00 by William P. Benz
To spit on the past is not enough. To proclaim the future is not enough. One must act as if the past were dead and the future unrealizable. —Henry Miller, Black Spring
Fallow Fields Zero, Zero. What a simple and elegant hypothesis. The more I pay attention, the more examples I see of its functioning. In history, in people, and in those quiescent revelations that come with a crash.
Zero, Zero. Sometimes, its subtleness is emphasized, sometimes it’s straight in your face. I find it utterly amazing to watch the absence of something, a Nothing, make all the difference. On first encounter, it’s rather difficult to fathom the full and far reaching significance. In one moment you feeling its urgency. The next, its transient disappearance. To develop familiarity with the Richness of Nothing, you must feel both its silence and its roar. Such opportunities are rare. Especially, within the confines of our rather thick headed culture. Trained to accept a continuous inundation of heart deadening activities and amusements, we have few opportunities to be healed by disengagement. No time to allow our fields to lay fallow.
Zero, Zero. Something not taught in our schools. I once thought this was because our teachers were untutored in the subject. But the more I notice the conspicuousness of its absence, the more I suspect deliberate evasion. The absenteeism is intentional. Not as the result of a well-orchestrated conspiracy, as much as an ingrained and generalized fearfulness. [By this, I don’t mean to suggest we should treat generalized fearfulness lightly. Left unattended, it quickly flares up into a well-orchestrated conspiracy—the Inquisition, the Nazi Holocaust, the Demonization of Palestinians, our own War on Drugs.] A generalized fearfulness we all know is making things worse, but we’re unsure how to ease its terror.
Zero, Zero. In some cultures, mostly though not exclusively oriental, it’s played a prominent role. Though today it rarely gets more than lip service. To have Nothing as the basis for knowing, for action, for social organization is considered rather passé. A charming memento of the cultural exploits of past heroes, but for the rest of us, immersed as we are in the incandescence of modernity, woefully ineffectual. We are further distanced by its portrayal as something accessible to only a rare few.
Zero, Zero. Our western religious institutions do it no better. When considered at all, it’s reserved as an advanced topic for only the most accomplished practitioners. And only if they’re sequestered away in monasteries. Instead of its role being socially pivotal, it’s seen as a specialized practice for selected and isolated clerics. The Dark Night of the Soul gives people the creeps.
Beyond Our Ken? I’ve thought about this a lot. Why is it kept so hidden from general view? Is it beyond the ken of normal mortals? Are we afraid we’ll dangle the most precious teachings before the masses only to have them fail in their attainment? Better to play it safe and pass out a list of easily remembered commandments, and throw in that bit about how simple faith can be substituted for difficult transformation. Or is it because we fear if everyone has the highest revelation they’ll think themselves equal, as Gods? Do we still fear that if everyone eats of the forbidden fruit in the garden it’ll put all our deities and mediating priests out of business? While these fears may function in specific circumstances, I think the explanation goes much deeper.
I think it has more to do with the fact that Zero, Zero is too hot to handle. It’s fundamentally too revolutionary. If our highest teaching is based on Nothing, it’s hard to insist on the Imperative for Conversion. Hard to justify a punitive Inquisition. Hard to advocate a Jihad against others. Hard to substantiate our status as The Chosen People.
This was brought to light for me by an article I read in The Ladies’ Home Journal. No kidding! And in the January, 1895 issue, no less. The title of the article was “Christmas in the Year 2000” by Edward Bellamy. It’s a work of fiction in the spirit of his book, Looking Backwards, published in 1888. Bellamy was a popular and self-taught socialist who proclaimed he never studied Marx. He had great faith that technology could be harnessed to alleviate the growing inequities among the populace. His stories take place in a utopian society in Boston in the year 2000. A society where the individual survives, intact, while being freed from all the horrors of capitalism.
This struck a very responsive cord among his readers. He sold a million copies. There were many who yearned for a way out of the brutal conditions of industrialized America of the 1890s, a period of great economic hardship for the masses. The pay was poor, the conditions unhealthy, and the hours long. A state of affairs made all the more demeaning by government and media’s persistent proclamations of how the economy had never been better, how newly emerging communication technologies would bring about unlimited opportunities for new commerce and a more open form of democracy. The only requirements for participation were patience, diligence, and a deep faith that the vast accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few was being reinvested for the benefit of everyone. And eventually, the inevitable trickle down effect would melt away the temporary inequalities and bring untold prosperity to all.
You would think, given a century, the capitalist authors of misleading disinformation could vary their rap.
Christmas and the Fourth In “Christmas in the Year 2000,” Bellamy reveals the factors necessary for transforming a society into one where perfect justice and equality was available for all its citizens. To contrast the dissimilarity between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries he compares the differences in how each celebrated the Fourth of July and Christmas Day. The denizens of Boston, in the year 2000, had difficulty understanding their great-grandparents’ choice and method of celebrating these two holidays. For starters, they were totally bewildered as to why their forebears made such a fuss over the Fourth. “To us it would seem of quite invisible importance that America was independent of England if Americans were not independent of Americans.” They wondered, “what on earth our fathers meant by being zealous for the mutual independence and equality of the nations as collective bodies, while remaining so entirely indifferent to preserving a mutual equality and independence among the citizens of the respective nations.” They were sure that any visitor from the nineteenth century would be shocked to find the Fourth of July was completely forgotten.
In their Millennial Society, where the ideal of universal human brotherhood was foremost, the Fourth of July joined “an interminable list of anniversary celebrations of international conflicts and victories.” All were passed over as inappropriate for observance because celebrating the triumph of one people over another might send the wrong message to their children, that violence was a useful tool for solving conflict.
The surprise of this visitor from the 1890’s over the demise of the fourth was mild though, compared to the absolute amazement felt by the Bostonians of year 2000 about how enthusiastically their ancestors celebrated Christmas! From what they knew of the nineteenth century, they would have expected that, as the 25th approached, the police would be doubled on every corner to arrest anyone mentioning the name of Jesus.
They reasoned, “For what treason so black could there be to the social state of that day, what sedition so dangerous as any act in honor of the mighty leveler who laid the axe at the root of all forms of inequality by declaring that no one should think anything good enough for another which he did not think good enough for himself.”
What could be “more absurd on the face of it than that a society illustrating in all its forms and methods a systematic disregard of the Golden rule, would permit any notice, much less any open celebration of Christ’s birthday?” From their reading of history the nineteenth century was one that systematically substituted the law of strife and competition for the law that simply states, “if men would live well together every one should see that every other fares as well as he.”
Folks, you do remember this is being discussed in The Ladies’ Home Journal of 1895? Today, you would only expect such a revealing lowdown in the more progressive publications. But before anyone starts feeling depressed about how far we haven’t come in the last hundred years, let me point out that in the same magazine of that year, there’s an article written by the Reverend Parkhurst, D.D. called “Andromaniacs.” It starts out with a Biblical proof of woman’s intrinsic superiority. And how the “queenliness of God’s favorite sex” justifies the “heavier penalty which a woman is publicly required to pay” when caught doing you-know-what. The Rev. goes on to say how this seeming discrimination is actually a Scriptural Tribute because “dishonor can be only as deep as the honor is high from which it has declined.” But he’s just warming up. The purpose for his article is to warn us of a disease sweeping the nation—Andromania! Defined as a “passionate aping of everything that’s mannish.” Those affected attempt to “minimize distinctions” between men and women to the detriment of the “Divine Order.”
So we can’t go characterizing the period as one of enlightened sensibilities. This only makes Bellamy’s article all the more interesting.
Especially, as it explores how the nineteenth century felt justified in professing a form of Christianity stripped of its Golden Rule. Bellamy’s Bostonians of the year 2000 were completely baffled by this dichotomy. How could Jesus’ message become so distorted? Simple. By emphasizing the celebration of Christmas as something principally done with family and friends “with curtains drawn against the world without,” nineteenth century Bostonians avoided extending the Golden Rule to workers, minorities, and the indigenous peoples of lands recently expropriated. In contrast, the Utopians of the year 2000 felt “Christ came to preach not the love of kindred, but humanity. He came not to teach men to love the children of their own bodies, but the children of God’s spirit.”
By emphasizing Jesus as the Son of God, the importance of a future Day of Reckoning, and having to wait for our rewards in Heaven, the revolutionary message was squashed in its tracks in the nineteenth century. Those in the 1890’s who professed the message as being for the here and now were “hounded down as disturbers of the peace, and as such imprisoned, killed and persecuted, and ridiculed as fools and visionaries.”
To consider the celebration of Christmas as a time of family reunions, as pleasant as that might be, was considered the height of perversion in Bellamy’s Boston of 2000. They instead felt the only true purpose for celebrating this birth was to open our eyes “to the practical meaning and perfect reasonableness of Christ’s social ethics.” Which, in the nineteenth century, would have led to the “instantaneous over-throw of the whole order of things, and the breaking into fragments of every human yoke.”
To emphasize their Utopian perspective, their celebration consisted only of a “world-round trumpet chorus” timed to the first sunbeam seen on the 25th in Bethlehem. The symbolism being that “the tie of universal human brotherhood, should have no moment that all mankind does not share in common.” Amazing.
Almost Looking Backwards The first time I almost read Looking Backwards was in the Summer of 1969. I was living in Cambridge, Mass., just across the Charles River from Boston. I was an outrageous Hippie with a pad on Massachusetts Ave, above a leather shop, directly across from the Harvard Widener Library. I say almost read because, with the likes of Jimmy Hendrix and Grace Slick playing in my head, nineteenth century prose was a little outclassed in terms of its attention getting potential. I was thinking of joining a commune in Vermont. After mentioning this to a friend, a librarian from across the street, I was asked if I had read Looking Backwards. Never heard of it. The next day I received the book as a gift. Over the next six months I browsed its pages. To be honest, I found it a bit creepy. While universal brotherhood and the equitable distribution of wealth were high on my list, the idea that it would come brought about through Technocracy was doubtful.
I do remember being impressed that they made their clothes from recyclable paper to eliminate the drudgery of washing and ironing. For me, it didn’t matter if this was a solution or just shifting the drudgery to workers making the clothes. What was significant was to think of a society that would consider the hardship caused to menial workers as a design factor. From the nineteenth century perspective, menial workers warranted no consideration because their condition was obviously the result of sloth or some other defect of character. They deserved minimal pay for their lack of diligence or intelligence.
There were many other features of this Utopia that frightened me. I was even frightened that Bellamy wasn’t frightened. I think this came from his assumption that the Golden Rule would always prevail. As an example, there was this intricate apparatus of mirrors and peepholes that allowed unseen officials of the benevolent National Party to observe everyone’s actions and make appropriate corrections. “Corrections?” Yeah, I bet! It didn’t take much to bring out the paranoia of hippies. We were so, for good reasons. Especially, if involved in anti-Vietnam War and mind-expanding activities. Being the first group of people to have intensely awakened from the amoral catalepsy of the 50’s, we were a clear and present danger to the State in just being fully alive!
I think about this whenever I remember to notice the 24 video cameras on the highways between my house in Portland and the State Capital. For Bellamy this is just necessary and proper use of techno-logy. I should feel heartened knowing that officials are watching my every move so that the instant my 12 year old car breaks down during rush hour traffic, a courteous ODOT worker will appear shortly handing me an almond mocha latté, double tall, topped with shaved Mexican chocolate before volunteering to look under my hood, free of charge. You know, the Golden Rule, and all.
Bellamy also thought the government’s system of “credit cards” was a great improvement over currency. Not only could benevolent overseers monitor all of your purchases for the purpose of replenishing inventories, but you could see how much of each item you were allotted to buy.
Alas, we have moved to Bellamy’s model, but what is wrong with this picture? For instance, once I made a purchase using a supermarket loyalty discount card. After getting all of 23¢ off a bottle of micro-brew, I received a coupon in the mail four days later for $1 off an overpriced can of salted nuts. The coupons arrived in an envelope with my full name on it including the incorrect middle initial I had deliberately entered on the application form to track the items I would be “allotted to buy.” What’s next? A bar code tattooed on our foreheads?
Numbingly Complete In order to make sure that everyone had access to the finest musicians without the expense of building grandiose auditoriums or travel to and from concerts, music was distributed via the telephone. As were the sermons of the greatest minister alive, who didn’t even have a physical church. I thought the image of everyone sitting in the privacy of their own rooms listening to music, hearing the great plays performed, and making all their contact with friends by phone, a lonely one. Especially, when compared with my life of weekly rock concerts, street theater protests, and joyous communal dinners in the parks. Going dancing and hanging out with other flower children was as important as the music itself. But Bellamy’s vision wasn’t half as bad as people today who get their music, go shopping, and only stay in touch with friends by email over the Internet. Where the surveillance is total, the deposits and debits instantaneous, and the isolation numbingly complete.
I don’t want to be seen as just another one of Bellamy’s detractors spewing forth the worn-out criticisms directed at any reformer who shakes the status quo. The value of Bellamy is not that he got it right but that he had the courage to envision a better future that included everyone. He took an unbearable mess and dreamed a solution of prosperity being universally shared. His biggest mistake was underestimating the moral corruption of entrenched interests and the degree to which they would go to distort the message of the Golden Rule to read “He who has the Gold, Rules.”
Without discounting the widespread brutality and duplicity of the nineteenth century, I believe Bellamy would be utterly appalled by the degree of insensitivity, control, subterfuge, and fantasy that reigns at the turn of this millennium. The rot is so pervasive, it can’t be confronted directly. Try doing so and it will swallow you whole. So what’s to be done? The first step is to avoid being overwhelmed. Do this by whatever means necessary. Then watch out for the trap of cynicism. It will only denigrate your own integrity and that of those striving to get free. Skip the paralysis of demanding perfection in your self and others. Resist running away. Resist having the methods of transformation chosen for you. And don’t postpone the vibrancy of your living until after the revolution. This is the Revolution! So have fun. Just look around. In the realm of Zero, Zero, it’s all hilarious. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
The Last Millennium In the last one thousand years, West-European civilization, where we get our myopic view of history, fell into Dark Ages. After a half dozen centuries the Merchants slit the ties that Kings claimed bound them to the Almighty. Tried a bit of democracy. Had second thoughts. Brought Royalty out of retirement to encourage Nationalism. Tapped Science to equip a horde of well-armed armies. Colonized the rest of the world to pay for it. A group of colonies, high on stealing a continent from the locals, wigged out and declared as the greatest good the pursuit of happiness. Dealt a blow to the vestiges of Monarchy. Made Corporations the new Kings. Unionists rose up and won meager concessions. Formed an alliance with captains of industry. Produced enough arms to take war global. Europeans started killing each other. Revolutions overthrew Empires. Americans got rich selling to all sides. At the last moment went Over There. Took credit. Discovered reconstruction after war was good for Business. The Rich got richer. Everyone invested in Stocks. The Bubble Burst. The Richer got even richer. Germany tried again. GIs won the War for Democracy. Returned victorious. US Military/Industrial coup d’état. Nobody noticed. Used TV to slit the ties that Citizens claimed bound them to Liberty. Fought the Cold War. Won. Fostered Illusion of being the only Super Power left tied to the Almighty and duty bound to remake all Nations in its own image.
The NEXT Against this Dreadful Worldview you and I are called to envision an entirely different means of transformation. If we just try to use the old method of forcing our wonderful solution on others, it will appear as abusive as the one forced upon us. As Henry Miller once said, If there is anything God-like about God it is that he dared to imagine everything. We are only called to imagine the Next Millennium. Beyond history. Beyond dogma. Beyond idiot compassion. Beyond the need for senseless revenge. And based on Zero, Zero—the Nothing that offers unbounded possibilities. For Free. May we not be late with our Vision.
William P. Benz is an Artist, Writer, and Poet living in North Portland. He Specializes in the Design of Information Filters, the Surfacing of Mental Models, and the Creative Reintegration of Defective WorldViews. For more info, visit his NEW WEB Space at http://www.aracnet.com/~wpbenz. Or send email.