Attacking Convention With Drunken Discourse

*Maybe don’t read this article. The gist of it can be summed up as a critique of modern consumerism, and a frustrated attempt to discuss alternative economic systems. A more important theme is related through challenging the status-quo. This is a habit endorsed for its individual benefits, and regarded as crucial for collective world reform.

The futility in this post is that world problems are not solved with lagered lips, nor over rum-breathed words. I’m posting this merely as a bread crumb to indicate where and when and how my views have been influenced by my experiences. So maybe don’t read this poorly worded, highly discursive, 2,500 word account of one such experience.*

No matter how uniquely I craft my journey, the ruts through which backpackers travel are unavoidable. So I occasionally find myself in banal tourist traps. When I do, an amusing cognitive dissonance plays out in my mind.

On principle I actively avoid the cliche. Deeply buried in me is a reluctance to join anything popular. The psychological causes of that disposition are murky and twisted and difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, my predilection steers towards the road less-traveled.

However, there’s a vigilant questioner in me whose job is to challenge all preconceived bias. While one cerebral hemisphere maintains the status-quo, the other attacks it with new information. This is a crucial mechanism of adaptation wherein our perspectives on reality are amended and refined.

I’ve noticed a trend in popular culture lauding the quality of perseverance of character. Even to the point of stubbornness, the popular mantra is to ‘Be who you are.’ Staying true to yourself, your bias, or in other words denying contrary thoughts the voice to change your mind, is praised as a strength of character. To yield is too often seen as weakness.

This is partly a consequence of the self-esteem movement; ‘Love yourself’, ‘You’re great just the way you are.’ There’s no impetus to change when you’re already great. ‘Quickly now! Shut that little voice up that says otherwise. That’s just the evil enticement of others attempting to corrupt your perfect soul.’

This is a mistaken conception.

An unseen calamity of ‘Staying true to yourself’ might very well be a stunted ability to take new information on board, and course correct appropriately. If any opposition to our ingrained beliefs is immediately disregarded as intrusive manipulation…    And if we are to only listen to our ‘inner voice’, our ‘true self’, our precedent status-qou…     Then we are doomed to a static, stagnant mentality that is eminently inflexible and prone to shattering.

So when my predilection tells me to skip a place like Melacca, Malaysia because it’s just another pageant of vapid selfies, inflated tradition, and mindless consumerism, I consider the other side. That other side knows that to avoid all tourist traps is to drown in a sea of identical villages. The sites that attract hordes of tourists do so through their uniqueness. They are what add an intriguing chord to the monotone of the rest of the country.

Since I stayed with a local in Singapore, my thirst for custom experience was, for the time, slated. So I rode into Melacca, Malaysia.

Melacca is a big, grey, noisy city. To begin by describing it as the quaint, traditional, Chinese port village depicted in travel brochures is a gross deception perpetrated by the need to attract tourists. The preserved port village is a tiny nugget swallowed by miles and miles of modern urbanity.

The old town that hugs the seaside river is beautifully traditional; Buddhist temples with flared, shingled awnings; wooden houses with spiral staircases; shop fronts with accordion, bamboo shutters. The streets are charmingly narrow and chaotic. The nearby fortress boasts crumbled walls, rusted cannons, and antique machinery, each accompanied by identifying bas-relief placards. Once venerated for their utility, these relics have been reduced to impotent photo ops.

These atavistic vestiges never hold appeal to me. What lesson is there to learn? What awe is to be absorbed? What deeper meaning can be derived from bearing witness to these antiques?

And if meaning can be summoned, what need is there to visit another, and another, and another archaic site? At what point are we just cataloging the outdated? At what point are we just stockpiling manufactured reverence for the obsolete?

A personal vanity doesn’t provide salvation. Snapping photos in front of a million monuments is a despairingly shallow pursuit.

Perhaps intellectual refinement saves us. Acquisition of knowledge is a worthy endeavor. But learning of other cultures through the context of local histories is as tedious and futile as studying the individuals in an ant colony.

The names of a thousand rulers or saints mean nothing to me. The gadgets and habits of a thousand communities mean nothing to me. Rather would I learn about the broad strokes of history that have impacted continents and countries. Only then, with that foundation to root it in, will I consent to learning about local customs of centuries’ past.

When it might find a place in the fields of my mind. When it might mean something to me. When it has substance.

This phenomenon of disconnected visitation is an epidemic. From Lublin, Poland to Athens, Greece to Udaipur, India to Chiang Mai, Thailand; ancient or simply ‘old’ sites stand in awkward contrast to the metropolises that engulf them. The worst part is that these sites are beautiful, re-markedly unique, and true representations of their historical context. But they are forsaken by the drab, flavorless, architecturally expedient sprawl of the modern urbanity that dwarfs them. It smacks of hypocrisy.

And the arsenic frosting on this contrived loaf is its commercial exploitation. Of the sites themselves, and of the people. I fully understand and respect the human instinct to preserve relics, to idolize the past, to wax nostalgic about traditional customs. It connects us with our past so that we have a better idea of who we are. I get that. I partake of that.

I am repulsed, though, by the shrouding of commerce in the veneration of bygone eras. It angers me that this profound instinct is employed to siphon dollars off consumers. Consumers that themselves have been conditioned to believe that the satisfaction of a timeless connection with the past can be bought along with a t-shirt, a plush animal, or a key-chain.

I stood before a stall filled with cheap plastic crap flashing and vibrating and reflecting the glow of paper lanterns overhead. Another like it on either side, and more again filling every square centimeter of roadside. Empty flash all around me. Throngs of people behind me, crammed ass to elbow & nut to butt into single file lines extending the length of old town. Their bodies sweating in the tropic night. Their fingers clutching plastic bags filled with plastic merchandise.

A thousand boiling pots exhaled their sultry breath from below. The haze sweltered from above. It felt like an avenue in hell.

I was suffocated by everything except the food. The food: an oasis of value in an ocean of vacuity. No matter how cheap the merchandise being hawked, no matter how trite the trending clothing, food remains an indefatigable source of stimulation. It stands alongside music in that way.

I will forever resist the economic thrust of novel consumerism. Just like I will forever travel the world for the taste and sound of a place.

Or for the nuanced drunkenness of a local spirit. I bought a bottle of rum, and walked back to my guesthouse. And there I met Jack.

Jack was a handsome, young Londoner. He had thick, blonde hair, a wide, beautiful smile, and a subdued insecurity that didn’t match. He sat alone at a rooftop table working his way through a six pack of beer. I joined him in his inebriated effort.

I meet a fair amount of backpackers traveling as a means for self-fulfillment, and who find only the trite diversions of tourist attractions. Often I discover that these souls seek depth and meaning, but are discouraged by chaff and frill. I’d guess there’re a lot of folks who tire of posing for selfies, who tire of being sold crap.  So they travel to escape that, but they just find more of it.

Jack was such a soul. But we made light of life. We laughed about vexations and delights like two brothers. The drinks contributed duly of course.

I asked Jack what he thought of the markets. He was unsurprisingly disenchanted.

I ventured forth with explanations about capitalistic inevitability. The merchants of these stalls are neither ignorant nor callous. They know the crap they sell is crap. But they aren’t conniving or deceitful in selling it. They are just humans with human needs; like supporting themselves and their families. And hawking cheap crap to tourists is one way to do that.

There are no corrupt people, just corrupt institutions.

Then and there, at the edge of explanation, I asked that favorite question of mine, Why? Why then is useless, wasteful commerce an acceptable or necessary route to feeding one’s family? To which Jack responded, ‘That’s capitalism. It’s just the way it is.’

It’s. Just. The. Way. It. Is…………

At that resignation it was time for more liquor, so Jacky boy and I hefted our drunken bodies away from the patio furniture, and wandered off to find an available source. We returned with two more bottles of local rum and two bottles of un-local Coca-Cola.

No matter how distant and deep I travel Coca-Cola has always, always beaten me there.

We returned to company; a German couple partaking of our same poisonous nectar. Here we go…     The routine…     ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How wonderful is Melacca?’ ‘How long have you been traveling?’ ‘Where are you heading next?’

Then I steered the conversation back to intriguing topics. The state of capitalism in the 21st century. The hopeless assumption that it always is, and always will be.  An assumption that I tried, and failed, to crack in the mind of Jack that night.

I pause here, dear readers, to note the lesson Jack taught me. In a world where it’s damn difficult to dissuade someone of the absurdity of purchasing bottled water, it is fucking impossible to talk them into a whole new economic paradigm. Especially with only an hour’s rapport. Especially after six beers and a bottle of rum.

I can optimistically believe that people are capable of listening to reason, reconciling dissent, and reordering their thoughts to comprehend something new. People are capable of acknowledging two contradictory, but equally valid, points of view.

But perhaps not when it comes to an idea as large and complex as economic theory. Economic beliefs are deeply ingrained, and are not subject to budge.

The reasons for that are three. One, they’ve been tended daily, over a lifetime, by the influences of a capitalistic society. Two, they’ve never had to compete with alternative theories, so their dominance is supreme. Even when alternative economic theories are presented (in school for example), they are presented as evil, impossible, or dysfunctional. And three, those ideas are so complicated and abstruse that it’s hard to grasp them, let alone tear them up.

But I enjoy sharpening my rhetoric on the grindstone of others’ preconceptions.

I’ve done it enough to recognize a pattern in people’s objections. ‘Status-Quoers’ critically evaluate on two fronts: How will it work for the masses? And how will it work for the individual?

They then oscillate between the two perspectives until the point where an idealist such as me crumbles and utters that most defeatist of sayings, ‘I don’t know.’ The SQ sits back assured of his position having done nothing but slung enough imaginary scenarios at his counterpart to knock him off balance.

I first became aware of this logical morass that night in Melacca. Theory is forever limited by vagueness, and exact micro- and macro-accounting is impossible to produce on demand.

I wish I could say I enlightened young Jacky boy. I wish I could say he left my company a little more open-minded, or optimistic even. But the conversation concluded in polite recognition of differing opinions. Agree to disagree.

It was ironic. Here we were deriding all the crap in all the stalls, in all the countries, in all the world. We shared a bleak outlook on how un-fulfilling material consumption really is. We could both plainly see the destructive, unsustainable direction capitalism was heading. Yet Jack wouldn’t or couldn’t conceive of a fairer, value-driven economic system. Which is only to say a system that distributes the exceedingly abundant resources of society more evenly.

A system that would effectively eliminate all the cheap bullshit in the world. In a world where their basic needs are met, I don’t think as many people would debase themselves producing and selling that crap. In a world where basic needs are met, more time is spent cultivating value-producing habits. And less time is spent buying cheap distractions. But what do I know?

I wasn’t too sour about Jack’s stubbornness. I was grateful for the practice in defending what I believe to be the crucial evolution of economics going forward into the 21st century. What tarnished an otherwise splendid evening was not Jack’s entrenched position. It was his age.

Thus we come full circle to challenging the status quo. On a micro-scale, it manifests in touring a location that you imagine is fruitless. Or it’s retrying an activity or hobby you’ve once failed at.  Or it’s eating a food you once disliked.

Often there is unexpected value to be reaped challenging your own beliefs.

And there is overarching benefits to the practice.  It makes you more adaptable. Obsolete beliefs are routinely plowed under so they don’t plague you with their spurious natures. And they don’t obstruct you from uncovering more fulfilling ways of living.

Strengthening that conscious questioner also makes you think more critically. The ability to question yourself is far more difficult than questioning others. If you can seize yourself in the automatic moment where you think, ‘I don’t like this thing, so I won’t do it’…   If you can instead consider that your reason for disliking that thing might be a ghost…   Then it is easy to critically scrutinize the assertions of anyone else, be they from a casual friend or prominent authority.

Collectively, our ability to challenge the status-quo will reflect our ability to reform the world. And it is the young who stand the best chance of doing that. Indeed it is the prerogative of the young.

The older generation have ingrained themselves to their ways. They cannot be held responsible for effective reform. Nor can they be blamed for their static thinking. It is a consequence of the brain operating a certain way for so long. That is natural and fine.

It is essential, then, for young people to question the status quo. We may argue about which new direction society must take. But it must be clear in every young mind that obsolete, and dangerously destructive systems have to be challenged, NOT merely coped with. And when new possible systems present themselves, we have to be willing to at least explore them.

I spent four days in Melacca. If you ever go there, stay for two.

Thank you for reading.


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