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March 2007

Fill the gaps

If we can just be honest with ourselves and consistent with reality for a moment, there is something quite obvious that needs to be said.  The paradigm under which we live is currently fucked and on its last legs.  It is the end of an era and, sigh, it is about time.  Our fundamental assumptions about ...well, everything...are now quaint and laughable.

Fuck Adam Smith and fuck economics.  Economics are the modern day equivalent of 1 + 1.  Yeah, it equals 2, but so what?  Let's move on.  OK I lost you with that.  I only wanted to open a crack in your mind on this dark corner of cyberspace in which you, yourself, are surprised you ended up and are already becoming suspicious about. 

Greater material wealth -- economic growth -- does not equal happiness and is obviously not the goal, nor the answer.  We need to adopt a paradigm for our own lives that says: fill the gaps.  In which area is your life lacking?  Are you lacking friends?  Make some.  Are you lacking sex?  Get some.  Lacking time?  Make some.  Are you lacking art?  Go to a museum.  Are you lacking money?  Make some.  Are you lacking good food?  Cook some.  Get it?  It's so simple and yet we have become so lobotomized.  Don't have any decent clothes?  Buy some.  Don't have a comfortable place to live?  Work toward it.  That's balance.

Economics says we can find happiness through more money and more stuff.  But the simple and obvious fact is: anybody with so much money and so much stuff that they don't know what to do with isn't any happier.  They still have gaps.

More stuff means more pain in the ass.  I have to figure out how to use it or where to put it.   I have to throw away the packaging.  It's a pain in the ass.  And more money, at this point, adds more pressure with respect to where to invest it.  So, over the past few years, I've been more focused on the gaps in my life: friendship, romance, art, sleep, doing absolutely nothing on a Monday morning.  By filling those gaps I have climbed the ladder of happiness.  I could have made more money than I do.  I certainly could have bought more than I have.  But I don't want it.

So let's extend this to the macro.  What we, the human race, need is certainly not the effects of more economic growth.  We need to start conceptualizing the idea of balance (but not in a fluffy liberal way).  We need to selfishly start filling the obvious gaps.  The good news is: you know what they are.

The only pursuit that matters

And I felt something changing the world
Like a new constitution
A thief I would have to pursue
At all times
At all costs
The Truth

- From the new song, Cartoon Blues, by Bright Eyes

That's it.  This is what the great philosophers were talking about since Plato.  This is what the great artists, poets, writers, and musicians are constantly trying to express.  Do we choose to pursue the sometimes brilliant and sometimes monstrous truth, or do we remain in the dark, cold, empty caves of half-truth and lies?

Do you respect truth above all else, or not?  Are you strong enough?  The boldest and most authentic choice I've ever made in my life is to answer yes to this question.  I'm not claiming to possess truth.  I claim only to pursue it!  It is the roadmap to my life, my only religion.  And in the precise moment I became conscious of the concept, and internalized it, I initiated a process which never ends. 

The pursuit of truth is a bold choice that leads us to the extremes of bliss and the gutters of agony -- sometimes in the very same day.  And yet the reality isn't even this two-dimensional, because hovering all around our personal experience of bliss and agony we also hear the sound of life on earth being destroyed; minds being polluted with propaganda; human beings being kept in slave or near-slave conditions through the oppressor of economics.  In the back of our minds we hear the causes and movements which we believe in begging for us to pitch in; we hear our souls screaming about the way we hurt or neglect a family member; we feel the fear of a loved one who is seriously ill; the frustration and despair of old age choking us.  We try to forget both the lies we've told which have hurt others and also the truths we've told that have hurt others.  Then, in another moment, we might hear the waves of the ocean, the laughter of a naked young woman emerging from the waves, and the smell of the sand just after sunset.  All of these fragments, times a thousand, are bouncing around our minds and bodies during both wake and sleep. 

We are life becoming the instrument of evolution chasing its own truth.  We don't choke it or stop its flow with distractions; watching sports, buying too many clothes, worrying about being able to afford a car, being cool.  We allow our minds and bodies to be the instrument of truth, and by doing so we make the most of this life while also giving our existence meaning.

Yet somehow, we still get up on time, make it to work on time, shake a few hands, and do whatever it takes to function.  It isn't that we can live every action according to truth.  There are simply too many truths competing at any one time to know which one to act in accordance with.  That is why I will make the surely controversial claim that, what is even more important than one's action, is one's thoughts.  Are you keeping your mind locked on truth at all costs?  Are you allowing the ideas that emerge from your mouth, paint brush, instrument, or keyboard to reflect your pursuit of truth whenever possible?  Are you at least aware of those moments when you compromise one truth for another?  Are you struggling in that decision in an authentic way or just lying to yourself and others?

How is it possible that, in the midst of all this, we learn to not just be ok...but to live life as though we are making love to it.

That's the pursuit of truth.

The Beauty Exchange (Ženy Pro Měny)

Ženy Pro Měny (International title "The Beauty Exchange") is a provocative Czech documentary film about the effects that the beauty industry has on women in Prague.  I highly recommend it to anyone, man or woman.  Though none of the ideas are new to most thinking people, it is important to observe the very real human impact that the beauty and fashion industry has on the lives of a few women, representative of all ages. 

At its core, the film seems to be more about Consumerism than Feminism.  When women, influenced by commercial TV and magazines such as Cosmopolitan or Vogue, spend all Saturday morning in a beauty ritual (lotions, nail polish, teeth whitening, hair), then all Saturday afternoon shopping for new clothes which are barely distinguishable from the clothes already lining their closets, what we are witnessing is pure and simple Consumerism.  When these same woman, influenced by much more of the same, purchase diet products, become anorexic, or have breast augmentation surgery, what we are seeing are the absolute sickest extremes of Consumerism.

While such a woman is pursuing some vague notion of beauty, the irony is that she will only appear beautiful to a partner who is every bit as infected with the Consumerist / Materialist mindset as she is.  Maybe he's driving an Audi Convertible, wearing clothes from the same mall she shops at, spending his days plotting how he can buy a home theater system he cannot afford, and flexing his muscles in the mirror while listening to Jay-Z. 

And together, when these two humans-turned-product-of-commercial-culture meet, their conversations will be every bit as interesting as some endless reality TV-Show...occasionally interrupted, just as on such a show, by distracting advertisements.  This happy couple will get married (spending far too much on the wedding), buy a house in the suburbs and two new cars (well before they can afford it), and begin a lifetime of resentment caused by small-minded, petty arguments about money and who can buy what, when.

Still, we are meant to believe that commercial media is harmless.  To argue that advertising is harmless is to argue that it is ineffective.  We know advertising works (sells people products they otherwise wouldn't buy) because corporations continue spending an enormous amount of money on them. 

Advertising is only harmless to the individual who isn't exposed to it.  We're not going to stop advertisers, but we can stop exposing ourselves to advertisements.  I don't smoke, because I understand the physical harm done by the chemicals and components in cigarettes.  Similarly, I don't watch any commercial media because I understand the psychological and health risks cause by the consumption of junk-information.  Whether we are Liberal, Feminist, Progressive, Green, Conservative, Pro-family Values, Christian, fact if we stand for any cause at all, there is one thing we should be able to unite on.  The first thing we need to do is rid ourselves of advertising.

It isn't as hard as one might expect.  Avoiding advertisements is as simple as avoiding commercial media.  It is entirely possible to simply not watch any TV channel, listen to any radio station, or read any newspaper or magazine which contains advertising (yes, I'm even talking about the New York's rubbish).  What you are left with is a huge variety of independent or not-for-profit sources of content -- blogs, web communities, films, MP3's, podcasts...plenty of content which one finds is much more worthwhile.  I've lived this way for about 3 years now, and what I found after tuning out the commercial media is that nothing is actually lost, only gained.  Only by removing the corporate advertiser's mind-control censorship of our information can we begin to explore authentic ideas and authentic thought.

To expose yourself to commercial content is to turn yourself into a product rather than a human.  To watch a commercial TV show is to become an audience.  You, as the audience, are the product of the TV station, who sells you to advertisers.  You are just one more individual who is allowing yourself to be tricked so that someone else can make a few pennies on you...profoundly disrespecting your humanity and selling bits and pieces of it to the highest bidder for no good reason at all.

Ženy Pro Měny is a brave documentary film created by some intelligent young women in Prague.  It is meant as a message from women to women.  But, to me, it is also a plea to turn against commercialism and, more specifically, advertising.

By the way, an even more compelling documentary, in fact the de facto standard when it comes to understanding media propaganda, is Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky.  Watch these two films and your life will never be drastically improved.

The stagnating effects of American nationalism and the dogma of corporate supremacy

What's funny about American politics, as someone who is now viewing things from a comfortable distance, is the shared sense that nothing drastic can actually be done anymore...that the way things are is pretty much the way things have to be.  And yet we still expect that, somehow, meaningful change is possible...that compromises can be found so that nobody is harmed!

This isn't the case elsewhere in the world, where drastic change is not only possible, but is the norm.  Two related but different ideas are at the root of this phenomenon: 1) American nationalism, and 2) the dogma of corporate supremacy.

American nationalism tells us that America is the best, by default.  Why is it the best?  Because it is America and America is the best.  See the (circular) logic?  So everything that is in a given point in history is just as it should be because that's the way it is in America, and since that's the way it is in America then that's the way it should be.

The problem of corporate supremacy is a bit more interesting.  Any mildly ambitious idea is simply considered impossible.  And why?  What has emerged is a kind of common knowledge that nothing can be done that might conceivably harm a large corporation!  Take the example of single-payer health care -- the only party harmed in such a system would be the insurance companies.  So what?  A few insurance companies lose a source of revenue, their stock suffers, investors lose some money, but the greater good is that those same investors have guaranteed health care...that their health care is no longer tied to employment status.  Yet there aren't more than a handful of American politicians willing to touch this idea, and none will (as they rightfully should) shrug their shoulders at the idea of screwing over a few insurance companies in favor of meaningful reform.

If we are not willing to harm the bottom line of powerful corporations for some greater good, true change and true reform simply is out of the question. 

Nationalism and the dogma of corporate supremacy need to be attacked directly.  Politicians and voters need to stop pretending that any meaningful change can come from such a status quo.