Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The 2012 Doctrine

Just got back from the movies, where Yony and I took advantage of $6 Tuesday night tickets to watch 2012, the latest end-days fantasy from CGI king Roland Emmerich. Having already brought the human race to the verge of extinction via monsters (Godzilla), alien invasion (Independence Day) and environmental disaster (The Day After Tomorrow), Emmerich was a natural to helm this expensive 158-minute epic, very loosely based on supposed ancient Mayan prophecy. The film--in which a giant sun-flare causes the earth's crust to destabilize, leading to the sweeping destruction of everything and everyone on earth except for John Cusack and a few thousand rich people--was, Yony said, the worst he'd seen in years.

Two and a half hours of watching John Cusack scramble to save his family from digital animation did, it's true, become rather tedious; even Cusack looked downright bored. And even the relentless disaster-porn grew wearisome--it's great fun watching, say, the city of Pasadena get wiped off the map, but by the time the Washington Monument topples to the ground one's patience for explosions and fireballs is exhausted. But the movie did resonate, for me, on some deeper level, one which I couldn't quite put my finger on until I was on my way home.

It had to do, I realized, with the book I've been reading, Naomi Klein's excellent Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Released in 2007, the book traces the origins and ascent of Milton Friedman's "C
hicago School" of economics. Developed at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, the Chicago School calls for a sort of pure capitalism, in which the free market reigns and government is reduced to a minor, clerical role--a radical transformation accomplished through unfettered trade, sweeping privatization of public assets, and the gutting of social services. The implementation of these radical policies in countries around the world, Klein argues, has required tumultuous upheaval--whether in the form of economic crises, military coups or natural disasters--the resulting shock and confusion creating a sort of blank canvas on which to build the Friedmanite hyper-capitalist utopia.
This "shock doctrine", akin to the shock-induced blanking of psychiatric patients popular in the mid-1900s, was first applied, Klein says, in 1970s Chile, when General Pinochet led a US-backed, Chicago School-bred military junta in overthrowing the democratic governent of Salvador Allende. Pinochet's regime relied heavily on torture and intimidation to enforce their highly unpopular economic policies of mass privatization and welfare-slashing, which created a bonanza for an upper-class minority but left the poor majority very much in the dust. Bolstered by their "success" in Chile, the Chicago Schoolers went on to establish similarly violent free-market economies in much of South America.
Later, working from high-level posts in the World Bank and the IMF, the Friedmanites would exploit the chaotic collapse of socialism (Poland, Russia), the 1997 economic crisis in Southeast Asia and other violent upheavals throughout the world to push through their free-market agenda. In recent years, the shock doctrine has been employed in many guises: the trauma of September 11, which allowed the Bush administration to quietly privatize and outsource huge swaths of the military complex under the guise of "Homeland Security"; the appropratiely-named Shock-and-Awe campaigns at the outset of the Iraq War, which sought to stun the Iraqis into free-market compliance, and which provided enormously lucrative contracts to companies like Halliburton and Blackwater, hired to remake Iraq along Chicago School principles; the devastation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, which led to privatized rebuilding efforts and the widespread closures of schools, hospitals and public housing; and numerous other examples, the sum of which Klein labels the "Disaster Capitalism Complex." It is a system designed to profit from human suffering, and doesn't make for very cheerful reading.
Without drawing any overwrought analogies, 2012 was fascinating to watch because it illustrated, I think, the logical conclusion of Klein's Shock Doctrine. As the earth's crust begins to destabilize, foreboding massive earthquakes, enormous tidal waves and global flooding, the world's leaders embark on a secret plan to build a fleet of huge high-tech arks, high in the Himalayas, which will carry some 400,000 of the world's elite to safety. With seats on the arks selling for 1 billion euros apiece, the future of the human race is largely comprised of oil barons, corrput politicians and cartoonishly evil Russian oligarchs; John Cusack's middle-class family is able to sneak onto the ships only through grit, luck and awesome special effects.
The film is surprisingly honest, and suprisingly political, in its assessment of the current scene. Despite the best efforts of a well-meaning black president, his fair-minded science advisor and the Dalai Lama--all of whom are washed away--in the end, it's the greed of private industry which prevails. "Without billions of dollars from the private sector, this whole project would never have been built," explains sinister White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser in the film's finale, explaining why survival is the priviledge of the wealthy and well-connected. Weeks after the cataclysm, as the arks drift upon a boundless ocean, the ship's decks are opened and the passengers get a first glimpse at their brave new world--brilliant sunlight and a vast expanse of nothingness, the ultimate blank canvas on which these free-market pilgrims will remake human civilization. There may not be much to the film's pseudo-scientific bastardizing of Mayan prophesy, but as a political signpost I found it wildly successful, a perfect counterpart to Klein's chilling book. Watch and be warned!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When good trips go bad

It's a bit late in the year for psychedelic carousing, but we had a bag of mushrooms and the November day was a mild one. So after consulting some maps and deciding which patch of nature to revel in--I voted for the lush grounds of Fermilab, but my companions somehow didn't like the idea of tripping adjacent to the world's largest particle accelerator--Yony, Dewayne and I got on the Metra train and headed for the Morton Arboretum, in suburban Lisle. Ah, the Arboretum! Such an evocative name! I could picture it already: mynah birds gliding through the mangroves, the air thick with enchanted puffballs, a family of woodland sprites bathing in the reflecting pool, and in the center of the park some sort of stately pleasure-dome.

Dewayne and Yony were already tripping by the time we got on the train; my transformation would not begin for another half-hour hour or so. On arriving in Lisle, I proclaimed myself Chief of the expedition, being at present the soundest of mind and steadiest on my feet. It was a bit of a hike to the Arboretum, longer than we expected--the mangroves must not be far now, but what was with all these strip-malls and gas stations, these superhighway overpasses? At length we spotted a swath of wilderness; it must be the Arboretum, we concluded, though I privately felt the place looked somewhat dumpy--just a bunch of trees, and they didn't even have any leaves on them!

We entered through some sort of back gate--the "servant's entrance", Dewayne joked. Well, this was not so bad after all. The roar of the highway quickly receding, we found ourselves in a dense and silent wood. I've always found a leafless forest rather depressing, but everything was now painted with psilocybin's magic brush, and the trees swayed with melancholy tenderness. We walked for some time, and came across a little meadow, where the last rays of afternoon sun were spilling across pillows of tall grass. Though I didn't see any pleasure dome, it seemed a pretty enough spot to rest, meditate, smoke some weed.

In one part of the meadow, the earth was a blanket of charred, tangled grasses, the result of some sort of controlled burn. It had an eerie, postapocalyptic beauty, and I took out my camera and began shooting away. Yony and Dewayne were on the other side of the meadow, reclining in a sunny thicket of grass, looking much like wild beasts at rest, and I began shooting them as well, fancying myself a celebrated nature photographer, on assignment in some African savannah.

You've taken mushrooms, no? They're a splendid drug--not so much wrapping the world in gauze, as pot or opiates do, as providing sweet, transcendent clarity. The psychedelic vision is rarely delusion at all; it is truth amplified. The trees and grasses seem miraculously alive and breathing--as indeed they actually are. At length, each of arose and wandered off according to his own whims; Yony took off running, I sat by a brook and contemplated Eternity, and Dewayne sat on a log examining fallen leaves:Poke fun all you want at the drug-taker's childish stupor, but there is in fact great beauty in a fallen leaf, and each one is so utterly unique.

Soon it was twilight, and we began to head in the presumed direction of an exit. The underbrush had quite recently been burned--some of it was still smoking!--but it had been burned with great precision, and a winding border demarcated the burn zone. We followed the smell of fire until we came across the firemen themselves, dressed in bright haz-mat suits, resting by the side of the road. Sadly, they could offer only dry, technical answers to our fevered questions about the burns and how they worked; there was little for the metaphorically-inclined mushroom-eater to walk away with.

Further down the trail, we came across a banner reading, Animal Houses: A Whimsical Adventure! A Wild, Woodland Romp! Not the types to pass up a whimsical romp, we excitedly followed the signs to what was ultimately a glorified playground, where kindergartners were goofing around in oversize squirrel dreys and fallen logs. One of the animal houses did capture our collective fancy--an artfully-constructed, 20-foot raccoon den:
But the sun was now truly setting, the air growing chilly, the mushrooms beginning to wear off, and it was time for us to head home.

A short ways on, we encountered a woman standing by the side of the road, next to her car. She was short and plump, draped rather gothically in expensive black scarves, and was, as we approached, visibly upset. "Have you seen boy about this big?," she implored us, in a thick Slavic accent. We had not. "My boy, my eight year-old son, he is autistic," she explained. "He does not talk. He wandered into the woods, I don't know, somehow, and I cannot find him." Our trip was taking a sudden, heavy turn, but we kept our heads cool. Yony offered to call the rangers. "I already tell somebody, they are looking for him," she protested.

We offered to go off looking for the boy ourselves, and she pointed us in the general direction of his disappearance. There seemed to be little we could accomplish--it was late-dusk and we had no flashlight--but what choice did we have? An autistic child was lost in the woods, probably scared to death. "There's something fishy about all of this," Yony interjected. The woman's story, it was true, did not quite add up; how could she have let her autistic son just wander away? Why did she bring him to the woods at dusk in the first place? Why was she dressed like a Bulgarian noblewoman in mourning? And why was she so relatively nonchalant, when most other mothers would have been screaming and wailing? "I think she murdered him," Yony speculated, his imagination racing.

We gave up our aimless wandering and returned to the woman, who was now busy speaking with a ranger on a truck. A police car had arrived, the sure signal for users and possessors of drugs to beat a quiet retreat. So we headed once again for the exit, a mile or two down the road, walking in the dark and cracking jokes to dispel the creeping horror which the boy's disappearance had invoked. The child's position, were he in fact lost in the woods, was bad enough, but we ourselves were in a bit of a pretty pickle; as we neared the exit, more police cars and sheriff's vehicles were streaming in, searchlights blaring, and three unwashed young hoodlums walking down the side of the road, disoriented and with heads full of drugs, seemed sure to arouse suspicion. "This," Dewayne commented ominously, "Is like a bad novel."

It got worse. The entrance/exit was a brightly-lit archway; beyond this was a four-lane highway with no sidewalk or shoulder to walk on. We had no idea how to get back to the train station, and no means to get there if we did. Panic began to set in; a helicopter had arrived. Needless to say, this was precisely the sort of situation that the psilocybin-user wants to avoid--stranded and lost in a suburban forest preserve, surrounded by police helicopters and fully-armed paramilitary personnel. They'd drag us into the station; FBI agents would arrive within hours, demanding to know where we'd hid the boy's body. Our guilt would be assumed. We'd be tried in a kangaroo court, and sentenced to death by hanging. I tried, in vain, to get Yony to at least ditch his remaining drugs.

It was Dewayne's brilliant idea to call a taxi. I have never in my life called a taxi--the idea is utterly foreign to me. But after a quick call, we were told our salvation would be arriving in about 20 minutes. If we could fend off the slavering dogs of the Law for 20 minutes, we'd be whisked off to safety. These would prove to be 20 of the longest minutes of our young lives. Each passing sheriff stared us down with the eye of death. Yony scrambled into the bushes to bury his mushroom residue. I called my dear friend John Bellows, to get some sober advice and hear a reassuring voice. "I don't want to freak you out," I began. "But we're in a bit of a weird situation. We took some mushrooms today, and..."

Our taxi arrived, and its trunk was searched by the police. Satisfied that it contained no bound-and-gagged autistic child, we were free to climb in and make our escape. What an overwhelming feeling of relief and liberation! Back in Lisle, we dropped into some shitty bar-and-grill for a sorely-needed beer. Word of the fiasco over at the arboretum had not yet spread to Main Street. Drinks were on special for $1.50 apiece, and our train back to the city would be arriving in half an hour. We took a collective deep breath.

The missing child didn't make it onto the 10 o'clock news, nor was he in this morning's paper. At this point we can only hope and speculate--perhaps he was merely playing hide-and-go-seek in the raccoon den, and enjoyed a tearful reunion with his family. As for me, the next time I take hallucinogenic drugs, I'll do so in the cozy pastures of my own backyard, which offers its own sort of mystical pleasures.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

They win again

I've done, in my time, some pretty embarrassing and morally-questionable things for a fistful of dollars, from donating plasma to selling stolen books, from being a chewing gum tester for the Wrigley company to posing as a fortune teller. Many of the stranger or more unsavory rackets I've pulled have come from craigslist, that rowdy town square of the online world, and it was here that I came across a posting offering an enticing $150 to participate in a one-day marketing campaign. The marketers, a New York agency called GoGorilla, were recruiting a fun and outgoing street-team--not exactly my usual self-referents, but I could pretend for a day--to fan out across downtown Chicago, costumed as "homeless" Uncle Sams, and "beg" for 12 trillion dollars to pay off the national debt. GoGorilla's client, a website called DefeattheDebt.com, was launching this promotion in several cities to spread its message and gain publicity.

The whole thing reeked, right off the bat, of
Teaparty Patriot-style right-wing propaganda, but it didn't seem any more offensive than dressing up as a chicken, say, and passing out menus. And I very much needed the money; your blogger's finances are paltry at best. So I sent along a photograph and a little biographical resume, and promptly received a call back from the marketing agency; as a sentient being capable of holding a cardboard sign for several hours straight, I apparently met their qualifications--though I suspect they could have found far more experienced panhandlers without great effort. There are a lot of guys hanging out near the public library that could really use the $150.

The job entailed arriving at a Gold Coast hotel at the profane hour of 5:30 am to dress up and get some coaching. There was already a group of guys huddled outside the hotel when I arrived, drinking coffee and smoking. They more-or-less resembled any
pre-dawn crew of day laborers, though better-dressed and more Caucasian; this was day labor for the nouveau-poor, guys that went to college but still can't pay the rent.

We made our way up to a 4
th floor conference room, the sort of bleakly-lit room where one hopes in vain to find at least a box of donuts awaiting. Here we met our "team leaders" from DefeattheDebt.com. Unreasonably chipper, they glowed with the grotesque health and optimism of Young Republicans. The Defeat the Debt campaign, one of these twats proceeded to explain, was actually a non-partisan and fairly uncontroversial one, a public awareness project run by a group called the Employment Policies Institute, which he memorably described as a "sleepy little thinktank in Washington"--y'know, your old fashioned, mom-n-pop type thinktank, where everybody knows your name.

Having done a bit of research the evening prior, I knew this to be fallacy. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the
EPI is a front group for Washington, DC public affairs firm Berman & Company, which is largely funded by the fast-food and tobacco industries and which lobbies against the minimum wage and organized labor. In short, enemies of humankind. While the political logic behind their Defeat the Debt campaign was beyond the scope of my layman's understanding, I knew that coming from these scumbags it couldn't be good. Still, we were assured, we didn't need to actually know anything about the national debt--"Just tell people to go to defeatthedebt.com," our leader advised. "Oh, and don't talk to reporters."

That said, we were ready to get suited up. As Uncle Sam costumes go, these were good-quality--our blue coats had actual tails, and we were outfitted with both beards
and sideburns--but the costumes had been meticulously distressed according to some intern's idea of homelessness: painted-on grease marks, fingerless gloves. The money expended on our homeless costumes would have gone a long way, needless to say, toward clothing some actual homeless people. No matter, we were on our way.

Any location would have been mortifying in its own way, but my post was an especially gnarly one--I'd be spending the next four hours standing, with my cardboard sign reading
Spent it All--Can You Spare $12 Trillion?, outside of the Chicago Board of Trade, the financial district's heart of darkness. Though it was only 7:00, the parade of commuters was already in full swing. Cranky and bleary-eyed, the throngs of day-traders paid me little notice beyond the occasional smirk or sneer--although, a few clueless passers-by offered me their spare change, and several people told me, mistakenly, that they'd seen my picture in this morning's Red Eye (Defeat the Debt had taken out a full-page ad). I'd done some seedy gigs in the past, but I'd certainly never been mistaken for someone in the Red Eye--surely this was a new low.

But as the morning wore on, and the day-traders wandered out for their cigarette breaks, several of them insisted on engaging me in conversations on economic policy. The mood in the financial district was decidedly bitter on this grey and windy morning, and the sight of a panhandling Uncle Sam can't have helped. "You know what you
do?," one particularly feisty trader suggested, pointing to the grand edifice across the street. "Burn down the Federal Reserve Bank." I laughed nervously.

The guys panhandling outside of McDonald's weren't very amused, though. I was obviously infringing on their turf--and mocking their predicament, no less! There was a certain bitter irony in the fact that I was being paid $150 to fake-panhandle, while the real panhandlers just down the block were struggling to get enough for a cheeseburger, or a bottle of Night Train. They were gracious enough, to their credit, to not whoop my ass.

But most pathetic of all is that the whole campaign seemed not only stupid and wrongheaded, it also seemed to be a dismal failure. The organizers made it seem as if we'd be mobbed by reporters and television cameras, as if this troupe of fake Uncle Sams would make some sort of tremendous splash downtown, but in fact people were downright apathetic. There was a basic miscalculation at work in the offices of the Employment Policies Institute. Hiring a large, New York marketing firm to subcontract out a shitty, sad-looking street-team for four hours on a Tuesday morning is not novel or newsworthy. People, in fact, have grown quite bored with marketing agencies and their shitty spectacles. For all it will affect economic policy, we may have been passing out sample-packs of breath mints.

On the other hand, the $150 is very significant, on a micro-economic scale. I'll pump that money straight back into the economy, even throwing a few bones to the very tobacco companies which are bankrolling this whole project in the first place. They win again!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Free Doom

My official function here is not music critic, but I'd like to try on the mantle for an evening, and tell you about the unequivocal Album of 2009: the new 9-song record from onetime Chicagoan Spencer Kingman, on loan from my upstairs neighbor, John Bellows.

Full disclosure, I'm a rabid partisan. John gave me Spencer's first album several years ago. I'd met Spencer in a kitchen once, when he lived in Chicago, and we had a conversation I barely remembered, about the desert. I listened to the album while painting a mural in my bedroom, in a dilapidated Wicker Park two-flat, and it had this alarming effect: on my first lazy listen, it was effete folky garbage, not at all the wild stuff I generally preferred, but on second listen a radiant otherworldliness began to emerge, and I was completely mesmerized. Singing in an angelic surfer-soprano, Kingman and his nylon-string guitar married devastating melodies with the lushest and most obtuse lyrics, rendered in a sort of Dada collage of transcendent imagery, tossing off delightful non-sequitors like, "Ooh, with a amazing grace/paint your face for the empire/Oh, and I can't remember what I just said on my deathbed." Like a young and hungry Beck Hansen, or even an acid-era Leonard Cohen, he romped around in wild pastures of language, plucking spiky little word-flowers with total abandon. I wore the record out.

The next time I heard from Spencer Kingman, his musical career had taken a surprising turn. I saw him playing at the Hideout with the not-yet-hyped Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors; he and bandleader Dave Longstreth were a brilliant pair of guitar foils, like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, egging each other on to ever-greater heights of Afro-Martian rhapsodising. The cherubic Kingman was, it turned out, a fully-fledged guitar hero. The Dirty Projectors would go on, after Kingman's departure, to re-interpret Black Flag's Rise Above, the album earning them a pile of Pitchfork-induced hype.

From there, my knowledge of Kingman's musical biography is quite sketchy, based on rumor and speculation. Friends said, though they didn't sound quite sure, that he'd moved back to his native Utah, married a young Mormon woman and settled down to a life of religious domesticity. I even heard the somewhat far-fetched claim that his wife wouldn't allow him to play music, for religious reasons; I liked to imagine that while his wife was off at the Women's Bible Study class, or out running errands, Spencer would sneak down to the basement, fetch his guitar out of hiding, and dash off a few tunes. Whether there was any truth in any of this I haven't the faintest idea.

Then this album appeared. Apparently titled Free Doom--the words are scrawled on my CD-R--it doesn't seem to have been properly released, but is traveling via elicit dubs; it doesn't feel like an album so much as a hallucinogenic treatise, smuggled out of Provo on golden tablets. It's clear from the opening lyrics that Kingman's been doing some heavy musing. I was in the brotherhood of man, he sighs. Don't remind me. Interspersed with existential sloganeering--I'm out of glory, could you smoke me out?--are weird thickets of imagery that resist untangling but are sonically mesmerizing: But then she was alive/to swing her surgery around/and wave it like a partisan for the Lord. The songs, while steeped in this sort of religious idiom, radiate doubt and confusion--a sort of queasy rapture, as if someone had dosed the sacramental wine. Who brought the bad blood?, Kingman ponders cryptically. I want some good blood.

And if you're not in a mood to puzzle out the dense symbolism, there's the simple gorgeousness of the music, which lilts along with all the youthful melodicism of Belle and Sebastian but none of the twee. A lazy musicologist might slander Kingman's music, spartanly arranged with just guitar and voice, as folk--or worse yet, 'freak-folk' --but it is in fact nothing of the kind. Defying reduction, the music is pure emanation from whatever weird, luminous corner of the spiritual map Spencer has been holing up in, a world entirely his own.

I don't imagine I've sold the record particularly well; I'd beg you to simply take my word for it, but I'll go one better and offer to mail any reader of this site a burned copy of the album--a rudimentary form of music-sharing in this bit-torrent age, but all I'm technologically equipped for. I'll send it free-just let me know. Set aside a late-night hour, dim the lights, and go voyaging with young Spencer Kingman. As an authority on modern music, I insist upon it.