Drowning In Too Many Realities


Harper's Magazine – June 2012

Yep. I knew it was just an anomaly. Harper's may have a boring, harum-scarum issue once in a while, but it never lasts. The June 2012 issue is one of those you wait for, its pieces set forth with an almost poetic sensibility. No? Then let me tell you how it impresses me in that way (and I'll just hit the high points):

It seems a set of metaphorical bookends sandwiching a pair of curt, literary broadsides on the derangement of western culture. The issue begins on the left (yes, I mean that metaphorically) with an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich on humanity's history of deifying animals, even during the two millennia of monotheism. Is this to say that animals and humans enjoy some spiritual link? Or is it that we seem to be awash in our human abilities and are seeking solace in the evolutionary past? Ehrenreich doesn't say,but she does seem to ask the question.

Then there's another essay (more of a screed, actually), "Wild Things," by David Samuels, in which he takes major zoos to task for their seemingly benign creation of zoo-scapes imitative of the animals' natural habitats. What's wrong with this, you ask? Samuels seems to feel that this assuages our guilt for destroying the natural habitats we imitate for the animals we hold captive.

And on the right we have the other bookend: a review by Andrew Bacevich of Robert Kagan's book, "The World America Made." Bacevich sees the Pax Americana view of the world as tripe, i.e., that the rationalizations made since WWII of an America spreading its exceptionalism (by definition, how can that be so?) via capitalistic emissaries and backed up by guns have re-created the world in America's image. That this hasn't happened, in fact that these efforts have impoverished the nation and alienated us from the rest of the world, seems fairly clear to all but those like Kagan who, as Bacevich puts it, "traffic in knowingness as opposed to actual knowledge."

And what lies between these bookends? First, a memoir, "My Old Man," by Clancy Martin of his father who, in the throes of a schizophrenic nature, smoked pot, preyed on women (and family) and absolved his sins via Eastern spirituality. And then a short story – "Fun Won," by Karl Taro Greenfeld, that begins as sillily as a college writing class project, in which yet another father bequeaths a pot smoking habit to his kids. But there's a subtlety here – these kids, coming of age in the nineties and deep in a sensory embrace, morph as you turn the page and blink into money- and status-mongers.

So what's behind the June edition's rather obvious editorial posture? I think it's a growing realization by these writers (and Harper's editors) that we've reached a stage of civilization in which we're less and less able to discern reality. When we can't intellectualize this cognitive dissonance, we attempt to strangle it with smoke, blow, and sex. Neil Young once termed this as being victims of our senses, but that's only half of it. Well on our way to surrounding ourselves with a virtual reality in which we can have it any way we like it, we seem bent on drowing what's left of our innate human reality in the equally ephemeral world of materialism, money, and status. This in turn yields Citizens United, the Tea Party, and banking gone bonkers.


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