Archive for the ‘The Economy’ Category

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

Where I Stand

December 20, 2016

I’d originally intended to write this piece after Clinton won the election to explain why I couldn’t vote for her. I’m writing it anyway. It’s meant to explain where I stand culturally/politically.

I was born into a mainstream “moderate to conservative” (I put the words in quotes because I think they’re deceptive) Democratic Party household. Eugene McCarthy’s near upset of Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary inspired me to leave the fold. I became what would be described today as an “ultra liberal.” Then, with the election of Richard Nixon, I dropped out psychologically and philosophically, switching my allegiance to the counterculture. The change coincided with my deepening disillusionment with Western civilization and ideas.

In its early days, the counterculture was divided into two fundamental factions: the spiritual hippies and the New Left politicos. The essential difference was that the hippies believed you had to change yourself before you could change the world, while the leftists believed you had to change the world before you could change yourself. I sided with the hippies. By the time I was 20 I completely dismissed mainstream American culture. I saw it as dying. At the same time, the hippie image and philosophy were being diluted and destroyed by the Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll crowd, who were not hippies, but looked like them. I ended up dropping out of the counterculture—dropping out of the drop-outs—and landing on the streets of North Beach, where I continued my search for what is “really real.” It wasn’t exactly a deliberate move, but neither was it an accident. I didn’t find all my answers there, but I did find many. And I came to a solid understanding that America really was in a death spiral, something that’s quite apparent now.

I remained a complete outsider—no home, no job, no ID—until the wild parrots came into my life. By getting involved with two creative projects, the book and the film, and having to present them to the public, I got pulled back into the System. (Both projects happened naturally. They were not calculated.) But I remained essentially a counterculturist disillusioned with the counterculture—not to mention the System. My return coincided with 9/11, so in 2008, I was happy to be seduced by Obama. But he turned out to be more of the same—a so-called centrist Democrat. I vowed then that I would never get fooled again. The only individual I could imagine ever supporting was Bernie Sanders. He was from the edge of the counterculture, its political side, so he felt close enough to where I stood. But I never thought he’d run, and when he announced, I pretty much ignored him. He started saying things that for so long had needed to be said, and I was amazed by how many responded to him. I was riveted throughout his campaign. But the establishment Democrats had no intention of allowing him to succeed.

Since the advent of computers the Empire has become corporate and global in nature. (That’s obvious, yes.) I am adamantly opposed to the Empire, which is indifferent to everything save money and power. Its massiveness has made it the biggest threat to world peace, a healthy environment, and a sane life. Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is a supporter of the Empire. She made it clear that she would use military power to keep the Empire in place and thriving. Trump, who is a genuine sociopath (that needs to be understood), is more like a domestic terrorist. He will fail because of his ego. The Global Empire demands an ability to work with others, something he is incapable of doing because of his “disease.” He’s going to cause a great deal of harm to his fellow Americans, but it’s difficult for me to think of Trump as objectively worse simply because he is more of a threat to me personally. If I did, it would make me indifferent to the suffering of those who Clinton would have squashed in her effort to maintain the Empire, which, like America, is also in its death throes. Both Clinton and Trump are devotees of Mammon. They simply had different constituencies supporting them in their quests for power. Mammon has no principles.

My allegiance remains to the counterculture, which needs to revive itself and develop greater maturity. There is no hope for the established institutions of the modern world, which are completely off-base philosophically. I don’t care about economics, politics, or science, all of which now serve as tools for ambitious egotists. The only thing I’ve ever cared about is love. It’s the only thing that has never fallen away from me.

The Problem of the Homeless

February 28, 2016

The City of San Francisco made the news recently by breaking up a homeless encampment on the streets, a long row of tents that Judy and I often drove past on our way to Rainbow Grocery, the store we use. The camp was the subject of a lot of controversy, especially after the CEO of some tech company wrote an open, complaining letter to the mayor, demanding that the mayor do something. The poor guy was sick of having to look at the homeless. It’s commonplace to say that San Francisco has a “serious homelessness problem,” but the entire country does, really. I read recently that my hometown of Vancouver, Washington has homeless camps. The homeless are more noticeable in a place like San Francisco, that’s all. I myself was without a home for 15 years, living on the street in San Francisco from 1973 to 1988. I wasn’t what most people picture when they hear that word, “homeless,” but I was out among the homeless much of that time, and I have a decent idea of what’s going on. When I hear people talk about the problem, I realize that no one even comes close to understanding it, that it’s only going to grow.

For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out a simple way of describing what I see, but only recently did I find the words I was looking for: We live in a system that creates homelessness as one of its inevitable byproducts. This society has a near-religious belief in competition, and wherever you have competition, you have, inevitably, winners and losers. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like water boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit: It’s the only possibility. The homeless are the ones who have lost the game. As the competition heats up—as it has been ever since Reagan—the winners keep grabbing more and more, so we have more and more losers of the game. People like the CEO of that tech company are either ignorant or arrogant. Or both. Whether he sees it or not, he‘s a huge part of the problem.

When I was on the street I was subjected to all kinds of absurd situations and arrogant treatment. One example is when people become furious with homeless people for defecating on the street. This society gives them no place else to go. There are few public toilets, at least ones that don’t cost money , and restaurants, cafes, and so on don’t want the homeless in their businesses. I never ended up in a situation where I had to do “my business” in public, but I came close a few times. When you are in an absurd situation like that and you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand the most obvious and simple thing, you tend to lose your respect for them. You end up doing whatever you feel like doing.

If we genuinely want to end the problem, we have to abandon the idea that it’s okay to accumulate as much wealth as possible. It’s not okay to be a billionaire. And if we can’t abandon the idea, then we have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable epidemic of poverty. It’s that cut and dried.

The Lie of Supply and Demand

December 16, 2015

Every time I get involved in some kind of conversation or debate over economic justice, there’s always some guy who will jump in to invoke the “Law of Supply and Demand.” Invariably, he steps back then to see if any of us are dumb enough to continue. It’s a law, man, a settled issue, something that only an idiot would challenge. But supply and demand is not a law. A law is something that absolutely must happen. But no one has any obligation to follow this supposed law in any transaction they control. If I have the only loaf of bread and I’m surrounded by hungry people, I can give the bread away if I so choose. Supply and demand is a syndrome—a philosophical justification for greed. One of the assumptions behind supply and demand is that people naturally want to get as much as they can and will play every angle they can in order to get it. A further assumption is, that’s okay. The only law involved then is the Law of the Jungle. But it’s not okay. Greed is killing us. It’s been sanctioned for a long time and the ill-effects are mounting. Climate change is one of them. Another is the cost of housing. We have to change our approach to how we exist and survive. We don’t need so much stuff. We’re heading for the cliff, and the cliff isn’t that far away now. If we don’t stop soon, we’re going over it.

The Greek Debt

June 17, 2015
In Hydra 1969

In Hydra in 1969 with Dougal, Janice, Nikos, and unknown.

In 1969, a few months after graduating from high school, I flew to Europe, where I spent several months exploring by thumb and by train. Of all the countries I traveled through, my favorite by far was Greece. It was a beautiful land with its own distinct culture. The old Mediterranean peasant world still had a strong presence, which made a big impression on me. The Greeks in general were extraordinarily friendly, openly curious about people from other countries, and generous. One day, at an outdoor market I asked a farmer if I could buy an orange. He seemed puzzled and asked, “One kilo?” “No, one orange,” I said. He frowned and shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to sell me just one orange. He gave it to me. One of the special aspects of Greece, especially Crete, was the sense of timelessness—by which I mean I had little awareness of being in a particular historical era. Visually, everything was distinct. As Henry Miller said of Crete in The Colossus of Maroussi, “You see everything in its uniqueness—a man sitting under a tree: a donkey climbing a path near a mountain: a ship in a harbor in a sea of turquoise: a table on a terrace beneath a cloud.” I’d already begun my lifelong loathing of modernity—the tawdry commercialism, superficial relationships, the hustle—and I loved Greece for the slow pace of life and its beauty. Living life was more important than business. (It’s pitiful that people who believe life should be beautiful are regarded now as romantics. It’s a symptom of how lost we’ve become.)

In 2007 I returned to Greece to do research for my book Street Song. I wasn’t expecting it to be the same, but the degree of change was startling. Everything that I loved about Greece was gone. It had lost that special sense of timelessness. Greece had become a resort for wealthy northern Europeans and Americans. And the Greeks themselves had become sullen. All they wanted was your money. It took me a few days to figure out exactly what had happened: globalization. Greece was now just an outpost on the international corporate circuit. One day I tried to talk to a Greek about it, and he blew me off. He was gruff and uncommunicative. I finally did talk to a Greek about it,  a man who owned a laundromat and spoke English. He agreed with me—very passionately—that something had gone very wrong in Greece. All anybody did was work and work, and they were all unhappy about it. They all believed that they had no choice. Much of their work consisted in serving the fat Germans who lounged about on the beaches and treated them like serfs.

There is a lot of anger directed at Greece in the Western World because of the new government’s threat to default on its debt. A tremendous amount of pressure is being put on them to stay the course of austerity and to open the doors wider to those who have no interest in Greece other than to rape and pillage. I, for one, hope they can resist. If it means default, then bless them. The insane, pointless workaholism of the Germans and Americans goes against the character of the Greeks—against the character of human beings, really. We are not designed to live this way and we’re heading for a nervous breakdown.

America, Germany, and England as well as some other countries have declared to the rest of the world that globalization is the only way to go, that every country must be part of it or it won’t survive. No one is given a choice. The global economy is very clearly a great evil to me. It’s tawdry and shallow. We’ve gone far beyond any level of comfort that we actually need, and yet we’re still not satisfied. Our levels of anger and frustration grow continually because materialism can never satisfy. Something is going to bring the whole thing down one day. I think of the bankers as drug dealers. They try to get you hooked and then send in their enforcers if you don’t pay up. It’s probably too much to hope that a default by Greece would begin the unraveling, but it would be most appropriate if it did. The Western World’s enshrinement of rationality and logic began in Greece, and it is rationality and logic that have led us to the horrific level of materialism that we live by today. If Greece can begin the process of the collapse of that system—which must collapse for the world to survive—it will be one of those beautifully ironic moments that history sometimes serves up.

The Right to Slaughter

May 13, 2015

Many people, I would guess most people, roll their eyes when they hear the term “animal rights.” People see rights as something arbitrary that are bestowed upon us by the government. You vote for your rights. Animals can’t vote, so it’s stupid to say they have any rights. This is an incredibly superficial view of existence, yet pervasive. But the truth is that rights are not arbitrary; they are inherent. In any intelligent, healthy system, it is not the government’s role to bestow rights, but to see that they are protected.

What rights do animals have? For starters, they have the right to live out the laws of their being. That should be plainly obvious. And we human beings have an obligation, a duty, to not get in the way of that. We must create our civilization in such a way that it makes it possible for the animals to do what they do. I’m sure some oaf will be thinking, “Well, we have the right to live out the laws of our being, too. If the animals get in our way, that’s their problem.” But we are a different kind of animal. We have the capacity for huge amounts of free will. We also have the capacity to destroy all life on this planet. That’s not living out the laws of our being. That’s just being greedy and blind. We don’t know anything about the laws of our being. We can’t when all we care about is money.

The preceding diatribe is inspired by the fact that the Army Corp of Engineers has just been given permission by both the Fish and Wildlife Service and a federal judge to begin the slaughter of tens of thousands of cormorants in a nesting colony on East Sand Island in the mouth of the Columbia River. I’ve been to East Sand Island and have seen that colony. Thousands of pelicans and terns congregate there as well. The slaughter has been approved supposedly to help keep the salmon from going extinct. But that’s bullshit. What they’re really doing is trying to protect the fishing industry. They want to kill the birds so that humans can eat the fish instead of the birds. We don’t actually need the fish, but the cormorants do. And they have the right to them. That’s how nature works. And if the salmon are endangered, it’s not because of cormorants. It’s because of us, through our dams and overfishing. The Army Corp of Engineers, which thought up the plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which approved it, the federal judge who approved it, and Wildlife Services, who are to carry it out, are all killers in the pay of Mammon. I don’t believe for an instant that there is any environmental concern here whatsoever. And even if there is, it’s incredibly hubristic to think that we know what to do. We’re terrible when it comes to helping nature. All we know is how to exploit it. I, for one, can never give whole-hearted allegiance to a system that does these things.

The Madness of Consumerism

September 9, 2014

For the last couple of months, I’ve been reading Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. I can’t really recommend it. The author sees Western Civilization as flawed, but still capable of being repaired, albeit with some difficulty, whereas I see its flaws as being so fundamental that to fix them, which we must, is to create an entirely different animal. In any case, every now and then I find an interesting nugget. To wit:

Strange as it may seem to us, the underlying concern of American capitalism in the late nineteenth century was the possibility of sufficiency. Just as Marx had envisaged a world where everyone would have enough for a decent life, American capitalists were worried that people would stop buying their goods once they had enough things to live comfortably. There seemed no obvious reason why someone would replace a piece of furniture or a coat or a set of crockery simply because it was old. This problem was solved in large part through the influence of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and principal promoter of his ideas in America. Bernays was intrigued by Freud’s view that people are bundles of emotion, passion and desire, and that the real motive for human action is the satisfaction of deep-seated desires rather than rational calculation. Bernays saw that American companies needed to transform the way that people thought about their purchases, so that they would forget about trying to fill their rational needs and instead aim to fulfill their desires. In the 1920s, consumerism, or consumptionism as it was then called, was born. Calvin Coolidge declared that an “American’s importance to his country is not as a citizen but as a consumer.” Rather than selling goods to its customers, the advertising industry began to sell happiness.

… Bernays, and his clients in American corporations found themselves in agreement with Freud’s view that democracy carried serious risks and should be discouraged. Other commentators such as Walter Lippman, the most influential columnist in America in the 1930s and 1940s, came to agree that democracy was an inappropriate way of governing such a complex country, and that the masses needed an elite to guide them…

… In 1928 President Hoover reinforced Coolidge’s sentiment and said that people were “constantly moving happiness machines.” Just as Freud had suggested that if our selfish desires are satisfied we feel docile and happy, and if they are thwarted we feel aggrieved, Hoover understood that when people are fulfilling their desires they are not inclined to be politically active.

Americans showed that if products were sold to them in the right way, they would buy and buy and that consumerism would make them politically conservative.

That’s about as bald as it gets, isn’t it? And it is what has come to pass. There was a brief effort in the 1960s to stop it. But since then people have enthusiastically taken up the role of “consumer” again. The philosophies I study and believe in say that pursuing the satisfaction of one’s superficial desires can never truly satisfy. It merely leads to more desire and, ultimately, madness. I think that’s obvious. You don’t need to read any philosophy to understand that. A little real-life experience will do. Yet here are all these captains of industry pursuing this mad course and accusing those who don’t agree of being evil fools. We’re over a hundred years into it now and it has grown to massive levels. You never see any other point of view represented. No one advocates at the national level for living a simpler, less materialistic life. I’ve been reading about the feverish expectations for the new iPhone that’s supposed to be announced today, and it’s crazy. I still don’t have a cell phone, and I do just fine. I’ve never wanted one. But I’ve been reading commentators who fear what might happen if the new gadget doesn’t meet expectations. They warn that there could be real trouble. Every year at Christmas you see articles about how Christmas sales are doing and what it means for our well-being. Are we spending enough? We have to get out of this mindset. It has to be exposed for what it is. I think that if we don’t, reality will force a change on us. Wouldn’t it be better to do it gracefully?

Main Street Marijuana

June 28, 2014

I grew up in the town of Vancouver, Washington, and like everybody with intellectual, artistic, or spiritual inclinations I grew up hating my hometown for stifling my aspirations. I was a big fan of the Sinclair Lewis novel Main Street because it bolstered my contempt for the small-town mindset. I read it several times. I longed to move to some great city where I would find the open, cosmopolitan mindset where everybody talked about serious, creative issues. (Interestingly, Henry Miller despised his hometown of New York City for many of the same reasons I despised Vancouver.)

Forty years ago, when I arrived in San Francisco I thought I’d finally found what I was looking for. So it’s ironic that on July 7th my old hometown is getting its first marijuana store, while here in San Francisco the locals get all uptight whenever a medical marijuana dispensary is proposed for their neighborhood. It’s especially ironic for me, deliciously ironic, that the new store is going to be located on Vancouver’s Main Street and will be called Main Street Marijuana.

I’m entirely in favor of legalizing marijuana. But, as it seems to be with nearly all issues these days, my reasons for supporting it are different than that of most people. I think legalizing it for medical reasons is fine, but I don’t like the “recreational” tag. It’s frivolous. It encourages people to approach marijuana as a party drug, which is a waste of its real value. The justification for legalization is its value as a spiritual tool.

I’m well aware that you’d never get the stuff legalized taking that approach. Today’s image of the dope smoker is that of a lazy, dull-minded space cadet, a credulous fool. Furthermore, although few of them like to talk about it, a lot of people who used to smoke it stopped because, they say, it started making them “paranoid.” Marijuana is essentially an amplifier—a benevolent one, I’d say. It increases your awareness, in the beginning at least. It depends, though, on what you want it to do. When I was playing music, some of my best performances happened while I was high. (This was not merely my subjective opinion. The audiences affirmed it for me each time.) My hearing was extraordinarily acute and I was strongly aware of the smallest details in my playing and singing. Likewise, I’ve had some fine meditations while stoned, special insights that I still remember. The thing is, you always come back down. The hope is that you learned something while you were high that you could begin to strive toward in your day-to-day unstoned mind. The problem with people who smoke it and smoke it and smoke it is they blow out their energy. That’s why you get sleepy stoners who don’t seem very bright. They’ve shot their wad. (You can always get it back. It doesn’t cause permanent damage. You just have to stop for awhile.)  I haven’t smoked any in 15 years. I’m still working on what I learned in those first 30 years of smoking. As for paranoia, the drug itself doesn’t make you paranoid. It simply shows you the paranoia that is already within you. It shows you by amplifying it. But it also amplifies love. It amplifies everything.

Anyway, that’s my take on the subject. I’m happy to discuss. My best wishes to Main Street Marijuana. May it be a successful enterprise.

Good News

June 4, 2014

It’s been very difficult to post anything here lately. There are several reasons: busy with the book, busy with Judy’s movie, busy with Judy’s Kickstarter campaign, have a lousy cold. Mostly though it’s because I’ve been quite pessimistic lately and haven’t wanted to unload that yet again on this blog. I wanted some good news first.

Well, there is some. First of all, Judy’s Kickstarter campaign succeeded. She made her goal of $50,000, so the project will be funded. Thank you to everyone who gave. And there is other good news: Yesterday, San Francisco voters passed Proposition B by a margin of 59 to 40 percent. Prop B requires that any building project on city-owned waterfront property that would exceed height limits already in place will require a vote of the people to proceed. There have been a lot of complaints that Prop B becomes city planning by the ballot box, that it’s inefficient, slow, open to corruption by politics and scares away developers (I hope). The reason the proposition became necessary is that the San Francisco city government is currently in the hands of developers. The city rubber stamps every development proposal no matter how massive, ugly and inappropriate. They want San Francisco to be a playground for the rich—the global rich. Local development organizations such as SPUR peddle the idea of the “New Urbanism,” which is really just the old urbanism with delusions of grandeur attached. SPUR seems to be made up of liberals who have lost their ideals but like to think that that they’re still forward-thinking. They push the idea that density makes a city vibrant. But it’s still just rats packed tight in a cage. I used to ask a friend who closely follows city politics what the ideology of organizations like SPUR was. He always looked at me with irritation—irritation at how slow and dull I was. “Money,” he would tell me. And I’ve come to see that he’s absolutely right. There is no ideology. Just the desire to get rich.

Proposition B is probably just a holding action. San Francisco has severely deteriorated in the past few years. It has become everything I came here to get away from. The cost of living here continues to drive out the people who see life as being about something more than making money. The developers and their allies are going to keep pushing. They are ruthless and see San Francisco as a goldmine that they are determined to exploit. I used to know a guy who believed that San Francisco was the New Jerusalem. It’s not. It’s just a plain old, garden-variety Babylon.

Venturing into the Future

April 19, 2014

A couple of days ago, Judy and I drove north to Eureka to screen her new film Pelican Dreams for some wildlife rehabilitators who helped with the project. (The film isn’t ready for release yet. She still has a lot of color correction and sound work to do. But she has achieved what’s called “picture lock,” meaning there won’t be any more changes to the visuals.) The screening was an interesting experience. It was held in a creative performance space—actually an old warehouse at the edge of town. When we got there the entrance was surrounded by homeless people who were either sleeping or just hanging out. We carried our gear inside (projector, screen, laptop, speakers) and  discovered that the power had been shut off by the utility company for nonpayment. Someone had forgotten to send in the check. The warehouse is divided into two spaces, and on the other side of the wall an industrial punk band was rehearsing. We got their attention during a break, and they let us run an extension cord over to their side. We were able to draw enough juice to power the projector and our small speakers. So that audience members could find their way to their seats, we lit the winding hallway into the theater with candles. The band had paid to rent the space where they were rehearsing, so they weren’t willing to call it a night. We had to run the first half of the film over the sound of their pounding drums, howling vocals, and buzz-sawing guitars, which were just on the other side of the wall. Somehow it worked. Everybody accepted the situation for what it was. I was most amused by two women in their seventies who ran the gauntlet of homeless people outside the warehouse, picked their way through the candle-lined hallway, and watched the show with the punk band playing behind the wall. They could have been old hippies, but they didn’t look it. Whatever they were, they were unruffled by it all.

I was thinking later that this is how the future is going to be. We’re going to live through a time where the availability of energy is unreliable. In this particular case, it brought people together. Everyone had a good time.