a personal solstice

Tuesday 21 June 2005 at 23:43

Solstice is derived from Latin solstitium (from sol: "sun" and sistere: "stand still"). During the year, the position of the sun seen from earth moves North and South. When it changes direction it stands still momentarily. Today was the Summer Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere). Tomorrow there's a full moon. Thursday is my 37th birthday which is probably close to the midpoint of my lifespan. It's all downhill from here. :-)

Tim Bray pointed me to some introspection at the Whiskey Bar back in April. Coyote Gulch almost certainly pointed this out too, but I've been sipping from my feeds only occasionally since Elliott was born.

There's been more than just Elliott's wonderful presence in my life to account for my stunned silence since the election. billmon captures a lot of my own feelings in this passage from My Back Pages :

That's when it hit me ... that Kerry was almost certainly going to lose the election, that the American people really were going to ratify torture and murder as instruments of state policy, and that all the facts and all the rational arguments and all the moral outrage in the world weren't going to persuade them otherwise.

What I finally had to confront was the fact that truth alone is impotent in the face of modern propaganda techniques -- as developed, field tested, refined and deployed by Madison Avenue, the Pentagon, the think tanks, the marketing departments of major corporations, the communications departments of major research universities, etc. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the peculiar vulnerability of historical truth (which means political truth) is that it isn't inherently more plausible than outright lies, since the facts could always have been otherwise. And in a world where the airwaves are overloaded 24/7 with the mindless babbling of complete idiots, it isn't very hard to make inconvenient facts disappear, or create new pseudofacts that reinforce whatever bias or cultural affinity you want to cultivate -- particularly if the audience is already disposed to prefer your reassuring lies to discomforting truths told by strangers.


But if the truth does not set any one free, there's not much point raging against the machine -- not unless you enjoy being enraged all the time.

I have been chewing on my own sour thoughts about the current state of American politics since the election and I've come away feeling significantly less righteous and pretty well stuck in a post-modern funk. It certainly started exactly as billmon has expressed it -- disillusion that truth ain't enough and deep questions about truth itself.

I really bought into the image of America as a great republic and a triumph of humanism. But the past couple years have really beaten that sense of naive patriotism out of me. The United States of America is an empire. There are some novel features that make our empire slightly less despotic than empires of the past. For example, there really is a rotation of office. Contrary to what some on the extreme left fear, there is vanishing little chance that W could ever declare martial law and hold imperial executive power indefinitely. As a country we're no longer openly profiting on the backs of slaves.

And yet we don't seem to need a despot to commit despotism. Somehow we've institutionalized it. We have power brokers in the S&P 500, and power brokers in the federal and state governments. They are all scratching or stabbing each other's backs, collectively hoarding power. Meanwhile the Average Citizens watch the play-by-play and instant replay on CNN and Fox. As those competing titans battle and manipulate, a lot of people in the world are trampled underfoot. The machine grinds on unaffected by my or anyone else's outrage.

The insight that brings me back to my keyboard is this: these geopolitical problems are too big. I'm a mere mortal and have been trying to influence the battles among titans. For my own sense of peace, I need to focus on problems I can actually influence. I need to work in my own community, my own neighborhood. I need problems at a scale where I can see the effects of my work. I'm too much an idealist to easily let go of my concern for the titanic problems in the world, but I need to recognize that they will only be moved by emergence.