Last night I watched the Tom Tykwer, Lana and Andy Wachowski adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. I needed to put my feet up for a long rest as I had spent three hours on my bike riding across Albemarle and Nelson Counties for my pilgrimage to Rockfish Gap. Three hours of riding, three thousand feet of elevation, and three cramped leg muscles were great motivators for three hours of plumbing the tapestry of Mitchell’s imagination. There were times in the film where my mind felt on the verge of following my legs into tonic contractions but the $102 million dollar film undulated just enough to stave off fatigue.
For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it seeks to weave a trans-incarnated narrative across time and geography including the South Pacific in 1849, Cambridge and Edinburgh in 1936, San Francisco in 1973, the UK in 2012, a future Neo Seoul Korea in 2144, and a post-apocalypse Big Island in 2321. Reminiscent of what would happen if James Michener, Siddharta Buddha, and George Lucas were all channeling Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in a German coffeehouse in 1951, there’s more than enough gruesome angst to satisfy the most fatalist observer. The grotesque visuals of the orgy of consumerism at its extreme in Neo Seoul regrettably leaves little to the imagination – both in how depraved unchecked consumption can be and how close our current society’s trajectory is aligned for that outcome. Hegel’s rational unity and dialectical tension from which social ‘progress’ was thought to emerge are indicted by self-replicating illusions across time and space with periodic ethical glimpses amidst the prevailing degeneracy.
A few paragraphs into this and some of you are wondering if I’m channeling the Wachowskis, Hegel, or if I just had a depressing week. Put down the dictionary, the Wikipedia, or whatever other reference you’ve been using to probe the preceding darkness and read on. I’ve got an important observation to make.
In a rather poignant scene towards the end of the film (spoiler alert), there’s an energized conflict between a slave holder and his son-in-law as the former is about to disown the latter and his wife. Seething at the foolishness of his utopian ideals, the father-in-law berates the young man with the predictable admonition that seeking to overturn the inertia of an incumbent (albeit, unjust) system is futile as the effort is, “but one small drop in the ocean.”
The young man replies, “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
In 1982, on this day, the United States passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (PL 97-200). On this, its first day of adulthood, Edward Snowden reportedly requested asylum in Ecuador for his role in unveiling massive spying activities perpetrated by the U.S. government and its contractors. In 1982, the law sought to protect spies. In 2013, there is no law to protect the public from a government that has determined that covert actions are more justifiable than the democratic ideal. Did we learn from the cold war and the futility of lives lost in covert operations 21 years ago? Are we learning any lessons about accusing foreign governments of spying while we’re guilty of the same crimes? Far from Hegelian progress, our ethics are in retrograde.
As this week came to a close, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s statement merely stating the unsustainability of the Fed’s reckless balance sheet expansion and debt manipulation (by the way not saying that he’s of the mind to stop the madness just yet) triggered interest rates spiked and financial commentators expressed concerns about another “housing bubble”. Did we learn from the Bush Administration’s consumer indebted response to 9-11 where we turned houses into ATMs? Did we take in the lessons of the “Global Financial Crisis of 2008”? Far from it. We actually have achieved in half the time even greater systemic instability. The housing market wasn’t coming back. Investors incapable of seeing their fixed income and high-yield assets dwindle pumped cheap money into the housing market again and Ben’s moment of lucidity diagnosed just how frail the illusion is.
Which brings me back to Cloud Atlas. As an individual who seeks to facilitate an alternative model of productive engagement and resource stewardship, I puzzle over the Pavlovian predictability of consensus indebted consumption. We know it’s going to harm us. We know it’s going to destabilize communities and countries. Our collective capacity to evidence, enact and demand transparent accountability seems to be dwindling at the very moment we need to transform our systems. Are we so sedated that the prima facie abuses to the values we espouse simply no longer evoke engagement? Our sanctity is being violated in the name of security. Our means of value exchange is being debased. Our infrastructure is being consolidated in the cloud where our vulnerability is greatest. And all this is going on by ‘leaders’ who callously admit to their contempt for the law, for justice, and for manifesting a productive and fruitful future favoring, in its stead, the momentary satiation of the demands of their benefactors.
We The People are more than this. Our myths, legends, religions, and idols all strive to justify acquiescence to the futility of this macabre karma. From our Tower of Babel to our sadistic blood thirsty cults, we tell a story of diminished capacity of humanity so that we can justify the madness that swirls around us. Well, here’s one drop that’s not going to that ocean. We are not the problem. Our myths are. We are not harmful when we collaborate, when we aspire, and when we place ourselves in service to a higher purpose. We have nothing to fear in a world where we’ve refrained from predation on those we see as less than ourselves. We - you, me, all of us - need to live in ways that honor all those in our lives and then repeatedly recite the accounts of a more favorable humanity thereby improving the possibility for others to see and engage the same.
For nearly 5 years, I’ve spent every Sunday striving to illuminate topics that I hope encourage a few of you to think and act differently. I trust that a few of you take a moment, once again this week, to encourage those you know to read, think and act in a manner befitting the symphony that is only elegantly heard when we each play our part.