Saturday, November 28, 2020

Civilization And Servitude

 Servitude is not something we really discuss, at least here in the West.  The idea of being a servant is confined largely at this point to those British period dramas portraying the 19th and early 20th Century.  We are a free, independent, civilized world:  service is something that we have relegated to volunteerism (public service).

The reality is that we have become, in effect, servants to civilization and its technologies.

We pretend it is not so, of course. We have the ability to shop as we wish, work as we wish, enjoy as we wish (or at least, we used to).  We can (literally) enjoy the world from our homes whether by videos or foods or handmade items.  

But all of this comes at a cost, of course.  

The most visible part of this is taxes, of course:  taxes on income, taxes on fuel, taxes on purchases, taxes on property, taxes on death, taxes on utilities, taxes on travel.  While in practice we are less taxed than the peasant of the Western Middle Ages or the farmer of Tokugawa Japan, in principle this is not so.  What has changed is what we pay on.

The taxes, of course, are paid in support of our civilization, but I think it is a fair statement to make that no entity we pay our taxes to actually advances civilization.  That has been left to the private sector in terms of innovations in technology, in health care, in industry, in entertainment, in agriculture.  even to some extent in social relations.  The tax money itself disappears into a large hole, never to be seen directly or even indirectly by most of the people paying into the system.

Which raises the rather ridiculous image, of course, of one working merely to pay one's rent, food, utilities, and taxes.  It becomes a vicious cycle:  we live to work to live.

But the private sector has, step by step, also been contributing to our servitude via the introduction of more and more technology.

Technology, as it advances, encourages dependence.  A man can, with skill and training, learn to make a flint arrowhead or how to tame a horse.  It takes a trained expert to build a firearm or design/construct/repair an automobile.  As we continue to bring more and more technology into our lives, we become more and more dependent on others to maintain that technology and we end up working not only to pay for rent, food, utilities, and taxes, but for the technology that we have come to depend on to make our lives go easier or better or faster or even just survivable.

More insidious yet - and becoming more and more inescapable - is the use of 2FA, or two factor authentication, which requires that one receive a second password or pin - typically on the smartphone - in order to access more and more websites (even as we are discouraged more and more from doing actual business with actual people) that are effectively a necessity.  It is rapidly becoming the case that as we shift more and more to online, we must almost constantly bear with us a small tracking device in order to access our own information.  Which, by the way, we have the privilege of paying for.

The argument is that the benefits of civilization and its technology outweigh the tradeoffs we are required to make - and one can, I suppose, make a certain argument for such a thing.  I enjoy having water which is not likely to kill me, air that does not choke me when I breathe it, some level of safety from marauders and criminals, or just the ability to order items for Iaijutsu directly from Japan instead of having some sort of imitation items from somewhere else.  And all of these together are not to be despised.

But it is equally foolish and disingenuous to somehow pretend that all of this is without a cost to our lives and minds beyond just the money we pay to maintain such things.  We - all of us to a greater or lesser extent - are servants of a system which offers us degrees of pleasure and convenience but at a cost of managing our own lives and our privacy.  To pretend that this chains do not exist, even if they lay very lightly on our conscious mind, is to somehow willingly blind ourselves to the reality of our servitude.

At some point we are all told to stop believing in fairy tales - except, of course, the largest one of all that we live in every day.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving Day 2020


George Washington's 1789

Thanksgiving Proclamation

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020


 As modern human beings, we have always taken Civilization for granted.

Civilization, as the story goes, is the long crawl up from the hunter gatherers that occurred over thousands of years.  We moved from the irregularity of the food supply of the chase to the regularity (relatively speaking) of the harvest or the herd.  As we farmed and herded, we gathered together in larger and larger groups and learned to exchange the goods we did not have with others.  As we associated, towns and then cities (small ones, to be fair) appeared.   We learned to capture our ideas in letters, to travel farther afield, to make things - pottery or baskets, but eventually wood and metal objects.  Over time our tools and our outputs changed - from the abacus to the computer and the bronze dagger to the M1 - but behind all of this is the idea that we continued overall to move forward, not back.  

Mind you, Civilization comes with a lot of baggage as well.  Groups of people have to manage themselves - or, as it turns out, be managed by others.  And thus the story of Civilization is also largely the story of governments and how they ruled over others.  Be clear that no one race, creed, or society has a leg up on any of the others in this.  Scratch the surface of any Civilization and you will find a rather sordid history.  

The payoff for all of this, we are told, is Civilization.  Yes, people have treated each other horribly but look at what we have been able to accomplish.

But, at what point do we begin to reach the point of Uncivilization?

What is Uncivilization?  I do not know that I have fully developed the concept, but I would posit it is the process where a civilization loses itself.

It might not lose other things, of course.  It can still continue to develop technology, the arts, have a thriving business culture.  But the point of civilization - the betterment of the individual and the freedom of them to exist, largely or (desirably) completely free of government interference, to have the best possible life for themselves, is destroyed.

The individual, in these cases, is becomes nothing more than a cog in a giant machine that is the government and national economy.  The individual exists purely to fill a role in society that betters the power structure, not directly themselves.  The power structure benefits directly; the individual by default.

Note I use the phrase "power structure".  The power structure can be the government of course, but it is not always so.

We look back on history and see the horrors of slavery of the Roman Empire (or the American South, for that matter, or the reality of slavery that exists today in parts of the world) or the effective indentured feudal servitude of the Han Empire or Feudal Japan or Feudal Europe or the conquering arm and annual demand of victims of the Aztec Empire and correctly are repulsed.  We then see and hear voices demanding that our own governments take more and more control of every detail of our existence and are drowned out in the cheering.

The difficulty, of course, is that humans were never meant to be cogs in a machine.  They can function that way of course, but not forever.  They will find ways to work outside the system (thus denying the larger group of the benefits of their ingenuity, by the way), put in the minimum amount of effort, or actively seek to tear the system down.  Ultimately in all of these scenarios, "civilization" does not benefit but finds itself torn apart.

The shocking thing - at least shocking thing to me - is that people do this to themselves, perhaps from the best intentions of getting out of a failed older system - civilization - but not realizing that they have opened themselves up to the sort of thing that will view them not as individuals, but as tools and resources to be managed and expended.

It would be a far-seeing and wise civilization that would see such a thing and avoid it - but as wisdom is a chancy thing at best in this world, it seems more a matter of luck.

And luck, as any gambler will tell you, is a fickle thing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Calms Before The Storms

It is funny how looking back sometimes gives you insight into the calms before the storm that you never anticipated.

I think back to a weekend in 2009 where The Ravishing Mrs. TB and I took a weekend trip to Arizona to a conference for a then-company she was working for.   It was the following week that I came home only to find out that Hammerfall, my layoff, was happening - and that our entire life would be upended.

Or I think back more recently to this year, when I was in Japan completely absorbed in training, thinking not a thing in the world about coming back and anything changing - only to get back to realize that I had  A Sort Of Hammerfall, and that my entire career frame of reference would be changing.

I am very familiar with the "last time" a thing is going to happen.  The last week of college, the last week before being married, the last day when the last day of the two week notice is reached, the last day before the first (or second or third) child arrives - all of these are times where something changes, and changes irrevocably.  But these are always changes that are mentally known, planned for, managed.  Yes, there is the same sense of before and after, but it it does not come as a surprise when the event occurs.  One assumes, for example, that life is changing when one's first child arrives (by how much, you can never know until you do it).

But these other things - the layoffs, the unexpected separations and deaths, the sickness no-one saw coming but upends one's life - these are the things that part of me wonders if we do not realize the hidden joys or comforts we may have had prior to these events because we had come to accept them as normal and expected.

If they layoff in 2009 would not have happened - would I still remember it so clearly or that I had a good time, or would it simply become buried beneath the weight of other events that happened since then?  And Japan - this year has become all the more precious because our training was canceled for the upcoming year.  In some ways, could I have withstood A Sort of Hammerfall had I not had the experience of demonstrating at a 150 year old temple?

I write this at the beginning of what (at least in the U.S.) is considered the kick-off of the holiday season:  Thanksgiving, Christmas (and Advent as well if you keep it), and New Year's.  No-one can, I think foretell the future other than to say that in some definable and some indefinable ways, the Old World has passed away and we are in a transition to new one.  I do not - at least here - pretend to know or predict what that is.  Nor is that the point of this message.

Savor this time.  Find joy in the season however you may - with family or friends, or even within your own heart.  Sink into whatever joys the season may offer, even if in the back of your mind they may seem ephemeral.  Breath deeply, hear the unheard, lock the scents of the season into your memory.

We do not know what the future will hold.  But I deeply believe we will need that sense of strengthening before future appears.

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Five Days Of Pre-Christmas Shopping

 This week - at least in the last 20 years or so - represents the kick off of the Christmas Shopping Season.  It has acquired something of a life of its own. First we had Black Friday (The day when stores hoped to come into profitability for the year).  After that we got Cyber Monday (the InterWeb's retort to Black Friday).  Then we got Small Business Saturday (to assuage everyone's guilt about shopping at the chain stores).  And finally, Giving Tuesday (to assuage everyone's guilt about shopping at all).  Throw in the un-named Sunday (Sleeping Sunday?  To gather strength for the rest of the course?) and you have the Five Days of Pre-Christmas Shopping.

Of course, everything is anticipated to be completely different this year due to The Plague.  I have already seen that several large Box stores will not be open. I also anticipate that lots of other locations will have limited or no "Black Friday" events at all due to The Plague (Which, I am sure, almost everyone can agree on being a good thing no matter what your opinion of The Plague.  There are only so many videos one can watch of people fighting each other for large screen televisions before one questions the values we hold as a society).    

The InterWeb, of course, sniffs at all of this.   Virtual events mean none of the risks of crowds or government intervention ("Kids, you know only two of you can be within six feet of the screen shopping") and all the potential of a good retail season.

But even they are acting atypically this year.

I have now received notice from at least two of the online shopping sites I frequent that Cyber Monday is opening early this year.  And by early, I mean as of last week.  And the offers are pretty good.

On the one hand, I get their reasoning.  They are anticipating - with good cause - that shipping this year is going to be more difficult than ever and the earlier people purchase, the earlier the product can ship and the more likely it will get there.  That is a sane, sensible marketing approach.

But I also wonder if it is not a representation of the economic uncertainty of our times.

These are economically uncertain times.  And this has been not a great year overall for the retail community.  I do not wonder if part of this is also driven by the simple fact that businesses are hoping that they can get their part of Five Days of Pre-Christmas Shopping now, based on an anticipated decrease in the total spending power that consumers will have to spend.  A sort of "The early business gets the (fill in your country's currency here)" approach. Which could very well be true, of course.

Do I think the retail season will be bad for retailers?  I do not anticipate it being so particularly, if for no other reason than (at least here in the US) our citizens have (to a large extent) shown a complete and total inability to prepare for hard times.  So we will (once again) spend like there is no tomorrow.  

But I sincerely doubt it will be like years past.  And I anticipate seeing another wave of closures and bankruptcies come January, when the numbers are crunched and things do not add up.  Even a reasonable Christmas season will probably not offset the economic harm done this year.

I do not wonder - give it five years or so - like so many other things, The Five Days of Pre-Christmas Shopping will slip into the same category as business closed on Sundays or meeting people directly at the airport gates, a memory of older days that will come to be completely believed as untrue and mythical by later generations.

On the bright side, I suppose, we will be spared the lines of shoppers freezing themselves at 0400 in line to get a rather small free bag and $5 gift card.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Church Post-Plague

 I sometimes wonder - after all of The Plague is over - what church will really look like.

If you live somewhere which forbids (whether you agree with it or not) the assembly and/or the reopening of church as it was pre-March 2020, you have been living a life of either 1) not attending any kind of service at all; 2) attending service via some sort of electronic medium; or 3) attending a much reduced congregation spread out.

Our current church, as I think I have mentioned, went completely remote at first and then to a modified version (25% capacity, less services, spread out, health checks, nothing but the adult service itself, etc.).  I have been in no rush to get back and so we have been "attending" church via the InterWeb.

I want to be careful in my assessment:  for many over the years - those who could not get out or those who, for one reason or another, found themselves isolated from a church of their liking and/or belief - the electronic medium of radio, television or the InterWeb has been a viable solution for their Christian walk.  And to be even more fair, I have over the years grown a great deal from listening to Christian Teachers on the radio.   And so to say that moving to a remote Church is completely outside of the historical norm - at least for the last 100 years or so - is not correct.

That said, of course, I do not find that the InterWeb really works for me (although again to be fair, I have other issues with my current church as well which may incline me to such an opinion).

But (at least theoretically) at some point, church will restart.  But how will it be?

I have been scraping my mind in odd hours to think of a historical comparison, of some time where the Church ceased meeting for a period of time and then restarted.  It is not quite the same as the Underground Church (although I am pretty sure this is unofficially happening somewhere) and the major plagues of the Middle Ages (The Plague of Justinian, The Black Plague) did not result in the complete lack of meeting of the Church.   And I do not fully have one yet.

My suspicion - no matter what my lack of historical context - is that it will appear very different.

Practically speaking of course, I suspect things of my youth, like the post-service treasured coffee and cookies,  will be much rarer than they used to be.  Spacing out may become a regular practice, even if it is not to the extent that have now.  Not being a huge physical contact person myself, I will not be heartbroken the intense physical greetings that some other denominations have also disappear - but there will be people that are impacted by this.  Add in the question of how and where such things as children's ministries, teen ministries, adult ministries, retreats, etc. get put back together or impacted - it is a pretty big list.

If I were to theorize, I might suggest that we end up with three or four models:  one in which things roll on as before, one where things remain where they are now, one where churches begin to go below the radar and operate out of houses to avoid the perceived risk of too many unknown people (thinking the Amish model here), or one where we have the equivalent of "cathedral" worship:  large buildings, people spaced out, little interaction.

I have no real idea of course, and it is (at least for me) moderately fun to speculate.  But I do know this:  no matter which model or models exist, if the Church is not actively thinking of such things it is going to "return" only to find that people's expectations and behaviors have changed - and it did nothing to prepare.