Favored by misfortune

Our society is obsessed with status.  Thousands of movies, documentaries, and TV programs are dedicated to the billionaires, movie stars, and politicians we deem important.  They strive to answer what makes them great, how they reached such heights and places of power.

Some of them ascribe to to luck.  “Bill Gates was just in the right place at the right time.”  Some attribute it to innate ability.  “Marlon Brando was just born a great actor.”  A select few of these narratives choose to focus on hard work.  They emphasize the thousands of hours of diligence poured into their work.  They set them up as examples for the viewer to aspire to.  You too could be great, if you just work hard enough.

These narratives are always less than satisfying.  The audience is captivated by the idea of vast amounts of power, but they must continue on after it is over.  Everyone must go back to their average paying jobs and their unaccomplished friends when the weekend is done.  Greatness is too complex of a topic to be boiled down into a catch phrase.  All attempts to do so are doomed to fail before they even start.

One of the most noteworthy attempts in history to understand greatness comes from Renaissance Italy.  The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli was written as a study into what makes a leader gain and keep power. Its lessons have since been widely applied, to everything from business to warfare.

Born into 16th century Florence, he lived his entire life in an Italy dominated by political strife.  He begins off the treatise by directly addressing the ruler of Florence, calling for him to rise to an unmatched greatness.  Only then could he unite the warring states of Italy and bring peace to the land.  In the ensuing chapters, he describes, at great detail, how great rulers are made.  He cites both contemporary and ancient sources as role models and cautionary examples.

He deviates little from this formula throughout the entire book.  A notable exception comes towards the end.  There is a chapter that concerns itself with the good and bad luck princes must account for ruling.  Instead of citing history, he speaks in generalities and metaphors.

In this chapter, Machiavelli speaks of a force he calls fortuna.  Most English translation render it as the word “fortune”, but it has a much more profound meaning.  She is a force to be reckoned with.  She is one that brings both blessings and curses. No one is outside of her grasp. She happens to everyone, from peasant to king, though not all at once.  It is impossible when to predict when she will smile upon you or bring misery to your life.

Despite the fickle nature of fortune, he still finds meaning in it:

I compare fortune to one of those torrential rivers which, when enraged, inundates the lowlands, tears down trees and building, and washes out the land on one bank to deposit it on the other. Everyone flees before it; everyone yields to its assaults without being able to offer it any resistance. Even though it behaves this way, however, it does not mean that men cannot make provision during periods of calm by erecting levees and dikes to channel the rising waters when the come, or at least restrain their fury and reduce the danger.
The same may be said about fortune, which tends to show her strength where no resources are employed to check her. She turns her course toward those points where she knows there are no levees or dikes to restrain her.

Misfortune casts it shadow on all men at one point or another. It does not effect everyone the same though.  Those wise enough to prepare for hardship will be the ones affected least. The true virtue of a man is tested in these moments.  The ability to deal with adversity ultimately determines his position in life.  In times of plenty, there is enough for all to live on.  The strong only show their worth in the worst of times.

Modernity is a time of untold prosperity.  We see it in every obese person on welfare, every professor who raids the state’s funds with tenure, and every time an apology is demanded for hurting someone’s feelings.  These people have never known starvation, never experienced war, or put their life on the line.  It takes only a modicum of effort to provide for the basics of life today.  The further we proceed into modernity, the more this weakness shall rule.

Machiavelli offers this chapter as a warning. Anyone who depends on the great fortune of today will be the first to fall when misfortune hits.  All glory is fleeting.  A decadent society that does not prepare for the future is no different.  It too will crumble at the first sign of true crisis.

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Broken wasteland

Ask anybody what the problem with modern cinema is.  More than likely, you will encounter the notion that “too many sequels are getting made”.  Not enough new ideas are put into scripts.  Hollywood simply raids the past to create the blockbusters of the present.

It’s a formula that often works well.  They simply take a film that was made 30-odd years ago, update it with new slang, a new setting, and the latest computer generated film techniques. It makes for a successful product.  People flock to the theaters in droves, pay far too much for a ticket, and sit in dumbstruck awe for an hour and half.   All for something they have seen a million times before.

Both the audience and the filmmakers what a farce this is.  They are pure waste of an artistic effort.  Yet, we still go see them and they continue to make them.  Everyone is guilty. The unspoken truth behind mass media is that nobody actually cares about the merit of the output.  The producers only care about how much money a film will make.  The cinema goers only care about wasting a few hours at some place other than their depressing homes or apartments.

These films get made simply because most people are, at heart, cowards.  We gather around the dining table or the living room and despair.  We know we should be doing something together.  However, it can’t be something that actually takes effort.  Attempting to do something meaningful is always hit or miss.  We’d much rather choose an activity where little effort.  If it turns out badly, at least we didn’t really try too hard.

This often means choose something that everyone will like.  Nobody should be offended by what is put in front of us.  They might blame us for that.  Instead, we appeal to the lowest common denominator.  A film that might require thought might upset somebody.

This often takes the form of some shared cultural relic from days past.  Filmmakers must go back to a time when popular culture meant something to everyone, since it no longer does today.  The past is our last refuge for understanding each other.  Remakes and sequels are powerful for this reason. They carry prior expectations of greatness by the culture that created them.

As modernity marches onwards, popular culture will continue to degrade. Not until it reaches previously unknowable levels of idiocy will it ever get better.  Only when things start of fall apart do we see the meaning in creating something new.  The adage “if something isn’t broke, don’t fix it” holds true, even for things as vapid as Hollywood movies.  It is only when confronted with the rampant desolation of something completely broken does true change happen.   Patching the holes in a sinking boat only extend the suffering of the desperate passengers aboard.

The road to hell

August 9th, 1945.  A date as good as any to signify the start of the modern era.  It was the day the first nuclear weapon was used on a civilian population.  An entire city razed in the blink of an eye.  Thousands of lives snuffed out faster than it takes for someone to flip on a light switch.

The true tragedy of the atomic bomb does not lie in its potential for mass destruction.  Cities have been wiped off the face of the earth since time immemorial.  Women and children have  always been casualty of war.  The a-bomb is terrifying simply because of how efficient it is.

It once took legions of highly trained and motivated soldiers to destroy a city.  It would take days to spread the destruction with fire, put all those who opposed it to the sword, and round up everyone else in chains to be sold into slavery.  With the invention of nukes, a single man in a solitary plane became an unmatched killing machine.  He became a one man army who takes no prisoners and spares no wounded.

A nuke is the most modern of all weapons.  It’s the McDonald’s of bombs.  It brought the fast food mentality to warfare.  Grand in scale and deadly in its efficiency, it is simply the fastest way to fight a war. It removes human error and human weakness from war.  It does not matter whether he vaporizes a saint or a sinner.  Its only concern is that all is destroyed.

Since that day in 1945, the threat of global nuclear holocaust has loomed over the world.  Each and every person in modernity has it hanging over their head like a radioactive Sword of Damocles.  In an effort to ensure the safety of their own citizens, other nations started to acquire nuclear weapons. It had the opposite effect on the world at large.  The fear of annihilation only grew stronger.

Fear of global nuclear winter reached an all time high in the ensuing decades.  The two world super powers of the era constantly had to prepare for countless end-of-the-world scenarios.  Eventually, they both concluded the only sane policy for this new kind of warfare was one of mutually assured destruction.  It led both to stockpile a countless number of weapons that could incinerate the world many times over. All in the effort to deter the other side from ever using one.

In an act of supreme cosmological irony, not a single one of these weapons has ever been used.  The most sophisticated, powerful, and costly weapons ever made were created for peace.  They sit dormant in a missile silos and submarines all around the world.  Their only purpose is to rust away into obsolescence.

The psychology behind this farce is a symptom of the modern mind.  Nobody wants to live in a world that can spontaneously combust at the whim of a tyrant.  Yet, once nuclear technology was out of the bag, it could develop in no other way.

This mentality can be found in any undesirable development of the modern world.  Nobody likes living in a world were they have to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour.  It takes most people hours after a long day at work just to get home.  Any sane person would prefer to be able to walk to their job.  Before cars, almost everyone did.

Cars started out as a luxury item.  It was a fad for the rich alone.  It was merely a status symbol.  However, as the technology became cheaper and more reliable, the benefits of owning a car were plain to see.  Within the span of a generation, car ownership shot through the roof.  It transformed itself from a novelty into a necessity.

Cities changed to accommodate this new development.  As cars flooded the streets, the infrastructure need to be updated. Old buildings were demolished to make way for expansive freeways. As commuting by a car became the new normal, valued any other mode of transportation. It soon became impractical to walk, ride bicycles, or ride the train in many cities.

The voluntary of the past becomes mandatory of the future.  When the majority adapt a new technology, it becomes the path of least resistance for everyone else.  Each bit of progress seems beneficial to the individual but it ultimately backfires when it becomes adopted en masse. Modernity is the tragedy of commons on the grandest scale.

Prophets of doom

Modernity is obsessed with its own destruction. It loves to create solutions to problems that don’t exist.  Everyone over 25 remembers the hype the Y2K bug unleashed.  For most of the 1990s, popular culture was obsessed with it.  The idea that a simple computer bug that had the potential to destroy the world as we know it was far too tantalizing.  From this, multitudes of apocalyptic visions sprang forth. At the stroke of midnight it would cause widespread general mayhem.  It could wipe out bank accounts and trigger massive looting.  Defense systems could malfunction and cause a nuclear holocaust.  A world wide effort went under way to stop the unthinkable.  Hundreds of billions of dollars went into preventing it.

Sane voices downplaying the mass panic were ignored.  Conspiracy theorists took it as their own and ran wild with doomsday scenarios.  Local news broadcasts exploited the hysteria.  They would run a broadcast on it every couple of weeks.  Large corporations made public proclamations that they were 100% compliant in an effort to assuage their customers’ fears.  Several companies sprang up over night and offered floppy disks and CDs to check for affected systems.  They spread among the general populace like a cure for the plague.

The year 2000 came and went. No major crisis happened.  Every day life remained unaffected.  Today, it is nothing more than a joke people can reminisce about.  It’s the kind of thing someone brings up when conversation goes stale at bad parties.  A collective cringe of embarrassment arises whenever the three letter acronym is mentioned.  At best a it will be greeted nervous chuckle and shrugged off.

It was a blessing this hysteria had a time limit.  The new millennium offered a crucible for the crisis.  Either it ended at the stroke of midnight or we were all safe from it forever.  Most conjured catastrophes do not offer this luxury.

Modernity is replete with crises that offer no end in sight.  Modern man still gobbles them up just the same.  People want to believe that the world can end with a flip of a bit or a push of a button.  The root cause of the popularity of these apocalyptic visions is still deep within the modern psyche.  It is a desire for escape through destruction.

Every ideology has its own version of Armageddon.  Each are surprisingly creative and elaborate.  The man who values the environment above all else preaches about global warming.  It will kill us all in just a few short years unless we stop the pollution now.  Economic doomsayers will yell about the impending collapse of global trade until they are blue in the face.  Those concerned about the degeneration of our immortal souls will warn of the ascendence of Satan on judgement day.  It will bring damnation and eternal hellfire to all sinners.

It’s an effective tactic for getting a message out.  It plays into the base fears that everyone holds dear.  Each scenario promises utopia.  The only problem is that people are evil. If only we could get our act together, eternal paradise would be ours.

Despite all of our sins, we have eluded doomsday so far.  The four horsemen seem to be taking it easy. Nuclear catastrophes, massive oil spills, and global wars threaten the world every day. Life still goes on. No matter how hard he strains his bindings, the fenris wolf remains tightly bound.

Yet, there is truth behind these wild fantasies.  Every beginning has an end.  Brutus was right when he killed Caesar.  Rome was destroyed when it became an empire.  He could see that Caesar was setting the republic on a dangerous path from the very moment he crossed the Rubicon.  His only misstep was the length of his foresight.  Instead of immediate collapse, it took another 400 years before the end of his nation would come to pass.

As a consequence, his actions were unnecessarily drastic and, ultimately, all in vain. Brutus could not prevent the fall of Rome with the death of one man.  He soon met the same fate of he dealt to Caesar.  After being hounded by those who would avenge their slain emperor, he paid for his foolishness with a dishonorable suicide.  A just cause with a noble intent can lead to death as surely as the most vile deeds.

No one act can reverse the sweeping causes behind the course of history.  Societies rise through many actions of prudence and justice.  Societies fall through a multitude of immoral and shortsighted deeds.  Trends, fads, and crazes all fade with time.  Reality eventually comes for them all.  The most lasting change a man can enact is to be wise and just with each action he takes.  The best weapon against the insanity of the modern world is a life lived well.