Cloudy, with crazy periods

By Gene Miller, July/August 2014

Nature is demanding a new appreciation of limits—and that seems to be driving some of us mad.

Likely you’re reading this on a brain-addling sunny July day, not able to frame a thought more complicated than “Pizza.” Maybe you’ve taken one too many positivity workshops and have selective (air quotes) recall that immediately sloughs the bad stuff: “I can’t hear you, bummer-free zone, lalalalalala!” Or maybe you just have a porous memory. Whatever the reason, you’re excused if, when you read “Saturday, June 14th,” you think “Huh?”

Let me take you back. Victoria woke to a cool, raw morning, almost wintry with misting rain. The sky from hem to hem was thick, grey, one-dimensional. You could scoop a cup of the wooly sorrow from your fourth-floor balcony. Top story in the Times Colonist online was a bizarre tale of some jerk in a truck who, the night before, led police on a merry, slo-mo, car-ramming, pedestrian-threatening chase from Clover Point through Downtown to Mayfair Mall where, finally, the cops managed to punch his ticket. No doubt, we’ll learn from updates that he was high, or off his meds, or just fired from his job, or bummed because his girlfriend stopped hooking, or because his biker buddies ripped off his Duncan-area home grow-op. Maybe his favourite team was just trounced in the World Cup in Brazil, or he was undone by grief over Russia’s political interventions in Ukraine.

His style may be novel, but he’s not alone. For months now, local media has been trumpeting regional stories about abductions, rapes, arson, break-ins, robberies, knifings, shootings, violence in schools and workplaces—in all, the repertoire of those who crash through social boundaries. 

What’s going on? Is this just a rash of isolated incidents, a “silly season” of violent excess and lethality, or are we missing some pattern? [Reader Alert: wild theorizing and a lurching quest for first principles beyond this point.]

A bad year for Victoria, and a bad and bloody year for the world. The murky, tribal insanity in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East powder keg. Skirmishing around Russia’s borders. Oil and energy supply jockeying that carries high potential for gun-barrel outcomes. Epidemic violence in the trigger-crazy—in fact, the increasingly by-any-means crazy—US, a disturbing hint that the rules of interaction are disintegrating, and a presage of worse to come. All matters, personal and public, are becoming more positional and ideological. Obama proposes; Republicans oppose. Politics in America is increasingly pugilistic and prone to extremes, and it seems as if the box corners that frame social interaction are threatening to break apart. Whatever glue held things together is losing its elasticity and its binding power. 

Maybe I’m just spending too much time exposed to online bread-and-circuses journalism—Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, among others—which could leave anyone feeling like they had been dragged over the media equivalent of broken glass. You know: “Rihanna Smokin’ in a Teeny Bikini!” “Rebels Advance on Baghdad!” “Parakeet Walks Like Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Tramp’!” “Milwaukie Vaporized in Rogue Nuke Attack!” 

Still, opinion from a source as hallowed as the New York Times about US Congressman Eric Cantor’s recent trouncing in Virginia by Tea Party contender David Brat—not that Cantor wasn’t a neo-Con worm who deserved oblivion—is enough to give one the squirms. Political, social, economic and other forms of moderation are under assault; and if you are searching for an “up here” reflection of placid Canada’s own terror of what lies beneath the surface, look no further than the face of Stephen Harper, our Punisher-In-Chief, the scowl-packing, disapproving El Jefé of our national soul, more and more resembling in appearance Dr Szell in Marathon Man asking the Dustin Hoffman character “Iss it zafe?”

Were I an oversensitive, handwringing hysteric—instead of the calmest person in the room—I would be screaming “End Times! End Times!”

Noted the New York Times editorial board on June 11: “The forces of political nihilism not only remain alive and well within the Republican Party, but they are on the rise. Eric Cantor’s crime? He was occasionally obliged, as a leader, to take a few minimalist steps toward governing, like raising the debt ceiling and ending a ruinous shutdown.

“David Brat’s most effective campaign tool was a photo showing Mr Cantor standing next to President Obama, portraying Cantor as just another compromiser, just another accommodationist to the power of big government.”

Without lending any cover to the perpetrators of individual acts of violence or evil, I would advance a line of loosely “ecological” speculation as my grand theory of everything. We’re rapidly approaching absolute limits—of land and room, wealth, opportunity, productivity, improvability, resources, capacity, output. We can read it in the news; we can feel it in our bones. After a very long march under the banner “do less with more,” nature itself, through the medium of global warming, is telling us “do more with less.” 

The words make it seem like a disarmingly simple idea, but economically and culturally it’s a thoroughly indigestible message. At a global scale, humanity, throughout its entire history, has never heard it before. It puts the entire mainstream belief system and all ideas of personal freedom and entitlement—especially the way the Tea Party crowd and the gun (oh, sorry, freedom stick)-waving rednecks mean it—and the world of limits on a collision course. That is, our economy and culture, built to almost their last detail on the cornucopian ideal, are now confronting a world of ever-more-apparent constraints. This is a prescription for terrible outcomes. “Mother Nature is saying ‘No?’ Let’s kill mommy!” We’ve gone crazy.

It’s risky, especially for folks with febrile imaginations (thinking of others, here), to load individual events with a level of metaphor they can barely support. Still, at some point, you have to stop saying “Yup, ‘nuther mass schoolyard slayin’” and come to terms with the possibility that however elusive, this might be a pattern with an idea, a meaning, behind it. A line from A.O. Scott’s review of the Alexander Payne movie Nebraska comes to mind: “ America that is fading and on the verge of giving up, blighted by envy, suspicion and a general failure of good will. Hard times are part of the picture, and so are hard people.” 

A general failure of good will.

By most standards, Victoria’s a million miles from a general failure of good will. But I note that while we can measure the number of sunny days, or housing starts, or voter turnout, or employment levels, such mastery itself can make us hubristic and forgetful of the value of putting an intuitive wet finger up to study where history’s blowing. For example, reacting specifically to the killing of three Mounties in Moncton, the Times Colonist penned a sober June 15 editorial entitled “Seeking a way to stop killers”:

“It sometimes appears that mass murders of this kind are random and unpredictable. The perpetrator just ‘snapped’ and caught everyone off guard. But that’s not how it is. The people who commit these acts spend months, sometimes years, planning their attacks. Most are bitter and consumed by fury. They hold nothing but contempt for the society they live in, and mean to take revenge…But the power to predict human actions with any certainty remains beyond our scope.” 

Focused, too piously, on individuals who are “bitter and consumed by fury,” the TC editorial misses a larger, if more elusive, condition: These days, entire social cohorts, millions strong, are bitter—in their minds, robbed of imagined freedoms and opportunities, their lives compromised, their spirits hemmed in by big government, immigrants, gays, speed limits, credit limits, environmental regulation and eco-scolds, whatever. Scratch the surface down south and how far do you think you would have to dig to hear: “What’s that nigger doing in the White House?” But behind the aggrieved Tea Party and other assorted (and borderless) wing-nuts is that vaster lake of worry and insecurity—benign and manageable at the moment, but very real—as an entire social class, whip-sawed by non-stop good-times spending inducements, frets that the wheels of economic security and opportunity are about to fall off. 

In a book whose title I can no longer remember, someone says: “Things are good, then all of a sudden sweet goes sour and you never really know why.” Trouble doesn’t advance in a straight line. It doesn’t announce its scope or telegraph its end-point.

When times like this happen, people squeak out, behave badly. But from an ecological perspective—that is, the idea of limits—violence to three Mounties or to a young woman on a late-night street is not that much different from the violence done to the commonwealth by the corporate looters and hoarders, so accurately profiled by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, or the planetary violence perpetrated by oil sands rapists.

Jeremy Rifkin writes, in The Empathic Civilization, of a “fledgling Third Industrial Revolution that is ushering in a new era of ‘distributed capitalism’ and the beginning of biosphere consciousness. We are on the cusp,” he adds, “of an epic shift into a climax global economy and a fundamental repositioning of human life on the planet.”

Climax? I have no doubt. Repositioning? That sounds ominously like code for thinning the ranks. Anyway, Jeremy, cusp on, and best of luck. 

I just have a simple question: Iss it zafe?

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.