Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Remember the Xhosa, or Athena’s Wrath

Athena is the supreme deity.  There is no other.  Defy her at your peril.  No, I’m not going all pagan on you dear reader, I’ve outgrown that phase.  No, I’m writing metaphorically.  Athena was the goddess of wisdom and as such she was also the goddess of war.  Not war in the brutish ways of Ares, rather military tactics were her auspices.  Her Roman counterpart Minerva adorns our courthouses as the blindfolded lady justice in her search for truth, weighing the accused upon the scales and  employing her sword if need be.  Likewise her shield is a mirror, as employed by Perseus against the Gorgon, symbolising Truth and her spear administers her punishments.  So in a sense she represents the application of wisdom and the consequences of foolish action.  To be wise one must understand reality and the laws of reason that govern it, but to be foolish is to be ignorant or in denial of these laws.  Upon the wise she bestows victory, honour, prestige, and glory and upon the foolish she brings damnation.   Here is one such example.
Our setting is South Africa.  There was a tribe called the Xhosa who had been struggling unsuccessfully against European incursions into their territory.  In May of 1856 a young girl named Nongqawuse was drawing water from a pool at the mouth of the Gxarha River and there she met three ancestral spirits.  They told her that if the Xhosa destroyed all of their cattle and crops, then on the following day, a great army of the ancestors would rise from the Earth to aid in expelling the white man from their lands and with them all the slaughtered cattle and crops would be restored in greater abundance.  Not only that, but sickness and hunger would vanish and youth and beauty would be bestowed upon all.
She rushed home to tell her uncle, a man named Mhlakaza, who believed her strange tale and conveyed the message to their chief Sarhili.  He too believed the prophecy and ordered that the commands of the spirits be obeyed.  The news spread throughout all of the other tribes of the Xhosa.  They too believed and preparations began in earnest.  Not only were all the livestock and crops destroyed, also huge cattle pens were constructed to contain the promised restored cattle.
Finally the prophesied day came.  Then low and behold, nothing happened.  Another day was chosen, and again the same result.  There was no great resurrection.  A great mass of Xhosa did seek out the British, but not as a military force but as starving supplicants.  In their extreme self-induced famine, they had turned to cannibalism.  There is even one account of parents eating their own child.  The girl who met with the “spirits“, Nongqawuse, survived, but her uncle was among the 50,000 Xhosa dead.  The newly depopulated region was settled by members of the German legion serving in the British army and 2,000 North German emigrants.  Despite this tragedy, the Xhosa did survive as a people.  The most famous modern Xhosa being Nelson Mandela.
So what happened to the Xhosa?  They broke the rules.  If you do not eat, then you will die.  If you do not produce, then you will die.  As the Xhosa economy was based on cattle ownership, they also destroyed their wealth, and they died.  Athena is without mercy.
So why did they do something so foolish?  Why were the Xhosa so fucking stupid?  They acted like the people of South Park for Christ’s sake.  And therein lies the answer.  The beautiful thing about South Park is that unlike shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, or American Dad, the humour is not based on the stupidity of a single individual character, rather it is the stupidity of an entire society living in fear, quick to over-react to situations, and who believe just about anything that they are told, particularly from the often misinformed media.
The citizens of South Park are quick to believe and so too were the Xhosa.  They believed because they were taught to believe.  For the Xhosa believed in their ancestral spirits.  This was a given, a fact of life, the truth of their reality. Therefore, was it so difficult for them to believe that the ancestors would bear a message to them and instruct them even if the instructions went completely against reason?
I once met a man in Portland, Oregon who was trying to get media studies added to the grade school curriculum.  He illustrated his point by enlightening me to the evils of Sesame Street.  Yes, you read correctly, Sesame Street.  He told me that it is natural for children to explore their world and to learn and discover new things for themselves.  What Sesame Street does is give the children the answers.  Pre-packaged and prepared answers all transmitted via the mass media.  In those critical first six years of life children are taught to believe what they see on television and it becomes their authority for the remainder of their lives.  It all starts with Sesame Street.
A belief is a thought with an emotional attachment.  You do not just believe something to be true.  You feel it to be true.  Since emotions are pre-programmed responses to stimuli, then it stands to reason that beliefs can also be conditioned through emotionalism.  Hitler knew this well.  The Xhosa did not just believe in the ancestors, they felt it down to the very depths of their beings.  But these feeling, no matter how intense or powerful, did not make their beliefs any truer.  Since their beliefs were in fact not true, they acted foolishly and 50,000 people died.
Beliefs matter because what we believe drives our actions and our actions will be either consistent with the laws of reality or not.  All things being equal, a man who lives by reason will prosper and a man who does not will not.  This is Athena’s decree.
The ancestral spirits of the Xhosa promised a golden age complete with eternal youth and beauty.  That’s how politicians, con artists and salesmen work.  They tap into your desire, the imagined gaining of a value.  What utopias are we promised on a daily basis? Imagine it.  More money, a Green Planet, no more poverty, less work, stay young, be fit, a bigger penis, a dream date, no more exploitation of the working class,  no more war, a great big hippie socialist love fest, oh….I forgot the current buzzword “Hope“.  Yes, it is all about hope.  Hope is just a dressed-up word for Desire.  You hope for a better future.  You hope for the realization of your values.  You hope that life will be all that you dreamed that it will be.
There is nothing wrong with desire, or hope for that matter, but you cannot allow yourself to be blinded by it.  The desire for victory over the British and for paradise blinded the Xhosa to the grim realities of their actions.  They destroyed their food supply and their economy.  Ponder that for a moment.  They destroyed their food supply and their economy.  Sound familiar?
In the name of “saving the planet” our society is destroying our food supply and our economy.  If the Green Movement and the Animal Rights Movement and the Socialists have their way millions of people will die.  That is reality.  Sure you can put on funny costumes, beat your drums, frolic about, and then return to your nice suburban homes, but make no mistake.  Decreasing production and increasing government planning will result in limited resources which in turn will force the population to decrease to match the available resources.  By decrease I mean people will die.
What will they die for?  They’ll die for their beliefs.  Not a glorious self-sacrificing way of dying for one’s beliefs, but dying for their own stupidity and wishful thinking, just like the Xhosa.  They’ll die for what they felt was right despite the evidence of reason.
I’ll take a moment to introduce a concept of which you may not be familiar called The Precautionary Principle.  This is a theory succinctly summarized by the expression, “better safe than sorry.”  It is the idea that in the face of a possible threat immediate action must be taken to avert it since the consequences of waiting to determine the legitimacy of the threat may waste valuable time should the threat prove real.  The best illustration of this is in the issue of global warming.
Contrary to Al Gore, the debate is not over.  We really do not know if global warming is a man-made phenomenon or not.  Advocates of the Precautionary Principle hold that even though all the facts are not in and there is no consensus, we must act now to prevent climactic disaster because the longer we wait to act the worse it will be should global warming prove to be caused by human activity.
So what actions are being taken in the name of what is essentially the deep, heart-felt belief in an unverified threat?  First governments tax companies in the energy industry.  These revenues do not necessarily go towards environmental causes but into the general government coffers.  Like all taxes, it is stolen production, but these taxes are implemented as a deterrent “for the greater good”.   The companies then have to make adjustments by decrease production, increasing costs, or cutting-back on future investments.  The result is that energy is more expensive and there is a prolonged wait for new energy sources and technologies.  In the case of oil, the cost of everyday consumer items goes up to compensate for increased transportation costs.  After the companies, the governments then tax the consumers of the products supplied by the companies thus further increasing the cost of living and government revenues.  As the cost of living increases, companies must then pay higher salaries to compensate.  This could lead to cut-backs and therefore increase unemployment.  But that’s okay because in both the United States and the United Kingdom, 50% of the national budget goes towards welfare programs.  If that gets too expensive, then they can just print more money and devalue the currency even further thus decreasing the buying power of your pension fund or they could borrow more money from China.
So what is going on here?  Am I suggesting that the Green Movement is an unwitting part of a pro-socialist government conspiracy intent on creating an international serfdom?  Sure.  Why not?  Whenever someone tries to sell you something, be it a product or an ideology, always ask yourself who profits from it.  Always follow the money.  I forget, how many mansions does Al Gore own?
Actions have consequences, and in our modern, complex, integrated, globalised system these consequences affect every aspect of society.  For the Xhosa it was a simple matter of not destroying their cattle and crops in order to sustain their food supply and their economy.  However it is more complicated for us.   It seems so easy to just tax oil companies to stop the perceived threat of global warming through carbon emissions, but this simple act has wide-ranging consequences that could spell our damnation.  It is in not understanding the consequences of our actions, no matter how desirable or noble the imagined ends may be, that will make us as foolish as the Xhosa.  Then we will face Athena’s full wrath and be the damned fools that we deserve to be.
I want to end this on a positive note.  If you know reality then you will prosper, so be in the know.  Every great moral code comes down to respecting the rights of others to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of prosperity (provided that pursuit does not infringe on the rights of others). 
I wonder, when the Xhosa went around destroying everything, was there this one guy who said, “You will not violate my property rights.  These are my crops and my cattle. Fuck you all.”  I certainly hope so.  He may have been called evil for not believing in the ancestors or the promised paradise. Romantics are usually characterized as being evil for not going along with social norms and expectations, but he was right.
If anyone, be it a person, a government, or a religion, seeks to or advocates the violation your rights or these same rights in others, no matter their idealistic or moral justification, then they are evil.  They may be the sweetest and most well-intentioned of people.  They may tell you how much they care.  They may dress-up in happy costumes and do a little dance for you.  They may be characters in a children’s cartoon or a singer in your favourite band.  They may be your best friend or your lover.  None of this matters, because the ends does not justify the means.  So beware the woman in the red dress, she might be an agent.

PS: Here is a brief clip from an episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit illustrating how beliefs inconsistent with reality driven by fear, paranoia, and self-righteousness can lead to the deaths of millions of people.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Steampunk and Discovery

They say that fetishes are born from random childhood experiences that seem meaningless at the time, but become key moments in ones personal history once the fetish has become fully manifest in adulthood.  I do not know if this is true, or simply a case of justifying the present by exaggerating the past.  Here is my experience not of a fetish, but of an interests.

The year must have been 1978 or '79 when I went on a school trip to Disneyland.  One of the benefits of growing up in Los Angeles is that going to Disneyland is a mere field trip.  I remember going into a small room off Main Street, USA where there was a model of the park complete with future plans.  Apparently in-between Tomorrow Land and Frontier Land there was to be Discovery Land, a section of the park devoted to the Victorian Science-Fiction of Jules Verne   I learned a few years back that although this land never materialised in Disneyland, it is a part of Disneyland, Paris.  I would like to believe that the thrill that I felt seeing this model, the expectation that gripped me, played some role in my development.

It must have been 1981 when I was distracted by Indiana Jones and my interests focused on the music, culture, and literature of the 1930's.  This lasted many years.  Then it was the fringes of the LA Goth scene, and then 1988 began my long passion for things Celtic.  It was during this period that I first remember putting on waistcoat, buttoning it up,  and feeling very Victorian.  This was the start.  From there is was living in 1863 with the 79th NYSM throughout the 1990's.  This was when I began wearing my trademark pocket watch.

In 1998, I began plotting what would become my first, and only, screenplay called Thunderchild, a science fiction story set in the Victorian world involving steam powered space ships and regimental warfare against the Martians.   I was sitting in the Research Club at Glasgow University recounting the plot to someone when he said to me. "Oh, its Steampunk".  I had no idea what he was talking about.   So I went on-line and did some research from what few websites existed on the subject.

William Gibson is credited with creating Steampunk with his novel, The Difference Engine.  I prefer to believe that I invented Steampunk, but he gets all the credit only because he was an established writer with a best selling novel.

My influences were that little model in Disneyland, Jules Verne, HG Wells, the original television series The Wild Wild West, a short lived show called QED, and of course my time in re-enacting the American Civil War.  When I left the regiment to come to Scotland, it was not unlike those men who went West after the war.

I saw myself entering civilian life and I dressed as Victorian "western" gothic as my debts would allow.  Over time I was finally able to afford a black bespoke frock coat as opposed to the tattered Victorian originals I once wore.  It was something that I had wanted since I was nineteen years old.  A few years back I started wearing a black Stetson, and last month I was finally able to purchase a pair of high waisted black Victorian trousers and a new period waistcoat, complete with a collar. Over a year ago I was able to purchase a mobile phone from Nokia's retro chic L'Amour collection that could be worn on my watch chain.  Very Steampunk indeed.  Again, my only limitations are my pocketbook.

Both last year and the previous year I have appeared in two Scottish newspapers, The Herald and Scotland on Sunday, in their "street style" section.  In both cases I explained Dandyism, Steampunk and Neo-Victorianism to the reporter and in both cases I was misrepresented and misquoted to fit their impressions rather than mine.  The others who adorned their spreads were influence by pop stars and fashion rags, whereas I was influenced by an ideology exemplified by Doc Holliday and the Earps in the film Tombstone.

About six years back I began writing the book, Gothic Philosophy: The Way of the Dark Romantic.  Throughout most of the Naughties I was involved in Glasgow's Goth scene as a regular figure at most events as well a key mover in the Scottish Vampyre Society.  If you called me a Goth, I would not say no, but I always considered myself more of a Romantic or Neo-Victorian.  Even though I loved the music and the style, I always saw that as part of a deeper ideology.  This inspired me to write a book on Goth as being more than just a fashion.  I was wrong.

You see.  I don't give a shit about the boys in the band and I care even less about impressing people in my local clubs or on-line.  This is not to say that I do not like music or fashion, but I see these as the products of an ideology.  The problem here is if the group ideology is just about consuming the latest "cool" alternative cultural commodities rather than an actual belief system.

I have seen the latest wave of Goth popularity come and go. Then it was Burlesque. Now I see the new trends beginning to emerge on-line and stirring in the clubs.  Where once there was very little of Steampunk, more and more I am seeing it becoming the new Goth -- or goth in brown.  Now every girl who had wanted to be a Burlesque performer now wants to be a Steamgirl.

Despite being a major player in the Glasgow Goth scene, I always saw myself as being on the fringes of Goth, but Steampunk, well…now you're on my turf.  And yet I fear that once again I will be the lone voice screaming my ideology to those I think will understand based on how they dress, when in fact they only want to look the part to impress others.

Another reason I gave-up writing my book on Goth was that I realised that everything that gave Goth a viable ideological foundation was there by virtue of Goth being a subset of the Romantic.  Likewise, so too is Steampunk.  Which is why both are separate chapters in my current project on The Romantic.

"So what is your take on Steampunk, Logan?"  I hear you ask as I put words into your mouth.  Well, here it is for your reading pleasure.

The Victorian Era was the height of human civilization and the Victorian Era sucked.  When I say that it sucked, I do so to let you know that I know that the modern world possesses some wonderful technologies and conveniences that I for one would not want to be without.  There is no use living in the past or playing dress-up.  Why ride a horse when you have a perfectly good car?

However, in terms of ideology I believe that the Victorians far surpassed us.  I strongly believe that we as a civilization have inherited a great wealth from that period of history and each successive generation has squandered that inheritance leaving our modern age morally bankrupt.  By morally, I should clarify to my new readers that I am not referring to morality in the Christian sense but in the Aristotelian sense.

To clarify a few more terms.  Steampunk is a sub genre of science-fiction and Neo-Victorianism is the name of the fashion inspired by Steampunk, however I see the two merging into a single all-encompassing term, rather like the Gothic Romance becoming Goth.  Therefore, I prefer to see Neo-Victorianism as the ideology behind Steampunk.  Both Goth and Steampunk as a style of design and fashion are born from the Decadent belief that Life should imitate Art, as opposed to the Naturalist view that Art should imitate Life.

I see Neo-Victorianism as a means of taking modern technologies and luxuries and creating them in the Victorian aesthetic.  Among the inventions of my mind are the Steampunk desk, a Victorian roll-top desk with a computer and printer built into it complete with brass fittings.  Then there was the fa├žade bookcase.  It was a bookcase with old, hard-bound books, but that was just a false front.  You popped it open to reveal an actual bookcase filled with your tatty books and DVD collection.  I also created the Electric Walking stick, a cattle-prod/taser built into a Victorian walking stick.  If only I had the skills and money to make my world a reality.

Likewise, I see adopting Victorian ideologies for the modern world.  No, I am not talking about stuffing kids down chimneys, but I do know a few insolent brats who could use that.  There were a lot of horrible things about the Victorian Era, but as the age progressed, things were getting better.  The middle-class expanded, child mortality plummeted, slavery was abolished, the first age of globalisation dawned, and the era ended with women's suffrage.  Whose to say what would have happened if World War I, the Rothschild banking cabal, and the Socialists hadn't screwed things up.

Victorians could buy heroin at the local chemist.  Victorians carried guns.  Victorians made money unashamedly.  Victorians envisioned a better future.  I'm all for that.  During the Nineteenth Century, I would have been called a Liberal, but today the word is Libertarian.  Yes, we are those crazy people who think people should make their own choices and suffer the consequences no matter how horrific.  This stems from the Romantic belief that we are all individuals and therefore individually responsible for the outcomes of our life.  This is the complete opposite of the widely accepted modern view that we are all part of society and that it is the responsibility of government to manage that society.

Here's another interesting observation of the Victorian mentality taken from the American West.  If you have seen the film Tombstone, then you will remember Powers Booth playing Curly Bill Brocious.  After Bill was acquitted for the murder of Marshall Fred White, he and two friends went to a Mexican dance hall in Charleston, Arizona.  The men blocked the exits, drew their gun on the crowd, and Curly Bill ordered, "Strip, every one of you." Once they had, Bill told the musicians to strike-up a tune.  The patrons danced naked at gun point for half and hour.  A local policeman passed by and saw the scene through the window.  A posse was organised and laid in ambush across the street in a corral, after a shoot-out Curly Bill and his pals escaped uninjured, but some horses in the corral were killed.  The following day Bill sent a friend to the corral to pay for damages.

So here is Curly Bill Brocious a notorious criminal and murderer, and yet he was willing to pay the owner of the livery for his lost property.  Here is a man willing to humiliate people at gunpoint for a laugh, but still respected the property rights of others.  How bizarre that is to the modern mind where many parents won't even offer to pay for merchandise that their children break in stores.

Here's another Victorian concept that seems alien to us today.  Human beings are great.  Sure there are problems, but taken on the whole we humans are pretty amazing.  This runs counter to the modern view that human are a threat, or as Agents Smith says in The Matrix, humans are a virus on this planet.  Laws are constantly being either passed or advocated by those intent on containing the human threat to the Earth, to animals, society, and to themselves.  This is in stark contrast to the idea that human progress should be allowed unfettered for the benefit of all.

Of course a three page blog is not enough to fully cover this topic.  I'll save that for the book.  However, I will close with one more point of contrast.  The concept of The Other and the Victorian Nightmare.

The Other is an idea often found in adventure stories and science-fiction.  The Other is that which is not us.  For the Victorians, The Other were usually savages driven by blind emotion.  This changed in the Twentieth Century when The Other became un-emotional aliens.

The actions of the Victorians were governed by Reason.  They were not so-much emotional as passionate.  Emotions are a response to the real or the imagined.  Passion is a specific type of emotion characterised by high-interest.  It denotes an enthusiasm for an object, therefore to live life passionately is to live in a state of high-interest, which is completely compatible with living a Rational life.  However, to live life based on emotion is to deny that emotions are a response to perception and claim that they are perception itself.  The truth is that your feelings mean nothing to anyone but yourself.  They are not reality.  What feels good to you is not necessarily good and what feels bad is not necessarily bad.  This is not to discount intuition, which is often called feelings.  Intuition has been described as reason in a hurry.  If we choose to aspire to a Victorian state of mind, then we had best learn to live rationally, passionately, and intuitively without being led astray by vain emotion and sentimentality.

The Victorian Nightmare was the end of Reason.  In the Gothic Romances the victims faced two fates, death or madness.  One was the loss of existence and the other the loss of reason.  But there was another monster, possibly the greatest of the Victorian Nightmare creatures, the Vampyre.

In the late Twentieth Century vampires became a focus of aspiration for many people, particularly in the Goth scene.  People were drawn to the elegance, power, and sexuality of the vampire, and yet for the Victorians the vampire was something to be feared.  One might speculate that it was feared out of xenophobia or sexual repression.  I am more inclined to believe that the Victorians saw the vampire as a parasite.  A creature that sucked the life's blood out of others.  For an energetic people what could be worse than to have that energy drained from you?  Or to have your will, your liberty, taken from you.   Now I'll admit that I may be reading too much into this, but I do like the fact that in the end of Dracula the cowboy, Quincy Morris, sacrifices his life to preserve the freedom of the others.  The American representing the new order of personal liberty kills the last remnants of a parasitic ancient aristocracy.  And yet today we have again parasitic governments, but rather than fight them people are scurrying around to either control or to become them.  Rather than killing the vampire, we want to become the vampire.

For me Steampunk is more than just the latest fashion.  It is more than the steam-powered dystopia envisioned by William Gibson in his novel.  It is that Discovery Land of my youth.  It is the opportunity to embrace forgotten ideologies, to rescue the Spirit of Man from the techno-feudalism that I see looming on the horizon courtesy of the Central Banks, Corporate Interests, Nanny States, and Socialists, and a return to a Romantic vision that glorifies the individual and his achievements and holds him to the highest possible standards.  More importantly, it is about true freedom, and not the empty emotionalism spoon-fed the masses by politicians who, 150 years ago, would have been horse-whipped, then tarred and feather for the lying snake oil salesmen that they are.  That's you Obama, McCain, and Gordon Brown.