to see or comprehend the world. Which we are sure exists and which we want to maintain in our body/minds and in its present state (if there is such a thing) for as long as possible. But with no me to maintain it, the world simply disappears. All its objectivity turns into an illusion. It depended on me to give it shape and form, and once I’m gone, it is gone too. It’s a bit like the notion in quantum physics where any object only exists when there is an observer to pop it into existence. Without the observer, we can’t tell what state it’s in. And that drives us crazy. Which is why death, the notion of death, drives us crazy. And which is why so many variants of the persistence of something—of some locus of consciousness like the soul that is prior to the mere matter that is the body—have occurred over the millennia. Unable to contemplate anything without us, we invent a state where some non-material, essential us is preserved. And lives on. Which is what we really want.
            The question is, can we dispense with this comforting notion entirely, and still contemplate death? Can we contemplate our own nonentity? Our own nonbeing? Our own nothingness?
            It’s not easy. I have been trying to do this for some time now. The world without me. And only one thing is certain: it won’t be the same world I now know. It will be the same world in many particulars, presumably, but the world that I perceive and roam through will not exist. Nor will I. And that’s the impossible part to conceive. Conceiving implies an “I” to animate it. Without an I, without me, what can be conceived? Can my death be conceived without me? Or is death only conceivable to those who survive? It seems so. Absence is only conceivable by that which is still present. Those who know me will be able to notice, and perhaps grieve, that I am gone. But what about me? Will I be able to see that I am gone? It’s like an Escher drawing. Recursion. How can I see myself when what I see with is not there?
            And the question then becomes, does it matter? Is it important to know what death is like? Well, at this moment, it is. To me. I would like to know. Or maybe it is a mercy that I don’t know. Maybe that’s what the real meaning is here. We are not allowed to know because actually knowing death would be too hard. Too painful. So we are kept in the dark until the dark comes, and then the issue has vanished anyway.
            I hate that. I hate to accept that. Knowing seems to me, seems to our entire culture, to be an unalloyed good. We should all know what we’re about. We should all know what we are. We should all be aware of what we’re doing and what is happening to us so that perhaps some of the hateful things wouldn’t be allowed. And yet, the most important question remains beyond our reach. We keep it beyond our reach for most of our lives, and then when we want to grasp it, we realize that it’s still out of reach, that, perhaps, we’re not meant to grasp it. But by whom? Who means to spare us this final realization? It’s almost like taking refuge in a putative big Daddy again. And that simply won’t do. There must be something to become aware of, some way to grasp the solution to the big question. But at this moment, I have to confess, I don’t have the key; and don’t know anyone who does. Don’t even know if there is a key. Or if having the key would make it any better. And yet. And yet it almost feels as if the key is there, tantalizing but just outside my grasp. And so all I’m left with is a kind of yearning, and a kind of frustration. Almost there, but not quite. But I soon will be. And that’s not a comfort either. It’s not like being impatient for the arrival of a big day when something grand will happen. It’s not like awaiting one’s birthday or Christmas when one was young, or a grand achievement when one is older. No. It’s like wanting to know something that, when known, will be, or might be the worst thing one has ever known. That’s what death could be like. Wanting to know something that one at the same time does not want to know. And so, driving eagerly towards it and at the same time putting on the brakes: no, wait, just another few days or weeks or years. Give me some more time to maybe find the solution, some prediction, some protection before it comes.
            Ah god. A consummation devoutly to be wished. Hamlet went over the whole thing four or five centuries ago. To be or not to be. Except that he was contemplating suicide. A choice. With a natural death, it’s not that we’re contemplating a choice. We’re contemplating an inevitability, some consummation (being consumed) we have no choice about. No choice whatever. And though we hate that, maybe it’s a good thing. If we had a choice, we’d be likely to screw it up like everything else humans do. So maybe it’s a good thing we’re compelled. Compelled under the utmost compulsion of all: death. The mystery that refuses to be solved. The final comeuppance to arrogant homo sapiens. You cannot solve this one, smartass. You simply cannot solve it or outwit it because that which you use to solve and outwit things is gone simultaneously with the thing to be solved. And, dammit, though I hate it, though it’s maybe not as it should be, it’s maybe simply as it must be, as it is .

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, January 29, 2017

When the Lie is King

I was interrupted this morning by a solicitation call that used a new wrinkle to deceive me: when I picked up the phone, there was the usual pause that comes with a robo-call, and then what sounded amazingly like a real person saying, “Oh, excuse me, I was having trouble with my earpiece.” And immediately ‘she’ launched into her sales pitch about how I’d recently stayed at one of their motels and that made me eligible for a free stay somewhere. When I tried to yell at her to go stuff it, the female voice just kept talking because, of course, it was not a person but a recorded message. And I was infuriated, as we often are these days, both for having been deceived, and for having been stupid enough to believe there was a real person on the other end with a real message.
            This, it seems to me, represents a fairly accurate metaphor for what has been happening on the political level since Donald Trump began his successful bid to become President. We keep thinking that there’s a real person there, and that a real person would not, could not indulge completely in lies, including the continuing lie about himself. There must be some substance to his campaign, there must be some policy, some ideology, and there likewise must be some substance to this person, there must be a real, a flesh-and-blood persona beneath all the glitz and hype and hyperbole and juvenile posturing.
            The events of the first week of this presidency, however, indicate that we were/are wrong. There is no substance whatever. Or perhaps we should say that the only substance inheres in the underlying reality of Trump: the man who is a serial liar, a fake-news artist, a carnival barker who has no allegiance to anything that might be called substance or reality or truth or democracy. His only allegiance is to himself and the inflated image he has of himself and his ability to con people. He is a balloon consisting mostly of hot, fetid air. The balloon will burst as it always has, but until it does, this carnival barker is going to take a whole lot of people and their benighted hopes into the dark rot of his insecurities with him. And that might include a large portion of the planet and its helpless denizens as well.
            The thing that fascinates me is how we got here. How did the allegedly greatest and most successful democracy in history get to a place where the truth that must be its bottom line has been so degraded, where the currency of fact it swears by has been made so worthless? How have we reached a place where the major spokesperson for the President of the United States, this piece of trumpery named Kellyanne Conway, could actually defend the lies of his Press Secretary as “alternative facts?” I know, reams have already been written about this, but the phrase is so stunning, betrays such a fealty to deception and outright contempt for public opinion, that it may well end up the signature moment of this abysmal presidency. How could anyone have the unmitigated gall to utter such a thing in public? How could a public spokeswoman for the most powerful man in the world think she could get away with such an utterance?
            I think we have to come back to the training that Americans, and consumers worldwide, have been receiving for the last century. The training I am referring to is the training engaged in by capitalism and its shills who have gradually, and with accelerated vehemence in recent years, trained a worldwide audience to expect that lies posing as truth are both ordinary and believable. Every commercial—whether on TV or in print or online—is an exercise in this training. And it is not that the lies, at this late stage in the advertising game, are subtle or hidden or disguised. The lies are clearly meant to deceive at the same time that the recipients of the lies are meant to understand the game and be in on it: it’s all lies, it’s all misdirection, it’s all ‘accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative,’ for that’s what we do, and more than that, that’s what you expect. You the consumer. You the object of our attention and our billions of dollars. You know we’re deceiving you, know that when we say our product is reliable it probably means it’s going to fail because we design it to fail after a short time, or become obsolete, or fall apart—but you’ll buy it, enough of you, anyway because we have trained you to want more than you have. Have trained you to think there is always a chance that a new wrinkle or a new look or a new fad that everyone is trying might actually give you some satisfaction for a little while. Might make others like you a little. Make you feel a part of something even though it’s contrived, like everything else. And so even though you know it’s a con, you go for it because that’s the game you’ve been trained to take part in. That is, you’ve been trained to ignore the lies, even accept the lies as part of the deal—especially if they are cast as a bargain.
            The upshot is that, inevitably, the contagion of lies has spread to the presidency, to our democracy. Of course, such lies have been polluting politics (and especially other forms of it like monarchy or totalitarianism) for a good many years now. But until this presidency, the lies have been more or less subtle, hidden, covered with rational-sounding justifications. We didn’t mean it. We ‘misspoke’. What we said was misinterpreted. Everyone else was fooled by the evidence too. Now, however, we have seen assembled the greatest collection of liars ever crowded into one place at one time—and that place is the White House. The lead, of course, the liar-in-chief, is the president himself. The man seems to have no sense of probity at all, no moral sense, no sense of shame, no feedback mechanism that would prompt a normal person to retract or at least modify a lie before he could be caught in it. No. This guy lies with not just a straight face but with a straight conscience—or what might pass for a conscience; which, in his case, seems to conform to only one standard: does it benefit me? old number one? And if it does, then regardless of what else it does or who else it hurts, it passes the smell test. ‘The three million votes by which Hillary won the popular vote were fraudulent.’ No evidence (in fact, all the evidence says just the opposite). No qualifiers. Simple fact—which is to say, if the president utters it, then it must be true.
            This ethic then passes down and infects everyone around him. Sean Spicer, for example, the new president’s Press Secretary. Who not only displays the same truculence in defending his boss’s claim that the inauguration crowd for Trump was the biggest in history, but then displays the same pretense about how demoralized he is that the press doesn’t seem to like him. Doesn’t seem willing to take his bullshit at face value. You’re always picking on us, he whines. Why don’t you pick on Hillary? Kellyanne Conway displays the exact same ‘ethic.’ Ask her a question and she doesn’t answer, but reacts with pretend hurt: why don’t you give him the benefit of the doubt? Why don’t you wait to see how he fulfills his promises? Why don’t you attack Jill Stein for questioning the vote in Pennsylvania and Michigan? Or with howlers like the one where she called lies ‘alternative facts’. And the chief strategist, Steve Bannon, pushes it even further: ‘The media is the opposition,’ he declares. ‘They should just shut up and listen.’ Listen to the lies, he means, without question or comment.  
            It’s astonishing. Or would be if it weren’t for the fact that this is the kind of thing that eventually trains people to accept lies for truth. The American public has been trained by advertising over the years to accept gross exaggeration as normal, as fact. Now it is being trained by the Trump administration to accept lies as just alternative forms of fact. And the poor bastards who have an incentive to believe this blather, this father of lies because they voted for him, they’re shaking their heads in agreement. Everyone lies anyway. Politicians lie. Advertisers lie. The media lie. It’s all rigged anyway, it’s a tough world out there, the immigrants are liars the elitists are liars reporters are liars the terrorists are liars who want to destroy us, so what’s wrong if our guy has to lie to protect himself, and us.
            And there you have it. Truth no longer matters. In the arena where Donald Trump holds forth, the lie is king and the truth is for suckers. It’s long been the credo of carnival barkers; now it’s the credo of the President of the once-democratic United States. Long live the king.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, January 20, 2017

Fra Noi book review

Wanted to share a review of my new book, Branded, written by Fred Gardaphe and published in the February 2017 issue of Fra Noi.

Available in both paperback and Kindle formats:  Click here to purchase on Amazon

Click on image to enlarge

Monday, January 16, 2017

America Gerrymandered

We have heard often in recent years of the Republican party’s success in gerrymandering House districts to favor Republican candidates. What this means is that districts are drawn every ten years by the party in power in such a way that their incumbents profit by the odd shape of the district—i.e. one shaped to exclude opposing votes and include mostly favorable ones.
            The word ‘gerrymander’ stems from the first time the procedure was used in Massachusetts in 1812. At that time, Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redistricted state senate districts to benefit his party, the Democratic-Republican Party. When shown on a map, one of the oddly-contorted districts in the Boston area looked to some like a salamander. The word ‘gerrymander’ was coined as a combination of the name ‘Gerry’ and the last part of ‘salamander,’ to yield “gerrymander,” this combining of parts of two words being known as a portmanteau.
In modern gerrymandering, districts are drawn to both include mostly favorable votes for a party’s candidate, and to exclude unfavorable votes, or pack those unfavorable votes into one district. This latter tactic means that many votes are wasted—there are far more votes for a candidate in one ‘packed’ district than are needed to win. Another tactic involves splitting large, usually urban districts to redistribute their unfavorable votes into districts where they can be outweighed by large rural districts. All of these tactics have been used with great success in recent years by Republicans, who, as a result, now control most of the nation’s state houses. And since they control the state houses, they also control the subsequent redistricting that results in gerrymandering. Some gerrymandered districts have become virtually vote-proof: no amount of campaigning by a Democrat can outweigh the effects of the gerrymander, meaning that only a Republican can win.
            In sum, much has been written in recent years about the effects of truly outrageous gerrymandering on the House of Representatives. And all this is true. Republican majorities have controlled the House since at least the 2010 election and the 2010 census on which the current gerrymandering was based.
            Now, however, the electoral map of the United States is beginning to look like one big gerrymandered district. This has to do with the rigged system known as the Electoral College. The Electoral College system, promoted mostly by southern states prior to the ratifying of the U.S. Constitution, was designed to give smaller, rural, and especially southern states a greater voice (out of all proportion to their populations) in the new federal government. Nor was it just the Electoral College that helped in this; several other expedients were designed with the same objective. The first was the three-fifths clause that said that slave states could bolster their representation by counting 3/5 of their slaves when calculating how many representatives each could have, even though the counted slaves could not vote or otherwise take part in self-government. The Senate itself was another expedient: no matter how small in population a state might be, it would still get to send two senators to the United States Senate, thus affording it a disproportionate weight in blocking any legislation it or its party opposed. This also meant that the vote of someone in a sparsely-populated state like Montana would weigh far more heavily than a vote by a voter in a heavy-density state like New York. 
            The Electoral College was another major achievement of the slave states (see Time Magazine, Nov. 8, 2016: “The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists,” by Akhil Reed Amar). This was because, instead of voters casting their votes directly for a Presidential candidate, their votes were actually cast for the electors in the Electoral College, who then voted for the President. And each state’s electors (whose numbers in southern states were fattened by the same three-fifths expedient that gave them more Representatives in Congress) were bound to vote as one body for whichever candidate got the most popular votes in that state. In other words, the overall popular vote nationwide did not determine the victor in the presidential race. The majority of electors determined the winner, and it was possible, given the sizes of the states and their composition—including slaves—for a candidate to put together enough electoral votes to win even if he or she did not win the most popular votes overall (popular vote or no, Thomas Jefferson would NOT have won the Presidency in 1800 had it not been for the electors made possible by the many ‘slave’ votes in the Southern states). Though this rarely happened, and though usually the electoral vote majority reflected the popular vote majority, it was not necessary for victory.
            We have just witnessed this in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump concentrated his strategy on winning certain safe states, like those in the South and Midwest, and also certain key states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania (how he and the Republicans managed this is another story of minority-voter disenfranchisment on a grand scale). His winning total in all three of the latter states combined was narrow, amounting to only about 100,000 votes. But Hillary Clinton won the electoral votes of much larger states like California and New York by big margins, giving her, in the end, a national popular-vote victory of nearly 3 million votes! And yet, she lost. How? The national gerrymander. The victory margin in the large states that voted for Hillary was huge—resulting in “wasted votes.” She didn’t need to win California by over 4 million votes. She only needed to win by one vote. All the surplus votes were, as far as the Electoral College was concerned, wasted. And like the ‘wasted’ votes in any gerrymandered House district, Hillary’s votes in California and New York and other large states like Illinois, were essentially ‘wasted.’ And they will be wasted for as long as we can foresee.
            In gerrymandered states, the cure for this type of “legal cheating” is for rules for redistricting to be changed—as they have been in California, say. There, an election commission, after each census, redraws districts based on logical and unbiased formulas that favor no one party. This means that the artificial effects of gerrymandering have been essentially eliminated. The same can and should be demanded by voters in every state.
            But the United States as a whole cannot be ‘un-gerrymandered.’ The Electoral College ensures that small states have an advantage in any election for the party that manages to secure just enough of their votes to win all of their state electors. It also ensures that large states with large urban populations are often guaranteed to produce large numbers of ‘wasted votes.’
            There is only one way to do away with the idiocy of a gerrymandered democracy that ignores the will of the majority of its people—that ignores the popular vote. The Electoral College needs to be done away with as an anachronism (and, some might say, a historical crime) that no longer serves a useful purpose. No politician these days could express his suspicion of the popular will, as was done early in our history. Neither can any politician express his disdain for the mass of minority voters, many of whom descend from slaves. They all have to pay lip service to the idea of rule by the majority—for that is what democracy means. Given that, they should all be held to their creed and forced into agreeing that the Electoral College is an inherently unfair system wherein, in at least two of the last three presidential elections, the will of the people has been thwarted. And this week we are again about to inaugurate a president whom the majority of the American people voted against. That makes the entire notion of American democracy a travesty. It undermines belief in the founding notion of this nation because a gerrymandered America is just as much a travesty and a tragedy as any dictatorship. And it must end if our much-heralded democracy is to survive as little more than a fond memory—or a sick joke.

Lawrence DiStasi