The album Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens will always be part of my spirit. I was thirteen in 1970 when my older brother brought it home. He was always my window to the world of music. We had a big box of a stereo console that sat in the living room, with a sliding top that revealed the drop style LP player underneath. The speakers were built in, and it was a fine cabinet of wood veneers and polish. This was the family’s center of the new stereophonic universe.
I was in the next room when my brother played his latest gem. When the first note emanated from the speakers, I was hooked. And as was the recurring habit of my day, I took possession of the LP and played it repeatedly with the jacket in my hands, following along and singing with the lyrics printed on the back cover. It didn’t take long for me to know every word and every musical nuance like an old friend. The spirit and the sentiment of the music spoke to my soul.
And then I grew up. You can’t spend your days on the couch listening to music forever. One day I read that Cat Stevens had converted to Islam and was now known as Yusuf Islam. It struck me as odd at the time. Not in a judgmental way, but in a veil of curiosity. Why had this kindred spirit wandered there? On the surface, it wasn’t that unusual. The Beatles had introduced us to Ravi Shanker and the Concert for Bangladesh. There had been lots of cross-cultural traffic in the seventies. Cassius Clay was now Muhammad Ali. I was familiar with of the writings of Kahil Gilbran, which had been introduced to me by a friend. For the most part, I knew nothing of Islam, and I know very little still.
The next time Islam entered my comfortable world was when I was in college, and the students had taken hostages at the American embassy in Iran. In the political turmoil of the time, I remember telling one of my professors that the students were not going to hurt the hostages. He looked at me quizzically, an expression I had never seem before on his wise face before. “I don’t know why,” I said, “but that is not what this about. They want to talk to us.” Looking back, I can now see it was not that much different than the sit-ins on college campuses to protest the Vietnam War, but since it was an international sit-in, and they took hostages, it had global consequences.
Enter Salman Rushdie. The Iranian revolution is complete. The fundamentalists have usurped the students’ lame protest, as they had planned. The US supported evil regime has been replaced by another evil of their own making. (Do you see any sad Orwellian parallels here? You should.) And who should support the desire to have Salman Rushdie’s head handed to him? Why, it’s none other than my kindred spirit, Yusuf Islam. How could that be? He must have lost his mind.
I am hardly paying attention. The tide of Muslim rage is cresting around the world, but I am comfortable in mine. The news is a series of catastrophic events, there is little analysis anywhere in mainstream public media, but I have no fears. We always battle evil, never anything or anyone that is simply different. Once a battle is engaged, listening stops. The victor will proclaim the lesson to be learned.
9/11 arrives. Everyone busies themselves, including me, with flags of patriotic solidarity. But I can’t get my mind off of Mohammed Atta. The Pious One is how Osama bin Laden described him. Is this my soulmate, Cat Stevens? How could we be so far apart? He is not Patty Hearst. He was not kidnapped and traumatized. He was successful, recognized and praised. I know he values the same things I do, with the same revolutionary idealism as the students in Iran and in the 60’s. Beyond the stupid political choice to choose aggression instead of non-violence, what is this well of frustration and where does it springs from? What, exactly, are Muslims angry about? It is not just Osama and al Qaeda, but the students and the man on the Arab street feel the same way. What is this festering sore, that is now over twenty-five years old?
When we look in the mirror, what do we see? Are we the Queen in Snow White? Do we refuse to see ourselves as we really are? How do the Muslims see us?
More time passes. I’ve never read the Satanic Verses. What about it was so controversial, I wonder? One night I do a web search. I discover that Salman is a man of two worlds, both Arab and Western. He occupies the middle ground in critical thinking between religion and science. He is the Islamic equivalent of Voltaire. He is trying to bring The Age of Reason to that religion in the same way that Voltaire challenged Christianity and Catholicism. The guardians of superstition and privileged debauchery equally hate him. He has used their own words against them.
The Muslim world has not signed on to the Age of Reason? Wow, what does that mean? Who were we before the Age of Reason, and why would someone reject it? More specifically, why would someone like Cat Stevens become Yusum Islam? He is moving backwards where Salman Rushdie would seem to be moving them forward. What am I missing?
1984, the novel
This is my guess. George Orwell describes our world very well. We make Peace through War. We change enemies willy-nilly. First we are at war with Afghanistan against Russia, and then we are at war with Russia against Afghanistan. Hate Hour, a staple of life in 1984, is provided by the Clear Channel cartel against the Dixie Chicks. Winston Smith would sit in the Ministry of Truth and re-write history so it would fit the current facts, and the White House and the CIA collude to form the same fiction. In 1984, control of your body was never enough, Big Brother wanted to control your mind. Ann Coulter finds the losing majority guilty of treason, or is it thought crime? Many of us are evidently overdue for a visit to room 101. Once the conversion is complete, we will gleefully agree that 2+2=5, just like Winston Smith did. He is now qualified to work on the economic plan. (And yes, I know, Democrats do some of the same things) Hmmm……
If you lived in the Age before Reason, what would be your impression of its 200 yeas of advancement? Compared to its humble beginnings, did it live up to its ideals? Is the wash-water of our culture any better? How many commercials did Thomas Jefferson see and hear? How much gratuitous violence did Thomas Paine watch on television? How much consumption and throwaway culture did Alexander Hamilton experience? Have we used our gifts wisely?
Sometimes, when I watch the insulting nature our political discourse, I think we should return to the honorable custom of dueling. We have wisely abandoned that practice, but in the Muslim world honor killings are common. What you do, how you act, and the things you say should have consequences. In an Orwellian world, however, one goes through the motions automatonomously.* Why would anyone want to join that? The bookstores are full of guides suggesting one find a simpler life. What refuge would a stranger find here? Our spirits are deadened with each passing generation as we work harder for material comfort.
The Cat and the Canary
Is this what the Muslim world rejects? When Cat Stevens rejected the record machine, was he the canary in the cave? Music is no longer an expression of our culture, it is our battlefield. The corporations, like Big Brother, want to control our humanity. Downloading is a crime. There was no artistic expression in 1984. Freedom was a crime, thinking was a crime. If this is who we are, of what value is the success of our science? The Age of Reason could easily be tried and convicted for the crime of chaos, indifference and stupidity. Sure, the Muslim fundamentalists are equally guilty. Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia are one and the same, that was Orwell’s point. If we are free, are we not then free to stop it?
That question is well over fifty years old. The use of iChat AV, Apple’s version of the 1984 telescreen, was first seen in the silent 1927 German film Metropolis. It depicted an Orwellian world of worker slaves, twenty-one years before 1984 was written. The new G5, as beautiful as the engineering is on the inside, fits perfectly into our grey drab Orwellian culture and the Metropolis’ stark landscape. Of course, the irony is wonderful. Apple has all its iApps, where there was no i.ndividual in 1984 or Metropolis.
The idea that the terrorists Muslims are crazy, jealous or evil does not convince me. They are as mixed up as we are. War is a political choice based on a moral interpretation. Our genocide of the Native Americans was equally steadfast. It is not simply a will to power. It is also an expression of frustration. Our Declaration has a long list of complaints. As a nation, we have been in a perpetual state of war, many of which we started.
In 1984, it was never enough to obey Big Brother; you had to love him too. Both the time before the Age of Reason, and the time after The Age of Reason, are the same in that regard. The old Church and the new State demand the same loyalty. We may inhabit different intellectual worlds, but we behave exactly the same.
Since we have had a separation of church and state, our politics are now split on a confused moral interpretation, kill first vs. die first. Compared to the tyranny of moral certainty, our divisive politics are a step forward, but we regard each party with the same moral certainty. We war perpetually against each other, and then we call it freedom. In this light, the Age of Reason is not a better political solution than the era before it. Salman Rushdie has nothing better to offer, and our history proves it.
That frightens me more than the next terror catastrophe. The war on Terror is not against different intellectual systems, we are battling against ourselves. Our enemy has the same blind spot we do.
The Age of Reason freed science, which is abundantly clear, because religion had always slowed the investigative process. Our political process, however, has yet to enter the Age of Reason.
The Declaration of Independence ends with these words: we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. For men who decided to commit treason, these sentiments are not surprising. To suffer defeat, they would lose everything, and they would gladly risk everything to secure victory. This is, ironically, the inverse of the logic of destroying a village to save it.
We sit at yet another crossroad in history. The time may not be of our choosing, and the events are not as clear as we would prefer, but the stakes are no less dear than they were 240 years ago.
We have fallen into the old economic habits we hoped to break. The ink was barely dry on our founding documents when complaints arose about the forming of a new aristocracy. We have also fallen into the same habits of moral certainty. We have replaced religious dogma with The American Way. The political parties are reluctant to question capitalism, checks and balances, self-reliance or the elevation of commerce. At the same time, we turn a blind eye to the problems it causes. We go looking for a scapegoat, or try to cram the facts into a false equation.
We have, for lack of a better word, become King to the world. And like our previous King, we see the planet as our domain of resources. We tax the peoples there, gather their resources and install caretaker governments. We do this, in typical Orwellian fashion, believing it is the best system. I am sure our King expressed the same certainty. But, unlike the old King, we have the disadvantage of the Age of Reason. We use the scientific method to convince ourselves of the sureness of our path, where our adversary still uses moral principles to convince himself of his path.
The seed of conflict
So we are different, that is no excuse for 9/11, nor does it explain why. We know they seem hate everything American. We know we prefer the Age of Reason, but what is it that makes them reject this world? What is the trigger?
I think the trigger is interest.
That current 1% interest rate is the proverbial pebble in a pond that on the far shore is a destructive tidal wave.
Interest is immoral. This was a teaching in the Last Sermon of Mohammed, and he was right.
When you go come into my store and buy something, I pay the credit card company between 2% and 4% for that transaction. Corporate cards, which the credit card companies have been pushing corporations and governments to use in paying vendors is even higher, more like 5% and 6%. Assuming just the 4% rate, I am “borrowing” money at the hefty percentage of 48% annually. If the cardholder does not pay off his card within the month, he may pay a rate as high as 24% annually. Together, the credit card company can make an annual return of 72% annually on the use of their cash. For those who labor to product the actual goods and services of the economy, this is an onerous tax, much worse than the tax on tea. This is a tax on the transactions that occur, it is ubiquitous.
The credit card companies than take these onerous fees and uses them to pay dividends in the stock market. Here people want to get a return on their cash beyond the 72%, they hope to get returns in the 100-300% range. The corporations who accept these investments were originally funded by venture capitalists. The VC’s are looking for returns in the 1000%+. The net effect of the interest cycle is that it creates a new form of slavery, where everyone, including the corporations, are forced to participate in the system, because interest itself is causing the prices to rise. To protect yourself from rising prices, you seek out a better interest rate return, and the cycle begins itself anew.
Interest, and stocks and dividends, create a false wealth. That is why it is possible to make a million or lose a million overnight.
Interest is also what causes the fast pace in our culture, because to stand still is to fall behind. You cannot manage a business without paying attention to cash flow. You constantly need to be ramping up. This is not due to the change from an agrarian economy to a mechanized economy; it is due to the pressure caused by interest. The same pressure causes and perpetuates the drive for advertising. Sell Sell Sell, because the economy needs everyone to buy buy buy. Once everyone stops buying, the house of cards might implode. I think that was the goal on 9/11.
Of course, the terror attacks cannot work and will not work, because the economy is just too strong. People need to eat everyday. Also, the attack missed the point that the ~evil~ corporations are themselves now victims of the same interest cycle.
There is a part of American history that I do not know much about, but I do know this. The establishment of the first bank in 1781 was a very big deal, and in the 1830’s Andrew Jackson slew the Second National Bank. There was another movement in the late 1800’s by the populists to control the banks. The 1930’s gave us the Great Depression, and 2001 had foreigners flying planes into our banks. Maybe this messenger has something worth hearing. Maybe, in a shocking way, he has picked up a torch we dropped.
*Automatic, monotonous, anonymous