Barbershop Blues – November 9, 2016:
I stood in line behind an Arabic man wearing Islamic prayer beads and a Trump-Pence t-shirt at a bank the day after an orangutan won the Oval Office with almost 63 million Republican votes. Conscious of the attention his iconic red “Make America Great Again” cap drew, he grabbed its brim, smirked, winked at me and walked up to the teller.
“As-salamu alaykum, sister,” he said, strutting, chin first, palms raised, eyebrows up, elbows out, praising the roof.
The teller, who wore the hijab, beamed at him. “Waʿalaykumu s-salām,” she said. “What a glorious day!”
“I barely slept, sister,” he said. “I took the today off, and I have another party to go to tonight.” Their conversation fell into an Arabic-English hybrid dialect, and their laughter echoed off the marble columns making me hot in the otherwise cool quiet. Papers shuffled. Feet shifted. A few people behind me coughed and peered around at the other available teller, who was counting cash, finishing a transaction. The room felt like a fish tank, cause I had drunk like a fish.
I hadn’t slept at all, and so I thought briefly this Muslim Trumpet might be evidence for The Matrix. Maybe my life is VR. Maybe whoever, whatever god spoke the earth into existence is fucking with this petri dish, and so forth. I felt like half America took the red pill, and learned to dodge bullets.
I wonder if the truth is less sterile than I thought, that I’m missing out on Wonderland. Morpheus said, “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” I thought of the possibility that beliefs are really all we can really manage, but some ubermensch, some vampires with some grand wizardry may know of a secret parallel universe that eludes me. My drunken consciousness told me: “Be still. As far as you know, you are a dumb ape.”
It’s possible that nobody exists but my ego, and so I’m typing into a void, ignorant to some redpill realm of reality. Maybe heaven exists. Maybe when we die, this simulation ends and our consciousness rescinds to a different dimension, a theocratic realm, a feast, a mansion in which to retire. Wouldn’t it be great if you could kill yourself to escape into a better life? Still, I’m skeptical.
After working overnight, and guzzling a bottle of wine while I waited for the bank to open so I could replace my expired ATM card and get cash for a haircut, I had not slept for at least 48 hours. A combination of very private and very public concerns kept me up, ignoring my wife’s flirty texts, scanning The Lying Media, checking polls, cajoling old friends into unfriending me on Facebook and watching ASMR videos on YouTube.
I like watching Trump speak. His speech pattern is hypnotic, and it gives me ASMR. His emphatic hand movements, his gravelly intonations and hisses are seductive and tingly. His repetition and simple speech feels reassuring, like he can make everything ok. Sometimes his speeches even give me this warm feeling of self-satisfaction, like recognizing a new plot in a good piece of fiction, but in substance almost everything he says drives me batshit.
Linking migration to terrorism puts our foreign policy into the fetal position. It misses the point. We’re battling a culture obsessed with dominance. It has to do with sex, and procreation, and the future of our species. It is about selection, and deciding who is fit. So says my little Hitler.
I spent the Monday before the election feeding digital Trumpets with reasonable arguments in YouTube comments: walls cannot stop immigration, diseases or the drug trade; torture skews info and creates martyrs (see the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John); unregulated markets allow wage slavery, private militias, organ harvesting, etc. Rules make society work.
My long winded reasons took dozens of minutes to compose, and immediately drowned beneath torrents of psychotic hyperbole, hyper babble and insults: “||||||||||||||||||||BUILD(((THE)))WALL||||||||||||||||||||||||||,” “stupid libtard,” “beta cuck,” “Get my golf cart,” “Cut my lawn Pablo!!!” and so on.
So many avatars revelled in the irony of Trump’s campaign, some controlled by real folks funging me, making my social media feed unbearable for months on end. They took pleasure in the stridency of his invective and “truthful hyperbole,” aka lucrative white lies like the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause, and Trump Tower stands 68 instead of 58 floors. Fudging numbers and eschewing the scientific method seems powerful, like smacking the glasses off a nerd.
Before the election I thought somebody (maybe some Russian office drones or that Silicon Valley Trumpet who created Oculus) cloned Tay, and religious Republicans (like my parents) hopped up to ride the mindless AI Tweetstorm, rallied their by blind anger against the godlessness of the solutions to our social ills, like socialized medicine, climate accords, queer culture, abortion on demand, the various technicalities of accomodating refugees, widows and orphans. But the day after voting, at 9am on November 9th, in line behind this young (probably 22 y/o) Muslim Trumpet, the populist appeal of the Godking hit me in the forehead.
We love idols. We like to believe we can control reality by embedding deep truths into fiction (or religion) and rituals like Passover, Communion or human sacrifice. We like to think that we influence gods through prayer and devotion. Instead of doing the hard work of debating good policy, listening to each other, getting honest and dealing with the mistakes in our ideologies and our practices, instead of creating a set of enforceable ethics that keep us secure and prosperous, we hide behind avatars and berate each other.
Our ancient texts do provide guidance and wisdom, when we read them without getting dogmatic or overly reverential of our ancestors’ insights. Ancient ambiguities–gods, devils, angels, evil, sin, heaven, hell, love, justice–give us language to formulate our constitutions and ethics. But instead of asking what do we want and fear, and how do we rationally achieve those things that make us happy and wealthy and avoid things that scare us like homelessness and school shootings, we project them onto metaphors or turns of phrase like ISIL (with an ‘L’ because Saudi Arabia is implicated), a wall, a graven image, a golden calf.
Religious zealots in the West worship at the whipping posts of Sharia and Islam, while their intellectual kindred (also seeking dominance under a godking) from the desert rail against the Crusading Kafirs. They scream past each other with deadly certainty, and a lot of innocent people die in the fallout. We might avoid these people, try to put their message into a sleeper hold. We might imprison people like Tarek Mehanna for spitting dangerous Dawah, but doing so only amplifies their message. We’re really debating ethics here, and we might find more in common than we think. Sharia is simply a word for law, after all, and the essence of Sharia (meaning the way to bring a camel to water) is up for debate. Let’s not shrug off this opportunity.
Jesus referenced the essential law of Moses, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18), and that’s fine moral guidance. But what about all the people who don’t love themselves? What do we do about our suicidal tendencies? What if we stop hoping for an eternal utopia? Central to our theistic monomania is an omnipotent, omnipresent theocrat that will bring the evil on earth to an end.
We’re here jostling between an array of suicidal fantasies and grand imposible hopes. Given the potential of AI, maybe we’re creating a new god right now. Maybe spaceship earth would run best under some digital autopilot, while we all enjoy the fruits of life. We’ve entered the age of the Goat: YOLO.
For all the time we spend stressing out about our relative intelligence, racism and various the phobias psychologist define, our culture has a more demoralizing identity issue: God is dead.
Worse, we realize the fallibility of our constitutions, and the fakeness of reality. Our senses offer rough approximations of the truth, and it’s not even clear that experience offers any grasp on reality. We don’t all even see the same colors. Maybe my schizophrenic friend is right, and all of the people I’ve wronged stand behind me now sharpening their knives.
Simple scientific facts like gravity are intuitive, given time and definite language. But the more complex explanations of human origins seem snide or at least clinical. Facts are blunt, and it’s hard to sell truth. If anything the truth seems immoral. So we spin it to fit our values, but a deeper truth is that our spirits want the impossible. We want to live forever.
We need to help the “realists” among us navigate an existential crisis. The realization that the Koran (or Bible or whatever holy word handed down to us by authorities) is just one of many texts can be devastating. The religious mind thinks that rituals and myths are a corner-stone to ethics, and that they can actually affect reality. But that’s like saying numbers are the sole basis of truth, and not also products of the human imagination.
Our images and stories are just devices to convey our concerns and fears. Theocrats among us want to take us back to dark days of fear and ignorance, of kings and kingdoms crumbling due to forces beyond control, subservience to the invisible hand of the market and stupidity.
But there is something greater than each of us, something at the bedrock of society that baffles every attempt to explain or understand. Call it God. As King David, the great uniter of Israel who annexed the bloodline of the Jewish monarchy, described a God deeply engaged in politics: “For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images” (Psalm 78:58). That particular ancient text, probably a revised dictation from some ancient king, expresses the origin of Sharia (law according to Moses). It’s rooted in fear of a petulant god, promoted by a warrior king with the ultimate up by his bootstraps story, “from tending the sheep [God] brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance.” Let’s not forget the mistake that the Jews made when they rejected their judges in favor of that god awful king Saul, anointed by Samuel.
When I dropped my religion I floundered, wondering what ethics matter, and if morality exists at all, if it might be that the whole world revolves around me. But soon I realized that my moral compass actually comes from art and language, from The Media I consume, which in large part includes Holy scriptures.
I also realized that ancient texts, like The Epic of Gilgamesh, are interesting stories and fascinating artifacts of human literary achievement. But even Agatha Christie wrote more morally relevant texts to our time than the Bible. Ancient tales of epic conquest and war arise from a time when most people did not think the earth was round. The oral histories of my family, the stories we tell about each other, the problems we see in society and express, are about as relevant as anyone’s interpretation of an ancient text.
Plato’s Republic describes ancient means and the methods of interpreting reality–using discourse, sheer wit, and memory–with the shadows of of some external reality moving around on the wall of the cave, while we sit agape, chained to the floor, some of us looking for meaning, all of us in need of a fit narrative to live by.
I imagine experts (descending from the ivory tower from which they view the spectacle of the human condition with great gravitas) approaching the wall shadows in heavy white lab coats, observing, measuring, recording data. Then they share their deductions, suggesting that we in fact grew out of the rocks themselves, that we are minerals rearranged, and that this brief period of consciousness is all we get.
These experts then ask us to do uncomfortable things, for the good of everyone. They might say reduce the methane, hold in your farts and stop having so many babies, cause the cave is crowded. It’s getting hot and the polluted air will kill us all.
News of death and destruction (and add to that godless philosophies and the theology of Ecclesiastes, “Wisdom is meaningless”) makes us cynical. We start to think like Nietzsche, and emulate the ubermensch. We go for individualism. We all want to be the fittest. But fitness depends on society. What’s the game? What rules might propel our nuclear rockets out of this solar system? Can our descendants to explore the universe? Can our biology escape the cave?
Escape from the cave is probably impossible for me and you. We worms will die, and our grandchildren will probably die too. So should we work toward the escape of a distant ancestor? We’re sitting on a beach here in the darkness, far from the light, with our long chains dug deep in the sand, easily extended out far enough for us to interact and to write our names in the sand, maybe build a castle. But it all washes away in the cold waves and wind assailing us from the darkness. Much of our handiwork disappears even before us.
We see the writing on the wall, like the God of Daniel: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. Even the marks left by the best among us will flatten into sand and be forgotten. One eccentric ego feeds millions of egos by weighing and measuring an army of enemies against invective and insults. How do we react? Will trolls howling out in the darkness divide us? Can the bots trolling twitter divide our energy so we expend it on each other? Must we fight to control the population? Are we forever slaves to famine, disease and violence? What’s so bad about birth control? Are we real? Is life a dream?
The red pill offers some sense of certainty as to what this dream is about. The red pill, like a sheet of Triple Cs, or a few ounces of gin ‘n juice, you get this warm sense of knowledge and forbearance amid a sea of unreality, and you realize that everyone experiences delusions, and you imagine your mind expanding into an ether of consciousness, like this right here doesn’t exist. You know better. Atoms are mostly empty space. But does that mean we could learn to walk through walls like in The SIMs?
Morpheus too is fiction, and the Matrix could be anything. Anyone can create an untestable hypothesis in minutes. There are so many shady pizza shops and many more shady people. We may never escape for a moment from this kettle drum of inspiration on the Internet. So I’d rather take the blue pill, and believe in gravity and evolution without really understanding either. I don’t begrudge the myths, because I too believed in devils and angels, but I’m not interested in speculating on extravagant narratives. I won’t bet my life on snakes with friendly grins. I will jihad to make the kingdom of heaven right now, locally.
In line at the bank, I ltqm at the juxtaposition of the Muslim Trumpet and the media-induced biases I’d collected in a year of dogged participation in the American civil discourse on UPorn, among other digital chat rooms.
Of course theists love strong men, I thought. Their perfect public policy is a mythic intergalactic dictatorship. They live in a echo chamber of certainty, and they will celebrate anyone who yells down their detractors. The truth matters less to most people than spiritual fulfillment. Telling a friend with cancer that death means nothing is no comfort. It’s just cruel.
But lies don’t cure cancer. So while we’re living in the moment, we need to ballance our individual spiritual needs with the greater needs of society. Observation, deduction, critical thinking, and truth (like the facts that Earth is round and it circles a star) are also just words. But those words help us to define our purposes, and fulfil our spirits. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1:1). If God is love, do you really think (taking Pascal’s wager) that we should take what’s written in ancient books literally, even if it was inspired by extraterrestrials?
My mind felt oddly ecstatic, maybe numb, as I watched the Trumpet fiddle with his prayer beads and chat with the teller. I waited, and wondered what Tarek Mehanna might think of Trump. I was coming off of a watch with an old white Trump enthusiast.
At work overnight, my fellow security officer watched the election results on a flat screen in the lobby behind our deloopsk with some bitter glee. “Look at all that red,” he said ad nauseam. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. How can they think that Rotten still has a chance.” He claimed he had voted for Obama the last two times, and went on all night about change and hoping for change. I thought about how facts are trivial and fake news could be any word that makes you disagree.
“I guess the election wasn’t rigged,” I said as results from Wisconsin and Michigan arrived and he took me to be a conspirator (because I’m also a white working guy saving up day wages to get ahead). He waxed poetic about Islam, terrorism, migration and trade deals (though neither of us could really articulate the substance of NAFTA or the TPP). He said he voted for a recession, because he hopes to leverage his investments in gold to afford a bigger house. He’s rooting for a minor apocalypse. I guess when the market blows up, resources are still there.
Our trains of thought petered out, and I took the chance to show my colors. I rambled about the senselessness of walls and torture, and he said those things were just rhetoric to piss off Libtards. As the results solidified in the wee hours of the morning he got glib, like he’d bet sagely on a horse race.
As a Republican since my Navy days (jeer my OIF t shirt, my participation trophy or whatever), I’ve never voted for a national candidate who won. I missed the 2004 election because of a hurricane during A School in Florida. I didn’t care enough to learn how to vote absentee. In 2008, the year I left the Navy, I liked McCain for saying we might need to stay in Iraq for 100 years (http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/02/14/mccain.king/) because of the logistics. He at least was honest and earnest, and it pissed me off to be called a racist for liking him.
After 4 years of liberal arts philosophy and public policy, I indulged the Green Party in order to break the binary and expand our political debate beyond race (as a luxury of living in a blue state). This year I thought I had a winner in Hillary, but the race baiting and vitriol got so bad that I think a lot of people in the most heavily contested states just stayed home.
People call Kid Rock white trash, but he’s a wanna be cowboy who grew up on a six acre estate in a suburb north of Detroit. Real trash folks on welfare, who just work a few hours at odd cash jobs to keep benefits, didn’t vote. They weren’t enfranchised, and left the judgement to slightly richer working fellows like me. It’s not really in my interest to pay for health insurance, but I would for the cause (if it weren’t for the VA). It’s just tough to pay out, wasting time to live by the rules when other people seem to be speeding past in the breakdown lane.
Back at the bank, whatever happened to get this odd Muslim Trumpet so enthused, I rolled my eyes with the other teller as I stepped up to cash my check, and wondered while our eyes rolled back again over toward the woman in the burka, why I felt such bigotry toward the Godking and his followers, why it felt good to be in silent solidarity with this black woman on the other side of the bullet proof glass, and why again it mattered to me that she was black. Our eyebrows rose in unison, and she sighed, “Can I help you honey?”
I hate feeling racist. But inspired by the Muslim Trumpet at the bank with his pencil line chin strap and cocky posture, I got out an extra $20 from the bank to add a good shave to the haircut I’d been needing for a month. Looking like Bozo the clown, with my bald pate, I went to the barbershop where everyone speaks Spanish and I can get a good lineup.
Midway through my haircut, someone in the doorway started yelling, “You speak Albanian? Oh so you’re just going to leave and get a haircut now when I’m trying to help you?”
An old man with a heavy accent sat in the barber chair next to me, and said (approximately in pigeon-tongue), “You cut white people’s hair?”
“I cut all kinds of hair,” The barber said. “What do you want?”
The man gestured generally toward the ceiling with both hands, and said amid Armenian phrases, “Shorter, how to say, everything shorter.”
The harsh voice from the doorway got louder, moving into the shop. “You understand what he’s saying? You don’t understand. You speak Spanish. I hardly understand you.” He forced out a laugh like Ricky Gervais. “A haircut‘s a haircut, huh? I don’t think he’s got money, though. I’m trying to get him to Pine Street, but he won’t go. These Albanians out here, kid, they don’t listen. His friend out here, guy won’t speak to me. We need a translator.”
The man marked his voice with a course blue-collar accent, which sounded fake and pretentious to me, like a yuppie turned townie, or visa versa. He had that harsh movie accent, like Bill Burr. I turned, and the voice belonged to a swole bald white dude with a manicured goatee, leaning in to take the Albanian guy out of the barber shop. The barber was still casually snipping away at the man’s hair, and they spoke back and forth aggressively.
“What the fuck kid?” I ask, unconsciously absorbing his accent in my own fake way, certain that I’ve found a belligerent Trumpet. “What the fuckedy, blah, blah shut the fuck up, you cocksucker. I’m trying to get a fucking, I’m trying relax here.”
“What’s your problem?” he said. “You’re a Trump voter aren’t you? Look at all these white kids in here,” he said to the barber. “A lot of white people getting haircuts today. Weird, right? You a Trumpist?”
“What the fuck k-k-k-kid,” I stuttered, gears stuck in my mind. This hulking bald, I’d pegged this goy as a Trumpet on looks alone. “What the fuck are you talking about? Quit shitting on my haircut,” I said (essentially) stammering mad.
The barber got between us, good thing cause I would have got my ass kicked as usual, and he pushed the guy outside. “This is a business, he said. I know. I know. I know.” And so forth.
“You’re gonna protect a fucking Trumpet,” the bald guy said. “A lot of white guys in here today I noticed.”
“Calm down. This is a place of business. It’s all good. I’ll stop by later.”
Remember the wall shadows in Plato’s Republic? People get tired of earnest interpretations of wall shadows. We can’t really know what’s going on, so why speculate? We all have implicit biases, and sometimes we just see what we want to see.
When I was little, I could never sleep at night because I saw silhouettes in racks or piles of cloths that looked like Gollum, or whatever villain had captivated my mind that day.
The internet liberates the written word from the page, providing what Socrates cherished in discourse, and railed against in writing. Text is now fluid, so there’s nothing sacred about the written word. Some people still think that old texts are better, but they are really just old communications, facts mixed into fictions and poems, wisdom written in words that survived. I digress.
My haircut turned out great, as always, and when I got outside that bald white guy was still there, next to his bearded friend, and another disheveled Armenian carrying a suitcase.
“What the are you doing?” I said to the bald guy.
“I’m trying to help this fucking guy find a place to sleep tonight. He came into my real estate office,” the man pointed to the sign above the shop next to the barber. “They just got to America and they’re looking for a place to stay. I’m trying to help them. What the fuck are you doing? You got your fucking haircut you ignorant little Trumpet, so go home and fuck your dog or whatever the fuck you do. I’m trying to help people here.”
I don’t honestly remember what we said, just that I stammered something about voting for Hillary Clinton before stalking away to my car, bewildered, befuddled, feeling certain that I must be experiencing some sort of glitch in my simulation. I guess we’re in Boston, so of course he’s a Hillary supporter. Trumpets all live in McMansions in middle class suburbs.
Here we found ourselves, believing all the same Stronger Together crap in theory, at odds for no reason on the other side of Trump’s election. We probably agree on a lot. We both voted for Clinton, and both of us believe in helping immigrants. We were more afraid of each other than a foreign boogie man.
Even when we do disagree on fundamental issues, like caring for widows, orphans and immigrants, we cannot forget our central interest in staying united as Americans to the principles of liberty and justice for all. We can build a more perfect union, as we work to rip out the most cancerous elements of our own culture, our superficiality, the lies we hold too firmly.
We are all a team, and we don’t quit just because we don’t like the team captain.
Donald Trump exposes a binary device in American Politics. We have an entrenched choice between two flavors of power here. This evolved out of the Roman Republic, and the Greek Democracy, infuse with a sort of reverence for the little man, the plebian. We pretend his voice matters the most. It doesn’t, because money is speech, but bootstraps make good stories.
On the one hand we have the Republic, led by people whose power derives from wealth and holdings. They like to talk about quality voters, and encourage tests for the “privilege” of the vote. They appeal to their own personalities, accomplishments and prestige for favor. They look inward for truth, and so their fundamental beliefs often derive from the most salient teachings of their youth. This power is based on ego. It’s narcissistic and delusional, but sometimes it’s right.
On the other hand Democracy, led by people whose power derives from art and the ability to shape reality. They like to talk about equality everywhere, and will invite robbers over for dinner to get to know their struggles and hopefully stave off a break in. They appeal to external truths, what’s observable, and they deduce using the scientific method.
One looks inward the other outward. We call populist realists “fascists” and populist liberals “socialists” at the moment. These binaries are always changing. They evolve to reflect the various wants and fears of our culture.
Binaries are useful. In America we use binaries to balance our government, realists verse liberals. Realists deal in ethics in as far as it serves their purposes. Liberals shape ethics.
I heard a libtard once say the Democrats are better at governing in the minority, and he’s right. Democrats work to get things done. They represent equal opportunity. There may certainly be times when those efforts are misplaced, but I play for America, not my ego.
First, we need to end racism and sexism. One indicator of that objective will be poll data that shows no racial or gender groups favoring one party over another within the margin of error. That means eliminating the race button.
My current goal with this blog is to better understand and confront jihadist texts. I want to end theistic monomania, this obsession with the vague possibility of eternal life. It’s not worth dying to just possibly live forever.
Even if you’re afraid of living forever, scared of hell or Muslims or Christians or Jews (or any sect that fetishizes separation and purity) or just scared of death, you can still recognize good moments and seek them out. Live for now and later.
If you want to slowly kill yourself with heroine, fine. Drugs can be great, because there’s no panacea. But you can find a better high by embracing life as it is, and honing the skills that allow you to excel. We all need to make good decisions, and realize that there’s no reason to let life be hell.
As societies around the world replace religion with civics, we cannot forget the power and spiritual fulfilment that our spirits crave. There’s great power in human interactions, discipline, and ritual.
Don’t discount ASMR. Sure, those odd ear to ear videos seem sometimes laughable, brushing microphones and so forth, but feelings exist. Put aside social justice issues for a moment, and stiffen that upper lip to unfair realities like cancer, inheritance and tallant. Equality in outcome is not possible, and free will appears desirable. Happiness does not measure in units. Regardless, we can struggle together for equal opportunity.
Consider all the cracks in the walls of our societies. The available jobs that can improve life are endless. There so many potholes, so many broken stoops, so many empty soup bowls, so much dirty water. We can fix this earth. We can make a garden. We just need to be willing to struggle peacefully together, find ways to serve in humility. We need to jihad to improve our circumstances for future generations.
Terror, it’s literally nuts, surreal, scary. It is not right, and we need to stop it. The bravery and sweaty excitement of chaos is short and hollow. What matters is how we live well and how we die well. We all struggle to achieve certain basic goals: independence, security and satisfaction.
We have a lot to fear from earth and outer space: volcanoes, climate change, asteroids. Our list of existential fears can grow long. But outside of fiction, we can’t escape by taking pills.