I was thinking about what to slap on this note as a title, based on a pretty simple thought, a pretty sad sign of things when I think about it. What is there to conclude about the state of affairs, when fiction is doing the best job of getting to the truth about reality, and what’s presented as truth about reality is often largely fiction? In recent days, I happened to find myself watching a couple of movies on television that got me thinking about this again.
One of them was The Day The Earth Stood Still, a 2008 remake of a science fiction oldie.
One day the people of Earth are surprised by the sudden appearance of large mysterious spheres from space landing on the planet. Everyone freaks out, including the president and vice president of the United States scrambling off to hide in unspecified secure locations, leaving the Secretary of Defense in charge in Washington, under remote command of the president. No one knows anything about these spheres and what sort of beings are involved. So, predictably, the response to this unknown is attack, kill, and destroy. That turns out, unsurprisingly, to be pointless and futile.
One of the beings of this alien civilization, through some mysterious process, transforms into inhabiting a synthesized pseudo-human body, to deal with the humans as one of them, including speaking English, of course.
That being, a character called Klaatu, ends up being held as a prisoner by the military, which they eventually discover is only possible as long as he tolerates that mistreatment. Over time, a scientist, who actually dares to stand apart from the people of official authority regarding anybody and anything unknown and beyond their understanding as an enemy and enemy attack, actually talks with the being Klaatu, and what’s actually going on is revealed.
The humans assume that these beings have come to kill us and steal our stuff, or colonize the planet. At one point the Secretary of Defense states the basic essence of her kind; the assumption that of course they have come to wipe us out and take everything here for themselves, because that’s what we would do.
Klaatu reveals something very different, that probably never occurred to anyone. This race of beings has not really come to the Earth with that in mind.
It turns out that their civilization has been observing the Earth and human race for a long time, and they have arrived on scene now because they decided the circumstances of Earth had reached emergency levels. They concluded that it was time to step in, before it was too late.
They have come to the Earth in defense of the Earth, because some kind of turning point threshold had been reached, and that they had to act now to save the Earth from us. They were coming to save the Earth from being destroyed by humans and all the various examples of our destructive insanity.
The other movie was Lord of War. The main character is a weapons merchant, whose life alternates between living a life of luxury in New York City and making business trips to various hellholes to sell weapons to assorted evil goons who make the places hellholes of death, misery, and destruction. The customers are sometimes evil tyrannical dictators, sometimes bands of murdering goons who all seem to call themselves some Liberation Front or People’s Army or “freedom fighters”, who liberate nobody, free no one, and serve no people except themselves, and their own drive for power for themselves and some sort of bloodlust.
Not everything goes well for arms merchant Yuri. At home, he appears as what many people would regard as a wonderful ideal of “successful entrepeneur”, extremely wealthy, married to a beautiful wife, luxurious life in New York, all that jazz. Things do not go well for him, as events unfold, and the general course of the story is his decent into Hell, as he drags countless other people into Hell, and profits handsomely from doing that. At some point, a law enforcement agent nabs, and arms dealer Yuri calmly tells him what will happen. Some US top military brass will come along, have a quiet private word with the agent, and Yuri the merchant of death will walk free, because powerful people in the United States government find what he does useful, doing what they want done, while keeping the ugliness removed from them in the kind of thing that might be called “plausible deniability”.
Both of these are works of fiction, but we could get derive some very large hints from them.
James Kunstler’s Monday blog note of the week is Commotion, obviously a bit of appropriate followup to a good and concise comment from a recent guest on his weekly podcast, Eric Zencey, referring much of what passes for “economic activity” now as “a commotion of money“. That phrase is a great way to capture the essence of a lot of what is going on.
So much of what is flying around as economic activity has little to no connection to things and work of real useful value, and is just a gigantic mad phantasm of a game of keeping transactions, of any kind, churning around. It hardly seems to matter what, to the players, as long as the churn keeps thrashing away, because the players involved at the core have figured out how to pretend to “create wealth” as they just skim off their share of what passes through “The Markets” and get something for nothing, with the added principle that they can never have enough.
I have used the word phantasm many times to describe the thrashing craziness of all the games playing out on Wall Street, and, reflecting on this now, I really can’t think of a better word to capture the reality of that world, which is to say, the unreality of so much of it. As a new business week begins, the same dog and pony show plays out on CNBC, although stuck in the middle of the screen among all the market numbers information, the usual chatter of infotainment market monkeys is subsumed by the running news-without-information about a very different commotion, as somebody has apparently gone nuts with a gun in the Navy yard in the nation’s capital.
That scene on television, in all the channels of cable news world, is playing out almost as a complete scripted routine, cliché, as any “Breaking News!” drama does.
Lots of random shots from all over, linked by satellite, of random places, with lots of official persons charging around in vehicles with flashing lights. Endless loads of people cloaked in helmets and body armor and the name of some government agency printed on the gear either run around seemingly at random, or walk around at random, all carrying weapons, all playing out some chaotic clusterfuck of a dance of looking like they’re really doing something.
School systems anywhere within miles of the main scene go into “lockdown”, because we must think of the children (is anybody there actually in some danger?). At some point people chatter in the direction of TV cameras and microphones about the now apparently mandatory question asking if this is an act of terrorism. Official type persons address microphones to make statements to The Public saying, obey authorities and be very afraid.
As that played out, there was a bit of a detour, to a live speech being given by the president, talking about “the economic recovery”, with some blurb about how “the economic recovery” needs to be more diversified. I think this is an interesting way of almost, but not quite, revealing the truth that the only “economic recovery” has been in all the previously mentioned phantasms and contrived games.
Just one example of how detached from reality much of the public chatter has become is talk about “the housing recovery”, which, judging from various accounts and observations, seems to largely consist of various financial entities going around scarfing up foreclosed houses at cheap prices, swooping in to take advantage of people’s misfortune, to hold as assets and possibly use in wealth extraction exercises as rental properties (for people who are now unable to actually buy a house).
Midweek, the latest pronouncements from Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke declare that the program of “quantitative easing” will continue to buy up massive amounts of debris of worthless paper assets of financial derivatives frauds and phantasms of pretend wealth to make the accounting frauds work for the Wall Street entities holding them, and buying up an endless stream of US Treasury bonds to finance bankrupt government.
The results, from the way it looks at the moment, is a day of all time record highs of the magic numbers of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P index. It’s worthwhile to consider that the continued “stimulus” of the Fed’s QE3 plan and near zero interest loan money from the Federal Reserve (not for you, citizen) is not “getting the economy going again”, but apparently only funding ever increasing bubbles as people continue their games of seeking something for nothing.
Looking at the news in the evening, it became plain that the stock market went bonkers starting almost instantly at the moment of Bernanke’s afternoon announcement.
It’s a sign of how deranged things have become that observers of what’s happening find it necessary to use the term “the real economy” to try to distinguish an actual functioning economy based on value for value, about things and work of actual good useful value, from the phantasms of what some call “the financialization of everything”, where people play games of getting something for nothing, of “creating wealth” that really essentially consists of imagining “wealth” into being by the creation of increasing masses of debt, manuevering themselves into positions to extract the “wealth” from everywhere possible for themselves, and leave other people with the debts. There’s a glimpse of the “commotion of money“.
I think I was seeing a pretty good glimpse of that a few days ago, when I was reading a few things on the website The Daily Reckoning. One piece there was another PR hype release of sorts of the kind that are frequent now, talking excitedly about how investors can find golden opportunities to make money for nothing by pumping their cash into enterprises associated with the supposed “oil boom” of tight oil deposits locked in the Bakken shale. The writer of that did a usual job of being, shall we say, very carefully selective about information they presented to severely distort reality, without actually telling outright lies about matters of quantitative fact.
If you find anything in the usual popular infotainment news media, you’re almost certain to only hear some excited chatter about “the North Dakota energy boom” or words to that effect. Rare exceptions to that narrative might give some attention to the concerns about the list of major problems surrounding the practices of hydraulic fracturing that are involved in breaking the petroleum crude free from “tight oil” shale deposits. Virtually nothing reaches general public attention about the reality that all of that is an exercise in literally scraping the dregs because this is what’s left, and the complexity and expense and diminishing returns of energy returns on energy investment (EROEI) and economic returns compared to costs means that these hyped energy miracles are only a working proposition with high crude oil selling prices. This stuff is only happening as crude oil market prices continue to hang around the $100/barrel neighborhood or higher.
But, among people who should know better and say the truth, that story is fired out at people as a happy saga of an energy boom miracle, much like giant banks and various financial business entities shoveling up foreclosed houses at cheap prices to try to flip or simply extract rent from them is portrayed as a “housing recovery“.
There is little to nothing about the basic reality of being into an era of diminishing returns and limits, and what we need to get on with doing to adjust accordingly. One bit of news that stunned me was a report in the New York Times, posing the story as a question: Is Suburban Sprawl on Its Way Back?, about a phenomenon we need to leave behind as quickly as possible, but still hangs on, as people seem determined to maintain unsustainable status quo any way possible, even when that is not possible. Given that, we get determination to pretend that it is.
In the speech he was giving Monday about “economic recovery”, the president did eventually get around to addressing the ugliness happening in the capitol at the Navy yard, offereing some platitudes about “we stand with the families of the victims”, whatever that is supposed to mean. The United States Senate responded bravely as they often do by shutting down and going into recess, locking down the Capitol building, and hiding.
The TV cable news continues chattering endlessly about the shooting in Washington, while reporting little of anything that matters in matters of fact, filling time with noise. Peek at CNN, and that is The One Story that pushes aside all, while reporting little actual news, as, magically, the endless stream of news that was “Syria! Syria Syria Syria! Syria!” has just disappeared. That’s the contemporary American “news cycle” in action.
I did catch something interesting, as CNN infotainment celebrity Anderson Cooper did a remote-link interview who actually knew the man opening fire in DC. The continuing empty noise fest has turned to endless chatter about the gunman being disturbed, had mental health issues, and so on. What I found interesting was the comment from the friend being interviewed saying that he had been doing work for a company that was working on a military contract, but supposedly there were problems about him being paid what he was owed. What’s the story on that? I haven’t heard a word about that subject since.
The people who are supposed to be doing the work of discerning and bringing us truth are laying down on the job, or, at least, I should say, the ones getting the most public attention. It should be obviously apparent, as well, that things are clouded to horrible extremes by people falling under the influence of various rabble-rousing shitheads (who, in an extra layer of obscene absurdity, often seem to be paid enormous amounts of money for doing the damage they do).
As the level of detachment from reality seems to build in the American public psyche, I think about how often it seems like sources of satire like The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report actually get at the core of truth of what’s happening in the world than actual “real” news sources and people in positions of power and responsibility to the people. Here in America, we have a history of people like Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Rod Serling, Harlan Ellison, who have done brilliant work in taking people into fictional settings, sometimes into fantastic and absurd fiction far from the reality people know, for a different perspective to focus people on things that might escape their notice in a familiar context. Sometimes I wonder if fiction is almost the only way left to get some people to register parts of actual reality in their minds.
I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.- attributed to Issac Newton