Monday, September 9, 2019

Chins Up, All Ye Denizens of Hell!

If you're one of the millions of people suffering from terminal despair, please don't despair. Because you don't have an economic or a social problem as much as you have an attitude problem or a spiritual problem. The cure for what ails you is just the right blend of sermonizing, technological tweaks, and maybe even a little uninsured psychotherapy or drug rehab.

Furthermore, advises Ross Douthat,  the New York Times' resident conservative scold, you should also take heart knowing that climate change will not do all of us in nearly as quickly as substance abuse is doing some of us in right now. In other words, you might be feeling desperate, but at least you're not dead. Unless, of course, you're one of those Bahamians whose unburied body lies rotting in the rubble of the one of the worst hurricanes in history.

Douthat does not go there, because he is solely concerned with American despair and the presidential horse race. In any case, the devastated Bahamas are still largely inaccessible to both rescue crews and journalists. Even some of the lucky few Bahamians who managed to get on a rescue boat were kicked off and refused entry at Florida ports, ostensibly because their travel visas were lost in the storm. If Douthat talked about their despair, then he would also be forced to talk about the Trump administration's sadistic policies. 

But cruelty at the highest levels of corporatized government is not the purpose of his column. Selling hope in a can is, one "smart" little aerosol huff at a time. Like toxic vaping product, hoping product even comes in a variety of colors and flavors to help us overcome such personal handicaps as "meaning deficits" and "loss of purpose" which get all entangled with low marriage and birth rates and other such "gently dehumanizing drifts."

(Now, if you wonder why Douthat sounds like a refugee from a TED talk, just remember that until Saturday - the very day that this column was published -  the New York Times Company's Board of Directors had included Joichi Ito, disgraced head of the "prestigious" MIT Media Lab, a major financial neoliberal corporatist source for the lucrative TED franchise. See Ronan Farrow's excellent takedown in The New Yorker for all the gory details about how the trafficking of humans and money intersects, and how corrupt power attracts corrupt power.) 

Nevertheless, Douthat persists:
So if we’re going to answer whatever is killing tens of thousands of our countrymen, it’s as important to pay attention to the would-be cultural healers — from the old churches to the New Agers, the online Nietzscheans to the neo-pagans, Jordan Peterson to Marianne Williamson — as it is to have the policy conversations about what’s possible in the next presidential term.
Despair as a sociological phenomenon is rarely permanent: Some force, or forces, will supply new forms of meaning eventually. And it matters not only that this happens, but which forces those will be.
I'm surprised he didn't end his screed with "May the Force Be With You." I'm not at all surprised, though, that he still has a job on the prestigious op-ed page of the Times, whose board consists entirely of tech moguls (including Facebook's marketing director), vulture capitalists and corporate CEOs -  but not one actual journalist. 

I'm also not surprised that the Times buried my submitted comment so well that I wasn't even aware it had been published until a reader of this blog clued me in (see comments). I assumed it was rejected because I had never received the customary email notification from them thanking me for my submission.

 A former comments moderator, denying that censorship exists at the Times, once told me that an algorithm controls reader comment placement or rejection as well as timing, and that its secrets shall never be disclosed to the teeming masses. Nonetheless, the Times ostentatiously welcomes gender and racial "diversity" from its comment writers - so long, apparently, as the diversity of opinions runs the entire Dorothy Parker gamut from A to B. 

Anyway, here's my response to Ross Douthat: 
"Despair is all in your head."
 That is the subliminal message of this column, based upon a report issued by a GOP senator, Mike Lee. The report downplays deaths from despair by blaming them on opioids. Were it not for people taking drugs, the report facilely concludes, the despair death rate, adjusted for age, would be at the same level as it was in 1975.
This is another way of blaming the victim instead of blaming the neo-feudal capitalist system that is literally crushing the life and hope out of millions of people. The rising US death rate for the third straight year cannot just be ascribed to overdoses.
 Another recent study shows that more older people are literally starving in the richest country on earth. The waiting time to get Meals on Wheels home deliveries is now as long as one year. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is seeking even more cuts to the food stamp program, disqualifying at least 25% of current recipients. Hunger is indeed a desperate situation, coupled as it is with the unaffordability of prescription drugs and rising medical bankruptcies, even among those with health insurance.
Douthat also doesn't mention the student debt crisis. The birth and home ownership rates are both drastically down because indebted people can't afford kids or a roof over their heads.
So we should feel better knowing that in another hundred years or so, our lives will be just peachy-keen, because societal despair is a cyclical thing?
 What a depressingly obnoxious and deeply cynical suggestion.


Jay–Ottawa said...

"Despair as a sociological phenomenon is rarely permanent: Some force, or forces, will supply new forms of meaning eventually."
--Ross D.

Oh right, I forgot about that cyclical business.

First learned about it in Sunday school. For centuries the churches and temples have been assuring us that, after a short life of misery and suffering, the wheel of fortune would turn –– provided we bore everyone good will, to include the bosses with real or virtual whips. Because the next life would be long and happy, every second, provided we prayed and obeyed our way through this life.

Then in school, pretty much the same thing on a secular level. No need to wait for eternity before things improve again. After every economic downturn, there follows an economic upturn. It's an iron law of economics. You're starving and living under a rickety bridge in the Rustbelt today? This is normal in the cyclical sweep of life. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, a job, a roof and a chicken dinner once in a while will be yours again. Try to remember: bad times are followed by good times.

Then our personal experiences of life reinforce the cyclicality of it all. Remain calm, everyone, and don your life vests. The Coast Guard is aware of our plight. The water is cold and deep, the ship is sinking but, rest assured, it will eventually be hauled back up to the surface and refitted for more holiday cruises. Passengers will be able to breath again. In the meantime, let's us stay calm and meditate on the wheel of fortune. Better times are on the way.

Same with the mass extinctions those carbon-obsessed scientists keep talking about. Work on your sense of geological time. There was rebirth followed by millions of years of life after each and every mass extinction. The Sixth Extinction will be no different. How many times must I remind you? Good times follow bad times. Hang on and be patient. "Some force, or forces, will supply new forms of meaning eventually."

Erik Roth said...

The late Roger Ebert said, “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”
Empathy is utterly absent in the unctuous piety of the comfortably privileged preaching capitalism like it is God’s will.

Winston said...

Doubthat hit the nail on the head with this: " matters not only that this happens, but which forces those will be."

The great fear he represents here is a revolutionary upheaval. He is not so concerned about your well-being as much as he is about maintaining the joyful era for the class he represents.

For the rest of us we can hope to silently rejoice in possibly another victory in some foreign land as we sip gin at The Chestnut Cafe.

General Jinjur said...

I remember your comment, Karen. It got 261 recommends.

Karen Garcia said...

Thanks, Jinjur, I stand corrected. The Times usually sends me an email when my comment is published but didn't for that one. I assumed they'd dinged it like they do with many of my efforts. I'll get around to revising my post tomorrow when I'm back at my desk.

General Jinjur said...

I enjoy reading the responses to news and opinion columns. There are several people whose comments are always interesting, pertinent and straight-to-the-point.. Your submissions, in particular, Karen, and those of someone named Meredith are among the most useful, imo. Clearly a lot of people agree with me!

Karen Garcia said...


Revision complete! Meredith used to comment here, too.

Ever since the Times did away with its "verified commenter" system earlier this year, the former Green Check people seem to have been relegated to what a contributor named "Socrates" describes as Commenting Siberia - in other words, censored a lot more heavily than everyone else, in an apparent overkill effort by the Times to atone for its former two-tiered system of elevating some contributors over others. This system had caused a lot of understandable resentment. Now, with a huge increase in subscriptions and profits since the Trump election, they no longer have the same need for a small bunch of unpaid "star" back-benchers to increase their clicks and revenue. That's my theory, anyway.

voice-in-wilderness said...

Coincidentally there is a provocative article in The New Yorker (9/8/2019) by Jonathan Franzen, titled "What If We Stopped Pretending?" -- meaning a climate apocalypse is coming, that we are not going to be able to stop it. Then what do you do? Franzen emphasizes the value of focusing on today and small scale successes, which may be useful when the major crises come.

This is the first article I've seen that reinforces what I had already come to believe. For me the epiphany of hopelessness was a dozen or so years ago when I realized that all known reserves of hydrocarbons need to stay in the ground, unburned, for us to begin to stop global warming.

Erik Roth said...

Today devoted its attention to interviewing Greta Thunberg.

“We Are Striking to Disrupt the System”:
An Hour with 16-Year-Old Climate Activist Greta Thunberg —
September 11, 2019

At one point Amy Goodman asks her about an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

"The Problem With Greta Thunberg’s Climate Activism —
Her radical approach is at odds with democracy."
Aug. 2, 2019 ~ by Christopher Caldwell

I had missed seeing that op-ed (a consequence of the Gray Lady's increasingly repulsive oligarchic advocacy coupled with its restricting access to subscribers).
But Christopher Caldwell grossly spouts contemptibly insidious BS that must be totally repudiated by every means necessary.
That he is touted as a Harvard graduate disgusts me beyond tolerance.
Harvard University still refuses to divest from fossil fuel profits and must suffer due consequences from such abominable irresponsibility. As an alumnus, I consider effecting that my moral duty.

Jay–Ottawa said...

@ Voice

You've done us a good service. I hope all who visit Sardonicky take time to copy the link and read the article.

This is the first time I've seen where a celebrated writer, Jonathan Franzen, in a major publication, the New Yorker, blurts out the inescapable prospect before us all (well, anyone under 60) as a result of climate change. Courageous; he will suffer because of this. The article starts off with a Kafka quote, which echoes Karen's ridicule of Douthat's latest happy talk: "There is infinite hope, only not for us."

Soon after that dead-end opener Franzen, probably under editorial pressure, devotes lots of his remaining space to peddling anodynes and tips on how to keep busy and stay buoyant until the sky falls. But at least he let the cat out of the bag in the first paragraph of a first-line publication about climate change: Catastrophe is coming soon, it's fatal, and it's unavoidable.

Till then, says Franzen, let's see how we can make the best of it.

Erik Roth said...

Coming to Terms With One’s Religious Past – on Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay & Matthew Fox (8/8)
August 22, 2019
Matthew Fox, a former Catholic priest and theologian talks about the ways conservatives and progressives claim the Catholic religion, and how the secular left ignores religion at its own peril. --

'… Then he put me in dialogue with a fellow named Roy Scranton, who wrote a book, “We Are Doomed. What’s Next?” Roy has written for New York Review of Books, and his books have become bestsellers about different things. He’s an Iraqi war veteran, he’s written about war. And this book, which is about war and climate change, is very strong. And the title, I told him – I kind of criticized him. I said, “You have to be careful of selling despair.” I said, “Aquinas said that teaching despair is the worst thing a human being can do.” I said, “A lot of people are teaching despair today around the climate change. And we have to be careful of that because what we need is workers. We need people who will roll up their sleeves and go to work, do the inner work and the work that needs to be done to change all this.” ...'

“While injustice is the worst of sins, despair is the most dangerous; because when you are in despair you care neither about yourself nor about others.”
~ Thomas Aquinas

"There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don't expect you to save the world, I do think it's not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary, and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair, and disrespect.”
~ Nikki Giovanni

Jay–Ottawa said...

Although a practicing member of a mainline religion myself, I'm not so sure "the secular left ignores religion at its own peril" or that thinkers post 1274 failed to surpass the formulations of the Summa. Aquinas's religious order of bright and ever-hopeful worthies, the Dominicans, will have a lot to explain to their God for what went down in Rome and Carcassonne in the late Middle Ages.

On reflection, most fair-minded people, religious or secular, will acknowledge that throughout history many heretics, agnostics and atheists behaved nobly and lovingly irrespective of any expectation of reward in an afterlife. I believe Matthew Fox quit the Dominicans over that very point.

Scientists and their interpreters, like Adam Frank and Jonathan Franzen, are not peddling despair. Bum rap! That's another variation of a logical fallacy, like "Ralph Nader lost the election of 2000."

Top scientists and gifted writers are conveying facts and the ramifications of those facts. They are being honest and democratic, sharing with us what they know. What they are not doing is being patronizing, treating us like children, like those who would have the responsible among us [cough] protect those of lesser intelligence and character from the truth.

Despair may or may not first come into the picture for the first time at the point when listeners hear the truth. There's no effect (despair) absolutely determined by a cause (the truth). And it is not our place to assume that just about everybody, especially someone unconnected to religion, is prone to despair and must be shielded from the truth by an assortment of illusions and blackouts.

As for noble deeds to be carried out before the end and while in awareness of the end,
Franzen's essay is full of practical suggestions, large and small scale. Yes, I'm very sad about the wreck humanity has made of The Garden, but that sadness need not be translated as despair. Sadness doesn't mean I won't take care, any more than sadness keeps an able spouse from caring for a dying spouse. Intelligent steps and hard work will ease the dying.