Hamlet with Extra Cheese in California

A poor thing, but mine own: Colina Middle School in Thousand Oaks, California put on a production of my student play Hamlet with Extra Cheese , available until the Tromp of Doom from Brooklyn Publishers. Here we see Birnham Wood come to Dunsinane, Julius Caesar and the fickle plebes at the Senate, Lady and Mr. Macbeth, et alia.

THE AMERICAN DEMIURGE: In Which Toto Pulls Back the Curtain on Consensual Reality

A great number of Americans no longer live in the real world; they subscribe instead to a false reality, composed by a false creator I would describe as the "American demiurge". The American demiurge is a deliberate distortion of consensual reality, a false idol erected by marketers, lobbyists, editors, advertisers, public relations executives and “spin doctors”.

The ancient Gnostics were troubled by a dissonance between the reality we wish for and the world as it is. If God is good, why make a universe that includes childhood cancer and suffering innocents? They imagined a creature called the demiurge, a “false god”, who created this imperfect, indifferent reality. The true Creator, they believed, exists on a plane beyond the one we can perceive. Humanity worships a cruel deceiver, while the God of the Real languishes unseen, and weeps for our self-inflicted wounds.

Human dictators have always tried to construct a flattering version of reality as a means of social control. The oppressed may comply with the slogans and the rituals, but more than a few know they’re being lied to. Americans, of course, are free to flatter and lie to themselves, to embrace our self-made chains and customize them with charms and ring-tones, too. Edward Bernays, the father of modern propaganda and advertising, called this “engineered consent”, “crystallizing public opinion”. The techniques were used by Goebells to sell Hitler, and by Bernays to sell cigarettes. The heirs of Bernays and Goebbels, professional illusionists, now dominate our culture.

Imagine our perception of reality as a bead on a wire, with absolute truth represented by a mark at the center of the wire. We adjust the bead this way or that, but because our senses can never hold all the permutations of an event, the best we can hope for is to get the bead a little closer or a little further from the truth. Wander too far from the truth, and the bead slides off the end of the wire and falls to the ground.

Still, mundus vult decipi-- “the World wants to be deceived.” Americans have again and again elected administrations that shape reality by manipulating our perception of what is true. The opposition sputters like a straight man trying to out talk the Marx Brothers; serious men are made to look like fools, and fools elevated to the presidency. We have had eight years of a White House that mocked “the reality based community” and denied the existence of any truth that could not be altered with the proper mental framework. This is an ethic as old as making a lame horse look healthy, or gilding a leaden crown.

When reality catches up with us, when brute fact slaps down our mental constructs, the showmen shout down the dissidents until the rubes doubt the evidence of their own eyes. We have wandered far from objective reality and embraced what will sell. The mainstream rushes to the theatres, swallows the panaceas, votes for the best marketing campaign. The counterculture is likewise compromised; the rebel’s cri de coeur will be used tomorrow as an anthem to market clothing, cars, and retirement plans.

Self-delusion has attached itself to our commercial culture like a virus mimicking the genetic code of a cell. The Fourth Estate currently wallows in celebrity coverage and revels in shame like an alcoholic in the gutter. News executives can no more resist the latest frenzy than a fish can rebel against the sea it swims in.

Marketers and public relations executives, high priests of the demiurge, are as amoral as a weapons engineer who sees each murderous device as an interesting technical problem. They smile, they flatter, they insinuate, they distort, and take great
personal offense if someone calls them a liar. The logic of the marketplace convinces them of the virtue of almost any cause, whether selling toothpaste or a politician or a war.

If our culture has a dysfunctional relationship with reality, the first step would be to recognize that we have a problem. Our task is to insist that simple honesty is recognized as the essential policy in the marketplace of ideas, and warn our citizens that the American demiurge is a god of illusion.

An Irish bishop, George Berkeley, once “proved” that matter did not exist. Dr. Johnson refuted Bishop‘s notion by kicking a stone and saying, “I refute it thus”. The rock that Dr. Johnson kicked has been picked up by the fellaheen around the world, and they aim to put it through our front window and hit someone in the head.

© 2007 by Michael Fountain

My President Staged a Coup, and All I Got Was This Lousy Orange T-Shirt

The gentle journey jars to halt,
The drifting dream is done;
The Deadly, that we thought were dead,
Stand waiting, every one.

(Walt Kelly, For Lewis Carroll and the Children)

The political news, to be frank, has been so unrelentingly ghastly as to render me speechless for some weeks. Instead, I've retreated happiily to spending my creative time in the 12th century with Eleanor of Aquitaine, researching, drawing and writing an eight page web comic for submission to DC's Zuda comics project. Now I emerge from my marmot hole to find Bush still posturing (if a bit stiffly), and Cheney still grabbing more and more power for the Executive, his delayed revenge for the Church committee's reining in the CIA. Al Qaeda thrives in the environment created for them by a clumsy America. Gonzales is gone, but Michael Mukasey can't quite bring himself to say that a president can't break the law. These things anger us, but we cannot claim surprise; these are all cases of a scorpion acting like a scorpion, true to its nature.

Worse than these, perhaps, is the Congress' inability to put the brakes on an monarchist president. They don't have the votes, even for something as clear cut as Bush's veto of health insurance for poor children while spending billions in Iraq. How, then, will they find enough members to understand what's at stake in Bush's suspension of habeas corpus, rendition and torture without hindrance, domestic spying without judicial oversight? This mealy-mouthed generation of Democrats cannot rebel without asking permission first, or apologizing afterwards.

"Trust me", says the scorpion when he asks the frog for a ride across the river, and then when he stings the frog, the frog is naive enough to profess surprise. Again and again, President Bush has told the Congress, "Trust me to know what I'm doing," ignored their edicts, and used "signing statements" (more than all other presidents combined) to make bold his intention to do exactly what he wanted to do in the first place. Is this not "contempt of Congress"?

Wake me when they're ready to recognize that Bush's coup has reached the level of "treason, high crimes and misdemeanor". We cannot impeach the creature for simple incompetence-- that's the American people's fault, in voting for him-- but how can it be that this popinjay has skated over the law again and again, without breaking the ice?

What I'm Reading: Clive James' Cultural Amnesia

Came back Sunday night from the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, much too over-stimulated and inspired by many meetings to give a coherant account of the experience: I saw this one, heard that one, developed a little crush on another, bumped into this one or saw such-and-so a mighty one from a distance drinking overpriiced scotch in the hotel bar. I expect the anecdotes and insights will come dribbling out bit by bit as I have time to process them.

Here is one such: the comic book artist Matthew Dow Smith and I had an informal gripe session about why some "superstar" artists who shall remain nameless turn into shitheels. I compared notes from my own experience watching medieval graduate students evolve into professors and my own brief encounters with the famous (in my experience, famous persons most deserving of reknown have been the least pretentious, and showed the most curiosity about the world around them.) It costs so little-- seconds really-- to show noblesse oblige to someone farther down the ladder than yourself, and pays off down the road by spreading good will. He was interested in my ideas about the "poison mentor", the false friend and father figure who uses the apprentice instead of teaching them, a type who causes at least as much damage in society as the overly-analyzed "devouring mother".

All this is prologue to saying that Cultural Amnesia is a very generous book, by which I mean Mr. James has crammed so much good thought and bonhomie into this collection, you can browse just one or two of the essays and come away with passages that will keep your wheels turning for a week. Cultural Amnesia is a collection of original essays concerning the violence of the past century, a handful of people who did their best to stave off the darkness, and favorite writers off Mr. James' shelves. I plan on giving it to my more thoughtful former students as a friendly introduction to the larger world of humanistic thought and why it matters, as generous a gift as the Durants' Story of Civilization. A long time ago, a casual recommendation by a professor when I was a teen led me to Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and the works of Joseph Campbell, and when I came across them years later, took me miles from where I started. Cultural Amnesia is that kind of resource. This is how we are nutured by those who have gone before, rather than exploited.

Slate magazine has a selection of some of the essays here, enough perhaps to make you buy a copy and keep it on your shelf for reading with your morning coffee. I got mine as a birthday present and read it through the summer, starting with characters I was already familiar with, and then more slowly from A-Z. Someone in the old Whole Earth News recommended this approach when reading new reference books: start by reading the entries on a subject you already know something about, and if it's good, start working your way in deeper.

It's like a really good buffet from a generous host. This morning I dipped into "Hegel" and "Keats" and found enough in there to have me muttering to myself the rest of the day. Here are a few bites from the essay on Adolf Hitler:

"Some of the last aphorisms written by the great Robert Musil were devoted to summarizing the pathogenic nature of Hitler. Beautifully crafted statements, they had no effect on Hitler whatsoever."

"... a sufficient concentration of violence could neutralize any amount of culture, no matter how widely diffused."

"It may seem unfair to condemn intellectuals who conspire to undermine vulgar democracy in favor of a refined dream for failing to foresee the subsequent nightmare. And Moeller was only one among many. But there were too many: That was the point. Too many well- read men combined to prepare the way for a pitiless hoodlum who despised them, and they even came to value him for being a hoodlum: for lacking their scruples, for being a drum of nature."

If that doesn't take the piss out of the neo-conservative "intellectuals", the Podhoretzs, Kristols and Abrams who have enabled Bush the past several years, now foisting Rudolph Guliani on us, nothing will-- their self-love is adamantine.