Blogs by Kalikiano Kalei
Do not go gentle into that good night...
9/1/2011 5:24:21 PM
One of the worst aspects of the cheap and superficial pop culture that our American capitalistic marketing industry has co-opted (and exported to all parts of the world) is the blatant disregard it fosters amoung youth for their elders. While youthful rebelliousness is merely a normal part of growing to maturity, when that process has been taken over by a corporate world bent on formally exploiting adolescent naivite for the purposes of making billions in profit, the obscene effect upon our society is notable and quite devastatingly effective in its marginalisation of the finer, higher values of our civilisation. It also effectively helps further isolate and dispossess those who are closer to the end of life than to its beginning. Dylan Thomas' famed 1951 poem is a good starting point from which to consider this subject further.
Do not go gentle into that good night…
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
-Dylan Thomas, 1951
Yesterday marked the twenty-three thousand, seven hundred and twenty fifth day since I first visited this planet. In case you aren’t wondering, that’s exactly five hundred and sixty-nine thousand, four hundred hours, or, looked at still another way, that’s thirty four million, one hundred and sixty four thousand minutes. Since no less an august personage than our most favorite ex-patent office clerk (Albert Einstein) considers time to be of relative importance in the greater cosmic scheme of things, the above recitation is probably a complete waste of time to all but the many thousands of commercial businesses trying to capitalise on the aging members of our population.
Back in ancient China, the reaching of one’s sixty-fifth birthday was truly something to be celebrated, the pinnacle of having achieved a certain advanced state of wise awareness and superior insight into exactly what the greater values of human life are. It also meant you hadn’t been viciously assassinated by political rivals, done in by mortal enemies or succumbed to any of a myriad range of diseases and physical afflictions that have helped trim back the Earth’s burgeoning hordes of sentient biological life forms since our ancestors first flip-flopped out of a tide pool’s primordial slime.
The occasion was usually celebrated with great festivities in the Middle Kingdom back then, complete with nubile dancing girls, exotic fruits, sumptuous feasts, musical compositions and other honors (if you were a Mandarin noble), or by an extra bowl or two of rice and a tiny fragment of precious meat (if you were a lowly peasant). Whether great or humble, however, reaching one’s 65th birthday was considered a great achievement worthy of veneration and great respect.
That was, of course, the custom back in the mists of human history, when survival into old age was regarded as a special status attained only by those who were worthy of the wise insights and realisations that had been afforded them by virtue of their many years on the path of earthly experience. According to the (then) extant popular theory, the longer one lived, the wiser one became (remember, it’s only a theory) and the more profound became one’s reflections on the great and wondrous mystery we call human life. In virtually every earthly culture prior to the Industrial Revolution (with its consequent post-natal flowering of science and applied technology), advanced age was regarded with awe and a certain measure of respectful obeisance. While that high regard wasn’t always deserved, in most cases one’s elders were generally looked upon as oracles of earthly wisdom and sagacious counsel. Since human societies were at that time still familial, being tribal and regionally insular, and since the sort of rapacious capitalistic exploitations today best exemplified by the modern American economic model didn’t exist on a broad scale (economic exploitation was still highly localised, personalised and even then strictly subject to the greater authority of local tribal customs, laws, ethics and rituals), regarding aged individuals as somehow being wiser and worthy of disproportionate respect suited the social and cultural development of those distant eras. The semi-mythical stereotype of the ‘sagacious elder’ that persists today had its basis in substance and fact, after all, and thus the elderly were accorded their perceived due without hesitation or reluctance.
Although we have our Anglo-Saxon cousins to thank for pioneering the early advancements that took newly evolving scientific discoveries and applied them in a set period we refer to as the Industrial Revolution (largely for their having cobbled together an unholy synthesis of applied scientific theory that enabled labor to be exploited to a level of efficiency never before even remotely dreamed of), it remained for America (almost entirely Anglo-Saxon at the time of that nation’s founding, for obvious reasons) to take the technological ball and rush to the economic goal post with it. And rush we did.
Thanks to the uniquely American qualities of so-called ‘Yankee ingenuity’ and the spirit of entrepreneurialism , it wasn’t long before the ‘Great American Experiment’ (that merged principles of democratic freedom with capitalist materialism in the late 1700s) began to steadily morph into what is in my opinion today the world’s most oppressive form of spiritual enslavement ever seen on Earth: the global economy (read: the tyranny of America’s vision of a global economy). Ironically, of the 310 million plus people who populate the United States of America (not including another 20 to 30 or so million illegals who are not counted in the official census), perhaps more than 9/10ths of that total are not even remotely aware of the fact that they are mentally, morally and aesthetically enslaved by a hugely pervasive corporate culture that has progressively destroyed their spiritual quality of life beyond recognisable redemption.
These are the millions upon millions of American individuals who have been socialised to endlessly consume material products on a premise (usually implied, but occasionally shamelessly stated) that unless they spend money on products they may not need or even want (the ‘want’ part of the formula is artfully implanted in their consciousness by relentless media advertising), the entire American economy will crumble away into the dust. Given the compelling dire consequences of such a horrifically perverted economic model should consumers substantially adversely modify (i.e. stop spending) or alter their spending habits (i.e. spend less, more wisely), perhaps that concern is not totally unwarranted. But it is nevertheless a tragedy of monumental proportions as the quality of collective American intellectual vitality continues to plummet into a chasm of truly vapid ennui.
The nature of our fall from actualised, reflective thoughtfulness into a state of mind-numbing reactive consumption has become clearer and clearer to me as the years pass and I have frequently mounted the virtual soapbox at times when the sheer strength of my collective disgust with the nation of my birth threatens to make me lose sight of the fact that no one really gives a rat’s ass about this problem except for a few of us crackpot polemists who wander, John-the-Baptist-like, about the fringes of the cultural desert we Americans exist in, preaching pending (economic) woe and (cultural) disintegration.
For the past year and a half I have been increasingly reminded of this progressive state of affairs in America as greater and greater volumes of unsolicited ‘junk mail’ (aimed at ‘seniors’ who are now hitting the 65 year marker) find their way to my mailbox. Consisting largely of exhortations to acquire supplemental health care insurance policies, the flow of these mail advertisements is somewhat akin to what in mountaineering we’d call a ‘web-slab avalanche’ (an avalanche that occurs when unusual moisture conditions separate layers of 45 degree-plus snow; wet-slab avalanches typically move at slower speeds, but they are among the most potentially destructive). The magic age of 65 years makes us prime targets for corporate health-care concerns that want our money (or at least all that excess money they suppose us to have) and the onslaught of brochures, letters, pamphlets and fliers is enough to drive any sane person crazy (or at least confuse many to the brink of desperation). The fact that we are unable to refuse or decline delivery of this onslaught of printed detritus, since corporations and businesses are legally allowed to send it under postal regulations, is simply insult to injury.
Chief among the coercive methods favored by the health-care related corporate groups is the implantation of fear, anxiety, and broad-based apprehension in the minds of aging individuals who are less capable of wading through their seas of paperwork to discern and separate truths from outright distortions and deception. Given the increasing prevalence of conditions such as precursor states of dementia, syndromes presaging Alzheimers and an overall lessened state of mental acuity, the practice of commercial solicitations through use of such instruments of confused, unclear and highly effusive information is repugnant to say the least. And yet it is simply another of many similar efforts to con, dupe, deceive and otherwise ‘legally’ swindle older Americans for commercial profit.
In this light, a good friend’s mother, a school teacher, passed away back in 1999 at the moderately advanced age of 93. Possessed of a first rate intellect, she led a life that demonstrated high levels of organized, highly informed and intelligent awareness across a wide range of subjects, activities and concerns throughout her professional career. In other words she was no dummy, and yet in her final years she was overwhelmed by a mind-boggling array of complex concerns related to her care, first in an independent living facility and later in a skilled nursing institution. The sheer amount of paperwork associated with and regulating administration of her entitlements (as a retired California State teacher), her insurance coverage and other incomes (veteran pensions, health-care supplements, et al) was stupefying to say the very least. My impression at that time was that given the indecipherable complexity of all the explanatory information governing those benefits, what she most needed was a full-time personal affairs manager on retainer, just to see to it that her affairs received the timely care and attention they warranted. My friend certainly had enough on his plate already without assuming all these extra duties associated with his mother’s welfare, but there was effectively no alternate option to avail.
Since 1999 the complexity of issues facing older Americans has grown exponentially, especially now that long-overdue restructuring of the Federal and state medical supplement programs have recently been undertaken (resulting, if anything, in even more obscurities and complexities, despite token efforts to simplify and reduce associated paperwork). In this literal assault by healthcare corporations on older Americans to carve market-share profits out of their beleaguered personal resources, there seems no end to the coercive methods and deceptive tactics employed. On the commercial (“free”) television media channels the quality of daily programming has already dropped through the floor to a point far past mere vapidity, but adding further insult are the nausiatingly smarmy commercial advertisements peppering those execrable programs, all constituting a virtual non-stop campaign to worry, annoy, disturb and agitate older Americans into spending money on ever more products and services by preying on their uncertainties and lack of factual knowledge.
As a relatively healthy, physically fit individual who doesn’t presently ‘suffer’ from any specific or non-specific health conditions, sitting down to watch a program (such as the national network news) is an appalling exercise in induced virtual paranoia, since one would gather simply from watching all the ads for ‘senior related’ medical products that virtually everyone over the age of 50 is at least partially disabled or decrepit. The mind-numbing array of television ad images (showing broadly beaming, toothy ‘active seniors’, all seemingly enjoying a radically enhanced life thanks to some commercial product or another) is repugnant (or should be) to anyone possessed of some sense of critical aesthetic sensitivity. It doesn’t take much insight or reflective ability to understand how skillfully all the million dollar advertising commercials exploit basic human fear and vulnerabilities, fostering a population of perpetually anxious and highly susceptible seniors.
At this point it would probably be useful to observe that the culture of rampant corporate commercialism we American suffer from is so insidious (a fact that is often pointed out by socially alert and thoughtful individuals) that a serious risk is run (by those who point out this process) of being thrown into the same category as the storied ‘little boy who cried ‘WOLF!’ (of the Brothers Grimm fables). To my great regret and I would imagine that of many others who consider themselves docent custodians of the quality of our national life, the overwhelming majority of Americans are not only totally oblivious of this progressive erosion of the human spirit, it seems highly reasonable to conclude that most simply don’t care. The ‘average American’ today appears to be so mindlessly obsessed with path-of-least-resistance escapism (as a self-prescribed antidote to a culture that regards everyone as simply insatiably consumptive units of material things and services) that any challenge intended to force them to exercise their powers of intelligent reflectivity is deflected as surely as bright sunlight from a mirror’s polished surface. In choosing this course of (in) action, these non-critical innocents play right into the very hands of those corporate powers that are out to commercially enslave them, since it only remains for marketing groups to come up with entirely new technological toys to draw them in (the analogue of a fisherman trying out all his latest new lures on recalcitrant trout comes to mind).
While watching the evening news a few nights ago, I was fascinated by a report describing Houston (Texas) as a new center of economic prosperity. A substantial part of that economic prosperity centers on a burgeoning sector of that region’s commerce that deals with software development, specifically state-of-the-art video gaming. According to the report, Houston ranks second only to California’s ‘silicon valley’ as a progenitor of innovative computer software design and almost all of it relates to video gaming. One of the newest companies in Houston focused on this activity is also one of its most prosperous, with annual incomes exceeding multiples of millions of dollars. With a total of 1800 employees, the 28 year old billionaire CEO of the firm can afford to compensate his software designers with salaries averaging around $90,000 a year. In a recent interview with this individual, the question was put to him ‘why are you doing so well?’ His answer, which was both unsettling and supportive of my hypothesis stated earlier, was that young Americans are choosing gaming to escape the unpleasant quality of life being forced upon them by America’s corporate obsession to turn us all into helpless captives of their rampant materialistic consumerism. “They turn to violent escapist action videos and gaming as an escape…a release from the pressures of life in modern society.” QED! It was somewhat shocking to hear this candid testimony from a 28 year old capitalist, needless to say, even if he was being utterly frank. To me, it was the equivalent of hearing the Oracle at Delphi suddenly admit to the attending priests that her oracular predictions were all a massive fraud!
On one level, I could say that given an individual who possesses a sufficiently matured and modestly well-adjusted outlook on life, exposure to the sort of extreme violence found in violent video games shouldn’t have much of a functional impact. In other words, that individual is not very likely to suddenly snap, purchase an automatic weapon and begin to viciously lay waste to a nearby kindergarten full of small children. The reality check to consider here is that, in my opinion, too many of us are already on the ragged edge of what little real ‘reality’ remains today in our lives and none of us really need the extra encouragement of voyeuristically watching some heavily-armed fantasy character mechanically slaughter imaginary ‘enemies’. At the other end of the balance, when you take a markedly immature individual (whether an adolescent or a physically grown-up adult with an arrested juvenile personality) and expose them to this sort of fantasy, the possible outcomes suddenly become a lot less predictable.
Given the assumed validity of this hypothesis (that violent media fosters social violence), it was therefore astounding to suddenly find none other than the august jurors of the California State Supreme Court ruling this past week that banning sales of ultra-violent videos and computer games constitutes an unacceptable contravention of certain constitutional liberties. In the court’s supportive majority opinion, parallels were drawn to previous attempts to censor and ‘ban’ certain books not so many years ago (efforts that were also ruled unconstitutional). And while the philosophical dictates of a true ‘democracy’ might quite justly argue in favor of the rectitude of such a decision (protecting and preserving individual freedoms under the US Constitution), there can hardly be any substantive rational doubt that unless something is done to protect those who are intellectually ‘disadvantaged’ from their own functional ignorance, the result will likely be a needless reinforcement of the growing trends of gratuitous social violence that are becoming so common (and so abhorrent) in modern America.
As a person who is now a card-carrying ‘senior’ whether I personally care for the cachet or not, the prospects of life in one’s remaining years seem to me less and less felicitous, when viewed against the socio-economic backdrop partially detailed above. Given the present growth of increasing social violence, in synch with with a popular ‘political correctness’ movement that hesitates to restrain anyone from doing anything (due to a fear of impugning anyone's self-assumed dignity), co-dependently augmented by pjysical encroachment of one’s health (the progressive decline that aging brings with it), daily life for an older individual has a tendency to become increasingly less fulfilling and rewarding. One result of this is that far too many elderly individuals are already anxious about venturing out of their homes or living facilities in some areas. With news reports of elderly women being attacked and even sexually molested on the street (an incident of exactly this sort involving an 80 year old just recently occurred) becoming not at all unusual or rare, who can blame those anxious seniors who have a heightened sense of their own vulnerability on public streets?
If the daily evening news reports may be regarded as being even semi-balanced and not overtly sensationalized (an unlikely proposition, certainly), it seems not unreasonable to imagine that a great number of older individuals may well share similarly pessimistic views that the quality of life in America is thus unacceptably diminishing for older Americans (at least for those in the mid-to-lower classes neighborhoods, where crime is far more common). Feeling both disadvantaged and put-upon not just by the prospect of being targeted (as vulnerable elders) for random violence by younger social bottom-feeders, but by both an aggressively exploitative capitalistic economy and the peripheral forces it subjects us ‘consumers’ to (not to mention basically dishonest schemers who seek to criminally defraud older individuals), the thought surely MUST dawn on at least a few that perhaps our much ballyhooed American capitalist democracy isn’t as wonderful as so many reflexively patriotic souls tend to assume it is. In fact, this realisation may further emerge and evolve into a startling realisation that perhaps…dare one even suggest such a heretical opinion?...’democracy’ and ‘capitalism’ simply aren’t compatible in terms of their being able to mutually establish and assure a higher quality of life for all citizens in America!
While political intellectuals and philosophers have argued a more generalised version of this question to and fro for close to two centuries, only in the most recent decades has there arisen an outspoken body of sharp criticism questioning the validity of traditional American assumptions of absolute and unquestioned socio-political propriety (i.e. of its own unique blend of capitalism and democracy). One paper in particular, originally published in 2000, raises some very salient points in this context. The author (Paul Street), an affiliate of The International Endowment for Democracy (an American think tank), suggests that the two concepts are mutually incompatible, in ‘Capitalism and Democracy “Don’t Mix Very Well: Reflections on Globalism’.
Street’s arguments take us back to the days of the post-WWII ‘Cold War’ era, wherein the entire world was conveniently viewed (at least in the eyes of the West) by political economists as consisting of simply ‘us’ (the so called ‘Free World’) and ‘them’ (Ronald Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’, or the Communist bloc nations). At that time, the advancement of ‘freedom’ was conveniently reduced to its simplest form in the belief that US hegemony over the rest of the world MUST prevail, since the alternative was absolutely unthinkable (e.g. Communist domination of the world). Following the end of the ‘Cold War’, consequent to the fall of the Soviet Union, instead of this attitude gradually diminishing and disappearing, if anything it became even more firmly established as a primary, if unspoken American policy. Accordingly, American corporate power (in economic cooperation with the military and defense industries) continued to foster and perpetuate the concept of US world-wide economic hegemony (as the world’s remaining super-power) through the espousal of a new economic globalisation doctrine. This was supported by a broad coalition of influential American political figures and powerful corporate interests, including the US-empowered Word Trade Organisation, and before long America came to regard the entire world as its exclusive economic resource. Economic 'imperialism'? Many think so.
Thus, by establishing itself as the principal enabling ‘engine’ promoting economic globalization, America began to give exponential priority to those functionaries of its own capitalist economic power (read: commercial corporations), an action that simultaneously presupposed lessening traditional emphasis on maintaining the purer expressions of ‘individual freedom’ that classical democracies have traditionally embraced as a core value. This policy was subsequently enthusiastically promoted, one of the consequences being that the doctrine of ‘globalisation’ was considered not being just to everyone’s advantage, but almost a patriotic duty of all Americans to so regard it. American style laissez-faire capitalism thus began to exert wide-spread power and influence that quickly dominated our entire concept of who and what we were as a nation (as well as how the post-Soviet world perceived us). So strongly have these two very dissimilar concepts been unified in the American mind since then that they have for many become inseparably pervasive as components of our unified political and economic dogma.
However, when viewed objectively and impartially (i.e. in the absence of partisan political sentimentality) in the simplest terms, it may be quickly seen that the internal dynamics of both concepts run in direct contradiction to each other, for capitalism operates most effectively and efficiently in the near-absence of power constraints, while democracy operates most effectively only in the presence of balanced power and non-partisan fair-mindedness. Thus, in order to achieve its economic aims & objectives, capitalism, a necessary component of which is unfettered competition, capitalism only thrives amidst conditions of inequality of return, profit and gain for the suppliers of capital. The means of production (labor, etc.) therefore become subservient to the corporate capitalist entity in its efforts to reap the most benefit for its investor cohort. The so-called ‘bottom line’ thereby assumes priority over almost every other consideration within the American capitalist model, even to the exclusion of individual rights and freedoms should it come to that. Were it not for the existence of the American justice system to help balance out socio-economic inequities (a resource typically regarded as an annoyance and a thorn in the side of corporate power), there would be nothing at all ‘democratic’ about American democracy.
Due to the disproportionate influence money exerts upon all aspects of American life, we now have a system in which only extremely wealthy individuals (or those backed by great wealth) may expect to succeed in obtaining influential or high public office (although there are admittedly many exceptions, not least of them being eBay’s ‘Meg’ Whitman, who unsuccessfully spent over 140 millions of her own money on a failed Republican effort to become California’s governor in 2010). As anyone from billionaires to the lowest street drug dealer can affirm, money buys influence and power, and in a ‘dollar democracy’ like ours, the ‘Golden Rule’ translates (somewhat obscenely) to ‘Those who have gold rule…’.
As noted by Edward S. Herman, “…the globalization of the recent decades was never a democratic choice made by the peoples of the world; the process has been entirely business driven, by corporate strategies and tactics, for purely business (read: corporate) ends.” In support of this observation it has been offered that while America gives frequent rote lip service to the moral desirability of eliminating human rights oppression in the world there are some very good reasons why the United States has so often aligned itself with and supported extremely dictatorial forms of rightist national government across the globe: the dictatorships themselves thrive on centralized strength and its unchecked applications, exactly in the same manner as corporate business.
Street makes his case quite eloquently in this regard and very convincingly in the article referenced here, a reading of which I would highly recommend, but it is interesting to note that his is simply one of a growing number of similar analyses that draw the same conclusion: democracy and materialistic capitalism are indeed increasingly incompatible bed-fellows. Given this disturbing state of affairs, one may easily conclude that the present status quo (wherein individuals are viewed less as worthy individuals and more as mere consuming units to extract profits from) is very likely to continue to become worse in future decades.
In fact, the unhappy disintegration of our national domestic social integrity, thanks to the cited economic and aesthetic deprivations imposed upon us by powerful business interests, probably won’t get better…ever! Accordingly, those older individuals such as myself, who are now feel they are being actively marginalized as ‘insignificant’ and ‘unimportant’ members of the population by largely clueless and narrowly focused younger individuals have American capitalism to thank for the entrenchment of that outlook in the minds of these youths. Naturally enough, we may look forward to further inundation by volumes of junk mail from corporations and companies (as well as a barrage of visual media ‘messages’) that regard us not as worthy human beings, but only as potential buyers of their surfeit of material products (sadly, not as the discriminating possessors of an accumulation of wisdom and understanding, since that just doesn’t fit their corporate marketing plan).
It’s rather a bleak prospect, I think, and it only promises to perpetuate itself in the years ahead. How fitting then, in light of all this unhappiness, that we recall the final words of that exquisitely evocative poem by Welsh poet and author Dylan Thomas, whose exhortation to ‘not go gentle into that good night’ resounds as much now as it did when he originally penned “…rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
[For those who are interested, some background on Dylan Thomas’ famous poem may be found here . It was written only two years before his own death from the effects of acute alcoholism (1953).]
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