The Wheel Of Fortune

By Eric Le Roy

Content 18+ It is great to see such dynamic and articulate stuff on ThinkMyTime lately, as furnished by my long-time esteemed colleague Artem and a gentleman who introduced himself as ‘Anderson’. Both produced stimulating ideas that I would like to respond to.

First, Mr. Anderson. To start with, I agree totally with this excerpt from his italicized opening:

“You see, the notion that we have progressed beyond the barbarism of our ancestors is a comforting lie, a digital wool pulled over our eyes by the architects of this grand illusion. We have not escaped the chains of old; we have merely traded iron for the illusion of choice, the physical shackles for the invisible bonds of economic servitude.”

Personally, I have long believed that modern ‘civilization’ is mostly an illusion. In fact, I think that the late social commentator-comedian George Carlin got it right in his general theme that we humans take ourselves way too seriously in the cosmic scope of things. For what it’s worth, I am knocking on the door of 75 years now, and I have seen ‘perfect storm’ type changes brought on by technology (which we only pretend that we know how to handle) but at the same time virtually (no pun intended) LITTLE EVIDENCE of any real change in human character.

As always, there are good guys and bad and a vociferous thundering herd in between, but the only difference I see is that these pretenders have become more sophisticated in marketing themselves. New labels on the bottles and cans but the same crap inside, and that goes especially for the mountain stream water and organic food crowd. I see little difference between veganism and yoga on the one hand and voodooism and alchemy on the other. It’s all a desperate attempt at magic by clueless people. Maybe that’s too rough and a bit unfair. I admire people who take what they do seriously, and some of the meditators are really trying –I’ll give them that. For most, it’s just a fad – a bunch of weekend Buddhists and horseshit astrologers.

As for ‘choices’, we all know that 100 flavors of ice cream leave people no happier than the old threesome of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla. Sexual freedom has produced wondrous gratification and momentous liberty in terms of fetishism, but I see no signs that the well-fucked are any happier in life than anyone else. Money buys, above all, separation from people you don’t like – and, I admit, that is a bonus.

Etc. Etc.

So Anderson is right: it’s the same old fantasy-flavored grind. However, the author is mostly preoccupied with the evils of capitalistic corporations. In this he has a very sympathetic audience in me; but I am not qualified to comment on his idea that we are nothing more than computational algorithms wandering around in some parallel-universe parking lot in cyberspace. Maybe we are and maybe we are not. Since technology, AI, and virtual reality took over our lives, a great deal of attention has been paid to the possibility that maybe we are all nothing more than characters in some intergalactic goliath’s computer game.

Why not? And so what? What does it change if we are? There was a grand old comedy series in England called “Fawlty Towers.” At one point the character of Basil Fawlty (played by the manic John Cleese) says incredulously – and in tempestuous frustration – to Sybil, his plain-speaking wife who has just shot down his upper class pretensions: “Maybe I am dreaming??” Whereupon he bangs his head mightily against the wall and then cries, “No, I am not dreaming!!!” Reality check, get it? And because it hurts his noggin, it proves, in Basil’s mind anyway, the old Descartes theory: “I think, therefore, I am.” Well, as it turns out – maybe. The difference I see between the past and the present is this: in the past, the answers were Yes AND No. In the present, they are Yes OR No.

So maybe indeed it’s as simple as that we are nothing more than ambulating figurines hopping about on a teensy gleaming atom of a world in the unshackled endlessness of space. Maybe we just, by some amazing accident, grew up out of the water and plants, evolved into homo sapiens, and lo and behold, here we are, yep, big as life, fucking up everything we touch. You know, I sometimes ask myself how it can be that on this tiny speck of a planet there is so much pain? Back when they used to torture guys on the rack – when God was in the next room – did the stars hear the screams? Is this screaming, sobbing planet all alone? Wouldn’t surprise me either way.

Freedom. It’s a word – a concept if you will – that everyone thinks they support but few seem to grasp. For one thing, total existential freedom would be the worst nightmare you could wish for. If you want to see the closest thing to this in action, just pause a moment and study the homeless hobo slouching in front of the metro station, drunk out of his mind even when he is ‘sober’. That is existential freedom. He has no one waiting for him: no job, wife, child, dog, cat. Nothing. No responsibilities. He can go as far as his legs will carry him and he feels no obligation to file his nails or smell good. He is free.

Great huh? The rest of us willingly trade, not just our time for money (although we do) but we also swap absolute freedom for the bonds of meaningful obligation. Think about it: most of us who toil in the world of thoroughfares and cubicles and are trying to complete a task or two before sundown think we would rather be free to sleep, surf, or slip away – but in fact we embrace our ‘manacles’, pulling them more tightly against our limbs, because our little boxes give us the only meaning we have.

As I tell my students, the splendid tennis matches and absorbing games of chess and the great art, indeed everything that has so far given meaning to the human race, has been accomplished due to set limits and boundaries, NOT by anarchy: tennis has nets, chess has 64 squares, language is expressed best simply, succinctly, and precisely, and death gives meaning to life. If we never had to die, we could spend the next million years drunk on our asses and then go to law school. As it is, we love, we decide things, we try to make some sense of it all, and then we stare at the face of death and wonder why – ALL because of limitations.

In the wake of this, I agree with Andersen’s conclusion:

“To recognize the simulation for what it is, to see the strings that guide us and learn to pull them ourselves, may be the closest approximation of freedom we can achieve.”

Well done, Mr. Anderson.

As for Artem, the interesting question to me is his argument on how we should be paid for our labors, and what currency should define our stake and our take. As with Anderson, I enjoyed the ‘historical’ approach he chose, walking us through the ‘time is money’ concept (in essence). But I would argue that it’s always been more complicated if we look at it from a sociological standpoint.

In short, the poor people – those of a custom to perform only menial tasks– used to be rewarded with a roof over their heads and a cabbage or two (feudalism) while the Vassals thrived, and still today all you have to do is walk around Moscow and see ‘gastarbeiters’ (legal or not) digging ditches, shoveling snow, or lugging stuff around on building sites, or stroll through a strip mall in Jacksonville, Florida, where people are on time-clocks for McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Church’s Fried Chicken, and you will see that not much has really changed – which takes me back to my earlier point that ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. As the writer of Sapiens, Yuval Harari, put it (to paraphrase); the history books tell the story of only 10% of the populations of human history, while the other 90% were anonymously carrying buckets of water.

On the other hand, the big money makers get paid for their skill and knowledge. For example, in America, doctors and lawyers have always made the big bucks. Why? Well, one could argue the following: What is more important to you than your health and your ‘freedom’? And the answer is Nothing. So the doctor keeps you alive and the lawyer keeps you out of jail. Cha-Ching. Athletes get paid more money than you can count for being able to knock someone out cold or score touchdowns. Pop singers can have a single hit and live off it for years if it doesn’t go into their arms or up their nose. Using a personal example, I have recently discovered a British singer called Jessie J who has been around for a long time, unbeknownst to me. I heard one of her songs, called ‘Price Tag’ and now I can’t get it out of my head. So now I know a lot about who Jessie J is. Would I pay to hear her sing? Of course. Would I pay to hear a university lecture by a Nobel Prize winner in Physics? Nope, not unless he walked in while I just happened to be sitting there.

Moral of the story is this: we are paid, NOT because of the good we do for society – if that were true then the real worth of bus drivers and garbage collectors would be most highly remunerated – but because of what society thinks we are worth. And since we increasingly live in a service industry related culture, then it’s the entertainers who get the massive moolah. The pop singer’s pipes, the porn star’s pecker, the Super Model’s perfect (fake) countenance born of cosmetic surgery. Most of it sucks, but we pay and pay. Doesn’t matter how many hours they put in: it’s the result that counts. If you have a brain scan, how much are you prepared to pay the doctor who interprets the results and tells you if you have a malignant tumor there or not? The same as you pay the cab driver for driving you to the airport? Didn’t think so although it probably took you a hell of a lot longer to get to the Departure Lounge than for Dr Sawbones to gaze at a chart.

Finally, let’s look at Artem’s idea that maybe teachers should be paid for results only. That is, if the kid passes the exam with flying colors, the teacher gets a raise; if not, he is shown the door. Hey, I am all for Meritocracy. In fact, all other ‘-ocracies’ and ‘isms’ having been tried, I say, just pay me for what I can do to help you. Write novels to show you how bad things really are or unclog your toilet before your daughter’s coming out debutante party – pay me what I’m worth to you. In such a world, the ball player, the dentist, the prostitute and the professional hitman all have a role to play.

And, Artem, try teaching a kid who isn’t willing to try. Of course, you make an effort. But, just to give you an example, some of my online students will switch off their cameras during the lesson. And I know why. They are fiddling around messaging or playing games, and they know I can’t see them. Thus they think they have hornswoggled me, but often I can hear them clacking away on their keyboards. So I will call them by name to get their attention. “Jason! JASON! J.A.S.O.N?????

And sure enough the little bugger will come back with “What (the hell do you want)?” – so of course I will have to repeat the goddamned question. In fact I even shout it precisely: “What is the answer to Number 6, goddamn it?” So I keep trying.

But you know what? Sometimes when I am in a particularly indifferent mood, I just start scrolling down my messages and Facebook junk – for kicks. I have even been known to watch entire boxing matches (famous old bouts) while my little scholars fiddled around in their own virtual reality. And I still get paid. Yet if the kid is really trying to learn, I give it all that I’ve got – and then some. It just depends: Teach ME how to treat YOU. That’s what I always say. What do you always say, Artem? In your job, they work you to death. I know that’s true. Fair or Unfair?

As for the pedagogy profession, the saying goes, “When the student is ready, a teacher will appear.”

In the meantime I would invite you, Artem, to visit a typical American school classroom, in the city especially. After 30 minutes with those wonderfucks, you’ll be ready to sign up for a long tour in the Russian army. American teachers are often lucky just to get out of the building alive. I’m not shitting you either. Guns have been known to find their way into American schools. So Pay the teacher.

Finally, we have the world – this world – and the condensed time allotted us. Are we free? No, we are not, but we must pretend to be. Act like the girl you met at the bus stop that rainy Tuesday out of the blue and married and had kids with was the Child of Destiny and not just a random encounter, someone who could have been anyone. Tell yourself that the great advice, accumulated after painful years in the acquisition, will really help your slumbering young student.

Sometimes, it works. Sometimes the actor plays the part so well that he or she becomes the part. Sometimes the dancer and the dance are indistinguishable. That, after all, is why we keep trying, right? And that’s the answer to the existentialist philosopher, Sartre, I believe, who said that the first big decision we must make is whether to kill ourselves or not.

I choose the course that Dylan Thomas wrote about in “Fern Hill” :

“Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

So I say Keep on Pushing. Collect your Wages. Practice Sanity.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.