Sunday 24 February 2019

Los Angeles's Ethic with a Busted Gut

I'm in LA at the moment - part holiday, part meeting with academic friends. I have been to LA before, but never to stay for a longer period. What a strange place! Beautiful weather, homelessness, gated communities, sandy beaches (Santa Monica is like a lovely upper-class Blackpool!), crazy traffic, overt racial profiling by the police... it feels ready to snap. Like the world more generally.

I had some very bad news from work before I got here, and have struggled to sleep as a result. But it's only work. Being in LA has brought home to me the extent of a state of crisis in the world - education has become part of the problem. This is the richest country in the world - where entire families with young children march the streets carrying their entire belongings in a shopping trolley. It's normal - nobody seems to notice. What waste.

Then the police handling of black homelessness beggars belief. It's as if they are on commission to make arrests (are they?.. I saw one guy wrestled to the ground in Pershing Square and then arrested. Nobody did anything. It's normal. Christ, this is not normal! Someone said that it's got worse under Trump. I'm sure it has, but I suspect it was always a bit like this. Cruel place.

How can a country with such contradictions produce Gershwin, Google and some of the kindest and cleverest people I know? I don't get it.

Except that in Stafford Beer's Platform for Change, there is a section where he talks of an "Ethic with a Busted Gut". Beer knew America. He pointed out, after being warned that Washington DC was so dangerous in the 70s that he shouldn't venture outside his hotel at night, that this situation would only apply to a garrison town. That's American cities, he argued - they are garrisons: the poor and dispossessed are kept out with gates. Walls with bars in them work. But whose behind the bars? It depends which way you look.

The Ethic with a busted Gut is a protestation that something is "right" when deep down we know it to be "wrong". It's an ethic, but it makes us feel a bit sick. One of the friends I met here was biologist John Torday at UCLA who I think has an analogous way of describing this "ethic with a busted gut" - he calls it "deception", and argues that this is a fundamental mechanism of communication from cells upwards. It's a way of coping with uncertainty.

In humans, the busted gut ethic can make us behave in a cruel way, holding on to deceived reason and "logic" to defend our inhumanity. Every act of "selling" is like this. It is this that kills Arthur Miller's Salesman. "Hey, we can fix this!" - when you know you can't, or even that your "fix" will make the problem worse. Mirrors in space to fix climate change? You got it!

If you can overcome your busted gut, you can sell anything. And you can be very successful. Enter Facebook and Amazon. People seem to prefer their guts busted than their hearts whole. Deep down, the problem is an allergy to uncertainty or ambiguity.

The music reflects the wailing traffic of the place.

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