Uncaged Canaries

August 10, 2019

By Steve Klinger

With much respect for Bob Koehler, a journalist whose insights and rhetoric I admire with equal measure, I don’t think “Dead Canaries” takes the coal-mine post-mortem analogy to its deepest level. Not only are human canaries dying, victimized by killers Koehler describes as deluded participants in their own version of some sort of global war; killing each other is only one manifestation of the death spiral they foretell.

The analogy is a bit strained to begin with because the canaries are brought into the mines and are more susceptible than their human counterparts. What we see happening with the epidemic of mass shootings and the dehumanization the shooters reflect is even more chilling than the conditioned behavior of victimized birds or the collateral damage wrought by soldiers at war.

These canaries, if you will, are killing each other in rage, desperation, inchoate furor at their very condition.  We need not only a post-mortem but an autopsy of their brains, down to the cellular level. What I believe it will reveal is a host of ills that amount to an existential pathology: Humans, led by Americans, the most uninhibited culture in the petri dish, are acting out in some convoluted biological backlash at their sense of their own impending doom, and thus helping to fulfill it.

The biggest problem is climate change. The deniers can invoke Jesus and shout as loud as they like; we all sense the slope down which we have begun to slide:  the careening weather extremes, the shifting seasons, the relentless ratcheting of warming days, rising seas, food-growing challenges that already are bringing famine to some areas, fire and flood, the vast melting of Greenland and the poles. The mass migrations have only just begun.

Existential threats awaken our tribal instincts; it’s not only racism and xenophobia that inspire our fears: These migrants are not fellow humans trying to escape suffering, they tell us; they are rival creatures invading our space and hell-bent on taking our stuff.

Even if we don’t acknowledge it, we sense the natural, if largely manmade, upheaval around us, and it makes some of us act out, each in his/her own way.  The internet and mass media accelerate the communication cycle exponentially. Copycats and crazies abound and network. The bastard monster child of capitalism run amok, otherwise known as the NRA, ties our money-driven politicians into knots and floods the market with assault weapons, transmogrified into icons of civil liberty that only the most cynical of legal minds could fashion into flimsy justification.

The frustrated non-elites, the blue-collar/true-collar believers in the American myth, who saw the corporatists ship their jobs to cheaper labor markets or orphaned them to robotics, were more persuaded by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who sparked their fear and anger, than Amy Goodman or Rachel Maddow, who appealed to their better angels.

And in this toxic environment, the celebrity cult figure now our president fumbled his way to power and adulation as king of the miscreants—the meanest, cruelest, crassest, most narcissistic and sociopathic jackass the powers behind him (including an entire state of Russian oligarchs) could find and promote.

So now it’s not only the crazies with AR-15/AK-47 penile extensions, but ordinary folks who will run you off the road, elbow their way past you in the supermarket lines, litter your country roads and city streets with the wrappings of the carb- and alcohol-laden consumables that are killing us/them, while here and elsewhere terrorists of all stripes thump their holy books while taking more innocent lives.

In Koehler’s lexicon, we are all just the first birds to breathe the toxic fumes, but not just of the human phenomenon of war among our own kind. We are, I would say, the advance guard of the auto-immune-afflicted victim-perpetrators of nature’s grand evolution experiment. Homo sapiens: big brain and cool thumbs, but socially primitive, prone to greed, and fear-driven to the point of mass self-destruction.

No matter, the planet has remarkable capacity for healing and adaptation, and if not the planet, then the cosmos. Somewhere, a creature may arise that can take sentience to a higher level, a canary uncaged that won’t poison its fellow birds.

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