Civic Hallucinations

Responsible members of any society have an obligation to pay attention to what is going on around them. They have an obligation to protest injustice and to warn others when they see or hear or otherwise learn about dangers that could, if left unchecked, damage the society of which they are a part. But sometimes the barrage of alarming information can overwhelm a person’s senses. At times, the ceaseless onslaught of signals grows so constant and so loud and shrill that the signals, themselves, present the most immediate danger. They imperil a person’s ability to shield himself against his own deafening demands to do something—anything—in an attempt to protect himself or those he loves from growing danger. That screaming urge to take action, I think, can be so overwhelming as to cause people to do irrational things.

Sometimes, though, irrational actions are precisely what society needs to right itself. Irrational actions can so “shock the system” that members of society seem to collectively take a deep breath and look at the madness that surrounds them. It is hard to predict which irrational acts might reach through the fog of confusion when society is utterly unbalanced and unhinged. Is it an individual suicidal protest on national television? Is it the detonation of a bomb in a crowded office building? Is it the threat of widespread destruction and murder by an unknown “defender of the American way?” There is no way to know. It is not just hard to predict; it is impossible to predict.

So, there are competing forces at play: protect oneself from dangerous internal demands to “do something” or; attempt to jolt society into taking collective corrective action by acting in ways that may be irrational.

That’s a long, somewhat translucent (but almost opaque) explanation of what is going on in my head this morning. By ignoring my responsibility to “pay attention,” I have attempted to protect myself from going mad. I’ve made an effort to avoid the voice and the words of the wanna-be dictator in the White House. I’ve done the same with respect to the majority of Republican legislators in Washington (and many of their Democratic opponents). I have tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid the thick stupidity of dimwits who equate wearing masks with secret support of the “deep state.” Yet “news” keeps slipping in, attempting to slit my wrists with its sharp edges and ugly realty. I watched, in horror, the videotape of the Minneapolis police officer killing an unarmed, non-threatening Black man. I heard about the idiot-in-chief taking action intended to silence his critics in and on social media. I learned about the on-camera arrest of a CNN reporter covering the protests and destruction in response to that murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. I could not help but hear that protesters set a Minneapolis police precinct building on fire.

Obviously, though I have attempted to shield myself from the madness of watching civil society disintegrate before my eyes, I failed. I know too much. I cannot turn off that grisly movie reel playing in my head. The images cause my brain to howl at me to “do something!” The shrieks are loud and getting louder. But there’s nothing I can do. If I had access to a nuclear devise, I might be able to grab the world’s attention by detonating it in just the right place at just the right time. I have no such device, though. I don’t even have more conventional tools like dynamite and rocket-propelled grenades. And I would be hesitant to attempt to blow up oil refineries, even if I had the necessary equipment. I could record myself screaming, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” That might have worked in a 1975 movie, but it’s too tame and too subtle in today’s live-murder, video-driven world.

Even with my attempt to ratchet-down the flood of disturbing news, it continues to flow freely all around me. And simply closing my eyes and ears would do nothing more than keep me in a state of temporary blissful ignorance for a while. I have to acknowledge that I can either be a responsible member of society by paying attention and doing something, rational, to right the ship or I can quietly withdraw and let it sink along with me.

COVID-19 seems, now, like an inevitable, unstoppable scourge, in light of the fact that we’ve acknowledged that the economy is vastly more important than human life and that the right to assemble can be asserted only by refusing to wear masks. If a police officer puts his knee on your neck, your obligation is to accept his supremacy and your impending death. Any criticism of the president of the United States is hereby declared treason. The rich deserve every penny they steal from the college savings funds of parents trying to secure their children’s future. The minimum wage should be lowered. Corporate employers should be encouraged to engage employees as unpaid interns for the first six years of employment, after which the interns should be summarily dismissed without severance. Food should be supplied, first, to the wealthy and well-connected and only then, after sufficient spoilage, made available to the rest of us riff-raff.

Hope. Less. Weep. More.

I have watched videos of eels undulating, like living ribbons, through the water. Those movements are like my moods, oscillating between enthusiasm and despair. Or, perhaps, my moods more closely mimic the rhythm of EKG machine output; regular peaks and valleys with the occasional upward spike and sharp dive. Manic one minute, depressed the next. I think there’s a psychological term for that. How frequent must the upward and downward spikes be to meet the definition of  “abnormal?” At what precise increment in the measure of frequency does “normal” become “abnormal?” Is there a “borderline normal” frequency or a “borderline abnormal” frequency of those peaks and valleys? Do those mood swings mirror the ups and downs of the EKG chart? In other words, are the undulations of eels ever borderline…anything? Or do we only classify human behaviors as natural or deviant? So many questions. So little value in answering them.

I’ve been watching Carolina wrens that built a nest atop an awning that attaches just below the soffit. The birds are now, I think, feeding their young with worms and bugs and such. The birds do not spend their time worrying about their moods, nor about other birds murdering their young without reason. Those birds are not concerned about greedy capitalists cornering the market on worms.

We have the capacity to achieve the same degree of intelligence demonstrated by Carolina wrens. We do. All we have to do is feed our young bugs, break the knees of psychotic policemen, and regulate the market on worms so capitalists cannot control the supply. It’s just that easy.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Civic Hallucinations

  1. Pat, thanks very much for your very generous assessment of this post. I hope you will share what you write. I’d love to read it. I’m with you; it is a shame our creativity is spurred on by the concussion of such ugly circumstances. But we process what we have to, I suppose. I’m looking forward to reading your creative thoughts!

  2. Pat Newcomb says:

    John – this is EXCELLENT! Particularly since it fairly rolls off your fingers, stream of conscious-like. You have captured some of the dilemmas with which I have wrestled. Just when you think it can’t get worse, we reach 100k deaths (in 4 months time), needlessly kill one Black man, then watch an entire neighborhood go up in smoke. And that’s just what our news media bring us. I’m going to mine some of these tensions as you name them for my own thinking – heck maybe even write something down. Wish the circumstances for such creativity were a little less extreme.

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