For the past few months, I have been looking at this photo and thinking I should have something to say about it pertinent to the occasion of my 70th birthday.
These are “the Schatzkin men.”In the center, my father, Harvey; on the left, my brother, Arthur; on the right, yours truly. The photo was taken in our backyard in Rumson, New Jersey in March, 1954 (note the white picket fence in the background). I was 3.Arthur was 6, and Harvey… well, we didn’t know it at the time, but Harvey had only a few years left on the planet: multiple myeloma dispatched him in 1958 at the age of 37.
Arthur died in 2011, just a month shy of his 63rd birthday. Glioblastoma – the same kind of brain cancer that nicked Ted Kennedy and John McCain.“Heart disease runs in some families,” my brother’s widow said at the time. “In your family it’s cancer.”
So here I am, having outlived them all, the only one of “the Schatzkin men” with a first-person need to learn how to spell “septuagenarian.”
How is this even possible?
Mickey Mantle ca. 1951 (not a Schatzkin)
Before I try to answer that question, let’s talk about Mickey Mantle. (What’s that you say,you don’t know who Mickey Mantle was? Then a) you’re an idiot, and b) Google it.)
Mickey Mantle’s father diedat age 40 – as did several other men in the Mantle family.Hell, they all worked in the lead and zinc mines in Oklahoma, so their early demise is not altogether surprising.
But Mickey, even though he was a strapping athlete who worked in the verdant, sunlit expanses of major league baseball, lived his life like a man who expected to experience a similar fate.He told anybody who would listen that he had no expectation of living past 40.
“I’m not gonna be cheated,” Mickey said during the best years of his career, and he conducted himself like a man bound and determined to pack a lifetime of living into half a lifetime.
When those decades of hard livingand hard drinkingfinally caught up with him – well after his 40th birthday – Mickey would often say, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
Like Mickey Mantle, I grew up expecting I was gonna be dead by 40, too.
But in my case, the lament is more along the lines of “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I might have planned my life a little better.”
By which I mean, “I might have planned it at all.”
The really odd, perplexing thing is: even though I averted that Gateway of Doom for more than 30 years ago, I still live in its shadow.
That’s despite a lifetime of therapy that started in the third grade – theyear after Harvey disappeared from the set.Despite spending countless hours in the presence of a highly regarded (i.e. Freudian) child psychiatrist, nobody managed to figure out that I’d been traumatized by Harvey’s sudden departure.
Guess who is going to have (at least) 67 more birthdays!?
Let’s do the math:
Harvey Schatzkin: dead at 37.
Arthur Schatzkin: dead at 62.
Mickey Mantle: dead at 63.
Paul Schatzkin:hearty and hale and now 70 years old!
How is this even possible?
Well, for starters, it’s possible because I’m ridiculously healthy.
Nobody is going to confuse me with Adonis or Apollo, but I get out of bed every morning, put on my sneakers and walk for two miles.I close the fitness rings on my Apple Watchand by the time I put it back on the charger each night I’ve walked the requisite 10,000 steps every day.
And, knock wood, in those seven decades the most serious illness I have ever had is the measles when I was a kid and a skin cancer on my leg that was thoroughly excised about 4 years ago.That’s it.Knock wood again.
When I had my annual physical last spring, the doc said my blood-work numbers were nearing the threshold where I might want to start thinking about possibly doing something to bring them down.That was about two months into Covid 2020: My weight was in the high 170s, but on the rise amid a pandemic spent sitting at home eating fistfuls of Wheat Thins in the afternoons and a hefty bowl of Cookies and Cream with Colbert just before going to bed every night.
At the end of July I started counting calories and commenced a practice of (daily) intermittent fasting; My weight has gone from a peak in the mid-180s to the mid-160s today. I’m gonna go see the doc tomorrow and run the numbers again to see if they aren’t below the aforementioned Threshold of Concern. In the meantime my jeans fit a lot better.
Be it ever so humble…
So if I’ve lived this long and I’m in such good health, why do I feel I should have more to show for my time on Earth than a paid-for house, a muscle-car convertible, an old truck and a crazy cat?
Others in my age bracket are settling into their retirement now: moving to Florida, setting up rocking chairs, counting their grandkids.I’m still working at a part-time job and skipped the part about having kids altogether, grand or otherwise.
Which brings me back to Mickey Mantle:Mickey said he should have taken better care of himself, and I’m saying I should have planned my life better.
If I hadn’t expected to be dead, maybe I would have paid more attention in school, gotten a better education and availed myself to one of those “profession” things that I keep hearing about.
Lahaina, Maui ca. 1984 –What else do I have to do?
Instead, my academic career was most notable for bearing the label of “underachiever.” In the years when my classmates were earning their fortunes – in some cases raking in more money than a croupier at a Vegas craps table – I might have done something more lucrative than smoking vast quantities of dope and taking tourists sailing and snorkeling in Hawaii (it was a tough life, but, dammit, somebody had to do it…).
Despite my academic sloth, I did have one substantial material success in my life.
The drugs and alcohol wore off in the late 80s. I came to Nashville in the mid 90s and, combining a little bit of knowledge of music with 15 years of experience with personal computers, I started an Internet music business – before most people had even heard of the World Wide Web.With that enterprise I found a purpose, built a business and became part of a community.Despite the lack of any formal training, I wasdoing good work, making friends and earning the respect of colleagues.
Ahead of the curve? I was there before there even was a curve.
But I swear to God, the whole time I thought, “I guess this means I’ll be dead soon…”
That was 20 years ago.The business has come and gone. I was fortunate that its demise included a “liquidity event” that paid off my mortgage and has kept meafloat for all of those 20 years.
Like a scene in a Monty Python movie, “I’m not dead yet…” – but I have struggled mightily to find a similar measure of purpose and commitment in the years since.
It’s not like I didn’t do things: I wrote a biography of “The Boy Who Invented Television” – a story that his transfixed me since my years on the periphery of the TeeVee business in Hollywood in the 70s.As that volume went into the world in the fall of 2002, I imagined that I’d embarked on a career as a “biographer of obscure 20th century scientists.” Unfortunately the fabled ‘sophomore effort‘went off the rails and took that career idea with it.
There have been several other fuses lit – that burned off into duds.
But… wait a minute. I’m not supposed to be finding a second or third career. I’m supposed to be dead – like my father, like my brother, like Mickey-fucking-Mantle.
And yet…. here I am.
How is this even possible?
I know that part of the answer to that question is a tale of sobriety.
“I’m not dead yet!” because “The Reverend” Gene Perkins introduced me to AA in 1987
With the help of a friend who 12th stepped me into ‘the program’ in 1987, I stopped smoking, drinking, and snorting just in time to avoid imposing my father’s fate upon myself.I have not had a sip, a sniff, or a puff since shortly after I turned… wait for it… 37. I did a lifetime’s worth of drinking, I just stuffed it all into half a lifetime.Me and Mickey – except, in my case, without the incurable liver disease.
Now I reach the biblically prescribed three-score-years-and-ten wondering “why me?” and “what for?”
The decades-long inability to find answers to such questions – and make further contributions to the household treasury beyond paying off the mortgage and spending stupid money renovating the place – might be one reason I find myself living alone at age 70.
Like everything else, that situation changed dramatically this year. Where I once got to spend several days each week having occasionally meaningful encounters with actual other humans, for the past several months I’ve just been sitting at a computer terminal staring at a screen and listening to people mumble inaudibly about stuff they need.A couple of times a day I get to conjure up some useful knowledge and make a modest difference in people’s lives, but mostly it’s been telling cardholders from the International Bank of Entitlement that they cannot have the thing they want in the minute that they want it.
Arthur @ 2-1/2, Ellen @ 29, me @ 5 weeks.
That’s when the part about ‘not having a plan’ starts to gnaw at me.I start to think “this is not what I had in mind…” for this stage of my life.Then I remember, “Oh yeah, I never really had anything in mind for this stage.I didn’t expect there would even be a ‘this stage’.”
Which is when I stop thinking about the male side of the family and wonder if maybe I got a longevity gene from my mother’s side of the family.She lived until she was 81. In fact, she got married for the third time when she was 73.
Maybe that’s why, along with all the other thoughts percolating above, I keep circling back to this vague idea that I will (or should?) do something remarkable with my 70s.
“I took the tablets an hour ago. I’ll be gone by midnight.”
Given my continued good health (did I mention knocking on wood?) it’s not unreasonable to surmise that – like my mother – I’ve got a good ten more years before faculties fade and organs start breaking down and I have to face the decision that Ruth Gordon made in “Harold and Maude” (you can Google that, too).
Then I catch myself, and begin to question this whole fixation, this lingering self-and-social pressure that I am supposed to “do” and “strive” and “accomplish.”
I recall something Kurt Vonnegut (admittedly, no slouch in the “doing” and “accomplishing” departments) said: “I am a human being, not a human doing.”
And then it dawns on me:Maybe I’ve finally reached the point where I can stop obsessing on the “doing” part of life and just make the best of the “being” part.
Maybe, in the eighth decade of my life, that’s enough.
It’s certainly more than Harvey and Arthur – and Mickey – were doing at this point in their lives.
This is 70 (OK, I took it last night, so it’s actually 69+365 (since 2020 is a 366-day leap year)
(Care to comment? I think we’ll gather most of them here at Facebook; in the space below if you’ve managed to get yourself out of roach motel….)
I might be paraphrasing a bit here. The quote went by pretty quickly in the middle of a screening of “Without Getting Killed Or Caught,” the documentary about Guy Clark (and Susannah Clark and Townes Van Zandt for good measure). He was actually recalling how he captured the refrain from his signature song, “L.A. Freeway,” which became the title of his biography by Tamara Savarino.
Which I read after hearing this review by John Powers on NPR:
With a born writer’s killer instinct, she likes to pounce on us with arresting chapter openings, such as this first sentence about her second husband, Ebbe: “Whenever I try to recall his face, I always see him the way he looked that day I told him there was someone else.”
I got some pushback from the quote above when I posted it to social media from the “everything a man says about a woman is misogyny” crowd. Suffice it to say I don’t think they quite got my meaning. I’m still working on it.
Yes, I appreciate the message. After four years of chaos, the “Reunited States of America” is a soothing sentiment.
But as your two-minute mini-epic rolled across my screen last night, something didn’t settle right.
It dawned on me only slowly who I was listening to.“Wait… I know that voice… who is that? Whoa! It’s Springsteen. Doing a commercial? Have the end-times arrived? The same guy who wouldn’t let Peter Bogdanovich use his recordings in a movie about a true-life character who loved his music – that guy was now doing a Super Bowl commercial?
By the time I recognized the dulcet voiceover, I had already seen the Jeep logo and theunmistakeable Jeep grille and Iknew who the commercial was for.Those frames were followed by more stirring, folksy images of The Boss in his cowboy hat, riding his Jeep around wintry midwest land-and-city-scapes (did anybody stop to wonder who was that crazy dude riding around in the open Jeep in the dead of frozen-fucking-winter?) all the while invoking comforting sentiments about “common ground” and “the middle.”
The spot ended and I was still trying to figure out what I had just witnessed when I recognized the source of my agitation.
There is more going on here than meets the eye or ear.
For starters: “Jeep” is a reveredAmerican brand.We are not reminded of that until the very end of the spot, when a simple trio of graphic images informs us that this yearis the 80th anniversary of the Jeep brand.
The Jeep brand is only 9 years older than Bruce Springsteen
The “jeep” has a long and storied history.
All those SUVs we see on the roads today can trace their origins back to the opening days of WorldWar II, when the Army gave a company called Willys Overland less than two months to produce a prototype of the first four-wheel drive vehicle ‘General Purpose’ vehicle, or the “G.P.”G.P. – get it? G…P…. Jeep.That light, utilitarian vehicle became a staple during the War and in every war movie since.Hell, my parent’s first ‘car’ was a Jeep.
Harvey and the Army surplus jeep he named after my Aunt Elinor, whose nickname was “Bumps.” Milton, NJ ca. 1948
Now, I’m gonna take a little space to confess to a bit of a mixed relationship with Bruce Springsteen.
I like his music as much as any red-blooded American Boomer, though I’m not as obsessed with as his most rabid fans.My sentiments toward “The Boss” are more personal and rooted in our common backgrounds
He grew up in essentially the same part of New Jersey that I did.His home town of Freehold was the seat of Monmouth, the county on the Jersey shore where I spent the 11 years off my childhood.And when I hear about his days at the Stone Pony or see the title of his first album, ‘Greetings from Asbury Park,’I conjure fond recollections of those carefree days when my grandparents took me to ice skate or ride the carousel at the Casino on the Asbury Park pier.
Nowadays, when people ask where I’m from I tell them “I’m from Springsteen Country – Monmouth County, New Jersey.”
But wait, there’s more: When my family moved closer to New York, I found myself going to junior and senior high with a kid named Max Weinberg.Max was a drummer.His band – The Epsilons –was the band my friends’ bands were always losing out to in competitions for school dance gigs.It’s no surprise thatMax went on to become the drummer in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, and perhaps one of the 10 or 20 most famous drummers of the late 20th and early 21st century. When he shows up on TeeVee I think “I know that guy…”, and he is the most sought-after figure at our high school reunions.Everybody has a Max story.
Max Weinberg, slayer of teenage band ambitions.
As for Springsteen’s music, I truly enjoy the highlights like “Born to Run” and “The Rising” – and ignore the low-lights (not that there are really all that many).I’ve seen him in concert three times, but always found those big arena shows, while full of buoyantenergy, kind offrustrating. Invariably the sound was distorted to the point that lyrics are unintelligible, though I observed that most of the people around me didn’t care because they know the lyrics by heart anyway.I do not know all the lyrics by heart.Not even “Born to Run.”
Nevertheless, I have all the requisite respect and admiration for Bruce Springsteen’s artistry, his integrity, his honesty, and the way he has turned his life into a vehicle of phenomenally successful commercial art. There is no denying that “Born in the USA” offered the perfect counterpoint to Reagan’s union-busting and tax-breaking in the 1980s.
So at first blush, it seems entirely fitting that one American icon would endorse another in a wide-screen ode to National Unity.
And it grieves me slightly to confront the nagging sense that something is awry here.
It took The Google and Wikipedia to get beneath the surface of this seemingly benign two minutes of Sportsball Interruptus.
Now I am beginning to understand the cognitive dissonance.
And once again, “the medium is the message” (#TMITM).
…whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in…the “content.” The technology disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instructions, conversation…
“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to [its] deep effects.We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads…
That why I think The Boss was duped: dazzled by his ability tocreate brilliant content, Bruce may have lost sight of the larger context. The content, in other words, got lost in the medium, which in turn conveys the underlying message.
Poking around the web last night after the game, I found this New York Times account of the spot’s origins and development:
When [marketing exec Olivier] François received the script for an early version of the Super Bowl ad, he sent it to [Springsteen’s manager Jon] Landau. Within 24 hours, he had a virtual handshake deal with Mr. Springsteen… Mr. Landau said the Boss had created the ad with his own creative team. “Bruce made the film exactly as he wanted to, with no interference at all from Jeep,” he said.
Fair – and effective – enough.
Still, despite the uplifting sentiments expressed in high-def and surround sound in my living room, something about this spot left me scratching my head.
For starters – and as I learned from the Times – who even knows that the iconic American “Jeep” brand is now owned by a multinational conglomerate based in the Netherlands called Stellantis?
Does it not seem at all ironic that this poetic call for American Unity comes from a company based in Amsterdam???A company that we have never even heard of?
Stellantis? What the hell does that even mean?
That’s why, despite all of his admirable good intentions, I don’t think even Bruce realizes the underlying dynamic in this seemingly benign endorsement.
What Bruce missed is that a message like this does not get through mainstream media – it certainly doesn’t merit the many millions it takes to air a two-minute spot on the Super Bowl – unless it serves the imperatives of the companies that are paying for it.
The content of the spot may be national reunification, but the medium – and thus the subliminal message – is monolithic multinational corporate capitalism.The very forces that eviscerated the working and middle classes that Bruce Springsteen has championed for nearly fifty years are now using his voice to appeal for “unity” – not only to sell more Jeeps, but to quietly mollify us.
Because buried in that message is our acceptance of their corporate dominance of our political economy.
While you are comforted in a warm, emotional appeal, please ignore the fact that companies like Stellantis are contributing millions of dark dollars to cap the minimum wage, secure tax cuts for the rich, turn a blind eye to the environment, deny health care to millions, and ultimately perpetuate the sameforces of oligarchy, discrimination, racism, patriarchy,etc etc. that Bruce Springsteen and Co. have crusaded against or nearly five decades.
With our eyes and ears we see and hear “The Boss” soothingly intoning his call for ‘reunification’ – but what’s going on inside our heads is the subliminal message that invisible, heretofore nameless multinational corporations are looking out for us and trying to bring us together.
Don’t buy it.
The people that own “Jeep” are not your friends. They are not your neighbors, and they don’t care if you get another $1,400 in pandemic relief – or that somebody in your family has died from the pestilence.
They just want you to think warmly about their brand, and accept them as our benevolent corporate overlords.
I don’t mean to discourage viewers from enjoying the spot; if you found it touching or moving or otherwise meaningful, good for you. I was moved by it, too. But also unnerved.
I might be overstating the case to suggest that by serving his own purpose while serving the sponsor’s that Bruce was “duped.” I’d like to think he took all the angles into account in his calculations. He seems smart that way.
Still, they cleverly waited until deep in the 4th quarter, when the outcome of the game was already certain, when we were all beer-buzzed in a cheese-and-crackers coma to present their message – subliminal or otherwise.
And they got Bruce Springsteen to go along with it.
No, really… who drives an uncovered Jeep around Kansas in the dead of winter?
It’s been a few weeks now since a mob of fugitives from reality staged their clown-show coup attempt on the Capitol.
In the weeks since, millions, probably billions, possibly trillions of words have flashed across digital screens to assess the damage.
Here now are my two-cents worth of pith in that vast ocean of virtual verbiage.
Cent The First: In which I offer some high-altitude observations about technology and the way our brains process information in an attempt to make the case that America doesn’t have a political problem – it has a mental health problem. The ‘net effect’ (pun intended) of all this new technology is a raging, widespread – dare I say, pandemic? – case of undiagnosed #BrainDamage.
Cent The Second: I keep coming back to an historical analogy that struck a few days after the siege at the Capitol.I’ll get to that near the end. Bear with me, this is a long one…
Peer with me now into the verbal kaleidoscope through which I have viewed all things since roughly 1968, when I first encountered the work of a certain Marshall McLuhan, who wrote in 1964 that “the medium is the message” (#TMITM).
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980
That expression gets tossed around a lot, but it’s not clear that any of the pundits who do the tossing really know what it means, so herewith a simple explanation from the pen of the master himself:
“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”
Writing at the peak of the broadcast era in the mid 1960s, McLuhan described the impact of electric communications on a world that until that point had evolved around print media:
After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding… Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace…
…which extension, McLuhan coined further, led our arrival at the outskirts of a ‘Global Village.’
Fast forward to the 21st Century. What would Marshall McLuhan make of the Internet?We cannot know, because McLuhan died in 1980 – about the time I first went online with a 300baud modem, dialing up a service called ‘The Source‘ (and later Compuserve).That was 13 years before I first learned of the actual Internet:In the late fall of 1993, I discovered Listserves and User Groups.The first Netscape web browser arrived about a year later.
Absent McLuhan’s mystic oracle, it falls to a new generation of witnesses to adapt his theories to these new media, networks, and devices.
In the introduction to his 2010 (think MySpace…) book – The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains (hell, just the title oughta be some kind of clue) – author NicholasCarr picks up the torch that McLuhan set down when he moved on to that great media lab in the sky. Carr combs through the dense, often opaque verbiage of McLuhan’s seminal works from a half-century earlier to distill the pertinent elements for the digital era:
“McLuhan understood that whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in…the “content.” The technology disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instructions, conversation…
“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to [its] deep effects.We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbedby the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads…
“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” McLuhan wrote. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without resistance…”
(italicized emphases added)
In other words,
“Media work their magic – or their mischief – on the nervous system itself…”
To underscore that point, consider this (only slightly) over-simplified illustration of how a brain on paper pages differs from a brain on digital ‘pages’:
As you read these words on a screen, does it occur to you that the characters, sentences and paragraphs you see are not really ‘there’?
When you read a book or a newspaper, you are reading solid characters inked onto a fixed surface.The letters are permanently imprinted.They are ‘there.’
Persistence of vision? Let General Motors explain it all for you (ca. 1936) (click image)
Now consider for a moment how a movie works.What the brain interprets as ‘moving pictures’ is based on a phenomenon called “persistence of vision” – each frame of the projection remains impressed upon the retina when the next frame appears a fraction of a second later, creating the illusion of motion in the brain.
Persistence of vision is at work when you read text from a screen. Printed words and images exist outside the brain; digital words and images exist only inside the brain. On a computer, smartphone or tablet display, the characters you read are painted in pixel fragments before your eyes; the characters don’t really exist until your brain assembles the pixels into what you think you see.Compared to reading printed text, the brain is working very differently, lulled into the illusion that it is reading ‘text.’1 The brain circuity is effectively re-wired to recreate the experience of reading printed text.Therein lie the origins of America’s mental health crisis.
Returning to The Shallows, Nicholas Carr concludes,
[We miss] what McLuhan saw:that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.”
Staring at our gizmos, as predicted in 1906 (click to embiggen)
By now, how we act is fairly obvious: we’re staring at shiny glass objects in our hands all day, massaging them with our thumbs in an infinite quest for both tactile and psychic gratification.We can’t so much as stop at a red light without at least feeling the impulse to reach for your gizmo.Got any new email? New likes? What’s that sound?Oh, the guy behind is me honking cuz the light’s turned green…
All of that is in the realms of what we think. How we think is less obvious – until an event like January 6th seizes our collective attention with a mind-altering what. the. fuck?
It should be equally obvious by now that ‘what the fuck?’ is really pretty simple.
It’s the Internet, stupid.
All this new technology has ripped a galactic tear in the fabric of our information universe and torn loose the underpinnings of the political and economic foundations of society.We witnessed the culmination of all that disruption in the halls of Congress on January 6th .
Where McLuhan was writing in 1964 of a cultural ‘implosion’, we must now assert a new, opposite conclusion: Over the past fifteen or twenty years, that implosionhas reached a critical mass and has reversed course, exploding in a universe-altering Big Bang of cognitive dispersion and dissolution.
Think of that clown-car horde swarming the Capitol. Then return to McLuhan describing television in 1964, like a barbarian order:
“The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, and blind about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on which and through which the American way of life was formed.”
Translation: Our Constitution was drafted as a compromise between large states and small, slave-holding and free. But that was just the ‘content’ of the time; the dominant medium of the era was print.The Constitution was cobbled together in much the same way that a printed page was assembled in the 18th century –at a time when the fastest information could travel was the speed of a galloping horse (“the Redcoats are coming!“). It’s a genuine marvel that it has lasted this long, more than a hundred years after information started to travel at the speed of light.
Imagine Marshall McLuhan writing fifty years later, in2014 – two years before Twitter and 24- hours cable news produced Donald Trump.
21st Century Barbarians, armed with cell phone cameras
Barbarians at the gates, indeed. They are everywhere. There is no longer a single point of origin, like a newspaper printer or a radio or television station. Now the points of origin have reached parity with the points or reception. Everybody who has a laptop, a tablet, or a smart phone is a printer and a broadcaster.
What humanity is undergoing now is nothing less than a complete reversal of the cultural trajectory of the past five hundred years, mandated by the fragmentation bomb of digital technologies.
There are no gatekeepers.
Hell, there aren’t even any gates.
No wonder it was so easy for a mob of digital Visigoths to storm the ramparts of Congress.
the blue -> red political spectrum as a mental health assessment; on the left, a healthy, normal (blue) brain, on the right a diseased (red) brain
From the first ape with a thigh bone to the first nerd with a slide rule, cultural evolution has followed technological disruption.
If you can entertain the premise that the advent print in the 15th Century produced the Reformation (Bibles for everyone!) and The Enlightenment (Principia for everyone! Shakespeare for everyone else!), then you may begin to appreciate how the advent of digital communications has produced the chaos that we seem to be living through now.
Starting in the mid 1990s, when personal computers became common household appliances and we all got charmed by the chime of “You’ve Got Mail!”, to the early ‘aughts when broadband delivered the Celestial Jukebox into our pockets and purses, with all the collected knowledge of human history at our disposal with a couple of finger taps, that was enough to alter the way even the soundest of brains work.Most brains are not so sound.
Per McLuhan: The way information is organized, disseminated and gathered affects the way it is processed in our brains – and therein lies the root of our current dilemma:the Internet has rewired our brains, and a not-small percentage of humanity has gone from their brains being ‘rewired’ to actual#BrainDamage. What else can you call the widespread inability to distinguish between that which is real and true and that which is fabricated and conspiratorial?
In the third decade of the 21st Century, America is not suffering from a political divide; it is suffering from a mental health crisis.What is perceived as a political divide is not between left -v- right, it’s between the #BrainDamagedand the nominally functional who can still wrestle effectively with the vestiges of the Enlightenment: science, reason, and some grasp of objective facts.
In a recent episode of his podcast Another Way, the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig makes this straightforward observation:
“You can’t have a democratic republic if there is no foundation of shared truth.”
What the internet (and its older cousin, 24-hour cable news) has done is compromise the underpinnings of that foundation.The atomization of information has given every smartphone, tablet, and laptop user the ability to define their own reality – and more importantly, find at least some small cohort that will echo that vision.
I’m not a psychiatrist – I’m just playing on one the Internet – but it seems to me thatthe inability to process or live within the constraints of an objective reality would warrant a clinicaldiagnosis: schizophrenia2. I dunno, maybe there is a better DSM category for ‘unable to process reality.’ But how else would you describe a condition where otherwise seemingly functional people are suffering hallucinations of a free, fair, and certified election being ‘stolen’?
The mass delusion started settling in on January 20, 2017, when newly inaugurated President of the United States Donald J. Trump invoked the catchwords that will be carved onto the tombstone of his four years in that office: “American Carnage.”
But the real destruction – to the “foundations of shared truth” – did not begin until the following Sunday, when Kellyanne Conway went on Meet the Press and inaugurated the Era of Alternative Facts – at which point the Lawrence Lessigs of the world became headless statues, relics from a vaguely recalled, ancient past.
The content here is ‘alternative facts’; the message is, ‘you can’t have alternative facts without a media environment comprised of infinite sources and echo-chambers.’
Four years later, in his 2021 Inaugural address, Joe Biden spoke of “this uncivil war” – an oblique allusion to the rhetorical excesses of the previous four years.With that prompt, and for the sake of argument, let’s see how even a ‘shared foundation of truth’ can lead to a real Civil War:
America’s Civil War was the unfathomable penance the country was forced to pay for the absolution of its Original Sin.There was a deep and long-standing disagreement over the moral propriety of the ‘peculiar institution’of slavery:Advocates from the South, like Kentucky Senator Henry Clay or Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens could argue that the enslavement of humans from another continent was morally justifiable; abolitionists in the North considered the whole idea morally repugnant, degenerate and evil.But nobody denied that slavery in America existed. Nobody from the South had the temerity to say that slavery did not exist on the cotton and tobacco plantations.However objectionable, there was a ‘foundation of shared truth’ in the obvious, odious fact. The opinions around that factwere sufficiently entrenched on either side of the Mason Dixon line that the bloodiest war in American history was all it took to finally decide the issue.
That’s an example of struggling for the moral center of the Republic over a generally accepted fact –and going to war over the attendant difference of opinion.
NY Senator Daniel Moynihan, furtively arguing against “alternative facts.”
The trouble is, facts are not so agreeable in the 21st Century as they were in the 19th.The late Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” I haven’t spoken to Senator Moynihan – he’s been dead for almost 20 years – so I think it’s safe to say that he is glad he did not live long enough to encounter the psychic carnage of ‘alternative facts’ and the mental instabilities of QAnon.
In November 2020, there was an election.The votes were counted.More than 60 court cases in countless different jurisdictions determined that the results of the count were free and fair, and allegations of widespread voter fraud and a ‘stolen’ outcome were universally dismissed.
But not so fast if you live in your own Internet-generated reality.Despite all the evidence, the forces of opposition cannot even agree that the conclusion is a certifiable, reliable, acceptable fact.Allegations of impropriety persisted despite their demonstrable falsehood. I contend that what we are witnessing is the message in the medium – in the form of digitally-induced brain damage.
I also think we have seen the worst of it. The fever dream is breaking.
The monument on Cemetery Ridge marking ‘The High Water Mark of the Confederacy’
Finally, I have arrived at the history lesson that was the genesis of this entire screed. Sometime shortly after the Spectacle in the Capitol, the expression “high water mark” began bubbling in my brain.
This is something I learned during the Civil War Sesquicentennial through my work with The 1861 Project.
Pickett’s Charge was the final Confederate offensive at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was already on its heels after falling short over the previous two days, but Lee decided to launch one more daring assault.
Lee ordered General George Pickett to advance his division across a mile of open field toward a Federal entrenchment on a rise appropriately enough called Cemetery Ridge.Despite monumental losses at the hands of Federal forces firing down on the advancing Confederates,the surviving element of Pickett’s division managed to reach the top of the ridge and briefly penetrate the Federal defenses.
Had that penetration held, had the Confederate forces prevailed on that day, then Lee and what was left of his Army might have been able to achieve their ultimate objective – advancing another 80 miles south to take the Capital at Washington, DC and end the War with a Union surrender.
But the Federal forces rallied, closed the breach in their line, and forced the Confederate Army back down the ridge.
That was the closest the Confederacy ever got to winning the Civil War. There is a monument that marks the spot where the Pickett’s Charge broke through as “The High Water of the Confederacy.”
Despite the Union victory at Gettysburg, the Civil War ground on for another brutal year and a half before Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April, 1865.
Stephen Lang as Gen. G. Pickett in “Gettysburg.” Lee: “General Pickett, you must look to your division!” Pickett: “General Lee, I have NO DIVISION!”
That image of Pickett’s Charge (which I am probably seeing in my mind’s eye from the 1993 movie ‘Gettysburg‘), is what comes to mind when I watch footage of the Capitol siege.
The element that stormed the Capitol that day were the victims of a con, susceptible by virtue of the #BrainDamage they have suffered from the disorienting effects of digital technologies.
And while there are still voices of derangement in Congress and elsewhere, those elements are now, finally, being pushed back to the fringe where the lunatics belong.
And I predict that someday in the not-too-distant-future we will look back on January 6, 2021 as “The HighwaterMark of The ConLunacy.”
The Federal Forces of Reason reassembled around an agreed upon foundation – beginning later that same day when Mitt Romney stood in the well of the United States Senate and declared of the fringe element:“we have to tell them the truth.”
At that moment, a long-absent concept was re-introduced into the political discourse: Lawrence Lessig’s ‘shared foundation of truth.’
Like a newborn infant, that concept struggles to survive.The forces of obsequious, sycophantic partisanship have not yet been driven entirely back into the intellectual swamp from whence they came.
Remember: although it took a year and half before Lee finally surrendered, the die was cast that bloody day in the summer of 1863.In much the same way that the forces of Union, democracy, and emancipation were not ultimately victorious until the spring 1865, the forces of reason and competence, science and data have been restored to the Federal government in 2021 – and will ultimately prevail in some near-if-unforeseeable future.
Some things are facts. Some things are fabrications.And even with the Internet (and all the gizmos that deliver it) undermining our print-engendered, Enlightenment-fostered processes of thought and reason, there is too much common sense in the world for an ideology based on fabrications to persist much longer.The tide has turned, the ConLunatics have been forced off the ridge, and ultimately, the Union of Common Sense and The Foundation of Shared Truth will reconstruct the Republic of Shared Truth.
Forget the elephant; this is the new symbol of the Republican party.
We are seeing the nascent signs of the return of reason, even as the media continue to focus on the bright, shiny insanity of people like Marjorie Taylor-Greene.The Kevin McCarthys and Lindsey Grahams of the world cannot help themselves.They live in the partisan confines of their own derangement.They cannot tell that their brains are broken, because they live inside them, like a fish does not know it swims in water.But there are a few – like Romney, like Adam Kinzinger or Liz Cheney, whose brains are not broken, who have managed to wade through the digital muck and arrive at a semblance of objective facts reality, and truth.
I am, for example, encouraged by one prominent conservative columnist who dares to wonder aloud , “Just How Nuts Is The Republican Party?”It’s about time somebody inside the tent started asking who’s pissing into it.
And there are indications that even the most deranged among us are capable of seeing the light, can repair their own #braindamage, and begin to put this Internet-induced mental-health crisis behind us.
What were you doing when YOU were 22 years old??
There is still a lot of work to do.My God, there is a lot of work to do.
How much longer can we continue to be governed by (ageism alert!) septuagenarians (I get to say that because I are one) and octogenarians whose brains are more cognitively attuned to the workings of a rotary dial than a smartphone?
How much longer can the fate of the republic rest in the hands of one individual who presides over a legislative body where ten sparsely populated states have the same representation as one state with forty million people?
How much longer can we live in a republic where the chief executive can be elected with something other than a majority of the electorate?
Something’s gotta give, so that we can return to the kind of governance where, when things are running well, we don’t have to think about it every waking minute of every day.
We should not have to worry about our national political structure; we should just go about our daily lives.
My favorite image from the inauguration: the first couples, holding hands like they mean it. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
But when the entire nation is in the grip of a pandemic, then that political structure has got to unify around in a common objective without the interference of a delusional fringe caught in the grip of a mass hallucination.
Further, we Boomer types have got to pave the way for the next generations.
Beside the words “All men are created equal” and “We the People,” we must enshrine the words of Amanda Gorman: “We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.”I’m sure that is a very different state of affairs than the republic of propertied white men that the Founders envisioned, but it is also the natural result of the trajectory they set in motion.
I am also encouraged by this recent commentary that surmises a peak in the swing of America’s pendulum, reaching the top of a forty-year cycle that started with the ascendance of Reagan conservatism (and the long since-discredited ‘voodoo economics’) in 1980. The pendulum is beginning to swing back, into a 21st Century embodiment of the sort of collective purpose that the country experienced beginning with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.
After four very dark and strange years, we have finally emerged into the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.The light is dim now, there are still shadows from the darkness, but the worst of the darkness is behind us, and the arc of history bends again toward justice.
It may be summer or fall before the light shines brightly, but once the pandemic is behind us, 2022 could be the start of another Roaring 20s. Only this time without the Prohibition.Too bad I don’t drink.
In addition to this viral pandemic, maybe by then we’ll have found a way of treating our nationalmental illness pandemic as well, and we can begin to welcome the digitally deranged back from the fringe. The deliverance of a prosperous and healthy nation will make it that much harder for a fringe element to gain the sort or traction this period of chaos has provided.
It’s really not like a grizzled curmudgeon like me to express that degree of optimism.
But… there it is.
Where are my shades?
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This clip depicts the climactic moments of Picketts Charge from the 1993 film Gettysburg – the only Civil War movie ever filmed at the actual location. Click here for a playlist of the entire sequence of scenes from the film.
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1: I’ve gotten push-back on this line of thinking in the past.Here’s my push-back push-back:When you put a newspaper down, set it aside, are the letters and words still on the page?When you close your laptop, or put your tablet aside, are the characters stillon the screen?No?I rest my case.
2: There may be a more accurate term for the condition exhibited by the Delusional Branch of the Republican Party.Maybe it’s just dementia.Like said, I’m not a psychiatrist, I just play one on the Internet.Your mileage may vary.
(In case you’re wondering: for the past several weeks, I have been enrolled in an online class exploring The Future of Constitutional Democracy hosted by Clay Jenkinson, the creator of The Thomas Jefferson Hour radio program and podcast that I have been listening to for the past 20 years. This week, participants in the class are asked to submit their suggestions for Amendments to the United States Constitution. Here’s mine:)
In his critique of the proposed Constitution that was drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, Thomas Jefferson – from his post in Paris as emissary to France – wrote to James Madison on December 20, 1787 about the need to for a Bill of Rights that would limit the new National Government’s powers and protect the Liberties of ‘We The People:’
First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly & without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal & unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land & not by the law of Nations
In October 1788 – during the period when the Constitution was being ratified – Madison wrote to Jefferson about the components of a Bill of Rights, which by then several states had insisted be added to the Constitution:
With regard to Monopolies they are justly classed among the greatest nuisances in Government…. Monopolies are sacrifices of the many to the few. Where the power is in the few it is natural for them to sacrifice the many to their own partialities and corruptions…”
Nevertheless, of the several protections that Jefferson and Madison discussed , the (only?) one that did not make it into the Bill of Rights when it was ratified at the end of 1791 was any provision that would have permitted “restriction against monopolies.”
When Madison and Jefferson were talking about monopolies, the Industrial Revolution had barely begun, and the monolithic concentrations of wealth with which we are now so familiar were not even a glimmer in their imaginations.
And yet, here we are, two centuries later,with multinational corporations superseding the power of sovereign governments, and using their vast wealth to bend those governments to their will – precisely as Madison predicted: sacrificing the welfare of the many to the “partialities and corruptions” of the few.
Over the course of the past century-and-a-half, one convention that has allowed corporate power to accumulate unfettered is the notion that “corporations are people” – and therefore entitled to the same rights and privileges extended to “persons” the Constitution. This convention has taken on ominous new meaning in the 21st century with 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, wherein money was likened to speech and so could not be restricted under the protections of the First Amendment.
Accordingly, I propose a Constitutional Amendment that would serve the neat trick neutralizing Citizens United and begin the process of restoring the sovereignty of We The People:
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The rights, privileges, and protections embodied in this Constitution, and the laws adopted under its jurisdiction, are intended for the benefit of natural persons only.
[The first iteration of this post ended with the clause: “without regard to gender, race, religion or ethnic origin. I hesitate to add the last clause, which effectively breathes new life into the languishing Equal Rights Amendment.I am reminded of John Adam’s rejoinder to Abigail, “one revolution at a time” (paraphrasing), but, hey, were just thinking here, right?]
Hartmann traces the origins of “corporations are people” to a relatively obscure 1886 SCOTUS case, Santa Clara County -v- Southern Pacific Railroad – but stresses that the doctrine was not expressed in the decision in that case.Rather, it was taken for granted prior to the decision being rendered.
Morrison R. Waite – 7th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
On p. 104 of Unequal Protection, Hartmann describes a statement made from the bench by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite to the attorneys representing both sides in the case:
The court does not wish to hear arguments on the question of whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are of the opinion that it does.
[Waite] then turned to Justice Harlan, who delivered the Court’s opinion in the case.
Thus, according to Hartmann, the matter was never actually decided, it was just taken for granted prior to the delivery of a decision denying the right of Santa Clara County to tax the railroad in a manner unequal to other forms of taxation.
Waite’s statement was recorded in the ‘headnotes’ to the actual decision byCourt Reporter (J.C. Bancroft Davis) appended to the actual decision in SCC-v-SPRR.
That statement-not-a-decision has been with us ever since – and a Constitutional amendment originally intended to assure the rights of newly emancipated Negroes has been used instead to assure those rights to corporations (so much for “originalism”).
For the sake of this Proposed Amendment, I would argue that Waite’s conclusion was ‘wrongly presumed’ (you can’t use the Justice Speak of ‘wrongly decided’ here because it was not actually “decided”).Corporations are most decidedly not like actual human persons.Corporations can
–exist in several places simultaneously
–change their identities at will
–chop of parts of themselves or
–sprout new parts
Just that first provision – that corporations, unlike “We The People” can live forever – should be enough to disqualify them from enjoying the same rights as natural persons.
And yet an obscure note, appended to a late 19th century SCOTUS decision, has bestowed the artificial persons called “corporations” with the same constitutional rights and protections accorded to actual persons. And now those artificial “persons” can spend as much money as they want to influence our political process.
Grover Cleveland (Donald Trump’s inspiration for running again in 2024)
A few pages further into Unequal Protection, Hartmann quotes President Grover Cleveland, who rang an alarm about corporate personhood and monopoly power in his State of the Union Address in December, 1888:
As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel.Corporations, which should be carefully restrained creatures of the law and servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”
A Constitutional Amendment clarifying the definition of the word “persons” will eliminate the notion that “corporations are people.”
By denying corporations the rights and protections guaranteed to We The People in our Constitution, we can begin to reverse that domination and achieve the freedom from monopoly that Jefferson and Madisonwrote about in 1787.
I agree, Jimmy, but it was never an actual “decision” to begin with!
I suppose by now everybody who wants to has seen the Original Broadway Cast recording (not film!) of Hamilton – the musical sensation where a multi-ethnic cast (only George III is portrayed by a Caucasian actor) sings and dances their way through the classic (i.e. white-man’s version) tale of America’s Founding.
I’ve watched through the whole thing twice already, and various fragments of it as well and honestly… I think it’s pretty fucking fantastic.
I (finally!) managed to see the stage rendition last December when one or the ‘bus and truck’ road shows (finally!) found its way to Tennessee Performing Arts Center (aka TPAC) in Nashville. And I thought it was pretty fucking fantastic then, too.
So, I will admit to being a bit of a Hamilhead – though perhaps not as much as the fellow I watched it with on the 4th of July who has seen it on stage like half a dozen times. I considered myself quite fortunate to have seen it the once.
Anywhoo…. Hamilton was the First Thing.
The Second thing was… this ongoing discussion (via video conferences) that we’ve been having at my job about the whole #BlackLivesMatter moment and the necessary conversation the country has been having about the systemic racism which has been part of the American Story since…. well, since 1619, if you wanna be precise.
As part of that discussion, I volunteered for a “History subcommittee” that was assigned to come up with presentations to the rest of the staff about… well, whatever we wanted to dig into.
And since this discussion was all happening around the video release of Hamilton… I got the bright idea to do a (semi) deep-dive into the role (black) slavery played in the lives of all the (white) characters who are featured in the musical.
Open rabbit hole… fall in.
This turned into about 6 days of pretty much non-stop work: researching all the Founders portrayed in the musical (thank you, Internets), and then distilling what I learned into a Keynote presentation. Which also meant getting somewhat skilled with Keynote (Apple’s version of PowerPoint) and putting all my Photoshop chops to the test as well.
What was supposed to be maybe 10 minutes morphed into more than 20 minutes worth of material, and I finished the first complete top-to-bottom run through last Saturday – about 15 minutes before presenting it to a Webex with 100+ people tuned in. It was very warmly received and several people asked me to make it a video and put it on the YouTube.
Which meant another two days of fine-tuning; In addition to sorting out the vagaries of the Keynote application, I have also been grinding my way through a program called Logic to learn audio editing, which I decided to do to grab some clips from the actual show. And then I had to figure out how to put it all together in iMovie so that I could upload it all to YouTube.
It’s a 24 minute production that took me about 60 hours total to compile -basically the most actual “work” I’ve done in all the time I’ve been #HomeAlone. I guess it was about time I did something useful.
That’s all you need to know about what this is and how it got here. I’ll drop it the embed in here again so that if you’ve read this far you don’t need to scroll back to the top.
Thanks for watching. Leave your comments on the YouTube page.
My dentist is in the L&C Tower at 4th & Church, so I went downtown yesterday for the first time in four months. It was truly exciting to be able to put the top down on a beautiful summer day and have an actual place to go.
Once I got off the Interstate… “eerie” doesn’t begin to describe it.
I started to wonder where I was when I turned eastward onto Charlotte Pike and there was not another car in either direction for blocks. I passed a demonstration at Legislative Plaza where somebody was barking something through a bullhorn about the State Police stealing citizens property (hadn’t heard that protest before). I found a place to park right at the entrance to the garage (no circling around floor after floor looking for the one empty space).
The street was basically empty of pedestrians, though I was surprised/pleased to see that even outdoors most were wearing masks.
The lobby of the L&C tower was empty, with social distance markers spaced along the floor leading to the bank of empty elevators. I rode 9 floors to the dentist’s office alone in the elevator.
In the office, the waiting room was empty; The two women behind the desk were wearing masks. I was greeted by a masked young man who pointed a thermometer at my forehead and handed me a Covid Questionaire: “do you have a dry cough? fever? chills? headaches? fatigue?” After checking several boxes “no” I asked “are there any trick questions here or can I just mark them all ‘no’?” I handed the clipboard back and immediately went to the rest room and washed my hands.
The rest of the visit was like all the visits before. Hooray for nitrous – the only buzz I get after 32 years without a sip, a sniff, or a puff. The hygienist agreed with me that, despite all those awkward, adolescent years with braces, my front-lower teeth are “a mess.” She scraped away as best she could. My teeth are clean now. Mission accomplished, now back to solitary…
I drove down 4th Ave to Broadway, past several of the honky-tonks. More eeriness: the streets were empty, though here the few tourists I did see were less enmasked. What was weird was to hear country hits and standards blaring out of the clubs, and look inside to see them mostly empty. The sound echoed around the street in ways I’d never heard before.
Re-reading this before posting it, I realize the most-used word is “empty.”
Surprisingly, there are still scooters parked on the street, but it doesn’t appear that anybody body is using them. I’m surprised that’s still a thing.