Jun 15

Aquarius – A Sinister Reinterpretation of the 1960s

The NBC show Aquarius, which also streams on Hulu, starring David Duchovny as a throwback style Los Angeles police detective in the late 1960s, is notable for its retro style and period authenticity, including speech, background, dress and music. However, it's also a notable piece of propaganda and revisionist history, especially regarding the counterculture. Specifically, the way it implies that notorious cult leader Charles Manson was an influential, archetypal countercultural or hippie figure of that period.

Charles Manson: Counterculture Icon or Fringe Cult Leader?

The 60s counterculture was a complicated mixture of elements that incorporated many positive and not-so-positive elements. Yet , amidst all the chaos of this period, Aquarius chooses none other than Charles Manson to be the embodiment of the late 60s scene - someone whose notoriety is perhaps only surpassed by Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and a few other bloodthirsty dictators.

In truth, Manson and his “family” were a relatively insignificant cult on the fringes of society. Manson had some dozen hardcore followers at the peak of his influence. Yet in Aquarius, most of the hippies portrayed are Manson followers. This is an interesting way to distort reality without actually lying outright -something the mass media is quite adept at.

Someone too young to remember the 60s or who hasn't studied the period at all -a significant portion of any TV audience, considering the show is set almost 50 years ago- could easily conclude that Manson was a cultural icon rather than a bizarre cult leader with some dozen or so followers. Whatever you might think about people such as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and many other true countercultural figures, at least they had widespread influence.

Even if you think the whole counterculture movement was frivolous, decadent or a communist/Illuminati conspiracy, it's still a stretch to equate the average hippie with a Manson follower. Especially since Manson, until his infamous crimes at least, was practically unknown outside of his small inner circle. Yet Aquarius all but dubs him the Prince of the Counterculture.

The show actually makes this explicit at one point when someone wants to film a documentary of Manson and his group (the show is set some two years before the Manson murders) The filmmaker praises Manson as someone who has brought together many elements of the modern countercultural scene; I'm paraphrasing, but that was the essence of the message.

Aquarius manages to sweep many things under the twisted umbrella of Manson's little cult. We hear Manson expounding on mystical sounding philosophy, watch his followers taking LSD and praising ideals such as sexual freedom and freeing your mind. What's troubling is that these are things that millions of people were doing and saying in the 60s and yet here it's all being equated with the ravings of a psychotic murderer.

Even the show's name and tagline -Aquarius- using an image with a peace sign inside the “Q” and the words “Murder. Mayhem. Manson” tell a story of their own. The so-called Age of Aquarius,a long with the peace sign, is being equated with violence.

Only the most extreme cultural conservatives would put the average hippie or even radical on the same moral footing as Manson and his followers. And the show does not explicitly try to push this point of view. But the subtext is there all the same. There are no hippies on college campuses, in Golden Gate Park or anywhere else -except in Manson's compound. Considering that only a minority of viewers have direct knowledge of this period, this is quite a message to be broadcasting, even indirectly.

Justifying Police Brutality

The news has recently been full of cases where cops have beaten or even killed unarmed suspects. While the focus has mostly been on young black men, it is by no means confined to this. For example, in one case, cops beat an unarmed homeless white man to death; in other case it was an unarmed mentally disabled white woman. The perponderance of cases, however, have indeed involved blacks. While public opinion is, as always, divided on law and order type issues, there has been a definite decline in the overall public perception of police as benevolent protectors. If one were to be conspiracy-minded, one could wonder if part of the motivation for creating Aquarius was to justify brutal police tactics.

Duchovny's Detetive Hodiak is a hard drinking, bad-tempered cop who is free with his fists. Hardly unique or original for TV/movie cops, but in this series there are a few twists. Since its the 60s, the cops are given more leeway to ignore suspects' rights. There is even a scene where Hodiak sarcastically wonders if he really needs to tell someone his rights after arresting him.

In one especially violent scene, Hodiak brutally beats Charles Manson within inches of his life. This is in itself a fairly clever piece of propaganda. Everyone knows what (the real) Manson ended up doing, so it's hard to feel sorry for him. So the show manages to slip in a scene of raw brutality that is retroactively justified by history. This is the kind of slippery slope dealt with in the film Minority Report, where suspects are arrested based on what they will do in the future.

Manson is far from the only suspect brutalized by Hodiak, who is portrayed as a flawed but essentially decent human being -for example, he loves his son and even tries to prevent him from going to jail when he deserts from the army. The casual way that TV and movies justify police violence is fairly pervasive and commonly seen on shows like Law & Order. Yet Aquarius notches it up, subtly or not so subtly suggesting that if cops are not violent, people like Charles Manson are unleashed on society.

Subverting the Psychedelic Revival?

A somewhat more controversial, but equally relevant critique of Aquarius has to do with the way it portrays drugs, especially LSD. We are currently in a time when anti-marijuana laws are being repealed. Less widely reported has been the resurgence of serious experimentation regarding  psychedelics for medical and therapeutic use. Yet in Aquarius, once again, it's Manson and his misguided followers who are seen as the priests of psychedelia. There is also a scene where Hodiak is “dosed” and has a rather unpleasant trip.

Psychedelics is a vast topic that goes way beyond people simply using “drugs” (many psychedelics are actually plants, such as mushrooms and cacti). Many serious researchers, from Aldhous Huxley in Doors to Perception to Stanislov Grof, have pointed out how taking such substances in the right environment can lead to personal growth, healing and spirtual understanding.

Yet all Aquarius can give us is the most simplistic, reactionary view of psychedelics, reducing them to tools used by evil cultists to control young minds. The obvious message here is that drugs are bad. The even more insidious subtext is that it's dangerous to open your mind and explore alternative states of being.

 What is the Show's Underlying Message?

The point I'm trying to make here is not that Aquarius is a carefully planned, devious plot to discredit everything the 1960s counterculture stood for. It's not quite that extreme. There are a few shades of gray that prevent it from being a total piece of reactionary propaganda. There is the character of Hodiak's son, a soldier who deserts and wants to publicize atrocities commited by the U.S. The Black Panthers are even portrayed with some sympathy. But hippies are portrayed as misguided youth who are, at best, easy prey for a manipulative evil genius such as Manson.

This isn't to say that everything about hippies and the counterculture were positive. Far from it. But the flaws and vices exhibited by this subculture were, for the most part, trivial compared to what Manson represents. Yet Aquarius, either deliberately or through ignorance, fails to make this distinction. By implication, the show pushes the typical reactionary message -straight society may be dismal, corrupt and violent, but the alternative is far worse.

May 15

Aquarius: An Establishment Response to Anti-police Sentiments?

I have only seen the first two episodes of the new NBC show Aquarius (though I watch on Hulu streaming) but I already sense an agenda or two. I wonder if the motivation for this show has something to do with all of the recent publicity about police killings, especially of young black men. With so much anti-police sentiment in the media and on the streets, perhaps they thought it was time to remind everyone why we need ruthless cops who don't have much regard for civil rights.

Aquarius stars David Duchovny as a streetwise cop who doesn't play by the rules (in other words, exactly like 99% of all TV and movie cops) who is investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl who has gotten mixed up with Charles Manson, of all people.

From the episodes I've seen, I would tentatively suggest that this show has two significant subtexts running through it:

1. Charles Manson and his followers were the most iconic and representative figures of the late 1960s. This might sound ridiculous, but remember that fewer and fewer people alive today actually remember this period. There have long been conspiracy theories that Manson was a fabrication of the Establishment in order to discredit the hippy movement. That's unlikely, but it's all too easy to paint a revisionist picture of that era and make it look like Manson and his ilk were highly influential countercultural icons, rather than a single fringe cult.

2. Society needs brutal cops who routinely assault suspects and arrest people falsely for the supposed greater good. This is actually a theme that is pervasive in most cop shows, such as Law & Order. The cops may be obnoxious and a little scary, but if we reign them in, thugs, gangs, psychopaths and even Charles Manson will overrun the world.

This may be a simplistic and slightly paranoid analysis of what may be nothing more than another mediocre cop show with a historical gimmick, but those messages seem pretty clear in the episodes I've seen so far. And the timing does coincide with lots of street demonstrations against the police.

Note: I have since written a more thorough review of the show which expands upon some of these points.

Apr 15

Scientology: A Deserving But Easy Target

With the documentary Going Clear, we are seeing the latest expose of Scientology.

This HBO documentary is based on a book by Lawrence Wright, also called Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. What I find interesting about Scientology is not that it’s such a bizarre cult, but that it’s sort of a symbol for belief systems that are fairly prevalent in the world.

Popular scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson alluded to what I’m talking about, though in a very limited way, in his recent remarks:

Christians have no right to call Scientologists Crazy

As many atheists like to point out, all religions can be considered irrational, so why single out groups like Scientology or the Moonies as being weird cults?

The real issue, however, goes far deeper -and it’s revealed right in the subtitle of the aforementioned book:

“The prison of belief.”

All rigid belief systems can be considered mental or psychological prisons. This includes: religions, political dogmas (Marxism to neo-conservatism to Objectivism), nationalism (why is one country better than another?), racism, sexism, etc.

Even contemporary scientific materialism can be put into this category. if we consider what has been described as scientific or rational over the ages, we can see how dramatically this shifts from one era to another. The age of quantum physics has actually undermined some of our most basic assumptions about time, space and matter.

How Quantum Physics Refutes Materialism

When it comes down to it, many aspects of society -all societies, in fact- have cultoid tendencies. It’s easy to point the finger at an unpopular group like Scientology (I’m not defending them by any means) -but it’s harder to take a look at some of our own assumptions.

In short, the idea that one “ism” is more rational or less of a “belief prison” than another is entirely subjective.

Cultlike groups like Scientology actually serve a purpose that serves mainstream institutions (in a way similar to how terrorists and violent criminals do so) by showing us how bizarre alternatives are. I think we can learn a great deal by studying books and films like Going Clear -but only if we study them in a broad manner and recognize that brainwashing and mindless conformity occur at many levels of society, not only in "cults."

For more on this topic see:


Mar 15

East Village Selfies: Another Excuse for Moral Outrage

As the New York Post (that anachronistic Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid that’s somehow still in print) reports with typical journalistic objectivity “self-absorbed jerks” have been taking selfies at the site of the recent gas explosion in the East Village. Bloggers and tweeters predictably reacted with outrage. One commentator proclaimed “Everything that is wrong with NYC summed up in one photo.”

If there’s one thing that people seem to like even more than taking mindless selfies, it’s self-righteously condemning others for inappropriate behavior. Whether it’s tasteless Ebola Halloween costumes, some random politically incorrect comment made by a politician or celebrity, there is an almost ritualistic need to sacrifice a certain number of victims each week, mostly on the internet. What's the appeal? For one thing, it’s a form of groupthink that affirms the moral and/or intellectual superiority of the group. It also creates scapegoats who can be blamed for all of society’s ills -as in the above comment about one photo summing up everything that is wrong with NY.

Ironically, we could just as easily say that comments like that sum up so much that is wrong with people today. I'm not saying that taking these selfies was an intelligent or sensitive thing to do -but what difference does it really make? People who take photos when they could be helping someone in need is one thing; taking photos once the damage has been done is really not fundamentally different from what the media does every day.

There is no need to defend the takers of tasteless selfies to question whether it’s truly reasonable to vilify such questionable but trivial behavior to quite such an extent. Selfies are hardly a well thought out political statement; they are trivial, spur of the moment actions.

Of course, tabloid journalism has always engaged in this sort of rhetoric. New York Post headlines, of course, notorious for being ridiculously biased and over the top. What could be more ironic than a tabloid newspaper condemning others for being insensitive to the victims of tragedy?

Some commentators were astute enough to point out that it doesn’t really make sense to single out people taking inappropriate selfies when we live in a society that revels in and glorifies disasters and misfortune. Take, for example, the 9/11 Museum and Gift Shop, which sells souvenirs based on that national tragedy.

Mar 15

Russell Brand: Messiah Complex

Russell Brand is continuing the tradition of radical, visionary comics -the closest analogy is probably Bill Hicks -whose performances are at least as much social commentary as humor. This is his London show from 2013: Messiah Complex. If the YouTube video gets taken down, the show is currently on Netflix streaming as well.

This show is an irreverent look at several of Brand's heroes -Gandhi, Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Jesus (as he points out, the real one, not the Roman/neo-conservative version) and how he, Russell Brand is actually similar to them in some ways. On a more serious note, he deconstructs the banality of contemporary pop culture -while admitting he's undeniably a part of it.

I found the show more thought provoking than laugh out loud funny, but still one of the best stand up performances I've seen in a while.

Feb 15

"Sir" and "Ma'am" -Not So Quaint Vestiges of Feudalism

2711566140_a6c53328e8_z                                                                        Image by photon_de

“Calling me Sir is like putting an elevator in an outhouse. It don’t belong” -spoken by the character named Emmett in the 1989 cult classic film Road House.

Sir: a man entitled to be addressed as sir —used as a title before the given name of a knight or baronet and formerly sometimes before the given name of a priest.
Origin: Middle English, from sire; First Known Use: 13th century
From: Merriam Webster


As the above etymology explains, the word "sir" comes from a medieval French word. Feudal European societies were extremely hierarchical; titles and rank were part of everyday interactions that no one questioned. In England, the tradition lives on with the enduring institution of knighthood. While the title of Knight is not taken as seriously as it was seven centuries ago, it remains a respectful homage to the old tradition.

The same, of course goes for “ma’am,” a variation on the French “madame,” the counterpart to “monsieur.” “Mister” is another variation on this. All of these forms of address date back to the days of lords, ladies, knights and serfs. In the ostensibly more casual United States, there are still some hierarchies, such as the military, where addressing those of higher rank as "Sir" is compulsory. The real question is, why is this title still used in everyday, casual discourse? Why is a customer waiting on line to buy a mochachino addressed in the manner appropriate to a medieval lord?

Of course, it’s common in modern society for people to have a nostalgic reverence for the days of old, which can be seen in Renaissance fairs and the countless books and films romanticizing Medieval times. This makes it easy to forget that the strict hierarchies of those times (which actually harken back to even older eras, such as Rome) did not provide the vast majority of people with a life that was very glamorous or romantic.

Titles such as "Sir" and “Ma’am” (along with their European counterparts) are something of an anomaly in an otherwise informal cultural climate. Their most common usage today is probably in the business context, such as in retail businesses. It’s ostensibly a sign of respect to address customers or clients in this manner.

However, looking at it from the other side of the counter, so to speak --that is, from the standpoint of people who feel compelled to say "Sir" and "Ma'am" to strangers all day long- is it not a little demeaning and, quite literally, suggestive of lower social rank relative to those they are addressing? It's worth noting that service jobs are among the fastest growing sector of the economy, at least in the United States. This suggests the possibility that the continued use of such formal titles represents a subtle acknowledgment that the days of a hierarchical, feudal society are far from gone.

We can distinguish two types of usage. In one case, when you are trying to get the attention of an adult whose name you don't know, there is not really any socially acceptable alternative. For example, "Sir, you forgot your change." The other type of usage is where it is perfectly obvious who is being addressed, yet the speaker feels it necessary to put in superfluous "Sirs.” or “Ma’ams.” This type of obsequiousness is common at restaurants, hotels and other situations where formality is called for.

This is also the way people in authority, such as police officers, will address civilians in everyday circumstances (i.e. when they aren’t arresting or shouting commands at someone). Significantly, there isn’t all that much middle ground between “Sir, please step out the automobile” and “On the ground with your hands behind your head!” Titles such as “Sir” and “Ma’am,” we can see, inhabit that realm of politeness in a world where the alternative is often coercion, if not violence.

There is yet another angle from which to approach this. "Sir" and “Ma’am” convey something other than respect —they also denote boundaries. Not only a boundary of rank, but of familiarity. The person you are addressing as "Sir" may or may not be of a higher rank than you, but he is almost certainly a stranger, someone outside one’s social circle or subculture.

Thus, you are especially likely to be “Sirred” or “Ma’amed” by people from closely knit cultures not your own -which could mean people from another land or even a tightly knit small town in your own country. In such cases,  these titles, apart from any polite respect they convey, are also reminders that your are not a local or one of them. In other words, formal means of address can be a form of cliquishness, a way to exclude outsiders.

In an increasingly anonymous world, be called "Sir" or “Ma’am” can also contribute to the general sense of anomie. In some science fiction dystopias, people don't have names but numbers. Yet numbers are at least unique; if you were to be addressed by your social security number, for example, that would at least be a unique number. "Sir” or “Ma’am,” on the other hand, are completely generic. Is this really superior?
If this vestige from feudalism has managed to survive and flourish into the 21st Century, it does not seem likely that it's going to disappear anytime soon. If we are going to evolve beyond them, viable alternatives are needed. After all, you have to call someone whose name you don't know something. There are alternatives, of course, but none are ideal. Somehow, there are more potential options for men, at least in relatively informal circumstances.

“Dude,” “Guy,” Brother” or even just “Man’ are commonly used, though all would be considered too informal or slangy for business. For women, even these options are sketchier. “Sister” is sometimes used, though this tends to be associated with the nunnery (more than “brother” is associated with monks; if anything, it conjures up images of the depression and “Brother, can you spare a dime?”) In black and hippy subcultures, “Brother” and “Sister” and even “Mama” are sometimes used.

Conversely, there is really no circumstance where you can address a woman who is stranger as “Hey, Woman,” the way you can get away with saying “Hey, Man…” The dearth of alternatives is really another topic, though. The real point of this inquiry is to examine the persistence of such anachronistic manners of address in modern society. As any linguist or anthropologist can attest to, words matter. If we are still addressing each other in blatantly hierarchical ways, that says something fundamental about society.

It might be easier to simply pass off “sir" and “ma’am” as nothing more than words that people have continued to use out of habit for lack of widely accepted alternatives. Yet it would be naive to dismiss the feudal associations, especially when we are living in a time when the national economy in the U.S. (as well as the UK, which uses similar forms of address) is becoming more feudal in terms of wealth distribution, income inequality and the rapid growth of the service sector relative to other types of jobs. In other words, the lack of evolution in our language can be seen as a symptom of similar stagnation in society at large.

Feb 15

Reclaiming Spiritual Symbols

An important and enlightening article, by Angela Priitchard, published in Waking Times:

Reclaiming the Spiritual Symbols that Have Been Hijacked and Used Against Us

It’s true that many esoteric symbols have been hijacked for dark and manipulative purposes. One outcome of this is that many “truthers,” conspiracy theorists and others have concluded that these symbols are intrinsically dark.

Symbols such as the cross, swastika, all-seeing eye, pentagram and many others have many meanings and uses -both positive and negative. To simply categorize a symbol as negative (or even as positive) is misleading and simplistic.

David Icke, for example, who I think makes some very good points in some of his teachings, tends to go overboard at identifying “Illuminati” symbols such as the Goddess -which, it is often pointed out, is portrayed in The Statue of Liberty, the Starbucks logo and countless other places. Even the sun itself can be considered an Illuminati symbol, as many conspiracy sites are quick to point out.

A more intelligent way to see this is that symbols have a certain power. So it’s natural that anyone seeking power -for whatever purpose- would try to make use of them. To equate the symbol with the intentions of any particular group who uses them, however, is a serious mistake. It would be akin to reading a book full of hatred and propaganda and concluding “books and words are the tools of the dark forces. We must never use words!”

The major drawback to this approach is that it means relinquishing all of these symbols and allowing them to be used for dark and manipulative purposes. Wouldn’t it be better to reclaim them and use them for our own positive and liberating purposes?

Read the rest of this entry »

Feb 15

Liminal Worlds

Thanks for stopping by. If you ever visited this site before, you may notice it looks different and a lot emptier. I recently switched hosts and decided to revamp the site so it will be gradually getting built up again.