Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Times They Are A-Changin' - Indeed!

A convergence of thoughts on this rainy Sunday afternoon: killer weather, viral pandemics and over-population; the current battle of faith vs. reason; the Great Neo-Depression (it’s not just for grandma anymore) and the friction between conservative populism and liberal populism; the War Next Door (American Guns + Mexican Drugs = True Reefer Madness); and the predictions from many sources for the year 2012. Put this all together and whataya get? The very mixed bag of life in 2009 – and counting.

I used to think I was negative and cynical; now I see myself as pragmatic yet hopeful, and convinced that the end of the world – as we know it – is not only nigh, but in process. It’s not good or bad, it’s just what’s so, and it doesn’t mean your children and grandchildren won’t see tomorrow, it just means that Tomorrow is likely to be a whole new ballgame.

If you’re not familiar with the basic elements of the Year 2012 predictions, take a glance at some of the videos on The History Channel or check out this site, December 21, 2012 101. This subject is quite involved, but the overall is this: the 2012 phenomenon reflects a combination of astronomy and physics, along with the end date of the ancient Mayan Calendar. Edgar Cayce, Nostradamus, the Hopi Indians, aliens and Enlightened Beings, among others, get into this as well, not to mention the Bible, but those are the kinds of references that make rational people dismiss 2012 as a lot of occult/religious hokum, when in fact it’s something quite different.

For example, it is a scientific fact that in late 2012, there will be a planetary alignment: the sun, the earth, all the other planets, indeed the entire galaxy, will line up in space in a way that astronomers haven’t seen literally in ages. There will also be intense solar flares and “precession,” the completion of the rotation of the “slow wobble” of the earth’s axis – which only occurs every 28,000 years. And there’s something about sub-atomic particles, pole shifts, meteor showers, black holes, time warps... All of this stuff, not surprisingly, will have a huge impact on Life On Earth.

I don’t pretend to understand all of the scientific, historic, and cultural elements involved. I’ve read one good book about 2012, seen a number of documentaries, and reviewed quite a few Web sites – but I haven’t fully digested everything about it and I certainly can’t intelligently and properly summarize this vast subject in a single blog post.

My point is, in considering the possibilities of “2012,” I am forced to look at the inter-relationships among seemingly disconnected trends and events, such as politics, weather, health, the economy, religion, technology, culture, crime and war – which in fact are interrelated, not self-contained, free-standing conditions. And I can’t help but marvel at the general hubris of modernity in rejecting the wisdom of the ages as mere speculative superstition.

Here in the good ole’ USA, where many folks are blithely ignorant of both history and current events, there is an assumption that everything ancient is irrelevant and steeped in scientific ignorance, that no culture that came before us has anything to teach us now, and that everything new reflects progress and promise. It’s as if we’ve never heard of past civilizations and empires dying out, and believe that life as we know it – albeit with a few “green” modifications – will go on forever. I think that’s insane – much more crazy than any possibility contained in the 2012 theory.

So, what are we to do? Well, I think most folks will just take life as it comes, one day at a time, and deal with events as they present themselves: not an unreasonable approach. Others will “prepare,” in the tradition of wary survivalists. Some may hold out as long as they can, then jump off a bridge right before Christmas in 2012. A few – and I count myself among them – will hope for something really dramatic and enormous and unbelievable, and also hope we will not survive it. Considering that I live on the edge of Manhattan just a few blocks from the Hudson River, I think my chances of destruction are good.

For now, I’ll keep on airing my thoughts and fears on this blog, and you can either mull them over, or (one of the great benefits of our digital age) just delete them. The choice is yours.

Friday, March 20, 2009

CNN: The Messenger is Killing Us

If we weren’t actually, consciously, living in the midst of this perilous, unnerving, and unprecedented period in our history (no, the Great Depression was a whole other ballgame, and anyway, our new-age, high-tech, decline has just begun), we’d think we were watching a disaster movie or having a nightmare. But, as Rosemary said as she was being raped by the Devil, “This is no dream, this is really happening!”

I’m one of those people who keeps CNN on for a good part of the day; sometimes I watch, sometimes I just listen as I tend to other things. And sometimes I turn away, to an old movie or a shopping channel, anything that will bring my temperature back down to normal and make my breathing less shallow. We all know about the plethora of major issues and scandals and outrages that are going on, as well as the few changes for the better that are unfortunately overshadowed by the massive changes for the worse; I don’t have to list them here. The point is, staying informed has become a painful, debilitating process, in large part because CNN, the leading news player in television media, continues to be more a part of the problem than a part of the solution – and we can no longer afford that kind of news media.

I rarely watch Fox News, or MSNBC, or national network news – but I’ve seen enough of them, often enough, to know they display many of the same weaknesses, without as many of the same strengths. I rely on CNN, PBS and C-SPAN as my TV windows on the world. The latter two are godsends in the midst of all this craziness. PBS reports the news with calm and accuracy, and analyzes issues with insight and precision. I’d be a total basket case without The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week, Bill Moyers’s Journal, Charlie Rose, Frontline, and many of the major, free-standing documentaries. C-SPAN allows me to just watch what’s happening without explaining it to me or churning me up. (And Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO always delights and comforts me, because each week he remarks on the Emperor’s lack of political couture.)

CNN, as my staple, is, as it’s always been, a very mixed blessing. At its best, it’s very good, truly invaluable. At its worst, it’s downright dangerous, as well as tedious. Even though our troubled times call for gravitas and focus, CNN still gets sidetracked by kitten-in-the-well, sniper-on-the-rooftop, starlet-gone-missing stories that it blows completely out of proportion. It still regularly stirs the political pot with horse-racing, blame-seeking, scandal-wallowing gamesmanship. It’s also shrill and repetitive. And most recently, thanks to Twitter, what should be serious reportage is peppered with snippets of banal public opinion; not always helpful.

I know we’re not supposed to kill the messenger, but what do we do when the messenger is delivering more than just the message and is also trying to start trouble? What do we do, for example, in the face of the network’s constant flash messages (nee “the crawl”) that blind us with random tidbits of news that are horrible, bizarre, deliberately frightening, and thrown at us without context?

Indeed, there have been several studies in recent decades about the harmful effect of this kind of news delivery. Much like violence on TV/in films, which doesn’t make people violent but instead makes them insensitive to real violence, a steady influx of horrendous, disjointed, often distant news, renders us socially impotent at a time when citizen participation has never been more important. I sort of understand why CNN needs to report on some shotgun-shooting crazy here at home, but do we need to know about a wacko in Germany? Yes, tell us about German politics, economics and social issues, because it’s a major nation we need to be mindful of. But do we have to know about their isolated crazies? Isn’t it enough that we have to cope with ours?

Now that serious, broadsheet newspapers are dying faster than you can say His Girl Friday, television news has an even greater responsibility to be more greatly responsible, to help us understand the issues and the players, to keep us awake and involved without reducing us to hysteria or inertia, to help heal the nation. The tradition of impartial, disconnected journalism doesn’t seem to fit in a societal construct where our media is our culture. And what’s the point of all this global-reach technology and 24/7 cable-casting if all it does (at least half of the time) is contribute to the static?

CNN, take a page from PBS: tone it down, smarten it up, broaden the view, don’t get caught up in the bullshit of “the game,” and don’t sweat the small stuff. Things are too difficult and too important to do otherwise.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

It's Time

“The free thinking of one age is the common sense of the next,” said the 19th century critic and poet, Matthew Arnold. Could it be that America’s 20th century War on Pot, which costs $10 billion a year and has achieved nothing but the creation of a prosperous, crime-run, underground industry and the incarceration of millions – 873,000 in 2007 alone; 738,900 just for personal use – is finally coming to an end? I’m heartened that common sense about marijuana may prevail now, in response to our economic crisis – just as alcohol Prohibition was repealed in 1933 as a common sense response to the Great Depression. In critical times, we should stop sweating the small stuff and get our priorities (you should excuse the expression…) straight.

The argument for legalizing marijuana is getting stronger, thanks to support from increasing and surprising quarters: Harvard economy professor Lester Grinspoon; several congressional representatives, including California’s Loretta Sanchez and Massachusetts’ Barney Frank; Dave Cieslewicz, the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin; conservative columnist Kathleen Parker; and thousands of medical doctors who highly praise the benefits of medicinal marijuana. It is estimated that our country would save $77 billion annually by taking pot off the criminal agenda. It is also assured that billions more could be generated through licensing the sale and taxing the purchase of recreational pot and marijuana accoutrements. There would also be enormous industrial benefits; hemp is an inexpensive, highly versatile commodity.

Most important, changing our fear-and-ignorance-based attitudes about pot would allow for greater political, judicial, economic, and social focus on truly dangerous, addictive drugs like heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, and the entire haute collection of designer drugs. Addiction is a genuine problem – but pot is not the culprit. America has been brainwashed about the dangers of pot for nearly 100 years with lies such as “marijuana leads to the harder stuff” and “marijuana will make you insane.” Not true, never was. Hundreds of thousands of deaths each year are directly related to the use of alcohol and tobacco. The number of deaths attributed to pot: zero. Yet more people are arrested and convicted for the use and/or sale of marijuana than for all violent crime combined: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. It’s time to wake up and smell the reefer!

It has been argued that making pot socially acceptable and both legally and readily available, will “send the wrong message to kids” and encourage the lethargy and lack of ambition/action accurately associated with pot smoking – but it ain’t necessarily so. Society makes clear distinctions between acceptable social drinking and pathological drinking, the kind that leads to alcoholism, violence, drunk driving, and dysfunctional personal and family life. Business started frowning on the three-martini lunch decades ago, but the after-work cocktail is still in vogue. There’s no sensible reason to believe that with proper restrictions and creative, appropriate marketing, marijuana use would not be properly controlled. In addition, the impact on children should not be the sole arbiter of all adult privileges and behavior. And although alcohol and cigarettes have been proven to be more dangerous and harmful than pot, nobody advocates criminalizing them – just taxing their users to the max for the greater benefit of society!

People want and need to feel good, to feel better, and they use a variety of substances – alcohol, cigarettes, food, all categories of drugs – as well as an assortment of behaviors, such as compulsive-level gambling and shopping – to “feed your head,” as we used to say in the 60s. Humankind has always done this and efforts to criminalize pleasure have always failed and often resulted in new, genuinely dangerous forms of crime. To continue in this manner is just plain stupid.

As I said recently on this blog, we as a nation would get better faster if we would just grow up. Legalizing pot would be a good start. Each year, about 20 million Americans try pot for the first time or use it occasionally; 11 million are regular users. According to a poll by Zogby International, 44% of Americans support legalization already, and the battle for pot has just begun to gain traction with the general public. It’s time to let grown-ups smoke a joint or take a bong hit without being viewed as degenerates and treated like criminals. It’s time for 21st century common sense to prevail about pot.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Blinded By Science

I’m essentially a Luddite/ technophobe rather than a 21st century techie. I don’t own a cell phone, iPod, or any other new-fangled device. But I do enjoy the Internet for its instant access to so many things (I especially love Pandora). I email and write this blog, but I don’t have MySpace/Facebook friends and I don’t twitter (I don’t cotton to anything that begins with twit). I concede that word processing has made writing (and writing better) much easier than in the day of the typewriter. I also confess that my weary wrists and eyes have instilled in me a great desire for voice recognition software. And, to my surprise, last week’s Charlie Rose interview with Amazon guru Jeff Bezos has motivated me to begin a savings program for an Amazon Kindle 2, the leading wireless, handheld, electronic book specifically designed for the pleasure, portability and intimacy of long-form reading with a new kind of screen that looks like a printed page.

Clicking on the title of this post will take you to a July, 2002, New York Times article about the overall convergence between science fact and science fiction, a reality that has increased exponentially over the past seven years. The information in that piece illustrates my agreement with Martin Luther King Jr.’s dismay that “We have guided missiles and unguided men,” Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and R. Buckminster Fuller’s conviction that “Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.”

I'm particularly troubled by modern society’s passion for information/communication technology, which, ironically, has resulted in our being less well informed and has truncated much of communication into aliterate abbreviations. I also think it's ironic that many of the same people who express disdain for spirituality of any kind seem to embrace the idea of the unfailing power and continuance of technology with the fervor of true believers. Given the energy problems we now (and will later) confront, why aren’t more people concerned about how we will communicate, protect information, preserve history and culture, and just plain function, if the juice gets turned off? If our country, or any other technologically-developed nation, lost its electricity (by whatever means, for whatever reason), we would literally descend into anarchy and barbarism within a couple of weeks. Does it make sense to so completely depend on technology that we trust will never fail or be destroyed?

I was very taken with Jeff Bezos and his optimism that energetic, innovative youth and technological advancement will save our country and the world. He says we’re living in an Idea Economy and that if business and industry are willing to experiment (and therefore possibly fail), think and act long term, and focus on the consumer instead of worrying about the competition, we can grow and improve and resolve major issues faster than you can say YouTube. (I think the same can be said of government: if our leaders stay focused on us and what we most need, instead of playing political team sports with each other, we could rise out of our crisis with speed, substance and sustainability.)

Bezos also says the Kindle 2 can currently display 250,000 titles (books, magazines and newspapers) and his long term goal is to offer every book that has ever been published in every language all over the world – an admirable and exciting goal. He says we must re-think publishing and look outside the ancient box of "printing books on dead trees." I agree. But hard-copy publishing has a permanence and capacity for survival that far surpasses a blip on a screen. Kindle gets its power from a satellite. Satellites have been known to fall or self-destruct or be shot down. Then what happens to every book that has ever been published in every language all over the world?

Information technology is creating new possibilities and opportunities, but at a high and disquieting cost. The publishing industry – books, newspapers and magazines – is in an unprecedented state of upheaval. Small publishers and independent book stores are already nearly extinct. Newspapers from coast to coast have been shrinking for 20 years and are now dying like flies. The Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver’s leading papers for over 150 years, died this weekend; The San Francisco Chronicle is hanging by a thread; hundreds of smaller papers turned to dust last year and now, many of the majors, nationwide, aren’t sure how long they can hold out. This is extremely dangerous and important for many reasons, not the least of which is: even if the cable news channels were to achieve the high level of news reportage and analysis that is currently only offered by the best news publications, as well as public television and public radio, they too will disappear if the wires are cut. Meanwhile, the economy also has public broadcasting on the ropes.

I don’t mean to be a Gloomy Gussie, I’m just scared. I think our science and technology are running ahead of us and that in many regards we’re living in a high-tech fool’s paradise. How do we strike a better balance between natural, traditional and new? I don’t know the answer – but I think it’s important that we start asking the question.