Myth & Governance

“Radicals always see things in terms that are too simple—black and white, good and evil, them and us. By addressing complex matters in that way, they rip open a passage for chaos.” — Frank Herbert

Well, there goes half the readership, heh?

But chaos is not necessarily a bad thing, is it? ACT/UP founders will agree, since chaos was their organizing principle. As for HRC and GLAAD, well, they used to acknowledge the benefits of some well-directed chaos, but that was before they became entren—established.

The presence of radicals is an ironically-eternal thing, so it seems. Radicals are always vilified by some, always praised by some, always recognized by everyone. But when radicals become somehow the norm, are they still radical? If a radical fell in the forest, would s/he make a protest?

While the presence of radicals in society—indeed, the need for them—is a given, what happens when radicals become common instead of rare?

“Sign O’ the Times, mess with your mind”, as Prince once sang. The sign of the times is Time. Or rather, Timespans..

Our lives, for many of us, have become pearls of moments, lined up and not even strung together. Paul Bowles, famous writer/composer/novelist, once posited that we are all spheres, touching only at the smallest point possible, no overlap.

What a dreary man! And presumptive. His personal experiences do not necessarily scale well to all humanity, and therein lies his flaw, my flaw, our flaw: we presume that our experiences are of similar caliber and magnitude to the Possible. Or at least the Probable.

Our universes collapse to the Known. Like some sad, silly Star Trek episode, the collapse can become literal. We become colloquial, provincial and parochial. All of us San Franciscans suffer a signficant dose of this with respect to The City (See what I mean?), but even that’s not particular enough for many of us. The Castro. The Bars. The Scene.

We also rein in Time. Our lifespan, this decade, this year, all the way down to our favorite view of time: the Eternal Now.

So there we have it: Right Now, In The Scene. The right-sized pond where we can be the right-sized fish. The Moment.

Such a posture does have its advantages. The Moment is where the magic happens, where the dream of being alive gets dreamt. The Moment is limitless, because there is no Later. The Moment cannot be bothered with After because Time was not invited to the circuit party. The tediousness of the cause-and-effect world is avoided—and there’s reason enough to have a Moment, yes?

Whither downsides? Do we speak of them? Often not, but this is a consequence (there, I said it) of no practice with cause-and-effect.

Accomplishment. What can we possibly build when we must discard one Moment in order to live another Moment? Building. What can we rely on when we fail to build anything at all? Reliance. What kinds of friendships can exist if we cannot rely on anyone? Friendship. Can we have community if our friendships are merely acquaintances? Community. How can we agree about the world without it? Agreement. Where is our sense of place if there is no shared context? Sense of Place. Time is a place, too.

Time. There’s really no escaping it, is there? Perhaps, though, there is value in Continuity. Sense of Place. Agreement. Community. Friendship. Reliance. Building.

Accomplishment.

For the Moment-surfers, Time spent out of the Moment is time spent looking for the next Moment; little else happens except to support the dreaming, to spark the magic.

This is how we often define freedom: the right to be a Moment-seeker. We play by the rules of Pursuit. The rules of the Individual. We value Self above all. Inalienable rights, and all that dogmatic bluster.

Not the fault of our Founders, really. Did they know we’d take this individuality business and run with it? Probably they considered the Pursuit of Happiness only to be a good start.

Arguably, it’s the only start upon which can be built a mythology the scope of AmericaOneNationUnderGod. Certainly they never believed that such a powerhouse of an idea could be realized within their lifetimes, but they started well. Most importantly, they reserved the right to change their minds if times demanded it.

But do we maintain—and exercise—the right to change our minds? Too often, who we are is defined by what we do. (Enter Radicals—stage Left) So, of course, change abrades our sense of self.

The Founders were myth-makers in the sense that they created new truths. Their mistake was encoding these new truths in a constitution. And so America, The Concept survives, but as an ossified document, a parchment banner under which sins of letter undermine ideals of spirit.

Where are our new truths? Myth-making is serious business. It is the weaving of individual dreams into a conspiracy that makes its own reality. It is about heading off into new territories, not disputing existing ones. Art is not about coloring between the lines or drawing the turkey with your hand.

“Subvert the Dominant Paradigm”, the Radical bumper-sticker reads. But what happens when the chasing dog catches up to the bumper? Does it know what to do with the car once it catches it?

Shouldn’t we adopt the longer-term view? Things that occur in timespans considered short by mammals do not scale well to grander schemes, yet we rely on short term solutions to shape our supposed big picture goals.

So I say we begin with our hallowed Eternal Now. We too have started well, but we must find the confidence to change our minds and still preserve our sense of self while avoiding the entrenched dogma of codified forms.

And we must remember our Moments so they don’t escape us unexploited.

“ …Government is a shared myth. When the myth dies, the government dies.” — Frank Herbert

[An abridged version of this article appeared as an op-ed piece in FrontiersSF approximately one year ago.]