This is not an easy blog, a single story, or a simple point. It’s simply the three intertwined threads of yet another sleepless night.
First strand: saying goodbye to my father and his century
It’s our last day in Geneva. Yesterday evening, my 98 year-old father shared a glimmer of his old self. “So, Julia!” he exclaimed, smiling at me. A simple shared moment of humor and affection, a reminder of times past. Leaving means that this may have been the last of such moments. Thinking about this robs me of sleep, but it is not the only thought.
Being a person who thinks in these times means being tangled up, a small creature, fighting and struggling in a large current of historical, intellectual and sheer physical, planetary scale forces. Being a scientist and communicator in the age of climate breakdown and mass extinctions, as well as social media, and resurgent, even triumphant, totalitarianism, means that every experience becomes colored and questioned in the light of our shared fractured time.
So I see my moments with my father through the lens of his century: escaping and surviving the Holocaust, witnessing the coming of the age of the automobile, flying across the world with his colleagues and family, his very topic, “high energy physics,” a sign of the colossal forces unleashed during his time. I know I will not live to see 98 — I have already been too ill. But worse, I know my son will not have the same life chances as his grandfather. I know that the excellent care my father and mother receive is built on prosperity, stability, immense past struggles to build up systems of social security and healthcare. They saw themselves as part of an upward trend, I have learned to see them as a cusp, with the steepness of the downward trend the main thing left to act upon — may it be a slow decline, rather than an abrupt collapse. These are the aspirations and dreams left to my generation and my son’s.
Second strand: a legacy of powerful manipulation
But this century saw other forces at play: great forces of science and understanding, even seeking to illuminate and heal the human mind, and then forces that turned those insights into weapons for social control and manipulation. Yesterday, while I was packing, I was listening to “The Century of the Self”, a momentous documentary by Adam Curtis on the use of psychoanalytic insights for profit and power. It is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand our time, showing how powerful forces of governments, military and private industry seized social science discoveries and methods, and used them for control and domination, rather than liberation or progress. We still live in the world tangled up by the propaganda and manipulation tools created by Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and Machiavellian translator of psychological science into publicity and control.
So this is the second of my sleepless strands: I too, along with other colleagues, comrades, companions, shipmates of spaceship Earth, would quite like to change the course of history. We’d very, very much like to work to avert the cliff of collapse and disaster ahead, if you don’t mind, instead of witnessing ourselves accelerate ever faster to our doom. I don’t begrudge the time I spend reading, thinking, tweeting, trying evermore to figure our collective way out of our current perfect storm of economic might hellbent on growth, materialistic and sensationalist culture, and totalitarian forces of destruction. I don’t mind the sleepless nights where I make some progress, as a small creature wading through philosophy, economy, planetary physics, social media memes — who cares as long as it helps, even just a bit.
But last night was bitter: as shown in the Century of the Self, Bernays helped the tobacco industry expand, and US-backed overthrow of democratic government in Guatemala, which culminated in genocide, at the behest of the United Fruit Company, one of the most evil corporations ever to roam the Earth. He sided with large industry and against any form of emancipation or liberation or education or equality. He engineered “happenings”, fake events which, once covered by the media, would transform the course of history to suit his clients. He used social science results and methods to further private domination and profits, for decades, a legacy stretching to today’s celebrity “influencers” peddling more crap no one needs, and even a celebrity president in the White House, turning the entire USA into a totalitarian failed brand. So if I, along with others, want to change the course of history, shouldn’t we learn from Bernays?
Here as always, the lessons of past history fall short of what we must accomplish, in these few short years and decades ahead. Because our path must be built on human emancipation and education, especially inoculation against the kinds of propaganda methods that Bernays and his clients used to bamboozle and corral the “masses” as they dismissively referred to them into supporting their wars and buying their poisonous products. We cannot “save” humanity without first putting human awareness, curiosity, prudence, self and collective preservation, front and center. We cannot simply engineer a pleasing, soporific, technocratic low-carbon alternative that the “masses” will fall into by shear consumerist desire, although I have many colleagues who would probably be delighted with that option, were it possible. I am persuaded this view of change falls far short of the revolution required, and moreover will never be allowed to succeed by the fossil barons and automobile autocrats which currently rule our economy.
No, I am persuaded we cannot change history this time, to a less disastrous course, without illuminating and educating the “masses”, or a large fraction of them, to the importance of liberating our societies from the overlarge power of private industry, be it tobacco and bananas, in the case of Bernays, or the automobile, agribusiness and other large destructive forces, in our case. That liberation passes through a better understanding of the workings of the human mind, our media-driven societies, and how the two can so easily be combined to convince us to act and vote against our best interests. The case of Brexit and our own opportunistic autocrat, Boris Johnson, is at the front of my mind, as I head back to the UK.
Third sleepless strand: Moby Dick
I was fascinated by this wonderful piece on the literary critic C.L.R. James and climate change in Jacobin Magazine by Justin Slaughter, and so I am finally reading his masterwork “Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The story of Herman Melville and the world we live in.” I can’t recommend this book too much. James exposes Melville’s reading of the history we face through the characters in Moby Dick: authoritarian Captain Ahab, detached and disillusioned intellectual Ishmael (the narrator), pessimistic and obedient first mate Starbuck, optimistic and compliant second mate Stubb, down to the little Pip, who goes mad, and thus can speak truth to power, but without the ability to change the disastrous course of the ship.
This book, no matter how excellent, is also keeping me up this long night. I recognize the characters in the world around me, and see how our own authoritarian Ahabs (and there are so many of them these days, from fossil magnates to leaders of superpowers) use our different institutions and personalities to drive us relentlessly to our dooms. This might seem overblown and unscientific (and I’m sure many colleagues, if they bother to read these words, would be embarrassed by them: doom is such a loaded and unscientific term, and reading a reflection of our current situation into Moby Dick, written in 1851, may seem like quite the stretch). But I am persuaded that we need emotional, historical, narrative and cultural understandings of our time and its forces, as well as purely scientific and detached. I want to be attached to what is going on around me. I want to understand it from many directions. I think that it is only by struggling through these various attachments that we can, somehow, together, figure out the variegated forms of struggle that will enable us to change course, somehow. Soften the slope of decline, even just a bit.
Facing a long day of goodbyes
So today is our last day here, I have so much to do, and got precious little sleep. If you read this far, I hope you don’t begrudge the time it took you, despite the lack of neat ending. I see my 98 year-old father, my 7 year-old son, you, me, all of us as passengers on the Pequod, that great doomed ship of capitalism at the dawn of the age of industry. I hope we can work together, think together, struggle together, and figure out a way, somehow, against the odds, to stop that evil Captain Ahab, and leave Moby Dick, the white whale symbolizing an injured, outraged environment, well alone. And maybe the loose tangled strands of sleepless nights will eventually add up to a new story: not a story of deadly doomed predatory chase, but a story of protection, of each other, and the whale, and the sea.