Monthly Archives: December 2006

Merry Christmas Everyone

Here’s my all-time favorite Christmas classic. I hope that all my readers have a safe and happy Christmas.

~MU!R

An Andrew Muir Christmas

I find that there is a common theme in most Christmas stories: they ultimately lead characters to an understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. Some people would argue that this is becoming more and more important in light of the continuing commodification of Christmas. For this reason, I have decided to tell my own Christmas story, in the hopes that it will help you to think of your own special attachment to the holidays. It’s called “An Andrew Muir Christmas.”

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Because planet Earth revolves on an axis, our climate is such that we have seasonal weather. When the Sun is at the furthest possible distance from either of the equatorial planes, we call this a “solstice.” There is both a summer solstice and a winter solstice, and they occur at different times of the year depending on which hemisphere of the Earth you happen to be in. But, as it just so happens, the Roman Empire was situated in the Northern Hemisphere, and our culture therefore celebrates their winter solstice in late December.

Christmas, ironically, began roughly 300 years before the birth of Christ. It was called “Saturnalia” and it was an annual celebration of the winter harvest leading up to the winter solstice – the god Saturn preceded Jesus as the focus of the celebration (Saturn the Roman god of harvest and agriculture.)  

The 500 years that followed would see a lot of drastic changes in the Roman Empire, perhaps most notably the rise of Christianity. It began as a small group of Apostles rallied people to follow the belief that a man named Jesus Christ had been born to a virgin mother, and that he had subsequently been crucified for claiming to be the son of God. While there will never be any first-hand accounts of what really happened (or precisely when), there are several documents that make claims about the birth, life and death of a man named Jesus Christ.

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Neither the Bible nor the New Testament actually claim that the specific date of the birth of Christ as December 25th. It was written by man named Sextus Julius Africanus in a text called “Chronograpiai” dating at AD 221. While it remains unclear whether or not this date is substantiated by any evidence, the tides of history would ultimately see this date universally accepted as the birth-date of Jesus Christ.

Several centuries rolled by, and Christianty continued to permeate through the Roman Empire. After much bloodshed, social change and political unrest, Rome was officially declared a Christian empire by Theodosius in AD 389. An entire empire of Pagan farmers had been converted to Christianity. The problem was that Rome already had it’s own rituals and traditions that had been around since long before Christ; traditions such as Saturnalia.

Though nobody can say for certain, there are some historians who argue that December 25th served as nothing more than a convenient date to assign the birth of Christ, because Pagan people already celebrated Saturnalia during that time. Over the decades, and over the centuries, the original reason for celebration was obscured by an ever increasing presence of Christianity. Ultimately, the name Saturnalia was forgotten as the clerical bureaucracies of Christianity either outlawed or assimilated Pagan traditions into Christian hegemony.

Though the reasons for celebration have changed throughout the centuries, it is interesting to note that many of the specific rituals have persisted, even to this day. The Christmas tree, for example, was a sacred symbol a Germanic holiday called “Yule,” which coincided with Saturnalia in Rome. The tradition of family feasting has remained consistently attached to the celebration. In fact, the Romans were the first to wear funny paper hats during the feast.

So then, what can we learn from some of the examples in history? It seems obvious to me: Christmas (or Saturnalia/Yule) has changed a lot over the centuries due to several historical forces. It has evolved much like anything else. It is interesting, then, to consider what Christmas has become today.

Many of the traditions that we observe now have very little to do with the birth and nativity of Jesus Christ. While Christians still defend it as a primarily Christian holiday, the fact remains that it is celebrated widely by non-Christians. We can thus conclude that Christmas, while still a religious holiday for many, is also a celebration of something else entirely. And as anybody who has been to a shopping mall lately can attest, it is absolutely a celebration of consumption.

The rise of the consumer society and the rise of Santa Claus have a similar history, beginning most notable in the Industrial Revolution. Santa is a mythical figure who evolved much like Christmas itself, combining the iconography of Christian sainthood with Scandinavian folklore in the early 1800s. Santa Claus did not become a common house-hold name until well into the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Santa was subsequently iconized in the 20th century by the early advertising giants in America, perhaps most famously by the Coca-Cola company, who are often attributed with popularizing many of the fundamental rituals associated with Santa Claus today. The Coca-Cola Santa Claus continues still to this day as the most idyllic contemporary representation of Santa.

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And that has been the story of Christmas for ourcentury: commidifaction. Since the 1800s, our society has converted to consumerism in much the same way Rome converted to Christianity. As such, Saturnalia has undergone yet another phase of interpretation. Now it is a time when we celebrate consumption under the guise of a “gift giving” ritual. Many of you will surely have noticed that the icons of Christmas are relentlessly exploited to sell nearly everyproduct imaginable during Christmas time, and I think that is precisely the point. What does a car have to do with Christmas? Nothing at all, unless you live in the consumer society – then the car is coated with fake snow, wrapped in gift-wrap and strung-up with Christmas lights – and then, as if by magic, it becomes a potential gift. Some might say that Christmas ceases to be special – it’s just like every other day. A gift becomes just another meaningless artifact stimulated by the perpetuation of social rituals designed to fuel hysteric consumption.

Well it might surprise you to know that I don’t necessarily agree with that. I mean, I think it’s true but I don’t think it makes Christmas any less of a celebration. My reasoning is simple, and it all has to do with Saturnalia. This little story I’ve told does have a point.

You see, the true meaning of Christmas is that there IS no true meaning of Christmas – it simply is not about any one thing. I mean, if you really think about it, people just need a reason to celebrate. Winter is a good time for families to get together and reflect on the past year. 2000 years ago, people celebrated a year of work in the field by drinking to the harvest. Well, most of us don’t work on fields today we work in office buildings, restaurants and movie-theaters. We have wages instead, and so we celebrate by using our wages to buy things we like.

The rituals of Christmas don’t change, because the ritual of celebration is human, and nothing more. We’ve been celebrating the birth of Christ for 2000 years because our society is evolved from a Christian empire… but before that we celebrated Saturn, and before that we celebrated Dionysus. I really don’t care what deity you have ended up believing in, or what era of history you’re born into, or how you earn a living – we all gotta celebrate because it’s just human, and humans like to celebrate by eating lots of things, hanging out by the fire, having nice things, spending time with friends & family, and being merry.

Here is another one of my all-time favorite Christmas classics:

The Slums of the Future

A lot of people say that urbanism will be the big issue of the 21st century. I believe that is absolutely true. But I never thought in my lifetime that suburbia would become the slums of the future. The more I think about it, the more plausible it seems. It has proven time and time again to be a failed experiment in a number of ways. This is how I understand it:

1) Sub-urbanization began in the 1920’s as a series of out-of-city housing experiments for the upper classes. After the economic boom enjoyed by America during the Second World War, this new kind of urbanism became affordable to the growing middle-class. And so it went, that people began moving out of the cities, and began buying cookie cutter homes. The project of suburbia began, quite innocently, as a reification of the American dream. Material wealth for the every-man… a bright optimistic future filled with wondrous technology and every convenience imaginable.

2) Nowadays, our attitude is a mix of nostalgia and mockery. The dream of 1950s America now seems comical, simply because we have experienced suburbia, and we recognize that it in no way resembles a perfect country lifestyle. People living in suburbia often feel socially isolated, and tend to have difficulty situating themselves both within mass-society and their immediate local culture. We are all familiar with the peculiar ailments that arise out of this bizarre brand of social disillusionment. The prospect of ‘comfortable country-living’ has clearly become widely recognized as a lost-cause. With Wal-Marts and McDonalds springing up every weekend, suburbia increasingly resembles just another auxiliary district of the modern industrial city – forfeiting the dreams of picturesque community, and ultimately betraying the promise of comfortable family living.

3) After decades of living in suburbia, it has become clear that urban sprawl puts tremendous strain on resources. The cost of building and maintaining the supporting suburban infrastructure is not feasible in the long-term. Valuable agricultural land is increasingly used for low-density residential development as suburbia spreads outwards instead of building upwards. We still archaically divide ourselves in small municipalities with local bodies of government, but ultimately suburbia does not sustain itself. It does little of its own farming or production. As the decades rolled by, suburbia relinquished itself unremittingly to the forces of globalization, increasing the degree of interdependency on other nations – even on other continents. Very little of what we have was created by us, and as such we leave ourselves completely vulnerable in the face of political uncertainty, dwindling resources and expensive energy.

4) Increasing distances between residential and commercial is resulting in utterly impractical modes of transit. The automobile is quickly creeping up an an era of un-affordability and impracticality. Though it is deeply embedded in the American consciousness, and emblematic of the post WWII American Dream, alternative methods of personal transportation must be negotiated. As concerns over climate change escalate, the suburban consumer life-style is inevitably called into question as being a primary contributor to the irreversible alteration of the Earth’s delicate weather cycle, and the primary motivating force behind the continuing destruction of the Earth’s natural environment.

5) Because no economic motivation exists to inform the public on the energy crisis, the mainstream media does not often address the issue. The popular media at this point has evolved into little more than a vehicle by which industry can propagate the over-arching ideas and attitudes that perpetuate the consumption habits necessary for economic stability. Concern over the impending energy crisis or environmental catastrophe does not factor into the stimulation of economic growth. Thus, the popular media utlimately acts to distract suburbia from the glaringly impossibility of continuing the suburban lifestyle. Even when it becomes clear that their nation has openly and willingly invaded sovereign nations in order to procure and control oil supplies, people in suburbia persistently detached themselves from international turmoil. The adminstration, by dressing it up with the passionate ideologues of war, good & evil, freedom, terrorism and democratiziation, succeed in convincing people that illegal invasion and occupation is justifiable. Because of the popular media’s well-honed ability to distort reality and create potent cultural myths, few people will ever make the connection that what they see on the 6 oclock news is what makes their dinner possible. That is why para-military groups such as Al-Qaeda are determined to bring suffering to an otherwise sheltered American public.

6) Inherently fueled by economic growth and mass consumption, the suburban lifestyle will face fundamental challenges as energy prices go up. Because the suburban life-style is so deeply entrenched into our collective consciousness, few will be able to accept the kind of social and economic changes that will be necessary in order for the population to remain fed and sheltered. Fears begin to grow in the hearts and minds of people living in the suburbs. Coupled with already existing economic chaos and uncertainty, planet Earth is plunged headlong into a global economic recession.

— I believe this is our future, likely to occur withing the next 5-10 years. But from here, there are two possible alternatives. I don’t know which will happen. It all depends on how much faith you have in mankind. I’m often torn. —

Scenario A) In the wake of social chaos, power shortages, increased crime and the disappearance of the food-transport infrastructure, people in the suburbs stop going to work and alocate all their efforts towards daily survival. Once this threshold is crossed, democratic government no longer exerts any meaningful power over its people. Police units and organized crime, having access to weapons, fracture and then re-aggregate into local power-houses. Life in suburbia resembles life in the Middle-East, with little political stability, a high poverty-rate and frequent outbreaks of urban warfare. As communication networks disintegrate, nationhood ceases to be anything more than an imaginary community. The city-state is re-enstated as the primary political unit on Earth. People all around the city begin tearing up pavement in order to revive agriculture. I call this “Neo-Feudalism.” Some people will become refugees, wandering the land and re-colonizing as they go.

Decades will go by with much global turmoil. But from the ashes, a new generation will be born. This generation will have never lived in suburbia, will have never played a PS3, and will never had ridden in a car. They will be raised in a farmhouse, and kept warm by the fireside in the evening while their grandparents tell them stories about “traffic jams” and “coffee shops.”

If you look at trends in history, and what happens when empires get too big… then it becomes obvious that this scenario goes with the pattern. To be quite honest, sometimes it keeps me up at night. But there is hope.

Scenario B) In the wake of chaos, uncertainty and desperation, people get to know their neighbors. At the grassroots level, people begin re-organizing themselves into their own communities of families, friends and neighbors. With a common aim of community development and sustainability, people begin accepting change and rediscovering agriculture instead of vainly fighting over the table-scraps of the suburban lifestlye. As people re-invent urbanism to suit a world without cheap energy, a new kind of community emerges that looks much the way it has throughout much of the most idyllic parts of human history. Agriculture is sustained by innovation and a strong work-ethic. People break down borders of class and begin addressing strangers as if they were family. United by a common goal, local communities will flourish once again, leaving the concrete infrastructure of suburbia as a constant reminder of the naive mistakes of the past.

In this scenario, mankind continues without fear, and evades a lot of tragedy. However, without a doubt both scenarios will involve human loss on a global scale. After all, nature must correct itself if she has gone astray.

In the end, we will have learned a valuable lesson: mankind is not meant to sprawl.

The New Urbanism

We all live with a very convenient illusion constantly playing in our heads… that the lives we have now will continue into the future. Because we and our parents and their parents have all grown up in Suburbia, we simply accept it as our way of life… just as children growing up in a village accept THAT as their way of life.

Everyone has something hidden in the back of their minds… everyone wonders what’s gonna happen when oil goes up. Few people take the time to go beyond wondering. But I prospose to you, dear reader… look around your town and try to imagine what it would look like if it went 3 months without electricity.

Now imagine 10 years. Does it look the same? What’s different about it? Who’s in charge? How do you feed yourself? What do you do during the day?

If you spend long enough imagining the future, the answer becomes clear: your town will have to grow its own food, work together, and establish its own means of governance. Law will have to enforced locally, markets will have to be stocked locally, people will have to be housed together, cold areas will be no-longer habital year-round, and shopping malls will become town centers. No more computers, or recorded music, or television, or radio, or refridgerator, no car, and no heat. Welcome to 2009.

Automobiles will line the streets, not budging for generations.

You see, in a world without oil, people will eventually just resort to abandoning their cars where they lie. They will have no choice! And there they will probably stay for years and years to come. They might be converted into something, or torn apart for tools and scraps, but the basic frame will still remain here and there, dotting the landscape; monuments for the Age of Suburbia.

China is no longer a 24-hour flight. China is a distant land where few have travelled. There are a few elders who have flown on ‘air-planes’ but their numbers are dwindling with each passing year.

It will probably only take 1 new generation until children can no longer remember Suburbia as a way of life at all. I mean, who among us actually knows what the first industrial revolution felt like?  One thing is for sure… we can’t imagine how people lived like that. The sprawl of suburbia will likely be taught in a small school-house as “A golden age, where man recieved what was promised him, but he never became satisfied.” Open fire keeping both teacher and children warm.

We will see an age where railroad tracks are used as pedestrian walkways into the city. But nobody is allowed into the heart of the city, unless you’re of a very high-class, like a Mayor, or a Grand Marshall of your city’s local military. As the surrounding sprawl awkwardly tries to revive agriculture in the area, organized crime will maintain order by controlling the flow of goods and the exploitation of labor. Democracy falters, autocracy prevails. Life on Earth looks exactly like it did for the past several thousand years. And we will be considered the most foolish generation on Earth for actually believing that it was going to last for our whole lifetime. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you know this to be the truth.

Sleep well readers!

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed

Yesterday was December 8th. As some of my older readers might know, I write a post about John Lennon every time this date rolls around. That is because on December 8th 1980, outside of John Lennon’s apartment, a disturbed mental patient dropped into a military firing stance, shouted “Mr. Lennon” and shot him 5 times in the chest for no reason. Lennon died of severe blood loss on his way to the hospital. When the doorman yelled “What have you done?!” the man sat cross-legged, smiled and replied “I shot John Lennon.”

I could write about what a tragic waste it was… but then again, isn’t all death? I could go on about how the world lost a great genius and an amazing artist, but such people are often lost. Instead of lamenting the death of a Beatle, I choose instead to mourn the death of a man… because even though he had come to symbolize so much to society, in the end he was just a man. As people have martyred and deified him over the years, I think Lennon’s philosophy has ultimately been lost on them, for it is precisely this martyrdom and deification that Lennon so resolutely abhorred.

I don’t miss John Lennon, because I never knew him. I don’t think he is a hero because he died young. I think he’s a hero because he spoke his mind with honesty and integrity, and because his voice sounds awesome in Sgt Pepper.

RIP

Oh! Squishy Drug Factory; What Is Your Command?

I think that there are 9 categories of people, and that every category of people has a drug of choice:

1) Jackasses – Alcohol

2) Intellectuals – THC

3) Partiers – Ecstasy

4) Idiots – Heroine

5) Creative Geniuses – Acid

6) Drug Dealers – Cocaine

7) Children – Glucose

8) Celebrities – Meth   

9) The rest of us – Caffeine

In fact, anything and everything you experience is just some kind of drug trip. Consciousness is just a particular kind of chemical balance… throw it off one way the other and you get a totally different kind of consciousness. And you don’t need external stimuli – your body is a drug factory. Ever wonder why eating when you’re hungry feels good? Or why scratching an itch is so damn satisfying?! Cause your brain drugs you for doing something right.

Pavlov’s salivating dog: you are the human psyche. Imagine an ongoing micro-biological stimulus/response system… that’s your mind (according to modern medical science). I think that’s how addiction works… the response comes to expect the stimulus. Humans are, after all, engineered for adaptation to their environment.

Bizarre how the human body, which is normally so perfectly programmed for human existence, fails us in this regard: we are somehow attracted to poisons. In fact, the more poison we expose ourselves to, the more our bodies crave it. What purpose does that serve? Drugs pose quite the dilemma to humanity. But what ARE drugs exactly?

Did you ever hear about people being addicted to computer solitaire? Apparently some people play it so much that they feel bad whenever they’re not playing it. “Solitaire junkies” as I call them, prove that our concept of “drug” is still limited to a narrow view that addiction neccessarily demands extrenal physical stimulus! Just think, if your brain can get addicted to moving those little cards around that bright green monitor, then your brain can get addicted to ANYHING!

So then, what else might addiction be a word for? Some might say that emotions are nothing more than different expressions of different kinds of addictions: addiction to a feeling, addiction to a persons facial patterns, addiction to a certain song… like a perpetual tug-of-war between your many impulses. When we as people mutually recognize the similar effects of a particular kind of chemical balance, then we give it a name like “anger” or “sadness.” Thus the concept of ’emotion’ is born. We all share in the experience, but each of us has our own unique neurological cocktail, and thus our own understanding of these emotions. It’s really all just a big mess.

Ugh, but it hurts my head to think about this stuff any more tonight. I sometimes find myself having a very cold view of things. That will not do! I must save myself from this unhealthy obsession with hair-brained science! I think I’m just going crazy from all the uncertainty going on lately. I should really just focus on what matters: video games.