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  • Tick, tick, tick…

    Gene Miller

    May 2018

    Victoria may be stuck in time, but that could be what guarantees its survival.


    THE EMAIL SUBJECT LINE appeared to read: “Genius Way to Be a Mistress,” but when I squinted for another look, it read “Genius Way to Buy a Mattress.” It took only that heartbeat between glimpses to spin a dozen fantasies about the Degenerate-In-Chief in the White House.

    Look at that! I planned to write with a springtime flutter in my heart, but two sentences in and it’s cocktails on the lip of the volcano.

    Oh well, stick with what you know.

    2018 isn’t 2017-just-rolls-on; it’s 2017-gets-worse. In case you hadn’t noticed, politically, existentially, we are staring out at stormy waters—no, not Stormy what’s-her-name, the First Hooker. My old man, a turn-of-the-20th century son of two eastern European émigrés, physically unscathed by the Great Depression and two world wars (he fought in the second), but hardly an emotional survivor, meekly and ritually muttered during his Florida retirement dotage, “It’s not all smooth sailing.” And he was referencing his era, a short, lifetime increment, and not, say, the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction Event when, for nine million years, you couldn’t get fresh, lean pelycosaur for money or prayer. My dad meant: don’t make plans that assume or require constancy, because the laws of contingency, like an amusement park herky-jerk, are sure to whip you sideways.

    And it was never more true than right now. If you anticipate that the current and coming times will be same-old, same-old, you are in for a string of un-gentle shocks.

    Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Studies and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, penned a recent opinion piece claiming that the era of liberal democracy, with legislated regular leadership elections and term limits, is over. It’s his view that an “emperor’s moment” is the new and spreading political fashion.

    I’m halfway through How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s ominous and cautionary dissection of the political and social forces that in the past have produced, and now appear set to re-produce, a global rise in autocratic leaders, presidents-for-life and military-supported dictatorships. Their book is one of a flurry of current titles exploring this theme. Of course, it could never happen in our country, notwithstanding Trudeau’s declining popularity or risks to the small-L liberal agenda, because we’re…well…we’re Canada, and we don’t roll that way. No, sir. Never. Couldn’t happen here.

    If there were ever a moment to liberate our sensibilities from manic and unrealistic faith in the never-ending improvability of everything, this is it. We need to install mental jitter software appropriate to very uneasy times, which might at least allow our feet to touch the ground and provoke a realistic public consensus about the state of things.

    In the movies, trouble comes with uh-oh music. The skies darken, putting the world in shadow. However, off-screen, also known as “reality,” trouble materializes with few cues and no music, or few cues that people are able to spot and willing to heed. I remind you, just to strike a rare sombre note, that civilizations and cultures before our own have finished and vanished—likely just after their poets celebrated in song their achievements, longevity and indestructibility.

    Germany (Ribbentrop) and Russia (Molotov) signed a non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939. Three days later, the Second World War began. In his biography of pianist Vladimir Horowitz, author Harold Schonberg comments: “The ‘experts’ told Horowitz there would never be a war. Inconceivable! But Horowitz, recognizing the threat from Germany, knew war was coming and, he recounts, ‘so did Rachmaninoff when I had dinner with him in Paris.’”

    Remember, there are “experts” and there are folks who sense which way the wind is blowing.

    In 2018, American social critic James Kunstler writes: “There are certainly waves and cycles in history, and one of them involves a society’s capacity for self-understanding. Sometimes, a culture is too flimsy or exhausted or sick to achieve even low levels of self-awareness. We are at a low point in the cycle, sunk in grievance fantasies and narcissism. The end result is we don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.”

    Succinctly, Charles Blow in the New York Times puts the current moment this way: “I see a man growing increasingly irascible as his sense of desperation surges. The world is closing in on Trump and he is in an existential fight for his own survival. This is precisely what makes him so dangerous: Trump will harness [presidential power] and deploy it all as guard and guarantee against his own demise.”

    There are times to coast and times to pedal. Right now? I’d suggest we pedal like mad.

    I can’t help it; I just ooze all this worry. I’m an apocalyptarian to the core. No, Gramps, not an apocryphal librarian. Change your battery.

    You ask: why now, why are times so suddenly clangorous, so fraught and worrying?

    Well, one theory of events is the un-nuanced but deceptively profound “Shit happens.” This points to the arbitrary and random aspects, the why/ because, of existence: things that will fail to achieve their intended outcomes, or will have unintended consequences. We have a word to cover these situations or, at least, their aftermath: “Oops.”

    A second un-credentialed idea is that we are governed by an evolutionary script and, increasingly liberated from the obligations of mutuality (which itself has become abstracted beyond clarity or recognition) and made nearly godlike by our worldly competence, we are becoming culturally over-individuated—solitudes supported by technology— which puts us utterly at odds with our biological nature. Such distortions are vastly de-stabilizing and dislocating, put all of us in a state of collective anxiety and anger, force danger on the entire human project and, unsurprisingly, release boundless growth opportunities for autocrats, demagogues and assorted strongmen.

    Third in this quartet of explanations: Carlos Perez, in a long essay on the Intuition Machine website, cites Scott Alexander’s “Meditations on Moloch,” which discusses the inevitable failure of collective coordination. Alexander argues, “groups that survive will be the kinds that are most selfish (that is, ruthless, opportunistic and self-advancing). Groups that have a strategy aligned with the common good are likely to go extinct.” He writes that the optimal solution is simple enough to understand intellectually, yet impossible to implement. Civilization cannot escape this problem and it is the root cause of repeated, cyclical social tension.

    Last is this idea: we systemically underprice social risk.

    As world conditions deteriorate and become more parlous, I’m increasingly inclined to think of Victoria as a “lifeboat”—a community that somehow maintains its cultural coherence during rough and threatening times, not because the place is too small to matter, but because it practices the dual skills (and they are skills) of continuity and mutuality. We joke about “a little bit of Olde England,” but, to give credit, how binding and stabilizing a civic narrative that has been! In spite of the one-liners about The Present arriving in Victoria ten years late, this place, as I’ve suggested in previous writing, has a “genius for inertia.”

    If I had to define Victoria’s purpose in these increasingly jumpy times, I would say our task is to maintain an identity based on cultural and social continuity and a practiced and functioning mutuality, even if the Olde England thing has waned. We should remind ourselves that communities aren’t communities merely because they have place names or share a postal code or some other accidental adjacency, but because they actively practice a range of community functions and maintain commonwealth—that is, do things together.

    Yes, I know: easy to propose, but a challenge to undertake. Still, the social stakes are enormous, as David Brooks lays out in a mid-February New York Times column:

    “There’s been an utter transformation in the mind-set within which people hold their beliefs. Back in the 1990s, there was an unconscious abundance mind-set. Democratic capitalism provides the bounty. Prejudice gradually fades away. Growth and dynamism are our friends. The abundance mind-set is confident in the future, welcoming toward others. It sees win-win situations everywhere.

    “Today, after the financial crisis, the shrinking of the middle class, the partisan warfare, a scarcity mind-set is dominant: Resources are limited. The world is dangerous. Group conflict is inevitable. It’s us versus them. The ends justify the means.

    “All of this would be survivable if the mentality was going away in a few years. But it is not going away. The underlying conditions of scarcity are only going to get worse. Moreover, the warrior mentality builds on itself. This is a generational challenge. Some other warrior will succeed Trump.”

    Imagine you and me, reader and writer, sitting, like Horowitz and Rachmaninoff, in a Victoria café, sipping our shade-grown, ethically sourced lattes and discussing prospects in 2018. What modest local initiatives, what social strategies and policies might we propose to ensure (short of a guarantee) that our boat floats through this nervous chapter and into a better beyond?

    Think: community.

    Now, where did I put that springtime flutter?

    Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine.


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