Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Always "Starting to Think", Always "On the Edge of the Cliff" or "About to Hit the Iceberg" Metaphors -- Or, Man the Lifeboats!

Here we are, many long and weary years into a global economic catastrophe, a financial meltdown of titanic proportions, with millions upon millions of people being forced into poverty every year, with homelessness, hunger and disease growing alarmingly, but to read about conditions in the mainstream media or on the internet, you'd almost never know it.

Instead, absolutely all the discussion -- and panic -- is about a potential or coming economic catastrophe if "we" either do or do not increase the debt ceiling, if "we" do or do not "default" on the debt.

We are "on the edge of the cliff!"

We are "about to hit the iceberg!"

No. And no I say again. We have already gone over the cliff -- long ago, too. We already hit the iceberg, long ago, and the ship sank. We're in the lifeboats (some of us) debating who gets thrown into the freezing ocean next.

THAT'S what's going on, and those are the correct metaphors for our misery -- and what's left of our hope. But it is never discussed that way on the internet or in the mainstream because of certain locutions and conventions which propose that we are always just "starting to think," always "on the edge of the cliff," always just about "to hit the iceberg." The upshot being that we can always pull back or change direction -- when actually we're facing a completely new and more difficult reality.

It reminds me of a once universal and conventional rule in the geologic and astronomic sciences that proposed that the Earth and Solar System were always "about midway" in their lifespans, no matter what the evidence indicated. It's actually intended as a calming metaphor. Our world has come thus far and has at least as far left to go before it all sputters out. We are in The Middle, and isn't it grand?

"Isn't it grand?" So long as we can make believe it is so, then it is.

I'm not at all into Doom Blogging, but neither do I want to be entirely Panglossian about our mutual condition. We have most certainly gone over the cliff and hit bottom. We hit the iceberg, too. The ship sank. We watched from the leaky lifeboats as it did, while some still onboard kept rearranging those deck-chairs and thinking of England. Until it was too late.

Now what? is the appropriate question.

Now what?

I've been saying for some time that we need to re-envision a Future, because our "former Future" has been stolen from us. It's gone. We don't have that any more, and one of the signs of it is the end of the Space Shuttle program, in effect ending the American manned space program indefinitely. Americans in Space was very much a part of our collective consciousness and collective Future until very recently, and now the likelihood of it ever happening has almost vanished completely. I've posted links and clips showing what the Future used to look like (and there are a number of wonderful websites that get into it, too), and watching something like "2001: A Space Odyssey" today is really kind of shocking. To think that Stanley Kubrick's 1968 vision, based on Arthur C. Clarke's vision, of what the near Future would look like and what would be available for us to do was considered reasonable extrapolation at the time, and so little of it has come to pass, mostly relatively minor things, pretty much none of the Big Things at all (though we might want to discuss the issue of Personal Computers and the Internet, which really weren't even on the horizon in 1968 -- and why weren't they thought of seriously by Futurists in those days?)

My point is only that the Future that Used To Be is no longer operative -- or even conceivable any more. That phase of human progress is done, and American leadership of that endless quest for knowledge (which ultimately was what it was all about) has concluded -- with both a whimper and a bang. The United States and the American People are not in the lead of Progress any more; for all intents and purposes, that torch has been handed off to China with a hope and a prayer that this Chinese Century of Progress will turn out well for all concerned.

"I for one welcome our new Chinese Overlords!"

We may need to get used to thinking that way, but more importantly, as I see it, we need to think much more clearly and fully on how we want our Future, and the Future of our descendents, to be. Since the Future Vision we might once have had cannot be realized under the current circumstances, what should we have in our minds for the Future instead?

Doom and Gloom? Not in my book.

Not at all. Good heavens no.

But we do have to be realistic about the situation we're in right now, and we need to avoid falling into the metaphors and locution traps that propose that we haven't hit that Titanic Iceberg yet.

From the Lifeboat, in other words, what can we envision?

In the movie, of course, mere survival is the characters' primary concern, and survival is not possible for some of them. Their numbers will be reduced, and that's just reality, though we realize that their choices are not necessarily wise. Panic is frequent. Suffering is endured. On and on.

And yet there is a Future Vision among them, not just of Rescue (which will come, yes), but of what the survivors hold dear and want to make of their lives and leave to Posterity. That vision helps them survive.

And of course they watched the ship sink. They know they're in a lifeboat. The context, of course, of this film was WWII, and it was war fighting that got them in this predicament. They know they are all in this lifeboat together, even with an enemy, as it turns out. They must, one way or another, find a way forward -- while simultaneously finding a way to survive. From a practical standpoint, it is The Man With The Plan, ie: the Nazi U-Boat captain who sank their ship in the first place, who browbeats and muddles them through to the point where they can be rescued -- somewhat miraculously (well, it's a movie after all!)

The New York Times reviewed the movie in 1944 in somewhat of astonishment, for it does propose that the Nazi "Superman" is the only one really capable of putting the lifeboat's occupants on a course to eventual survival.

There remains the alarming implication, throughout all the action of this film, that the most efficient and resourceful man in this "Lifeboat" is the Nazi, the man with "a plan." Nor is he an altogether repulsive or invidious type. As Walter Slezak plays him, he is tricky and sometimes brutal, yes, but he is practical, ingenious and basically courageous in his lonely resolve. Some of his careful deceptions would be regarded as smart and heroic if they came from an American in the same spot.

Obviously Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Steinbeck failed to grasp just what they had wrought. They certainly had no intention of elevating the "superman" ideal—nor did the responsible studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. But we have a sneaking suspicion that the Nazis, with some cutting here and there, could turn "Lifeboat" into a whiplash against the "decadent democracies." And it is questionable whether such a picture, with such a theme, is judicious at this time.

Yes. Certainly. "...judicious at this time." Truly. How droll.

But that's playing on the Practical response to catastrophe; I'm more interested at this point in the visions each of the characters have of where they are and where they are going, and in whatever moral sense they may have of their Future.

And it is from that perspective that we need to "start" thinking about our own Future.

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