April, 2013

Apr 13


[This article originally appeared in THE RAW STORY: CULTURE CLUTCH--I canvassed some of my facebook friends on the subject and they contributed to it]

TV commercials that reveal a sickness…

A couple of dandelions force their way up through cracks in the sidewalk—just two yellow wildflowers looking for the sun. A tall, rawboned white guy stalks up; he’s armed with the weed killer Round Up, instead of a six-gun. He spots the dandelions—and turns toward them. The dandelions shrink back in fear, they recoil in horror, seeing the big sprayer for Round Up. They seem to be screaming in fear. They try to draw away…but he fires his sprayer unerringly, the toxin soaking the two small wildflowers, so that they wither, choking, shivering, turning brown…dying before our eyes.

Justice is done.

That’s a current Round Up commercial; special effects expertly used to make you watch, chuckle, appreciate the CGI…and the ability of Round Up to kill wild flowers.

Of course, dandelions are a “weed” that grows commonly in American yards and playing fields. Children play commonly, in yards, on lawns, park playing fields. Lingering Round Up –and boy does it linger—endangers children and pets, especially. E.g., http://www.rodale.com/roundup

But what made me recoil from that ad, like the cartoony weeds recoiling from the weed killer, is the state of mind it represents. Vulgarity? Sure, but that’s not it. The Round Up commercial is all about greed, mindless destruction, and the most brutish side of civilization. Only, the Round Up execs don’t consciously know it’s about that—they look at it and chuckle and say, “Hey cute, I like that.” The Mad Ave guys who came up with it probably don’t know, or don’t care (advertising firms are famous for not caring), how sick it is.

Someone reading this is thinking, “But it’s just a cartoon sort of image, plants don’t suffer, they don’t have nervous systems, they don’t recoil in horror.” And that person is correct—but I’m not making any absurd claims about plant consciousness. I’m talking about our consciousness.

The real message of the commercial is layered—one layer is, brutality works. Ruthlessness is efficient. Round Up is brutal and efficient—and cheap. You can save money, we can make money. Fast. Another layer is, chemical toxins enhance purity. They burn away the vile intrusiveness of nature. Another layer concerns the ease with which it’s done—the toxins empower you to change your world with a splash. No need to dig the plants up (the preferred way of dealing with them, in an intelligent society, and one that can provide gainful employment.) No–burn them away with household Agent Orange. Since the image is cartoonish, there’s another layer of implication that it’s almost fun, and it’s all harmless, childlike fun. This counters the teasing little suspicion at the back of some viewer’s minds that the toxin might in fact be dangerous to their household…Oh, look, it’s all just CGI funtime.

Another layer concerns the psychological power of big men who spray fluids, getting their way, cheerfully crushing every aspect of nature, even small harmless wildflowers, under the steamroller of civilization. And perhaps there’s something in the ad’s imagery that resonates with some ancient primate instinct for urinating territorially…

A series of Terminex pesticide commercials show giant science-fiction-horror monsters growing in a kitchen, rearing over us, nasty creatures like giant maggots that want to kill us, eat us. Some household bugs may carry problematic bacteria, and this is mentioned in the ad. And a voice says that household pests are monsters.

There’s been a good deal of publicity about the health risks of exposure to pesticides. Cancer is mentioned a lot. The scary word neurotoxin is bantered about. Companies like Union Carbide (remember them?), who manufacture pesticides, don’t like that kind of talk.

So they figured out how to quash that kind of thinking. Fear. Simple fixes like sealing up gaps to prevent household exposure to cockroaches is not enough. Chemical warfare is the only solution.

No one’s fond of bugs in the house. But giant slobbering hyper detailed real-looking CGI monsters…really? The ad doesn’t have the cartooniness of the Round Up commercial. It’s very much contemporary science fiction horror film imagery and it really, genuinely, is trying to scare you. “Oh, they don’t mean they’re literally giant monsters.” I know they don’t. They’re not addressing the message to the rational mind, the mind that knows that. They’re addressing it to the backbrain, to the subconscious; they’re conditioning you with an exaggerated fear of bugs in order to twist your arm, force you to use their product despite all the bad publicity and common sense. The purpose is to see that you don’t think about it first. They know that fear is the enemy of thinking.

Union Carbide—remember Bhopal? Where a Union Carbide chemical disaster killed 2000 people right away, 18,000 more over time? The people convicted for those deaths got a slap on the wrist for it. Methyl isocynate, a significant component of carbamate pesticides, was one of the primary toxins released there. Union Carbide kept compensation and clean up to a minimum.

That’s how big chemicals companies operate. That’s the mindset. That’s the mentality that creates a television commercial that is extraordinarily, unusually, wildly fear-based to bully people into forgetting they’re selling dangerous toxins.

I asked some online friends to suggest other commercials that are deeply disturbing—or just offensive, and insultingly absurd.

Lori Young offers the example of the notorious Vagisil commercial, in which a young woman is shrinking away from herself, horrified that she has human sensations and smells (if there really were any at all), from her…vagina! The excruciating embarrassment of it. She needs Vagisil’s Hydrocortisone, Benzocaine, Resorcinol, carbomer, Cetyl Alcohol and other ingredients in her vagina now, so she’s not humiliated. Lori suggested that, “All involved in hawking unnecessary feminine ‘hygiene’ products should be forced to douche with a gallon of moonshine.”

Meldie Solley offers: “Anything involving a sloppy man-child who wants to eat food that drips or get things done while playing videogames. I loathe that message of “indulge yourself, you deserve to get exactly what you want exactly when you want it without having to lift a finger, change your clothes or get up from the couch…” And: “Another kind of ad I hate is the smiling, honest, friendly guy who tells you with a kind of humble, homespun tone how much Exxon Mobil cares about helping that butterfly get to the right flower or helping herd the little baby turtles into the clean ocean water.” I wonder why Meldie seems skeptical of their sincerity.

Lisa Tveit: “I find ads that play to and reinforce gender stereotypes (usually the worst and most extreme of them) particularly offensive.” She lists:
1.A recent cell phone ad where the husband comes home to proudly tell his wife, who’s watering the garden/plants in their sunroom or hothouse, that he switched their plan and got more minutes and then, harpy that she is, she rips him a new one for not consulting her.
2.Most of the beer and sports commercials that (especially recently) have been depicting men who will pass over sex for their food and drink…
3.The Christmas Target ad with the blond comedian woman in the red leotard/onesy that screams and hyperventilates and works out to be in shape for shopping sales since that is obviously what she absolutely lives for.
4.A recent round of commercials …where they had repeated images of men getting hit in the balls, over and over, trying to draw a comparison between getting caught not having insurance and being hit in the balls…”

Bill Bridges notes, “Have you noticed how new movie releases went from being ‘Available Tuesday on Blu-Ray and DVD’ to ‘Buy it Tuesday on Blu-Ray and DVD’? The former invites you to check it out, the latter orders you to purchase it.”

And yes, those drug ads.

Stephanie Ratcliffe: “What kinda gets me are the drug commercials where the time it takes for the voice over guy to list of side effects/disclaimers is much longer than any other info given in the commercial, and even includes ‘death’.”

I wonder if parents who’ve lost teen children to pharmaceutical toxicity interactions sit through those drug commercials. “Drugs fix everything.” The commercials warn about side effects—but never about mixing drugs. Which has killed a lot of young people.

Sure, it goes way back. Cigarette commercials, right. But the sickness is now purulenting, bubbling to the surface, oozing…

And by the way—dandelions are as pretty as marigolds, have a lovely light scent, and are edible…wild flowers.

Apr 13

Selfishness, Unselfishness, People, Mosquitoes, and Rare Birds

There are people who believe that “everything we do is for a selfish reason”–and on the surface they’re sort of right…but look more deeply and it’s far more complex. They often use some variant of the transactional psyche concept–that everything is a natural exchange for something else–as a rationale for predation. Selfishness in itself is not a viable life philosophy except for mosquitoes and ticks.

Yes, a great many people do engage in selfish selflessness: “I must go, no time to chat, I’m needed at the food bank” and really they’re saying, “I’m a really good person, have you noticed?” They’re volunteering out of vanity. (Better than not volunteering at all, of course.)

Of course, some people may be boastful or show offy about volunteering, but also have empathy and genuine kindness. Some people are a mix. Most volunteering, in a genuinely good cause, is a fine thing.

But there are people who are innately kind, or who learn to let compassion flow from some inner wellspring–from a place connected to the aquifer of consciousness itself. They’re on a path. They don’t dismiss their efforts–they’re wise enough to shed false humility, another form of pride. Kindness flows from them, partly out of benign social instinct, and partly because that’s who they’re becoming, more and more. Those people are rare, but they exist, and rare or not their very existence is quite significant indeed…

Apr 13

What good is Twitter? How a Telltale Tic is Twitching us into Twits

This is from today’s Tech Investor News:
“Market recovers after hackers tweeted from the official AP feed that two explosions had hit the White House…Wall Street collided with social media on Tuesday when a false tweet from a trusted news organization sent the sent the US stock market into freefall. The 143-point fall in the Down Jones industrial average came after hackers sent a message from the Twitter feed of the Associated Press saying the White House had been hit by two explosions and that Barack Obama was injured. The fake tweet, which was immediately corrected by Associated Press employees, caused a sensation on Twitter and in the stock market. …”

Going back a few months, it’s now thought that the reason CNN and Fox mistakenly reported, at first, that the Affordable Care Act mandate had been struck down by the Supreme Court… was simply because some chucklehead pseudo-reporter in the room TWEETED the wrong information. (CNN et al may deny this—I don’t believe them, as the indications are strong.)

The “reporter” heard a couple of preliminary remarks and, on impulse, reported them as a conclusion. Since Twitter remarks go out as twitchy impulsive responses, rather than as reasoned assessment, the tweeter 
simply sent out the first hint of a decision, rather than the real SCOTUS

Out of a desire to be first with the news in a twitchy, headline-sick nation, CNN and Fox ran with the tweet, expanding it into fallacious news stories… even before Roberts had quite finished speaking. The absurdly inaccurate “Dewey Beats Truman” newspaper headline of 1948 is becoming a 21st century way of journalistic life.

Which brings me to my question, WHAT GOOD IS TWITTER?

Sure, it’s useful to publicists and to lonely people stricken with egregiously short attention spans, but who else does Twitter help, in any serious way? If you’re trying to hype a new Sham-Wu! cleaning product, or tell your fans your new country music album is released, fine; and it has been used for quick updates about people in disaster zones. It has some occasional, fitful usefulness.

But in the big picture, what good is it? Isn’t it actually a deleterious, corrosive influence on people?

The internet itself is useful—it has its destructive side, but it does more good than harm.

Twitter, in my opinion, has its useful side, but does more harm than good.

Twitter is mostly designed for use with mobile devices. Everyone knows that the excessive use of mobile devices is now a corrosive lifestyle influence. Smartphone fixation is ridiculed, satirized again and again. The obsessed are embarrassed by it–yet we keep leaning over that vat of corrosion; we keep falling in.

At a café this morning, I looked over at a lady breakfasting with her two small children. She was staring into her smartphone–I could glimpse a Twitter feed. The children looked bored and unhappy—they kept glancing at her, waiting for her to come back from the “feed”. She was on it the whole time I was there. The kids ate breakfast but, ironically, they clearly felt unfed.

That woman was not in the same room with her children. Just being a body sitting in the same booth is not being there. Of course, there are degrees of detachment, aloofness, even without a smartphone in your hand, but Twitter, texting, and other addictive smartphone media, are inevitably going to extend
those distances.

This is going to sound self righteous, a moral one-upmanship, but I’ll take that hit, because it’s the nearest example I have: I have an iPhone; I use it almost entirely for phone calls, and not too often. I choose not to go on the internet while using my smartphone, unless I need directions or have to check the traffic.

I mention this just to show it really is possible to use the damn things sparingly. I’m going to post this very article on the internet—I do most of my writing research on the internet—but that happens at my desk, where I spend enough time, and not too much.

I’ve been through the “too much” phase, and I left it behind. I’m bearing witness. I’ve shown it can be done. Others have as well.

It may be that Twitter is the most corrosive influence in smartphone media. It creates a false sense of public notoriety–people imagine that they’re “Twitter celebrities”. Of course, a lot of real celebrities use it—most celebrities have short attention spans anyway, so it’s natural for them–but I think the majority of people use it because they mistakenly think it might help them become celebrated.

And I suspect that at least some of them—faux celebrities and real ones alike–secretly hate themselves for consigning so much of their attention to Twitter… Twitter is, in design, superficial, fragmentary. One cannot form a long thought on Twitter. It’s a medium for froth. There’s a place for froth—but this particular froth is choking us.

Just look at CNN—they are constantly referring to Twitter accounts, they run lines of Twitter commentary below the main heading. Now we’re seeing the fallout from all that exposure. Bad reporting.

CNN leapt into Twitter headfirst; it rapidly succumbed to the trendoid desire for constant electronic update, to the extent that tweets trumped journalism.

Human beings were already prone to impulsiveness, to blurting, to chattering, to speaking without thinking. Twitter over-feeds (so to speak) that proclivity; it stimulates the part of the brain wired for impulse. It jolts the human brain into releasing stimulant chemicals at regular pulses so that the user tends to return to the tweet process spasmodically, compulsively.

Comedians have lost their careers through a single impulsive tweet; more importantly, Anthony Weiner, a good man, lost his congressional seat through succumbing to mindless Twitter impulsiveness.

Twitter rewards short attention spans; it tugs us away from actual thinking, nudges us toward reacting. Craig Newmark, talking to WebProNews, recently observed that Twitter pushes us away from fact checking:

“People often hear rumors, report it on social media, and then the news outlets scramble to get on top of the story and sometimes things are not fact-checked enough in today’s battle to scoop the news first. Overwhelmingly, I hear that people have kind of given up on trusting political news.”

And I’d better give up on this article—I can’t go on too long. I’ll lose too many readers before the end… they want to check their Twitter feed.

Apr 13

Interview with..well, with Me, Recorded Live, Online

At ULTRACULTURE: “John Shirley, America’s Most Provocative Science Fiction Author, Stops By for Our First Podcast!

“We’re proud to present the first Ultraculture podcast!”

Discussing my book from PM Press coming in late May, NEW TABOOS, and a lot of other things…


Apr 13

The Time Machine is Moving at a Rate Of…

I’m in a time machine that has taken me from the year 1985 to the year 2013; from a thirty year old man to a sixty year old one. It has taken me there at the rate of one second per second. (Lucky for me it wasn’t, say, thirty minutes per second.)

This time machine is stuck on “forward”. The control stick is…stuck. If it went backwards, though, I’d be quite disoriented, backing up through my life. And when could I stop?

I was, yes, in the time machine before 1985. But until then I didn’t know I was in one. I couldn’t perceive it.

Apr 13

The Frazmastat is Bad but the Weeblocken is Good

Picture lines of people, for the sake of this image one every fifty feet, and pull back, and it’s a grid, crossing lines, endlessly ramifying. And one of the people shivers, and blinks, and then announces, for example, “The Frazmastat is a problem, causing congestion, and should be eliminated.” A visible pulse through the air carries this to the next in line, one or another way, and the next person says, “The Frazmastat is a problem, causing congestion and should be eliminated.” This is not a game of ‘telephone’ so they get the basic info right. Then a pulse comes from another direction and a person announces, “The Frazmastat is not a problem, it’s a good thing.” Someone reacts by repeating the same words, and then another. Then someone else reacts by stating “No, the Frazmastat is a problem, causing congestion, and should be eliminated.” That is passed on. Then the contrary is returned. Eventually the back and forth about the Frazmastat dies down. Then someone shudders, and blinks, and announces, “The Weeblocken is good, though there’s a downside.” Someone else shudders and blinks and repeats this, down a diagonal line. And someone else and so on. A little later, “The Weeblocken is bad, and there’s no upside…” Decades pass. . .a hand comes and unplugs some of the people, and plugs in others. . .

Someone shudders and makes an announcement…

Apr 13

Hell is Hotel Food

With few exceptions, hotel food is bad. They may call it coq au vin, or fettucine alfredo, and it may resemble that, and they will charge as if that’s what it is. But it has the spongy, reheated, premade, taste-blurred quality of frozen dinners from the Safeway. They seem to think they can charge for things the way the airport does. If they call a thing high quality, and if they put ferns around you, and obsequious underpaid waiters in vaguely European aprons, that’s enough to make you conclude that the food must taste good. There are fine restaurants in hotels, but they’re rare. Mostly –it’s bad. Just…bad.

But no one speaks of the emperor’s new clothes.

Apr 13

I didn’t have to Leave my Body to Leave my Body

I was sitting on the beach, in an ordinary state of mindfulness meditation this morning, feeling wind on my face, listening to breakers, trying, with intermittent success, to keep my mind in what is called stillness. This stillness, which is alluded to in many spiritual traditions, is not about being in some kind of trance state, or sudden internal deafness. It’s just keeping the mind quiet so it can hear the world speak (not in any supernatural way, in a quite natural way), much the way we stop talking and focus on what the other person is saying, when we’re in a conversation. My visual imagination is strong, and it was stimulated to generate an image of myself sitting on the beach, with the atmosphere streaming around me, on the planet Earth, and the planetary view expanded so I saw (in my imagination) the planet with crisp pictorial clarity, complete with imagined weather in clouds, as if seen from orbit. I was also able to see myself on the beach in all this. Those people who claim to teach “out of body experiences” would say “Oh yes you’d traveled from your body for a moment”. No, I didn’t. My mind stayed in my body, it never left it. It was pure imagination, but it functioned at a high level because irrelevant input from my mind was stilled.

People who imagine OBE experiences have likely worked themselves up into a purely imaginative experience. They haven’t gone anywhere, except within their imaginations…The experience was, though, meaningful in other ways; it showed me my place in the scale of things. It was refreshing.

Apr 13

Moral Musical Chairs Made By Money?

A number of people who started out rather lefty (David Mamet comes to mind) turned right-wing, conservative or “libertarian” when they accumulated a great deal of money to shelter from taxes. Some conservatives will say, “See? When you’ve got something to protect from taxation, you get common sense!” But not all wealthy people are like that. Warren Buffet is not a right winger. There are many wealthy people who remain progressive. George Clooney, for example, or Stephen King. If they make the shift to the right because they made money, it’s because they never had any real allegiance to progressivism–which is probably because they never had any real *inner compass*. They’re not psychopaths, or stupid–Mamet is certainly not stupid. They’re just selfish and morally shallow. So it was an easy transition for them.

Apr 13

Drama in Debris

Walking, I often look at the accidental arrangement of objects along the curb, or in an abandoned flowerbox, withered petals, random rocks, dead insects, skeletons of leaves, windblown trash, and think of Joseph Cornell and his Cornell boxes. It was William Gibson who first mentioned him to me. Cornell was a symbolist as well as a kind of abstract artist; found objects became abstract, yet framed in boxes became meaningful again, too. Japanese artists sometimes practice making random dots so they can paint the natural world with more truth. There is an intersection of the random and the arranged: within the theater of the mind. But it’s not just artificial superimposition, that feeling of the arranged in the random, it’s found music, visually represented. The detritus of the world comes alive, then.

Perhaps there’s no meaning but the meaning we create–that’s pure humanism, I suppose. Or perhaps there’s a higher meaning. I think there is–but it’s not a human meaning. It’s better than that. Cornell gives us glimpses.

And there’s drama in debris.