Thursday, July 05, 2018

Country makes us family

On social media this Fourth of July I see a lot of people posting that they don't feel like celebrating. I understand. But I also see people from all points of the political debris field who are celebrating anyway.

A country is an artificial creation based on some unifying principles. This is true in just about any nation you can name. The decision to draw borders and establish laws turns everyone within those boundaries into a blended family.

Even families purely related by blood don't get along. Look at the stereotype of the tense holiday gathering. Did you know that the biggest drunk-driving night of the year in the United States is the night before Thanksgiving? Apparently, either to steel themselves for the first contact or to escape from the pressure before the big day, lots of people go out to bars and tie one on. Family will do that to you.

The United States, with its immigrant founders and tradition of either inviting or importing people, is like the world's biggest messy divorce and remarriage. Our founders talked a great game in their philosophical ramblings and our constitution, while still shackled to the ignorance of their time. They may have risen above the average, but there was a lot that our species simply didn't know yet. A lot of it seems like it should have been obvious: don't buy and sell people, don't dismiss an entire gender, quit double crossing the natives. I'll grant you that the foot-dragging on those was and is unconscionable. But it's not remarkable. Some people's thinking evolves faster than other people's. That evolution has to reach a tipping point that seems like it should be close at hand, but, time after time, we fail to reach it. I still believe that we are closing in on it.

I haven't felt like waving a flag and getting all sentimental about the Fourth of July for many years. I feel that the government misuses the armed forces a lot of the time, perhaps most of the time, wasting the lives and sanity of people who have signed up to serve in that life and death capacity. I deplore the way that massive wealth has made a power play, hiding behind a false image of hard work and worthy ambition, while undermining the citizen government that would make a prosperous republic possible for all. I'm depressed by the persistence of ugly, narrow visions for this country.

Like most families, we argue nastily, pushing each other's buttons in frustration, mostly making things worse. Maybe we pull it together for a short time, but those times get shorter and shorter, and occur at longer and longer intervals. The issues are important. Some of them threaten everyone's survival. Others threaten only the survival of one branch or another of the family. Every argument we've ever had -- still unresolved -- seems to be coming to a head now.

Over this grumbling mass of humanity waves the flag that was first hoisted in its early form in the 18th Century. Snatched from hand to hand are the pieces of paper that are supposed to guide us through the lives and deaths of generations of leaders and citizens. Every generation fights over the inheritance. Win or lose, every generation dies and leaves it to another. Even if this particular family breaks up, the territory itself will be occupied by one of the other families that lives on this globe, for as long as our species manages to stay alive.

Anyone who lives here has a right to wave the flag. I prefer that it symbolize responsible freedom, and the acceptance of diversity, that creates a nation worthy of the grand words used to describe it at its birth, rather than nationalism and a country in which freedom is something we not only hide from the world behind fortress walls, but steal from each other by force within those walls. But that's just how we feel at this end of the table. At the other end, someone's going to stick a fork in your hand if they don't want you reaching for the potatoes. And they do it under the same flag.

Family. They'll drive you crazy.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

First they came for the...

History repeats itself because it is a product of a species that is generally slow-witted, irritable, and hates change.

The oft-quoted words of Martin Niemöller about the sequential suppression of groups deemed undesirable by the Nazis stir no anxiety in the Nazis themselves. Granted, in a paranoid, authoritarian regime there will be internal strains from time to time. You want to watch your back and try to be sensitive to shifts in power, but that's upper echelon stuff. Down in the middle and lower ranks, you'll be fine if you just don't think for yourself. 

Here in America, the happy followers of rising authoritarianism still talk about freedom, but they've actually given up on the idea of personal advancement. They know that the game has been rigged against them. Now they're just begging for sustenance in return for obedience, and protection in return for nationalism.

What changes as history is added? The population of humans steadily rises. Technology becomes more sophisticated. These should not be brushed off. They're critical variables. Denser populations mean we are forced into contact with each other. Technological advancements mean that people in power can exert control far more easily than control can be wrested from them. You can neither run nor hide. Back in the 1930s, you could still do both.

Because technology can't be rolled back without a pretty widespread catastrophe, our only check on its power is our own will to control it. It can't be made idiot proof. You can't set it and forget it.

I can see why hardworking people are ready to let go of democracy. I learned a few months ago that you have to contact your legislators all the time, even if you are confident that they will vote your way on an upcoming issue, because they need to be able to show supporting numbers when they're arguing for their point of view. So a voter really needs to follow every issue and ring in for or against, just to be sure that representative government is as accurately representative as possible. All this is on top of your virtuous toil in service to the economy. Day off? No such thing. You're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution. The issues never rest. Nor should you.

The realization that the work never ends feeds the desire for Utopian solutions. If everyone believed the same thing, we could all relax, because the natural flow of decision making would support the greater good. Now listen to my beliefs...

Reality is always messier than even our most chaotic imagination. Everything could be destroyed in the competition between Utopian visions. But if it doesn't feel Utopian to you, then it isn't really The One. When, oh lord, will we ever truly be able to set it and forget it?

If freedom isn't free, but nothing else is free either, what's worth the trouble at all? Freedom requires such constant maintenance that it becomes a kind of enslavement all its own. Someone sneaky or overbearing will always try to bend things for personal gain or factional advancement. It's mentally and emotionally exhausting. The simple pressure of tyranny feels like a relief. Then you know who's stepping on you, and you can focus on building up your tolerance to it. As a citizen, you no longer have the constant pressure to make the right decision. You're free to devote yourself to simple survival and pointless griping. You're absolved of guilt.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Fundraising opportunity

Thinking of suicide?
You’ll probably use a gun.

Whether your problems are medical, financial, mental, emotional, or you’re just tired of living, you can seek the quick and effective release of a bullet without government interference, thanks to the US Constitution and the tireless efforts of the National Rifle Association to secure the rights of gun owners and users. It’s your life, and your right. So why not show your gratitude with a bequest to the NRA? For far less than the cost of an inadequate retirement account, you can buy a nice handgun AND have plenty left over to show us some love and help future gun owners to secure their liberty. Remember us in your will. Mention us in your note, and we’ll send your family a lovely walnut box for your ashes. Donations above $10,000 qualify for a solid pine coffin, if you choose not to be cremated. See our website for details.

Could have been produced by the
National Rifle Association of America 11250 Waples Mill Road
Fairfax, VA 22030

But it wasn’t really.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

That darn intellectual elite

Although I no longer think that I'm very bright, I grew up in a family that used big words. I probably read above my grade level, although I lacked the experience and maturity really to understand all of the sentences and paragraphs made of words that I could read and technically define. When I would ask my parents, "what does [word] mean?" they would answer, "Look it up in the dictionary." Or sometimes they would say, "Go wash your mouth out with soap." I was curious about all words.

Kids on the playground would ask, in unkind tones, "did you swallow a dictionary?" No, but it was my bathroom reading.

The working class used to be proud of its own intellectuals, many of whom leaned left. Indeed, the left was traditionally based on workers' rights, and improving living standards for the people who push the wheels of the economy around. Corruption in the leadership of unions and of technically socialist states was neatly spun by the real elitists to condemn the whole movement. The greed of individuals is the root of all evil. Maybe someone does deserve a slightly bigger piece of the cake that the whole community cooperated to make, but if the division seems wildly disproportionate, look for underlying causes before you simply decide either that the system must be right or that it is entirely wrong. You don't crush your car because a dirty air filter is making it run inefficiently.

The internet has made it possible to pump both straight information and egregious propaganda directly into the brains of isolated individuals who are looking for answers. We still have plenty of broadcast media as well, and some print, but lots and lots of people get their information from someone who saw something and tells someone else, or from items of variable reliability posted and reposted on what we have come to call social media. Old media used to fear getting caught making a mistake or presenting an outright fraud. Accuracy and impartiality mattered. An outlet might have a known editorial position, reflected in clearly labeled editorials, but the news was the news. If facts and events seemed to have a liberal bias, it was the fault of reality. For a brief, beautiful time, most people really did seem to be happier imagining that we should all be nicer to each other.

I think that the trend toward more consistently biased communication stems from the instinctive desperation our species is feeling because we have not yet done much about problems that we should have started addressing 45 or 50 years ago. We're speeding toward the wall that we could have avoided with a gentle tug at the wheel in the 1970s, and now we have to make a sharp swerve that could still send us careening into it in a twisted pile of wreckage. Even the deniers know this. Maybe some of them think that they have perfected some sort of ejector seat that will catapult them clear of the smash, and others believe that some divine intervention will yank them out before it happens. It doesn't matter. Our collective refusal to look very far ahead kept us speeding forward while looking only for the next gas station, restaurant, or place of entertainment.

We have a choice between learning as a species to accommodate each other's differences as much as possible or battling to the death to create a homogeneous monoculture. Part of accommodating differences is a tacit agreement to make those differences amenable to accommodation. If your critical difference is that you insist that no one be different, you're part of the monoculture war. Thanks for nothing.

Competition is unavoidable. Say, for instance, that you follow a certain religion and you cater only to followers of that religion. Say that religion enjoys fairly high popularity for a time, giving you and your fellow believers economic leverage, because you have catered to each other and excluded unbelievers. Other players in the global economy will have to do something to ensure their own survival. Do they buy into the dominant religion, creating the monoculture through economic submission? Do they band together in opposition, in an alliance that may be strained by its own internal differences? Despite the best of intentions, individual differences add up to trends. Trends add up to evolutionary factors that shape the entire future of a species.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The Origin of the Therapist God

(Reposted from 2006)

Imagine primitive humanity. Every day brought new levels of self awareness, more questions. Emotions needed names. Mood swings could be noted and charted. Feelings started to stimulate thoughts that affected the feelings.

Depression in animals seems to be a passing thing, for the most part. But humans, able to extrapolate so many possible outcomes from a single point in time, keep coming around to depressing concepts. It has shaped our course from the beginning of self awareness.

A self-aware creature knows its beginning and its end from almost any point in its existence. Not many know the full specific details, but endpoints are in view.

Very early, people must have learned that if they shared something that hurt them with someone who cared about them, the caring friend or family member often suffered mental anguish at least equal to that of the original sufferer. So someone who cares about his loved ones would try to avoid telling them about unpleasant things unless they needed to know.

Depressed subjects would soon learn that people who did not care about them didn't want to hear their blubbering.

"Get out of here, you're bringing me down," may have been one of the first phrases of organized language after "Look out!" and "Oh, gross, was that you?"

The depressed person might find a quiet place and begin to talk to no one. Before too long, he might discover that this helped a little.

While all this simple interpersonal stuff was going on, larger issues like creation, natural disasters and unequal distribution of wealth had given rise to gods. Since gods could be benevolent as well as wrathful, someone trying to keep his problems from becoming other people's problems could quickly decide his soliloquies were prayers to the God or gods. Feeling relieved after a session, the sufferer might return to the group and tell them in general, avoiding the depressing details of his own plight, how "prayer" had helped him. Like a new diet or popular psychology book, it would quickly become the rage. People would even gather in groups to do it, just as some of them had probably discovered that misery loves company and had gathered to weep over their woes already.

Telling a deity made it easier to say and to hear. The congregation could nod sympathetically and still walk out after the service feeling no more obligation to help than was convenient.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Make the world safe for safety

Eons ago, when everyone lived at more or less the same level, conflict based on control of resources and territory was a more or less animal thing, augmented gradually with various hand tools that might give one side a temporary advantage until their opponents figured out something equal or superior with which to retaliate. But, no matter who won, the big enemies were still famine and disease.

As technology advanced, unevenly, it made all aspects of life easier in places that possessed it, so that those cultures expanded more readily, dominating less technologically advanced cultures regardless of the ethics and morals of a given invasion. Technologically dominant powers probably inhibited the advancement of cultures they dominated. The evolutionary compulsion to advance tribal interest evolved into national interest, and imperialism. It was still the same basic urge that had inspired some hominid in a snit to pick up a rock or a jawbone and bust an adversary's head.

All the way up to World War I, disease still killed more warriors than actual battle did. Then improving medicine and killing hardware shifted the balance in war so that combatants could finally claim the higher score.

Setting aside mass slaughter for a moment, early hominids and primitive humans faced risk constantly. Risk takers served as test pilots for the species, advancing the frontiers of capability or providing grim lessons in what not to do. Our respect for risk takers probably predates language. But so does our eye-rolling amusement at generations of Darwin Award finalists, from long before Charlie D walked the Earth.

We can't control or predict earthquakes. We can observe hurricanes and predict their approximate course a few days in advance. We can home in on outbreaks of disease and try to contain their spread or develop vaccines. With eyes in the sky, we can give a few minutes' warning of tornados. We can advise people how to drive safely, and to avoid lifestyle habits linked to disease. But we can't predict exactly when someone will snap and start shooting, or when a nation will lose its grip on global citizenship and start a war inside or outside its own borders. You can say roughly, observing trends and monitoring communications, that a nation presents a risk. On an interpersonal level, you can sometimes tell -- or at least guess -- that someone is volatile.

This unpredictability in human behavior, combined with the long heritage of risk, gives our species a paradoxical yearning for safety and an unwillingness to commit to being safe. Most of us like to be able to move around without constant vigilance. For most of my life, this country seemed like a place like that. Of course I wasn't black, or an unaccompanied woman, and I never ventured into a bad neighborhood. Stuff happened, but it didn't seem as common as it does today.

Personal violence and institutional violence are the micro and the macro of humanity's danger to humanity. Our disdain for the natural world may manage to take us out before we dissolve into global combat. Or we might dodge the bullets both metaphorical and actual, and get our shit together. But the biggest threat to our safety is our belief that safety is impossible. We can't be sure that enough people -- maybe even all people -- could ever be willing to live and let live. We are not yet "all in this together."

With the technology at our command, there is no good excuse for human suffering. We have fear and anger in the world because we accept it.

All that is required for good to prevail is for bad people to do nothing. Focus on a common good that stems from energy and willingness to work, decoupled from grasping material ambition. Hold your temper. Disconnect your jealousy. Evolution beyond the weaponization of technology will require a level of conscious thought. It may prove impossible. Utopianists in a hurry will try to slap together a rule book full of begged questions that they understand intuitively, but vulnerable to interpretation.

To begin the process at all will require a general consensus that we will quit hurting each other. That one step has tripped us up for thousands of years. Rather than reach the point at which appreciative existence becomes our mission, we endure the constant clash between dark and light, the good people and the bad people doing things in opposition. If that's what we're stuck with, there's really no point in going on.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Beyond belief

In the 1970s, the world seemed tantalizingly close to perfectable. Sure, we were still in the thick of the Cold War, but that was our biggest threat. We were learning about the environment and seemed to have popular support for doing something about it. That included acknowledging the role played by population pressure. So all we had to do was avoid nuclear annihilation and we’d be all set for a happy planet full of people who had decided to appreciate each other’s cultural differences rather than give way to paranoia.

Paranoia was not going to take that lying down. It must have convened a think tank with its allies, ignorance and greed, to plan a campaign to reestablish dominance over human affairs.

Conspiracy theory is the enemy of social progress. We used to believe that evolution favored greater intelligence and better planning, so that a diverse and prosperous humanity was inevitable. Magical thinking tainted our hopeful view. Human history has been nothing but cycles of violence interrupted by intervals of fatigue. The Second World War was horrific enough to scare us away from having another big one for many decades. The development of nuclear weapons helped with this. But now we’ve reached the point where nation states are toying with the idea of low-yield nukes that make the use of them a mere tactical decision, rather than the onset of the end of our species in a rain of hell fire. Quit worrying! We’re only going to obliterate a few small cities! We survived the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki with no significant ill effects! We can do this.

Paranoids on the right and the left post each other’s internet memes without reading them thoroughly. As long as the catchy phraseology says that everything is bent and that “they” are coming for your (insert item here) it’s The Truth That They Don’t Want You to Know. Meanwhile, the chief greedheads plan their military campaigns for world domination through strategic application of mushroom clouds.