Some books demand slower reading than others. Ed Curtin’s new book is such a case. But then this assemblage of essays, many published elsewhere, is a corrective to the growing intoxication with technology, with the surveillance and the policing it is being used for, and to what Jonathan Crary wrote about in 24/7, a world where an artificial speed (or hurriedness) is layered over daily life: “Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism.” A corrective to the de-humanizing assault of capitalism.
This is a book that draws attention to what Curtin references (via James Douglass) as the *unspeakable* — the US capitalist order of crimes, from assassination to the continuing assault on the poor and marginalized. It is appropriate that the first chapter begins with a quote from Harold Pinter’s Noble Prize speech.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them.”
This book is the unpacking of the delusion ridden world of contemporary America. And running through the pages of Curtin’s book is the metaphor of plague. Of course today is barely metaphorical at all. And so, the symbol carries even more resonance.
In that same first chapter Curtin writes…
One of the first things an authoritarian governing elite must do is to convince people that they are not free. This process has been ongoing for at least forty years. After the Church Committee’s revelations about the CIA in the mid-seventies, including its mind-control programs that left everyone appalled at the epiphany, a different tactic was added.
Now we have “experts,” social, psychological, and biological “scientists,” who repeat ad infinitum that there is no longer any mind control since we now know there is no mind; it is an illusion, and the residence of all intellect is the brain.
This is a particularly astute paragraph. And it dovetails with much of my recent writing. The trend toward mechanistic, instrumental, and technologically modeled versions and explanations of reality is now not just the received wisdom, but it is increasingly etched in stone, and not to be questioned.
We have been interminably told that our lives revolve around our brains (our bodies) and that the answers to our problems lie in more brain research, drugs, genetic testing, etc. It is not coincidental that the US government declared the 1990s the decade of brain research, followed up with 2000-2010 as the decade of the behavior project, and our present decade being devoted to mapping the brain and artificial intelligence, organized by the Office of Science and Technology Project and more significantly, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The current Covid kabuki spectacle is testimony to the truth of what Curtain is describing, and to the long range implications for this sort of thinking. The human as a machine, and this delusion is reflected in Hollywood nearly every week.
In our current dystopia the appeal of being a robot in the making must have a great appeal, a promise to an end of humanness — something that currently feels as if it only brings pain and suffering with it.
In another related piece the poet Galway Kinnell is quoted from a poem titled “The Fundamental Project of Technology”:
To de-animalize human mentality, to purge it of obsolete,
evolutionary characteristics, in particular of death,
which foreknowledge terrorizes the content of skulls with,
is the fundamental project of technology;
There is a chapter devoted to the disappearance of silence in our modern world. A chapter devoted to the spiritual properties of the pencil. These are wonderful and beautiful reflections. (Most poets and playwrights I know have an almost fetishistic connection to the pencil so I was glad to see it given such a full treatment.) In this sense, Curtin is a bit like America’s Gaston Bachelard.
Curtin catalogues the madness all around us, from the lies surrounding 9/11 to the lies sedimented in seventy years of deceit regarding the JFK assassination. He touches on current bits of grotesque charade, such as the appointment of Gina Haspel to head the CIA…
Thinking here in Rome of the Haspel vote, I am reminded of the “ratlines” organized by ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles and long-time Chief of Counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton.
These were escape routes for Nazi and fascist killers and torturers, so many of whom were brought to the United States and other countries after World War II through Italy to help the newly formed CIA torture the truth out of detainees and assassinate opponents.
Our post September 11 torture is nothing new. Is this what Haspel meant by “American values”? Many victims would attest to that.
Curtin is, in the best sense, a public intellectual. In many respects his work reminds me of everyone from Gore Vidal to Garry Wills to the writers of old Partisan Review.
Russell Jacoby wrote “we face the rise of a new intellectual class using a new scholasticism accessible only to the mandarins, who have turned their back on public life and letters.” And he added “The danger is that we have entered the era of one-stop thinking and instant commenting.”
One recognizes just how denuded the intellectual landscape really is when one is nostalgic about Edmund Wilson. Ed Curtin is a throwback in that sense, and I mean that as a compliment. But I also see Curtin as a voice not divorced from writers like James Baldwin.
Over the last, say, four decades the professionalization of opinion is in the hands of *influencers* and not really thinkers. And I see this all the time. People on social media will literally blather away in gibberish, heatedly debating topics about which they quite literally know nothing.
Curtin is also angry. And the anodyne professional academic is allergic to anger. So this is a wonderful antidote to the usual TED talk circuit.
There is a timely piece on NBA star Kevin Love and his admission to struggling with anxiety. Curtin makes this into a rather profound meditation on American masculinity.
Perhaps my favorite chapter, though, is devoted to Hillary Clinton.
Following the bidding of her oligarchic backers in the hidden government, she has always been fervently eager to lend her immoral authority to the massacre of foreign peoples and the destruction of their central governments. Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Serbia, etc. — the list is as long as her moral turpitude is deep.
But as the Queen of Heartless is crowned and feted in the City of Brotherly Love, it is crucially important that we recall her role five years ago in the destruction of the African country that had the highest living standard on the continent, excellent health care, free education, good social services, etc. — Libya.
It is, along with Diana Johnstone’s full-length study of the psychopathic former secretary of state, the best portrait of this quintessentially American ghoul, and the suffering to be laid at her feet.
She was fully aware of developments in Libya from the start; knew that the rebels were Islamic militants armed and trained by the U.S., Britain, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE; knew that they summarily executed anyone they considered their enemies; knew that this war of lies was aimed at preventing Gaddafi from fulfilling his goal of economic independence, not just for Libya, but for the entire continent of Africa by introducing the gold dinar into Africa as common currency; knew, in short, that Libya had to be raped, its Central Bank destroyed, for its exploitation by western globalists.
Thus her boss, Obama, in August 2011, confiscated $30 billion from Libya’s Central Bank that Gaddafi had planned to use for the establishment of the African IMF and African Central Bank. This is what Clinton termed “smart power at its best.” Under the pretext of “humanitarian intervention,” Clinton supported the killing of tens of thousands and the destruction of an independent country to serve her masters.
Paolo Sensini characterizes the Democratic presidential nominee perfectly: ‘Mrs. Clinton’s joyous exclamation on hearing the news of Gaddafi’s death sums up the recklessness and irresponsibility of an entire political class—an unrepentant class that has wreaked havoc around the world on a truly unprecedented scale’.
Ed Curtin is also a man who cares about culture. This is increasingly rare. I don’t even agree with all of his tastes (Terrance Malick for example) but I certainly appreciate there is someone out there writing about this stuff. I am happy to read someone WITH taste…especially when writing from a place of erudition and seriousness.
There is an excellent piece on Frank Serpico. A piece that also forensically takes apart the troubling implications of modern manhood in the West. There are essays on the cell phone and on suicide. On cyberspace and on the CIA. And Curtin draws on sources as diverse as Norman O. Brown, Gaston Bachelard, Lewis Carroll, Albert Camus, Rollo May, Marcuse and D.H. Lawrence.
There is a splendid valentine to Bob Dylan, too. Most of all, and in nearly every piece, there is Curtin’s distillation of contemporary experience under the aegis of our new dystopia.
Speed and panic go hand-in-hand in today’s fabricated world of engineered emergencies and digital alerts. “We have no time” is today’s mantra — “We are running out of time” — and while this mood of urgency has come to grip most people’s minds, deep thinking about why this is so and who benefits is in short supply. I believe most people sense this to be true but don’t know how to extract themselves from the addictive nature of speed long enough to grasp how deeply they have been propagandized, and why.
This is a rare and uplifting book despite the litany of catastrophes Curtin addresses. Curtin is always clear that the problem is Capitalism, in the short form. The dissolution of the USSR created the hole in intellectual energy that has been filled with a suffocating banality and marketed coercion.
The spiritual herein is the kind only those who reject institutional religion can provide. And I believe this book is so valuable because of the love Curtin has for genuine art and radical thought. Culture matters in these pages, and that is something increasingly rare today.
It is not possible to recommend this book highly enough.