Thursday, December 17, 2009

Looking for Lifeboats

Some of you will remember my having written before about those "sacred lifeboats" that a friend up north promotes as a way to survive the coming cataclysm. Reading the newspaper these days, I can't escape the feeling that the cataclysm is indeed coming, in one form or another. (It could be a benign one, if there is such a thing as a benign cataclysm!) The apparent stalemate on important issues in Copenhagen, the Senate's surrender on health care to that arrogantly stubborn spoiler, Joe Lieberman and his act-alike Republicans, the quagmire of the Middle East, the economic situation here at home with millions living in or near poverty and millions without jobs... all these and more suggest, increasingly, that we humans are unwilling or unable to do the things that need to be done to assure the health, happiness and survival of our fellow beings. And that includes the non-two legged kinds.

Last night we sat through (well, agonized through) a rented version of The Baader Meinhof Complex--the story of Germany's Red Army Faction of the 1960s-1970s. The surprise was not simply the violence and delusion of this murderous group of young terrorists, responding to what they saw as the perversities of the capitalist world, but the depth of support they enjoyed among other young people at the time. The terrorist option, as we know to our cost, has been still more widely embraced throughout the world since then, and the values and methods of extremists are perceived as acceptable and necessary to vast numbers of the dispossessed. Even here, in America, the anger roils, barely below the surface any more. There is anger on the left as well as anger on the right. It arises out of real frustration and suffering, and a recognition that the economic and political system we have historically embraced no longer serves a vast number of the people it was supposed to benefit.

Still, a revolution--whether from left or right--does not seem imminent. Sheep-like, we accept the inaction of our representatives with a good deal of grumbling and whining, but little in the way of action. Perhaps this is because we have been brought to the realization that action, this far along the line, accomplishes nothing. We dutifully write our letters, make our telephone calls to Senators and Congressional representatives, and send in our donations--only to be checkmated by a Joe Lieberman or his Republican act-alikes. Having just last year elected a President who we hoped might make a difference, we watch him rapidly ensnared, as we are, in a system designed to disempower and mired in inertia. The futility of it all is numbing to mind and spirit.

My book, I realize as I write these words, is in part about this same paralysis as it manifests in the cultural arena. It's about the creative person's struggle for survival--"persistence"--in a cultural environment dominated by powerful corporate profit-making imperatives. In this predicament, the artist has all too often come to feel powerless, unrepresented, voiceless. To whine and grumble about this situation, though, is to become its victim, and we artists need to be made of sterner stuff. We are blessed with creative, imaginative minds--minds we can put to use to create strategies that allow us to persist.

Which brings me back to my lifeboats. Lifeboats, as I understand it, are small, manageable, mutually supportive communities of like-minded people, tough-minded in their commitment to values other than those that have brought us to this pitch. They can be the source not only of personal and emotional support, but also of practical, systemic social and economic support. If I write about them today, and in this broader context, it's because I have been coming to the understanding that such lifeboats can become the context for the "success" of my book--and I think of success in part as selling copies, yes, the financial part; but also, and more importantly for me, of sharing its ideas, these ideas about which I'm writing at this very moment, and bringing them into the forum of discussion. What strategies do we need to develop, as artists, to survive?

Community is an important component in the overall survival strategy, and "Persist" is finding a gratifying response in small communities of artists, communal knots or nodes, particularly at first in my own neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Across the 5 Freeway in Atwater, for example, artists Ed and Vivian Flynn have invited me to lead a discussion and sign books at their space in the Atwater Village Art Center, where they teach classes and plan exhibitions and community events. The vibrant community of Atwater has attracted artists as a less-expensive area to live and work for a good number of years, and Ed and Vivian have created a fine working space for their lifeboat operation in a new complex that includes studios and a small theater.

Similarly, a few miles to the east in the Highland Park/Mount Washington area, another thriving community of artists is gathered around an impressive nexus of galleries and exhibition spaces. Here my friend Stuart Rapeport has suggested a session either at Future Studio, the gallery that represents him, or perhaps at the local Highland Park Ebell Auditorium. Further to the west, I'll be doing a talk and leading a discussion before (I hope) signing a few books at the Los Angeles Art Association--an artists' collaborative that sponsors exhibitions and art-related events of all kinds.

So I'm looking for lifeboats. In this world which has become so impossibly large that its problems are unmanageable, they seem to me to offer hope for the future, a new way of co-existing and managing our lives that relies more on mutual love, respect and support than on systems that have proven, are proving inappropriate for an overpopulated, overcompetititve world. If you happen to know of any, please let me know!


Anonymous said...


I lived through the Baader Meinhof period and I think there is nothing very surprising about the support they enjoyed among young people at the time. I didn’t know much about Buddhism in those days, but I didn’t go down that route because I have always opposed violence. Yet, ideals of social justice and concern about the excesses of consumer society and the degradation of the environment are still as alive as they were then.

In today’s World, historical conditions are different and protests take on a different shape; but if you think about it, the step from mere talk about the evils of consumer society to taking action such as the torching of a department store is not all that big; especially if you consider the pressure group psychology can put on people. The young are impatient and are not satisfied by merely talking about an evil, they want to take action. Today, concern about GMO crops leads militants to destroy farmer´s crops in the field.

In the intervening years, the protest has shifted from the public arena to the private scenario, hence all that talk about life rafts. Deep down I feel that this is an illusion not much better than the violent action of other days. All these little life rafts surviving in the windfall of industrial society will be the first to go belly up, while the corporate types who have hedged their funds while the going was good will still be zipping Veuve Glicquot from fluted Champaign glasses on their Ocean liners. To create our own little private Nirvana while the World around us is descending into chaos can hardly be more than a short lived illusion.

Looking around the Buddhist presence on the Net, I can’t help but feeling that Buddhists seem to be more concerned about their inner tranquility than about the problems facing this planet in the future. Where issues such as environmental degradation or social conflicts are addressed, the reasoning seems to be shallow without a real understanding of the underlying problems. Buddhists, like most others, have become too addicted to the comforts of modern living to be able to accept the causes for our problems. If Buddhism is to play a role in a future World, we’ll have to do better than that.


PeterAtLarge said...

Dieter, thank you for this thoughtful critique. I have agonized over this a great deal myself, and my own conclusion is pretty close to that of Voltaire, at the end of "Candide": "il faut cultiver son jardin." My own garden, metaphorically, is the only place in which I feel fully effective, and my hope is that, if my garden is well tended, it will contribute to the well-being of all other gardens in the world. You could argue, of course, that Voltaire's final word was intended as much as satire as the rest of the work! I do, also, pay attention to what is happening in this country and the world, and my writing is my way of "taking action." I like to think that this, too, creates a ripple. I wish I could do more... Best thanks, though, for your response. It was much appreciated.

Gary said...

Living on Spaceship Earth with Bucky Fuller was very invigorating both as a student and friend. He said that all the world's problems already had solutions and cautioned that the "pirates are the politicians".

Copenhagen's Gordian Knot will have to be lubricated by a stronger message from Mother Earth. Climate change and increased ocean acidity are but the tip of the spear point aimed at the heart of the problem which is sustainability.

Carbon sequestration, availability of potable water
and new fuel solutions are at hand and continuous social pressure by the consumer at the point of sale can make a profound change.

Actually it is passive architecture, science and wise consumer spending that will bring the green back.

Cataclysm or life boat?

It's a shitty choice but its our shit so no whimpering just action and thanks to you Peter for your work helping all of us to have a more sustainable year by