Sunday, 30 December 2012

H.L. Mencken and life's end

The central aim of life is to simulate extinction.’ H.L. Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was a journalist very much of the old school, which is to say, he combined immense erudition with an ease and facility of language that makes even the most trivial of matters deeply engaging. The words of Homer, Socrates, and other ancient Greeks meander through his writing as if just uttered in a casual conversation by a good friend; Kant appears to make some profound pronouncement from time to time, while Spinoza jostles with Hobbes to a get a word in. And then there are the literati, the great wordsmiths through the ages, observing on this and commenting on that, adding their lustre to the bright light Mencken’s words possess as naturally as a tree has leaves.
They don’t make journalists like that now, and perhaps they didn’t even make them like that then. He was certainly a rare bird, perhaps even unique among his kind. In fact, Mencken was really no journalist at all; he was an observer of the human condition with eyes like laser beams, who just happened to publish his thoughts in the newspapers.
Time passes and we forget much. Some of the tomfoolery and chicanery – particularly that of the booboisie, as he styled them - that caught Mencken’s eye means nothing to us now, yet his writing is so captivating it retains an immediacy, as if we are reading today’s paper. Others, such as the Scopes Monkey Trial, are famous in themselves, and will always warrant our attention. Finally, there are those of his writings which treat of timeless subjects, his musings on mortality, for instance. These will always speak to us, so long as we retain our human concerns.
Mencken - life as a belly-aching laugh.
His writings are filled with a bubbling joie de vivre, a genuine amusement at the circus of it all, even as he gazes, unblinking, into the great abyss of meaninglessness at its heart. A wry smile lurks behind everything he wrote. And behind much of what he wrote there is a belly-aching laugh.
Like many of those who think more than cursorily about life and what it’s all about, Mencken thought long and often about death. And he wrote about it well and often. In the end, he concluded, in all that we do, we seek to obliterate the awareness that we are. There are times when literary paradoxes are little more than party tricks, the verisimilitude of profundity standing in the place of actual profundity. But in this instance – as in so many others – Mencken was not dealing in cheap prestidigitation; he was merely speaking the profoundly mundane truth.
In the still hours of the night, we all become aware of our essential nothingness, a dreadful awareness that assaults the misguided but persistent sense we all have of our own significance. Fiercely conscious, as I am, of my Self, I cannot accept this Self is quite literally without meaning. The Self asserts its own importance, and so we await the dawn, when we can rise and busy ourselves with myriad trivia, dressed up as matters of much meaning, so that for a time at least we are no longer aware of pointlessly being. In other words, by busying ourselves with all we can conjure, we strive to achieve the same state we will enjoy when we are dead – a state of being in which we are no longer troubled by the awareness of being, and the fruitlessness of existence. We are ostriches with our heads buried deep in the existential sands. It is an unsurpassable irony that our awareness, however subconscious, of the pointlessness of existence – and all that we do while we exist – leads us to give meaning to all that we do. It is the means by which we hide from ourselves what we could not otherwise face. It is, wonderfully, a paradox of the most sublime truth, the sort of sublime truth that brought a great and knowing smile to Mencken's face.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Pigs on the high street

Strolling along the high street in the days after Christmas, one has the disquieting sense of having wandered unexpectedly into a pig farm. With their snouts snuffling away in the trough, all the little piggies are hard at it, buying, buying, buying. Of course, just when a degree of moral superiority threatens to elevate you above the jostling pigs, you discover that you’ve become the biggest porker of the lot. You gobble your swill and reflect on how much sheer, unalloyed pleasure is to be had from purchasing something that’s on sale. So much pleasure, in fact, that you start buying things you couldn’t possibly need or use. Take me, for instance. Among other odds and ends—a gadget for peeling bananas, an inflatable pillow you can use to take a nap on your desk, and something which might be a screw-driver, but I can’t be certain—I bought a pair of lady’s lacy black knickers, size small, which is utterly ridiculous, because I’m definitely a size medium. But there they were, on sale, so what could I do?

More happy shoppers on the high street.

In praise of democracy

Like everything else in this life, we expect too much from democracy. Like children who believe their parents can make everything better, we think politicians can solve all our problems. And like parents who tell their children soothing stories to get them to sleep, our politicians whisper in our ears that everything will be all right. And we believe them. Or we pretend that we do. At a certain point, children stop believing that Santa brings their Christmas gifts, but they don’t want to give up the sweet notion, so they try to stay as long as possible in a state of belief-unbelief, knowing-yet-not-knowing. And parents, too, can see when this has happened, but they play along, trying to keep the illusion from dissolving, trying to keep the innocence of childhood for just one day more.

And that’s what we’re like with politicians. We know they can’t really deliver us to the Promised Land. We know that half of them don’t even really care, just so long as they get to enjoy that sense of being important, that sense of being someone who matters. As if they matter any more than the rest of us. So we know they are whispering empty phrases, meaningless phrases, phrases as hollow as a hangman's laugh, and they know we know, but we all go along with it, just to keep the illusion going a little while yet. But not to worry, we’re pretty good with illusions—and delusions—so democracy isn't going to come unstuck any time soon. We’ll just keep right on believing—and not believing—and all will be well.

Oh, and those sad saps who don’t vote because they think it’s all just a vile cesspit of corruption? Pity the fools, for they also think that Santa doesn’t bring them their Christmas gifts.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Mayans and the End of Days

As we stand poised on the abyss of annihilation which has apparently been foretold by those particularly perspicacious folks, the Mayans, I would like to humbly suggest that, in my heart of hearts, I think I should be planning to have something to do on 22 December. I don’t mean to be rude or dismissive of such an august culture (or those who presume to interpret it), but I just have a hunch we’ll all still be here the day after tomorrow. But I have a hunch, also, that while we will still be here the day after tomorrow, we may struggle to stick around the day after tomorrow (which I mean figuratively, as in, a hundred years or so from now), if we don’t clean up our act. Let me explain.

Collective action problems abound in this world of ours. We may individually be brilliant, there might even be the odd genius in our midst, but collectively we tend to be, as often as not, imbeciles (which gives us a nice collective noun for any group of people, ‘an imbecility’). There are problems of commission ('The amount of pollution coming from the exhaust of my car is negligible, so why should I give up the comfort when no one else is doing so?' thinks every one of the several billion drivers on the planet). And there are problems of omission ('Why should I go to the effort of recycling when no one else does?' thinks every one of the several billion consumers on the planet). In essence, it’s someone else’s problem, not mine. And this is a problem. For us all. Individually and collectively.

Why is this such a problem? Take the vexing problem of climate change, for instance. At present, fossil fuel CO2 emissions continue to rise dramatically. In 1990, they stood at about 21 billion tonnes. By 2010, they were approaching 32 billion tonnes (the only blip in this magnificent ascent was in 2008 when the financial crisis briefly slowed production). And the rise is showing no signs of slowing down (if anything, it’s speeding up). In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that these emissions would lead to our planet experiencing a 4°C rise in temperature by 2100. This is considerably, if not drastically, above the 2°C rise which the Panel said should be avoided if we wished to go on living in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed (or, as will be the case in some places, just living). As it happens, that prediction was made using an antiquated model. Thank goodness for progress! Now we know that it is much more likely that the temperature rise will be between 5–6°C by 2100, and there’s even a 10% chance of a rise of 7°C. Much as some people might think they would like to see a slightly warmer climate, one doesn’t need to be a rocket (or climate) scientist to appreciate that none of these figures are good. They’re bad. Very, very bad. Now, to do anything whatsoever about this requires collective action. And that means we need to act individually, as a collective, to reduce our emissions. But as long as everyone thinks it’s someone else’s problem, then we’ll do nothing, but slowly roast (or freeze, or drown in the deluge, or be blown away by yet another oversized hurricane).
Another imbecility of people.
And the rising temperatures are not all there is to be concerned about. They’re just one part of the very big, complex and rather unnerving situation we now face (read all about it, it's wonderfully gripping, in the New Scientist, 17 Nov 2012). So the end of days is not likely to be tomorrow, I am willing to wager, but if we don’t cease our collective denial (the one thing we seem to be able to do collectively reasonably well), the end of days just might not be that far away.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Right to Bear Arms

I do not wish to speak directly of the dreadful calamity that has befallen the people of Newtown, Connecticut. It is a tragedy, and like all genuine tragedies, words are profoundly empty vessels when confronted with such loss. But I would speak generally of the United States, for there is much that might be said here.

The United States of America is a remarkable country. For those of us who witness it from afar, it is all too easy to point out its manifold shortcomings, our smug criticisms an expression of the resentment we feel in the face of a country so much more powerful than our own. But like all the easy positions and attitudes we adopt, it is egregiously flawed. We like our views to be simple, easily held in the mind, but the reality is that reality is not like that - it is complicated, uncertain, changeable. We pass over the facts that do not fit our preconceptions, but as we do so, we also pass over any possibility of actually understanding the world as it is. So, too, with America. It exhibits, quite literally, the very best and the very worst that humanity can do. It is a country stretched taut with contradictions, and as now one, and now another, dogma is in the ascendant, the country shifts itself heavily from side to side. And all the world moves.

Among these contradictions, there are few as fundamental as America's relationship to guns. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were the founding ideals of this great country. But the country was also founded, quite literally, at the point of a gun, whether it was held by a patriot confronting a loyalist, or a settler expelling natives, or a Yankee against a Confederate, or the United States itself against one of its neighbours (even if it later tried to make this look like a reasonable sale and purchase by giving Mexico a certain sum of money).

No other country I can think of has such veneration for the gun, its place in the collective psyche enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Yet no other country I can think of has been hurt so much by the gun - in peacetime, at least - as has America. And as tragedy follows tragedy, its collective psyche is again and again traumatised.

The Second Amendment is as the Gospel for those who carry guns in America. Yet despite the perversity of certain Supreme Court Justices, it is clear enough that the framers of the Constitution intended only that arms could be borne for the purposes of serving in a militia in the defence of the nation. In the absence of a need for such a militia, the right to bear arms itself evaporates. There never was a freedom for anyone and everyone to be armed in the United States. And thus, this is perhaps one contradiction that the country would do well to resolve sooner rather than later.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Labour Party infiltrated by agents of the right

The Labour Party has clearly been infiltrated by moles, sleeper agents, call them what you will, slyly doing the bidding of their masters, the nefarious and shadowy fiends who control the National Government. That, at least, can be the only explanation for the Labour Party's almost heroic dedication to ensuring it is never again elected to office. Well, I suppose it could be put down to a degree of stupidity and political naivety not seen since Chamberlain returned from Munich to say what a nice chap that Adolf was, but I think it more plausible that agents of the right have succeeded in sinking the cause of the left.

The most signal achievement to date of these agents is the selection of David Shearer as the Labour Party's leader. Is there anyone less inspiring, less articulate, less likely to win a raffle, let alone a general election? Shearer is, undoubtedly, a very nice man. His heart, as they say, is in the right place. He has worked to bring the light of humanitarianism to those who suffer all over the world. And that is admirable.

But humanitarians don't win elections, at least, if they do, it's not because they're humanitarians. Elections are won by those who inspire and have a vision, who are articulate and charismatic, who can convince the people that, if only they follow, the Promised Land will be theirs. Being nice is not enough. Being clever is most definitely not enough (indeed, it can be a positive hindrance). Having a clear grasp of all the details of all that's happening in the world is not enough. What matters is that you sound like you know what is happening, that you appear authoritative, that you act as one who was born to lead. The average voter hasn't the time, nor the inclination, to be concerned with details. The collective citizenry vote with their instincts, not their heads, and their instincts are rather blunt instruments. Thump them over the head with the message that you'll best represent their prejudices, and their votes will be yours.

One of the moles that has infiltrated the Labour Party.

John Key may mumble, but even his mumbling is articulate enough to pass muster, and besides, his smile is so reassuring, one hardly notices the mumbling. We're too busy basking in the reassuring glow of his smile. Until the Labour Party comes to its senses, ejects the agents of the right, and chooses a leader who can actually lead, they will languish in their haplessness.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Exciting new government initiative!

Hot on the heels of the government's exciting announcement that many of those currently unemployed in New Zealand are enjoying a 'different kind' of unemployment, the news broke recently of another ingenius government initiative aimed at helping the unemployed find work. Evidently thinking way, way outside the box, and having taken all the excellent learnings from previous failed policies, the government has been flying job-seekers to Australia, because at the end of the day, what matters going forward is that we reduce New Zealand's unemployment rate, any old how.

In a rare show of modesty, it was not actually the government itself that announced the policy, perhaps in fact because the policy was initially implemented under the previous government. So, in a bid to gain the recognition it feels it deserves for having come up with the ingenious idea in the first place, the opposition party brought it to everyone's attention. 'It was our idea, totally ours, you know, we thought that if we could send all of those currently unemployed somewhere else, then, well, we wouldn't have any unemployed, would we!', said Jacinda Ardern, barely able to conceal her pride at being associated with an idea so dashed clever!

Not to be outdone, however, the government has signalled its intention to launch a new policy under which all poor people will also be sent somewhere else, possibly Antarctica, thereby immediately and dramatically raising New Zealand's median household income. What will they think of next!

Another party of NZ job-seekers about to head across the Tasman.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

A stain on Chelsea's reputation

Good news, at last, for Liverpool FC. While they continue to be utterly mediocre - even if they do make a fine reality TV show which rivals the Kardashians for sheer gripping drama - they at least can now watch as Chelsea FC suffer through all that they themselves have previously gone through. I am sure, sure, sure, that Rafa Benitez is a very nice chap - avuncular, sort of bouncy with a bonhomie that no number of losses seems able to deflate - but he clearly has no affinity for football. And this is an unfortunate trait in someone who tries to pass himself off as a football manager. It's as if the Incredible Hulk (or even Hulk, the incredible Brazilian) thought that putting on a little black dress would be enough to pass himself off as a lady of easy virtue. Or even just a lady.

So, we can all sit back now and enjoy watching an entirely different Chelsea team take to the field, week in, week out. His selections may not be consistent but, as with Liverpool, the results will, no doubt, be easy enough to predict. Rafa is so keen to make use of everyone in any way connected with the team - being, as I said, such a very nice person, he doesn't want anyone to feel left out - we may well see the chap who does the team's laundry make an appearance. Mind you, perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad thing. I mean, he does the laundry, they might at least keep a...wait for it...clean sheet!

'You did the shirts in a hot wash!?'