The Threat of Totalitarianism Today – Or Why Hannah Arendt Still Matters

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Philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), photographed in Paris, 1935.

THE THREAT OF TOTALITARIANISM TODAY

(OR: WHY ARENDT STILL MATTERS)

By Eduardo Carli de Moraes @ Awestruck Wanderer

It’s an obvious fact that the books of great philosophers survive the physical existence of the philosophers themselves: their thought is alive for decades or centuries after their deaths, ideas kept safe, like a treasure in a trunk, in the books they’ve written. Even tough they are no longer among the living, we are still under their influence, and our thought and judgement can be expanded and enriched by their legacy. A dead philosopher may have a long future after the brain that used to act inside his or her skull has vanished from the world. Looked in this perspective, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask, for example: “what would Arendt have to teach us about Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror? What would Arendt say, if she was alive today, about the danger of totalitarian horror happening again in the future? And nowadays, where would Arendt recognize a totalitarian regime in action, here and now? “

Similarly, one might ask: what would Nietzsche have to say about the III Reich and the Nazi’s “Final Solution”? What opinions would Spinoza nurture about the Enlightenment thinkers or the French Revolution? Would Plato agree with Jesus Christ if they had ever met? And what about Hannah Arendt, if she was living today, would she criticize some of our societies as totalitarian regimes? This sort of questions, in which one tries to figure out what some thinker would consider about historical events or people he or she didn’t live to witness, may seem to many of us some sort of absurd anachronism. Some may argue that this line of questioning may have its value only as an intellectual exercise, but can never achieve truthfulness because it relies too much on speculation and conjectures; it’s just philosophy acting in science-fiction-mode, right?

27388_hannah_arendt_olgemtlde_heidemarie_kull_copyrigt (1)Well, Hannah Arendt’s case is interesting to adress, in this context, because she seems to be one of the alivest of all dead philosophers. And scholars, researchers, political theorists and journalists keep invoking Hannah Arendt’s thought to explain recent stuff, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal, which brought to light the wide-spread use of torture as the U.S. Army’s “interrogation method” at the detention centers for suspects of terrorism. An excellent doc about it is Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

In an article published by New Internationalist Magazine, for example, Sean Willcock evokes Arent’s très celèbre “the banality of evil” to explain Abu Ghraib’s mixture of terrible disrespect for basic human rights, combined with the banality of soldiers who took “selfies” with smiling faces, aparently stupidly unaware of the crushed dignity of those fellow humans they were humiliating, torturing and killing.


Also recommended: Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary by Errol Morris

Hannah_Arendt_Film_PosterIn our technologically connected “global village”, philosophers can also be brought back from their graves by other means than books, of course. Recently, Hannah Arednt was summoned from the tomb to appear as protagonist of Margaret Von Trotta’s bio-pic. Even tough it’s mainly an historical and biographical film, mostly about the Eichmman case, I feel there’s a lot to be found in the film to enlighten us nowadays (see, for example, this excellent article about the film @ “MantleThought.org).

I deeply agree with Celso Lafer when he argues: “Arendt is a classic in Bobbio’s meaning of the word: an author whose concepts, even tough developed in the past, still serve us to understand the world of the present.” There’s good fruits to be gained by trying to re-think and re-actualize Arendt’s thought, instead of treating it as fixed: wouldn’t it be better to deal with her works in a dynamic way, expanding it and adapting it to serve as tools for our understanding of new occurences? Of course this sort of thinking is based on what I’d call imaginative speculation, dangerously on peril of betraying a writer when transplanting him – or his ideas – to another era. But doesn’t the merit of a certain thinker lie also in what he has to say to posterity, what can be learned in his books by those who came afterwards?

In her book Why Arendt Matters, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl mobilizes Hannah Arendt concepts and theories in order to understand events that happened after Arendt’s death in 1975. What would Arendt have to teach us, for example, about suicide bombers on a jihad against “the West” and who hope to be rewarded in Afterlife by Allmighty Allah? And what would she teach us about the “War on Terror”, the military invasion of Afheganistan, Iraq and Pakistan, which were unleashed after the September 11th attacks in 2001?

Arendt’s inspiring intellectual courage, I think, lies in her ability to go beyond simple moral outrage. She tries to understand things that most people are so horrified of that they’d rather not even try to understand them. Instead of being paralysed in horror in front of such terrible realities – Hiroshimas and Auschwitzes, gulags and atom bombs… – Arednt confronts these realities and tries to judge them, understand them, put them in historical context, portray a web of relations inside which they occur. That’s why Arendt’s procedure, whether she analyses imperialism or anti-semitism or totalitarian societies, can be used by us today in order to enhance our understanding of our current geopolitical landscape.

9780300120448The Nazi concentration camps, those “factories of death”, made the most horrendous criminal acts into a day-to-day process. Trying to understand an era of genocide in industrial scale, Hannah Arendt never acts with simplistic demonization of the Nazis, for example. It would be narrow-minded and deranged to say that Hitler or Goebbels or Eichmann were “possessed by the Devil”, or have been born with innate evilness. Hannah Arendt tries to understand the emergence of “a new type of criminal, the consequence-blind bureaucrat, agent of a criminal state, so unconcerned for the world – or alienated from it – that he could help lay waste to it.” (YOUNG-BRUHEL: 5)

After carefully watching Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Arendt was surprised to discover not a devilish man, but rather a dumb fellow, blindly obedient to his superiors in the hierarchy. Eichmann’s triking characteristic was, in Arendt’s eyes, his “thoughtlessness”, his stupidity.

“Thoughtlessness – the headless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.” (ARENDT, The Human Condition, Prologue).

 Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us, when he says “everything that the Nazis did was legal”, that Justice (as a value, as a virtue) is not necessarily the same as the Law. There are plenty of unjust laws – based on racist discrimination or ethnical cleansing, for example. Eichmann, inside Nazi society, was a lawful agent. In a land were genocide is not outlawed, a mass killer is also a law-abiding citizen. If we are really to understand how did the terribles tragedies of 20th century’s happened, includin the “World Wars”, with its Holocausts and Atom Bombs, we need to understand how much evil can arise from blind obedience, from lack of thought and atrophy of judgement. Hannah Arendt provides us a path to follow if we wish to understand how could this horrors happen. Arendt enlightens us by providing a way to understand our tragedies in which there’s no explanation of evil as a pact-with-the-devil or the result of innate-bad-genes. Stupidity can become criminal:

“After listening to Eichmann at his trial and reading the pretrial interviews with him, she concluded that he had no criminal motives but only motives – not criminal in themselves – related to his own advancement in the Nazi hierarchy. (…) He was a man who, conforming to the prevailing norms and his Führer’s will, failed altogether to grasp the meaning of what he was doing. He was not diabolical, he was thoughtless. The word “thoughtlessness” is used by Arendt for a mental condition reflecting remoteness from reality, inability to grasp a reality that stares you in the face – a failure of imagination and judgment. (…) No deep-rooted or radical evil was necessary to make the trains to Auschwitz run on time.” (YOUNG-BRUEL, p. 108)

It reminds me of that famous experiment by Stanley Milgram, in which he tested how far can people go in the art of inflicting pain unto others. Milgram came up with a test to check how people would act when asked to approve the use of electrical shocks of increasing voltage; he wanted to see how wicked could a human being act just because a certain authority ordered it. The 20th century teachs us that hierarchy (and blind obedience to it) has much more relation with tragedy of epic proportions than the principles and actions of anarchists.

 Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, it seems to me, is also a reflection upon the evils that follow from conformity to unquestioned authority. The Origins of Totalitarism, I believe, can and should be read and understood with the aid of classics of social psychology such as Erich Fromm’ Fear of Freedom or Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. The shocking fact about the III Reich is that those crimes were commited by law-abbiding citizens, who were only following the orders and honouring the Führer’s will. One of the psychological factors that made it possible for so many Germans to participate in the mega-machine of mass-murder was the notion that Hitler assumed all responsability, and those who worked in the concentration camps, those who operated the trains to the death fields, those who released the poisonous and deadly Zyklon B, could all excuse themselves by saying: “I was merely following orders.” Which reminds me of Howard Zinn’s often quoted statement, somewhat inspired by Thoreau, that civil obedience is in fact a danger far greater than civil disobedience:

Howard Zin (1922-2010)

Howard Zin (1922-2010)

Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people… (ZINN, Howard. Here.)

 When Hannah Arendt writes about crimes against humanity, and relates them to an evil arising from thoughtlessness and lack of judgement, she seems to be praising the individual’s potential for autonomy. Blind obedience to leaders or to established laws, unthinking conformity to the status quo, can lead to disaster. According to Young-Bruehl, who also wrote one of the most comprehensive biographies about Hannah Arendt, “she had always written out of solidarity with the victims of such crimes, with the conviction that telling their story for the sake of the future was her life task.” (YOUNG-BRUEHL, op cit., p. 209). This, also, we can learn from Arendt: solidarity with those who are, nowadays, the victims of crimes against humanity – for example, the detainees in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, or the pakistanis killed by drone attacks. The U.S.A.’s War on Terror, even tough it justifies itself as a crusade of Freedom against Terror, utilizes “totalitarian methods”, argues Young-Bruehl, and such methods can be traced back to the Cold War era:

One of the most threatening ways that adopting totalitarian methods to fight totalitarianism helped shape the current world order  was in the practise adopted by U.S. governments during the Cold War period of sponsoring Islamic fundamentalists as agents of opposition to Soviet communism. This began on a small scale during Eisenhower’s presidency with support for the Muslim Brotherhood led by the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna… In Washington it was originally hoped that the political Islamists would help prevent the Communist ideology from infecting Arab states, but the policy of support became progressively aimed more at promoting Arab supranationalism and funding middle-ground wars. U.S. support of Arab supranationalism (with its own ideology, Wahhabism) focused on the reactionary Saudi monarchy, which was encouraged to create a network of right-wing Arab states using the Muslim Brotherhood as its agent. The Saudis also built on the Brotherhood’s violent opposition to Egypt under Nasser, who was considered a revolutionary nationalist in Washington and posed a direct challenge to U.S. and British oil interests in the Gulf… The CIA, in the most portentous instance, supported the Afghan fighters  in their resistance to the Soviet Union’s imperialist invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time, the CIA helped Osama bin Laden build a network of ‘Afghan Arabs’, the forerunner of Al-Qaeda…(YOUNG-BRUEHL, p. 57)

 It gets me wondering what Hannah Arendt would have to teach us about the 21st century. Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamo Bays would very likely seem to her as dangerously similar to nazi concentration camps or soviet gulags, places where people lose their basic human rights and become victims of dehumanizing humiliation and torture. What about State Surveillance, a current reality denounced by whistleblower Edward Snowden? Isn’t it a dangerously totalitarian method, George Orwell’s Big Brother finally realized in mass scale? I’m quite sure Orwell never meant 1984 to be an Instructions Manual! And what to say about a country whose nuclear arsenal is huge, and who goes to war against Iraq claiming that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction in his hands? As if the United States of Atom Bombs hadn’t weapons of mass destruction also! And what to say about the thousands of americans who, misled by demagogy, blinded by patriotism, bound to their “duty”, marched straight to war, dropped bombs, launched drones? Now, of course, the damage is done and the thousands of dead bodies pile up as yet another reminder of human folly and of the dangers of thoughtlessness and blind obedience.

In her thought-provoking article A Lying World Order – Political Deception and the Threat of Totalitarianism, Peg Birmingham investigates if totalitarianism is a threat today.  She answers with conviction – “yes it is!” – and argues with Hannah Arendt that the danger is co-related to the problem of political lies, of ideological deception. Historians can’t cease to be amazed by the re-occurence, in Human History, of mass credulity in ideologies and leaders. Humanity may seem ludicrous and ridiculous when we take a look back and discover the scale in which lies were massively believed in, with the outcome of radical evil of colossal proportions. How not to be flabbergasted with the fact that millions could believe Hitler’s racist lies about ethnical cleansing and the Jewish Plague, or believe W. Bush’s pious lies about Saddam’s nuclear bombs? It’s a scenario to make us bemoan the fate of this planet in a time, to remember Shakespeare’s King Lear, “when madmen lead the blind.” (SHAKESPEARE, King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1)

In her essay “The Seeds of a Fascist International” (1945), Hannah Arendt wrote: “It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying, but deliberately proposed to transform lies into reality. For such a fabrication of lying reality, no one was prepared. The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere, and of every time. The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that true which until then could only be stated as a lie.” (ARENDT, 146-147) For example: if Mr. X makes a statement such as “my aunt is dead”, but then Mrs. Y contradicts him with “No, this ain’t true, I saw your aunt just a moment ago at the market”, all Mr. X needs to do to mutate his statement from a lie to a truth is “to go home and murder his aunt” (BIRMINGHAM, P. 74.) 

Winter Soldier

In Winter Soldier (1972), an excellent documentary about the Vietnam War, built upon statements from the soldiers who were there and witnessed it all, a man who fought with the U.S. Army gives us an example of the Political Lie in action: when civilians were killed (military leaders, then and now, call this “collateral damage”), the U.S. Army ordered that those people  were to be labeled as gooks, written down in the “official reports” as if they were vietcongs. Kill first, then label the murdered person a devil, a filthy gook, an unworthy-to-live commie. That’s the strategy. Every dead Vietnamese, even tough he might have been a pacifist, is suddenly turned into a dangerous and murderous communist terrorist.

We still live in such a world where the Terrorist Menace is constantly evoked, and in its name are justified colossal measures of war, emprisonment and mass surveillance. If there’s a threat of totalitarianism in the world today, it certainly lies in the way governments are dealing with the so-called Terrorist Menace. The established powers, the status quo, the ruling elites, label as terrorists those who oppose their crushing powers. In India, the “terrorists” are the maoists who oppose Hindu nationalism and Free Trade Capitalism (check Arundhati Roy’s brilliant report Walking With The Comrades); in Mexico, the “terrorists” are the Zapatistas of Chiapas’s jungles who defend the rights of indigenous people against the pillage of big business; in the U.S., the “terrorists” are Islamic jihadists threatening to re-enact September 11th; in Brazil, “terrorists” are those citizens who take to the streets to protest against banks and corporate power, and refusing pacifism in their Black Bloc techniques or Anarchistic tendencies. And so on and so on… The “terrorist danger” is what justifies massive investments in police, it’s what governenmets use to justify the use of repression and mass incarceration. Welcome to “Democracy”, the best one that money can buy.

The danger of totalitarianism lies entangled with the threat of mass-belief in political lies:

The problem of ideology is, for Hannah Arendt, the problem of political deception. Ideology is the mutation that establishes the lying world order, by replacing reality with an ironclad fiction. In other words, ideology is the ‘most devilish version of the lie'”; these are Hannah Arendt’s words, and we should hear her claim that the banality of evil is, at its very heart, ideology. With both its hellish fantasies and its clichés, the ‘banality of evil’ is characterized by a strident logicality – a logic through which the whole of reality is thoroughly and systematically organized, according to  a fiction with a view to total domination.” (BIRMINGHAM, P. 77.) 

I wonder if our totalitarian threat may reside, today, also in the Market, or in what many specialists call “The Economy”. Aren’t we endangered by the “Free Trade” totalitarian ideology? In which every means are acceptable in order to enforce the holy end of “Free Markets”? Including the drone-attacks against Pakistan, the war of aggression against Iraq, the pious crusade of genocidal proportions against Afeghanistan? Who is naive enough to believe it was all made for the sake of Freedom and Democracy, when it actually resulted in a massive pile of corpses?  Not to mention, in previous decades, how Free Trade capitalism, Yankee-style, forced its way all around the globe with the aid of the military dictartorships and coup d’états imposed by U.S. interest in South and Central America. We, Latin Americans, can never forget what happened in Chile in September 11th, 1973. Not to mention the military interventions in Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.), justified as Anti-Communist measures.

The political lie, the fascist twist of propaganda to be discerned here, I would argue, lies in the preposterous idea that “Free Trade = Freedom and Justice”. That’s a lying and deceiving equation: if we take a closer look at the ideology of Free Trade, of the theories so dominant in today’s capitalism and that call themselves “liberal” and “neo-liberal”,  we’ll discover that they have a tendency to increase mass incarceration and police repression, for example. The U.S. currently has 25% of all the world’s prisoners. When prison become a business, that can be run for profit (with the aid, of course, of strick laws of prohibition against illicit drugs), neoliberal capitalism shows its true face: that of nasty greediness, mounting inequality, resulting in a dystopic society in which millions and millions of its citizens are behind bars, while an elite hides away, locked inside comfortable bunkers, with obscene accumulations of capital in protected by Hi-Tech Security.

To enforce capitalism, the preachers of Free Trade, with their billions – which could be invested to end global hunger or treat curable diseases in all continents! – uy themselves an immense apparatus of military repression and aggression. Remember Seattle, 1999. Remember Québec City, 2001. Remember Genoa, 2008. Remember Toronto, 2010. Remember Brazil’s World Cup, in 2014, in which neo-liberal interests where defended with military police and national Army, throughout the streets, programmed to silence and crush all dissidence and protest to FIFA’s money-making machine…

As Arundhati Roy reminds us, everytime that the world’s Capitalist Elites try to join for their summits, their G8 meetings, their WTOs and Free Trade congresses, they are only able to do it spending millions in what they call Security – another political lie, ideological fiction, that masks the fact that “Security” is based on agression, repression, and incarceration of political prisoners (it’s been done for centuries: put in prison your oponents, then justify yourself calling them “terrorists”). The so-called Liberal Democracy in the U.S. spends so much in War and Prisons that it shows to the world its true face, behind the masks and the fake twinklings of ideological propaganda. Look at Detroit, once America’s pearl, one of the wealthiest metropolis on Earth, now reduced to a wasteland; Detroit, who could be photographed nowadays in order to illustrate Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums. Remember New Orleans when Katrina hit: the same country who spends billions with its Wars and who lets profits run wild with “free trades” such as that of Guns and Ammunitions, leaves its own citizens in abandonment while they face one of the worst climate disasters of American History…

Why, if a mandatory evacuation was issued, ordering that everybody should leave New Orleans before Katrina hit, the U.S. government didn’t provide the means for this evacuation to happen? Money, you always tell me, is not a problem in the U.S., The Land of Profit. When the poorest of people in New Orleans, who couldn’t afford a bus or plane ticket to a safe area, who couldn’t afford renting a hotel room in a Hurricane-free town, the least you’d expect from a sensible government is help. Perhaps they were too busy doing war in the Middle East, or spying on people’s private lifes in search of potencial terrorists, or torturing political prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, to ready be able to listen as New Orleans’ cried for help while drowning out in one of the crudest of the ecological turmoil’s of our “anthropocene” era. Rapper Kanye West, witnessing this, couldn’t do nothing but to speak on National TV: “George W. Bush doesn’t care for black people”. Neither he does care for Muslims. While the U.S. Army was bombing and torturing Muslims, in New Orleans it left off, unatended to, abandoned to their luck, those American Citizens who were still in town when the Hurricane came. As Naomi Klein shows in her The Shock Doctrine, after the disaster the authorities in charge of defending Free Trade capitalism took an interest in New Orleans: they saw that in Disaster there was Opportunity. What used to be Public service, in New Orleans, could now be refashioned to attend Private Interests. This is another reason why Arendt still matters: because Free Trade ideology wants to erase the notions of Public Space and of Common Good, in order to enforce its society of private interests and individualistic consumerism, protected by military force and crowded prisons.

In 1972, in a conference at the Toronto Society for the Study of Social and Political Thought (York University), Hannah Arendt said (and it remains for me inspirational stuff): “If we really believe – and I think we share this belief – that plurality rules the earth, then I think one has got to modify this notion of the unity of theory and practice to such an extent that it will be unrecognizable for those who tried their hand at it before. I really believe that you can only act in concert and I really believe that you can only think by yourself.” (pg. 305) Arendt matters because she can teach us a lot about thinking for ourselves (instead of accepting fixed truths that rain from above in the hierarchy…) and because she can teach us how to act in concert to criticize, dismantle and fight the threats of totalitarism today. 

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REFERENCES

ARENDT, Hannah. “The Seeds of a Fascist International”. Pgs. 146-147.

———————-. The Human Condition, Prologue.

BIRMINGHAM, Peg. “A Lying World Order – Political Deception and the Threat of Totalitarianism”In: Thinking in Dark Times, New York: Fordham University press.

YOUNG-BRUEHL, Elisabeth . Why Arendt Matters. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006.

SHAKESPEARE, William. King Lear. Act 4, Scene 1.

ZINN, Howard. Zinn Reader. Seven Stories Press, 1970.

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Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

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“INFLUENCE”, an essay by Salman Rushdie (in: “Step Across This Line – Collected Nonfiction 1992 – 2002”)

circlesofinfluence1

INFLUENCE
by Salman Rushdie

A lecture delivered at the University of Torino, March 1999

The Australian novelist and poet David Malouf tells us that “the real enemy of writing is talk.” He warns particularly of the dangers of speaking about work in progress. When writing, one is best advised to keep one’s mouth shut, so that the words flow out, instead, through one’s fingers. One builds a dam across the river of words in order to create the hydroelectricity of literature.

I propose, therefore, to speak not of my writing but rather of my reading, and in particular of the many ways in which my experience of Italian literature (and, I must add, Italian cinema) has shaped my thoughts about how and what to write. That is, I want to talk about influence.

“Influence.” The word itself suggests something fluid, something “flowing in.” This feels right, if only because I have always envisaged the world of the imagination not so much as a continent as an ocean. Afloat and terrifyingly free upon these boundless seas, the writer attempts, with his bare hands, the magical task of metamorphosis. Like the figure in the fairy tale who must spin straw into gold, the writer must find the trick of weaving the waters together until they become land: until, all of a sudden, there is solidity where once there was only flow, shape where there was formlessness; there is ground beneath his feet. (And if he fails, of course, he drowns. The fable is the most unforgiving of literary forms.)

The young writer, perhaps uncertain, perhaps ambitious, probably both at once, casts around for help; and sees, within the flow of the ocean, certain sinuous thicknesses, like ropes, the work of earlier weavers, of sorcerers who swam this way before him. Yes, he can use these “in-flowings,” he can grasp them and wind his own work around them. He knows, now, that he will survive. Eagerly, he begins.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of literary influence, of these useful streams of other people’s consciousness, is that they can flow toward the writer from almost anywhere. Often they travel long distances to reach the one who can use them. In South America, I was impressed by the familiarity of Latin American writers with the work of the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The editor Victoria Ocampo, who met and admired Tagore, had arranged for his work to be well translated and widely published throughout her own continent, and as a result the influence of Tagore is perhaps greater there than in his own homeland, where the translations from Bengali into the many other tongues of India are often of poor quality, and the great man’s genius must be taken on trust.

Another example is that of William Faulkner. This great American writer is little read in the United States these days; certainly there are few contemporary American writers who claim him as an influence or teacher. I once asked another fine writer of the American South, Eudora Welty, if Faulkner had been a help or a hindrance to her. “Neither one,” she replied. “It’s like knowing there’s a great mountain in the neighborhood. It’s good to know it’s there, but it doesn’t help you to do your work.” Outside the United States, however—in India, in Africa, and again in Latin America—Faulkner is the American writer most praised by local writers as an inspiration, an enabler, an opener of doors.

From this transcultural, translingual capacity of influence we can deduce something about the nature of literature: that (if I may briefly abandon my watery metaphor) books can grow as easily from spores borne on the air as from their makers’ particular and local roots. That there are international families of words as well as the more familiar clans of earth and blood. Sometimes—as in the case of the influence of James Joyce on the work of Samuel Beckett, and the subsequent and equal influence of Beckett on the work of Harold Pinter—the sense of dynasty, of a torch handed on down the generations, is very clear and very strong. In other cases the familial links are less obvious but no less powerful for that.

When I first read the novels of Jane Austen, books out of a country and a time far removed from my own upbringing in metropolitan, mid-twentieth-century Bombay, the thing that struck me about her heroines was how Indian, how contemporary, they seemed. Those bright, willful, sharp-tongued women, brimming with potential but doomed by the narrow convention to an interminable Huis-clos of ballroom dancing and husband hunting, were women whose counterparts could be found throughout the Indian bourgeoisie. The influence of Austen on Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is plain to see.

Charles Dickens, too, struck me from the first as a quintessentially Indian novelist. Dickensian London, that stenchy, rotting city full of sly, conniving shysters, that city in which goodness was under constant assault by duplicity, malice, and greed, seemed to me to hold up the mirror to the pullulating cities of India, with their preening elites living the high life in gleaming skyscrapers while the great majority of their compatriots battled to survive in the hurly-burly of the streets below. In my earlier novels I tried to draw on the genius of Dickens. I was particularly taken with what struck me as his real innovation: namely, his unique combination of naturalistic backgrounds and surreal foregrounds. In Dickens, the details of place and social mores are skewered by a pitiless realism, a naturalistic exactitude that has never been bettered. Upon this realistic canvas he places his outsize characters, in whom we have no choice but to believe because we cannot fail to believe in the world they live in. So I tried, in my novel Midnight’s Children, to set against a scrupulously observed social and historical background—against, that is, the canvas of a “real” India—my “unrealist” notion of children born at the midnight moment of India’s independence, and endowed with magical powers by the coincidence, children who were in some way the embodiment of both the hopes and the flaws of that revolution.

Within the authoritative framework of his realism, Dickens can also make us believe in the perfectly Surrealist notion of a government department, the Circumlocution Office, dedicated to making nothing happen; or in the perfectly Absurdist, Ionesco-like case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, a case whose nature it is never to reach a conclusion; or in the “magical realist” image of the dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend—the physical symbols of a society living in the shadow of its own excrement, which must, incidentally, also have been an influence on a ecent American masterpiece, which takes the waste products of America as its central metaphor, Don DeLillo’s Underworld.

If influence is omnipresent in literature, it is also, one should emphasize, always secondary in any work of quality. When it is too crude, too obvious, the results can be risible. I was once sent, by an aspiring writer, a short story that began, “One morning Mrs. K. awoke to find herself metamorphosed into a front-loading washing machine.” One can only imagine how Kafka would have reacted to so inept—so detergent—an act of homage.

Perhaps because so much second-rate writing is derivative—and because so much writing is at best second-rate—the idea of influence has become a kind of accusation, a way of denigrating a writer’s work. The frontier between influence and imitation, even between influence and plagiarism, has commenced of late to be somewhat blurred. Two years ago, the distinguished British writer Graham Swift was accused by an obscure Australian academic of something odorously close to plagiarism in his Booker Prize–winning novel Last Orders: the “substantial borrowing” of the multi-voiced narrative structure of his novel from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The British press whipped this accusation up into a sort of scandal, and now Swift was accused of literary “plundering,” and those who defended him were sneered at for their “lofty indulgence” toward him. All this in spite of, or perhaps because of, Swift’s ready concession that he had been influenced by Faulkner, and in spite, too, of the awkward fact that the structures of the two books aren’t really so very alike, although some echoes are apparent. In the end such simple verities ensured that the scandal fizzled out, but not before Swift had been given a media roasting.

Interesting, then, that when Faulkner published As I Lay Dying, he himself had been accused of borrowing its structure from an earlier novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. His retort is the best possible answer that could be given: that when he was in the throes of composing what he modestly called his tour de force, he took whatever he needed from wherever he could find it, and knew of no writer who would not find such borrowing to be completely justified.

In my novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a young boy actually travels to the ocean of imagination, which is described to him by his guide:

“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that . . . the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.”

By using what is old, and adding to it some new thing of our own, we make what is new. In The Satanic Verses I tried to answer the question, how does newness enter the world? Influence, the flowing of the old into the new, is one part of the answer.

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes the fabulous city of Octavia, suspended between two mountains in something like a spider’s web. If influence is the spider’s web in which we hang our work, then the work is like Octavia itself, that glittering jewel of a dream city, hanging in the filaments of the web, for as long as they are able to bear its weight.

I first met Calvino when I was asked to introduce a reading he gave at the Riverside Studios in London in the early 1980s. This was the time of the British publication of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I had just published a long essay about his work in the London Review of Books—disgracefully, this was one of the earliest serious pieces about Calvino to be published in the British press. I knew Calvino had liked the piece, but nevertheless I was nervous about having to speak about his work in his presence. My nervousness increased when he demanded to see my text before we went out to face the audience. What would I do if he disapproved? He read it in silence, frowning a little, then handed it back and nodded. I had evidently passed the examination, and what had particularly pleased him was my comparison of his work with that of the classical writer Lucius Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass.

“Give me a penny and I’ll tell you a golden story,” the old Milesian oral storytellers used to say, and Apuleius’s tale of transformation had used the fabulist manner of these ancient tellers of tall stories to great effect. He possessed, too, those virtues that Calvino also embodied and of which he wrote so well in one of his last works, Six Memos for the Next Millennium: the virtues of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. These qualities were much in my mind when I came to write Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Although the form of this novel is that of a child’s fantastic adventure, I wanted the work somehow to erase the division between children’s literature and adult books. It was in the end a question of finding precisely the right tone of voice, and Apuleius and Calvino were the ones who helped me to find it. I re-read Calvino’s great trilogy, The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight, and they gave me the clues I needed. The secret was to use the language of the fable while eschewing the easy moral purpose of, for example, Aesop.

Recently, I have again been thinking about Calvino. The sixth of his “memos for the next millennium” was to have been on the subject of consistency. Consistency is the special genius of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Calvino was planning to suggest—that heroic, inexplicable Bartleby who simply and unshakably “preferred not to.” One might add the names of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, so inexorable in his search for small but necessary justice, or of Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus, who insisted that he must live until he died, or of chivalry-maddened Quixote, or of Kafka’s Land Surveyor, eternally yearning toward the unattainable Castle.

We are speaking of an epic consistency, a monomania that strives toward the condition of tragedy or myth. But consistency also may be understood in a darker sense, the consistency of Ahab in pursuit of his whale, of Savonarola who burned the books, of Khomeini’s definition of his revolution as a revolt against history itself.

More and more I feel drawn toward Calvino’s unexplored sixth value. The new millennium that is upon us already shows signs of being dominated by alarming examples of consistency of all types: the great refusers, the wild quixotics, the narrow-minded, the bigoted, and those who are valiant for truth. But now I am coming close to doing what David Malouf warns against—that is, discussing the nature of my own embryonic, and fragile (because as yet uncreated), work. So I must leave it there, and say only that Calvino, whose early support and encouragement I will always remember, continues to murmur in my ear.

I should add that many other artists both of classical Rome and of modern Italy have been, so to speak, present at my shoulder. When I was writing Shame, I re-read Suetonius’s great study of the twelve Caesars. Here they were in their palaces, these foul dynasts, power-mad, libidinous, deranged, locked in a series of murderous embraces, doing one another terrible harm. Here was a tale of coup and counter-coup; and yet, as far as their subjects beyond the palace gates were concerned, nothing really changed. Power remained within the family. The Palace was still the Palace.

From Suetonius, I learned much about the paradoxical nature of power elites, and so was able to construct an elite of my own in the version of Pakistan that is the setting for Shame: an elite riven by hatreds and fights to the death but joined by bonds of blood and marriage and, crucially, in control of all the power in the land. For the masses, deprived of all power, the brutal wars inside the elite change little or nothing. The Palace still rules, and the people still groan under its heel.

If Suetonius influenced Shame, then The Satanic Verses, a novel whose central theme is that of metamorphosis, evidently learned much from Ovid; and for The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which is informed by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Virgil’s Georgics were essential reading. And, if I may make one more tentative step toward the unwritten future, I have for a long time been engaged and fascinated by the Florence of the High Renaissance in general, and by the character of Niccolò Machiavelli in particular.

The demonization of Machiavelli strikes me as one of the most successful acts of slander in European history. In the English literature of the Elizabethan golden age, there are around four hundred Machiavellian references, none of them favorable. At that time no work of Machiavelli’s was available in the English language; the playwrights of England were basing their satanic portraits on a translated French text, the Anti-Machiavel. The sinister, amoral persona created for Machiavelli then still cloaks his reputation. As a fellow writer who has also learned a thing or two about demonization, I feel it may soon be time to re-evaluate the maligned Florentine.

I have sought to portray a little of the cultural cross-pollination without which literature becomes parochial and marginal. Before concluding, I must pay tribute to the genius of Federico Fellini, from whose films, as a young man, I learned how one might transmute the highly charged material of childhood and private life into the stuff of showmanship and myth; and to those other Italian masters, Pasolini, Visconti, Antonioni, De Sica, and so on, and so on—for of influence and creative stimulation there can really be no end.

Salman Rushdie

RUSHDIE, Salman.
Step Across This Line – Collected Nonfiction 1992 – 2002.

“We are faced with the urgent task of changing the direction of global civilization if we want to avoid biospheric collapse and species burnout.” – by Daniel Pinchbeck

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“As the pioneering psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin (1927-2014) has pointed out, the idea that the Earth moved around the Sun was radical heresy at one time. A century later, it was a commonplace truism. The prospect that the inner exploration of consciousness with psychedelics might be recognized as, in itself, a positive and worthy endeavor is another radical heresy that may be seen as self-evident in the future. Rather than collapsing into anarchy, a civilization that supports the adult individual’s right to utilize these chemical catalysts for self-discovery and spiritual communion might advance to a more mature and stable state. Much of the anxiety and negative conditioning around the subject could be dispelled with logical argument based on evidence for the relative safety of psychedelics, especially natural ones, compared to other drugs. The point is not that everyone needs to take psychedelics but that the minority of people who find themselves compelled to make this exploration could be permitted to do so. (…) In a culture that is awash in prescription chemicals, drugs of abuse, and mood-altering SSRIs, it seems increasingly odd to ban a handful of plant substances and related compounds (even LSD is closely related to a chemical found in ergot fungus) that have been used by human beings for untold thousands of years.”

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“To a large extent, the cultural and social movements of the 1960s developed in reaction to the Cold War, which nearly reached a devastating nuclear climax during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The awareness of humanity’s hair-trigger proximity to self-inflicted annihilation inspired individual acts of courage and brilliance, and mass movements for social and personal liberation. It also led to widespread interest in psychedelic exploration as a fast track to self-knowledge and spiritual illumination. Rather than leading to instant “enlightenment”, the visionary insights, temporary dissolution of ego boundaries, and deconditioning from proscribed social codes often induced by entheogenic explorations helped some people to reevaluate their own role in society at that time.

Today, we are faced with an intractable and unpopular war in Iraq that has already continued longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II, a rise in terrorism, and a global ecological crisis of terrifying magnitude. Just as the 1960s generation had to confront the militaristic insanity of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, our generation has to reckon with the individual and collective mind-set that has brought us to this critical threshold, quickly approaching the point of no return. While it would be the height of silliness to consider psychedelics, in themselves, as the Answer to the massive problems now facing us, they continue to offer some individuals a means for looking at the world from a different vantage point, integrating new levels of insight.”

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“When we cast a cold eye on the current planetary situation, we discover that the industrial culture and excessive lifestyle of the affluent West masks an intensifying scarcity of resources that is unsustainable, even in the short term. According to scientists, 25% of all mammalian species will be extinct within the next 30 years. Our oceans are 90% fished out, with the potential for an irreversible collapse of many fisheries. As accelerating climate change leads to an increase in natural disasters, the polar ice caps are melting at rates that exceed predictions, potentially leading to a significant rise in global sea levels, causing coastal flooding. At current rates of deforestation, there will be no tropical forests left on the planet in 40 years. According to many geologists, we are on the verge of ‘peak oil’ – the highest possible production of oil, after which procution must decline – leading to higher prices and potential scarcity of energy in the next decades… Our efforts to find short-term technological fixes for the problems we create often lead to deeper errors and more dangerous unintended consequences. We are faced with the urgent task of changing the direction of global civilization if we want to avoid biospheric collapse and species burnout.

Without romanticizing native cultures, we can recognize that in many cases their intimate and sacralized relationship to the natural world kept them from overshooting the carrying capacities of their local ecosystems. The modern fixation on abstract, quantifiable, and rational modes of thought has profoundly alienated us from the directly sensorial and mimetic forms of knowing and relating maintained by indigenous cultures, allowing us to treat the natural world as something separate from ourselves. The entheogenic experience can temporarily reconnect the modern individual with lost participatory modes of awareness that may induce a greater sensitivity to his or her physical surroundings, beside raising a psychic periscope into the marginalized realms of mythological archetype and imaginative vision. It is not a question of forfeiting our mdern cognition for fuzzy mysticism, but of reintegrating older and more intimate ways of knowing that can help us find a more balanced relationship with the human and nonhuman world around us.

It may seem unlikely that psychedelics could be rehabilitated, but who knows? Profound shifts in consciousness and culture happen in surprising ways, overturning the smug certitudes of academic experts and media commentators. New forms of awareness develop below everyday consciousness, gestating in hidden reaches of the collective psyche, long before they are allowed to be articulated and manifested as new social realities. What was once scandalous and impossible can become acceptable and obvious to a new generation, and doors that long seemed securely padlocked may swing open at the merest touch. As new paradigms of knowlege emerge, breaking through the crust of old habit and received conditioning, change becomes possible – and sometimes inevitable.”

Daniel Pinchbeck,
Introduction to The Psychedelic Experience, by T. Leary, R. Metzner and R. Alpert,
Penguin Classics, 2007.

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Art by Alex Grey, portraying the chemists Alex and Ann Shulgin. Watch below a documentary about them, “Dirty Pictures – The Creator of MDMA (Ecstasy) ” (90 minutes):

 

“The Triple Illusion of Christian Consciousness”, by Hasana Sharp

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THE TRIPLE ILLUSION OF CHRISTIAN CONSCIOUSNESS

by Hasana Sharp (McGill University)

“Men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing.” – SPINOZAEthics, I, appendix.

 DeleuzeIn  Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze writes that “consciousness is inseparable from the triple illusion that constitutes it, the illusion of finality, the illusion of freedom, and the theological illusion.” The triple illusion that Deleuze identifies belongs to a fantasy of human exceptionalism. Consciousness of one’s desire, especially as it is described in the appendix to part I of the Ethics, includes a notion of reality designed for human use and enjoyment (finalist illusion) by a God who can offer or withhold love (theological illusion) from an individual who can freely earn or fail to be worthy of salvation (freedom illusion).

Yet the “triple illusion” that Deleuze describes seems to be historically specific. Rather than constituting consciousness as such, it aptly describes what might loosely be called Christian psychology. It is the psychology of those who believe that we are divine creations, endowed with free will, who may or may not use this will to earn salvation.

Spinoza begins with the premise that we desire and pursue our advantage, convinced that our desire signals our freedom. We typically perceive something as desirable and believe that we pursue it by virtue of a self-originating appetite. (…) From the pursuit of self-preservation,  Spinoza describes God as a kind of narcisistic self-projection (one that is developed by Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity). 

The tendency to imagine God as a power that arranges things purposefully for human pleasure is prompted by our experience of the excellent design of our bodies and things that meet our basic needs. In Spinoza’s words, “they find – both in themselves and outside themselves – many means that are very helpful in seeking their advantage, for example, eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, plants and animals for food, the sun for light, the sea for supporting fish” (Ethics, I, appendix).

The pleasures of food, visible beauty, and the sun’s warmth please humans all too well and prompt us to infer that there must be a “ruler of Nature” who arranged everything to suit us. (…) From the belief that their actions are prompted by self-generated goals, humans tend to be falsely convinced that God, too, acts with an end in view, that end being, simply, humanity. Yet nature does not always provide, and while the successful pursuit of self-satisfaction generates the notion that pleasant things exist for the sole purpose of enriching human life, unpleasant things are seen to reflect human vice.

Misfortune incites superstition and fear of divine punishment but does not interrupt the narcissistic notion that good or bad events, pleasant or repugnant things, point to oneself as a member of God’s most beloved creation, humanity. Insofar as we are trapped within the triple illusion of (Christian) consciousness, we are convinced that the external world, no less than our bodies, exists for us, and, the more we find ourselves to be favored, the more we are convinced that God recognizes, validates, and rewards us.

71Q6lKunzxLAs Spinoza puts is, “So it has happened that each of them thought up from his own temperament different ways of worshipping God, so that God might love him above all rest, and direct the whole of Nature according to the needs of their blind desire and insatiable greed” (Ethics, I, appendix). In accord with a certain worldview that arguably persists today, our desire prompts a portrait of God and nature as instruments of self-satisfaction…

For Spinoza, desire is liberated by establishing a distinctive kind of relationship to oneself and others. Spontaneous desire is less free insofar as we persist in the belief that desire is not constrained, provoked, and oriented by a complex history of causal determinations. We remain servile as long as we do not see ourselves as relational beings. Rather than socializing desire, however, we must naturalize it. We must come to act in light of being but a tiny “part of nature”, one singularity submerged within an acentric force of powers and counterpowers.

Spinoza comes to view freedom as a coordination of strenght and vitality in relationship to others. (…) Nature is absolute and self-caused, but freedom requires that we cease to see ourselves as independent in the same way as God. Human freedom is won only by coming to terms with our lack of freedom. We come to act effectively only when we appreciate that our agency is infinitely surpassed by the totality of other natural beings (Ethics, IV, p. 3).

The initial desire to be affirmed or loved by God above all others as a unique and irreplaceable being must be surrendered. The politics of renaturalization denies the possibility of mutual recognition between God and humanity, the Other and the self. (…) We are singular expressions of the power of infinite nature, knowledge of which Spinoza calls beatitude or glory.

Rather than personal salvation or recognition, freedom involves a kind of depersonalization. The irrecoverable loss of oneself in God is precisely what Hegel rejected in Spinoza’s system, yet, in an epoch where the risk of too much man is arguably greater than the risk of too much nature, let us see whether we might find ressources for a posthumanist view of agency in Spinoza’s account…

For Spinoza, the highest form of self-knowledge that accompanies intuition involves the intellectual love of God (nature), which is decidedly not mutual. “He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return” (Ethics, V, p. 19). The lack of mutuality is two-sided. God does not create humans in order to be loved and glory in his almighty power. Humans are not God’s self-image, the vehicles of his glorious self-representation. God is an entirely impersonal natural force that is not oriented around humanity. Loving nature or God is nothing other than the active joy by which we love ourselves, not as exemplars of human goodness, but as absolutely unique instances of nature’s power.”

HASANA SHARP (Academia.edu)
Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization.
Read more quotes from this book.

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FAST FOOD NATION: Eric Schlosser’s discoveries about how cheap and fast junk-food is produced in the U.S.

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Eric Schlosser’s first book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), an international best-seller translated into more than 20 languages, and filmed by Richard Linklater in 2006, aims to expose the reality of how food is produced in the U.S.A. Amazed by the “size and power of the fast-food industry and the speed at which it had grown”, Eric Schlosser’s award-winning investigation is highly enlightening about issues such as “the impact of McDonald’s on American industry, the role of fast-food marketing in changing the American diet, the obesity epidemic among American children, and the huge political and economic influence of the big agribusiness firms” (Food Inc., pg. 6).

Schlosser’s work as journalist has been published in Atlantic Montly, Rolling Stone, The Nation and New Yorker, among others. He’s also the author of Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labour in the American Black Market (2003) and Chew On This (2006, with co-author Charles Wilson). In an interview which opens the book Food, Inc. – How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer And What You Can Do About It (edited by Karl Weber), Schlosser revealed some of his main influences: “The writers whom I’ve admired most, the ones who have inspired me most, threw themselves into the big issues of their day. They didn’t play it safe, hold back, or write for the sake of writing. Writers like Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, George Orwell, Arthur Miller, Hunter S. Thompson – they were willing to take risks and go against the grain.”

Awestruck Wanderer has selected some of Eric Schlosser’s discoveries about the food industry, including the dark side of strawberries, the labour conditions of meat-packing workers,  and other incovenient truths that Ronald McDonald doesn’t want you to know about. Check this out:

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THE DARK SIDE OF STRAWBERRIES 

“When you think of the California economy, you think of high-tech industries like Silicon Valley, you think of Hollywood. You don’t think of poor, desperate migrants picking fruits and vegetables with their bare hands. But at the heart of the state’s economy is this hard, ugly reality. (…) You know, I love strawberries. But when most people see a display of strawberries in their local supermarket, they don’t realize that every one of those strawberries has to be very carefully picked by hand. Strawberries are very fragile and easily bruised. So if you want to produce a lot of strawberries in California, you need a lot of hands to pick them. And during the past 30 years those hands have belonged to people who are likely to be in the state illegally, who are willing to work for substandard wages in terrible conditions.”

 MEATPACKING AND SLAVERY WAGES

“I spent a great deal of time in meatpacking communities, which are sad, desperate places. Meatpacking used to be one of the best-paid jobs in the country. Until the late 1970s, meatpacking workers were like auto workers. They had well-paid union jobs. They earned good wages, before the fast-food companies came along. It upset me to find that the wages of meta-packing workers had recently been slashed, that they were now suffering all kinds of job-related injuries without being properly compensated. California has been exploiting migrant workers from Mexico for a hundred years. But that form of exploitation had, until recently, been limited to California and a handful of Southwestern states. Now it seemed to be spreading throughout the United States.”

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CORPORATE SUPPRESSION OF TRUTH

“Robby Kenner, the director of Food Inc., has said that his film is not just about food, it’s also about threats to the First Amendment and the desire of some powerful corporations to suppress the truth. I would agree with that description of his film, and it also applies to my book. Both of us, while investigating America’s industrial food system, were struck by the corrupting influence of centralized power. Whenever power is concentrated and unaccountable – whether it’s corporate power, governmental power, or religious power – it inevitably leads to abuses… When you talk about the food industry, you’re talking about something fundamental: an industry whose business practices help determine the health of the customers who eat its products, the health of the workers who make its products, the health of the environment, animal welfare, and so much more. The nation’s system of food production – and who controls it – has a profound impact on society.

Here’s an example. One of the major themes of Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. is the power of corporations to influence government policy. Again and again, we see these companies seeking deregulation – and government subsidies. They hate government regulation that protect workers and consumers but love to receive taxpayer money. That theme has implications far beyond the food industry. The same kind of short-sighted greed that has threatened food safety and worker safety for years now threatens the entire economy of the USA. You can’t separate the deregulation of the food industry from the deregulation of financial markets. Both were driven by the same mindset. And now we find ourselves on the brink of a worldwide economic meltdown. But in times of crisis we are more likely to see things clearly, to recognize that many of the problems in our society are interconnected. The same guys who would sell you contaminated meat would no doubt sell you toxic mortgages, just to make an extra buck.

Beyond Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser

PUBLIC HEALTH DISASTER

81YRoRKdF2L“The administration of President George W. Bush was completely in bed with the large meatpacking and food-processing companies. As a result, food safety regulations were rolled back or ignored. These industries were pretty much allowed to regulate themselves. And tens of thousands of American consumers paid the price, with their health. The big chains are pretty much operating the way they always have. They want their products to be cheap and taste everywhere exactly the same. That requires a certain kind of production system, an industrial agriculture responsible for all sorts of harms. And the fast-food chains want their labor to be cheap as well. The fundamental workings of this system haven’t changed at all since Fast Food Nation was published. At the moment, about two-thirds of the adult population in the United States is obese or overweight. That’s the recipe for a public health disaster, and if the number grows much higher, it will be a monumental disaster.

It’s possible to go to the market, buy good ingredients, and make yourself a healthy meal for less than it costs to buy a value meal at McDonald’s. But most people don’t have the time or the skills to do that. It’s a hell of a lot easier to buy your meal at the drive-through. I can understand why a single parent, working two jobs, would find it easier to stop at McDonald’s with the kids rather than cook something from scratch at home. But we’re looking at the long list of harms, this fast, cheap food is much too expensive. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one-third of all American children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes as a result of poor diet and lack of exercise. So when we talk about bringing healthy food to every American – yes, it probably means spendind more money on food. But you can spend that extra money on food now, or spend a lot more money later, treating heart disease and diabetes.

The obesity epidemic is costing us about $100 billion a year.  The medical costs imposed by the fast-food industry are much larger than its annual profits – except the industry isn’t paying those medical bills. Obesity may soon surpass tobacco as the number-one cause of preventable death in the United States. (…) Companies that sell healthy foods should earn large profits; companies that sell junk food shouldn’t!

A PERVERSE SYSTEM

“The fast-food industry didn’t suddenly appear in a vacuum. The industry’s growth coincides neatly with a huge decline in the minimum wage, beginning in the late 1960s. When you cut people’s wages by as much as 40%, they need cheap food. And the labor policies of the fast-food industry helped drive those wages down. For years, the industry has employed more minimum-wage workers than any other – and has lobbied for lower minimum wages. So we’ve created a perverse system in which the food is cheap at fast food restaurants because they employ cheap labour, sell products that are heavily subsidized by the government, and sell them to consumers whose wages have been kept low. We’re talking about a race to the bottom. We shouldn’t have a society where the only food that’s readily affordable is unhealthy food.

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Interview with Eric Schlosser about Fast Food Nation:

Food Inc. (full documentary):

Peter Singer and Eric Schlosser, “Moving Beyond F.F. Nation”:

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Recommended further reading:

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If you enjoyed this post, please share the links with your friends in social media, support independent blogging, and add strenght to the collective effort to spread awareness and change. Cheers, fellow wanderers!

Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of Things Past” (The famous passage of the madeleines…)

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“Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing it magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth. But how: What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

And I begin to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof, but the indisputable evidence, of its felicity, its reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I rediscover the same state, illuminated by no fresh light. I ask my mind to make one further effort, to bring back once more the fleeting sensation. And so that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention against the sound from the next room. And then, feeling that my mind is tiring itself without having any success to report, I compel it for a change to enjoy the distraction which I have just denied it, to think of other things, to rest refresh itself before making a final effort. And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it; I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.

Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too confused and chaotic; scarcely can I perceive the neutral glow into which the elusive whirling medley of stirred-up colours is fused, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate for me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste, cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, from what period in my past life.

Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has traveled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now I feel nothing; it has stopped, has perhaps sunk back into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will ever rise again? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and my hopes for to-morrow, which can be brooded over painlessly.

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

PROUST, M. (1913-27). Remembrance of Things Past. Volume 1: Swann’s Way: Within a Budding Grove. The definitive French Pleiade edition translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Vintage. pp. 48-51.

3

“At my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…” – A poem by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

A Dance to the Music of Time, by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665)

A Dance to the Music of Time, by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665)

To his Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

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Poets previously published @ Awestruck Wanderer: