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.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Happy darkness

The public controversy over what to say to people at this time of year got me wondering what life would be like if we had evolved with a scientific approach from the very beginning, instead of a superstitious one. We wouldn't go whack down an evergreen or appoint a mock king we would have to kill at the end of a week of partying. We might build something like Stonehenge just because it's so damn cool.

"I'm feeling a little down, since the days are so short."

"Here, have a mild euphoric, and stand in front of this light for an hour."

Partying, artificial light, and comfort food are scientifically supportable responses to seasonal depression. Those would happen anyway. But around the punch bowl we'd be talking about the angle of the Earth's axis, and the speed at which our planet journeys around the sun to complete a year. There might be a Stonehenge in the back yard of every family with school age children. And one in every city park, because they're just so damn cool. Plus, we'd be looking at the stars with whatever technology had been invented so far.

I won't say we'd live in a kinder and gentler society. One would hope that peer-reviewed research would have long ago dispelled many of the bases for bigotry and oppression. Science is simply an approach and an attitude. But it was interesting to think of this time of year without the amalgamation of traditions based on invented stories and placatory rituals.

Imagine no Black Friday.
It's easy if you try.
No commercial onslaught
Telling you "Buy! Buy! Buy!"

We can't subtract it from our lives and pretend it never existed. Too many people are too invested in it, emotionally as well as financially. Chances are, the ones most financially invested are the least interested in peace and good will, but the rest of us grew up with one form or another of the communal feeling that people feel when faced with darkness and implacable cold. We really sense that we need each other at a time like that. Come spring, go screw yourself. But right now, we want company, warmth, and good cheer.

May you find it. And may it at last extend beyond the lighted circle in the darkest night. We could use a little more good will.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Health insurance makes me sick

Whenever enrollment opens for the so-called Affordable Care Act's health "care" marketplace, I get numerous emails urging me to sign up for the great coverage secured at horrendous political cost back when Congress sold us all into bondage to the health insurance companies. Every year since the trap finally snapped shut on all of us, I have run the numbers and figured out that the penalty is noticeably cheaper than the premium for a policy with a huge copay and deductible. But it's not about the money.

The ACA penalty definitely impacts my life. But there's a larger issue here. A health insurance premium goes directly to an insurance company in an industry that profits most by denying care, not by facilitating it. It's like being forced to buy bullets for the firing squad that is going to kill you. The perky little article on Obamacare Facts -- that explains the mechanics of the penalty and how it is spent -- never addresses the predatory nature of profit-driven health insurance and health care, but at least indicates that the money is used to help people in need. It's still filtered through the profit-sucking filter of insurance companies, for the most part, but at least it is not directly from my hand to their insatiable gullet.

I won't deny that I am frightened, living outside the illusion of protection. But illusion it is. The longer we keep feeding the beast, the longer the beast will live, regardless of how it shortens individual life spans in its customer base. Customer survival is not important. When you die, some other poor frightened bastard will already be there to keep paying into the system and getting little in return.

My advice to anyone, young or old, is to find something you really enjoy doing, that is likely to kill you. It can be anything: picking fights in bars, heroin, cocaine, unroped rock and ice climbing, driving a motorcycle really fast, BASE jumping, open water swimming, taunting sharks, being a mercenary, joining a doomsday cult, jaywalking without looking, Russian roulette, find it, find whatever it is, and go at it hard. Your fellow citizens want you dead. The publicity machine that tears down the idea of socialized medicine is based on the simple principle that the moneyed interests have very little use for you and are sick of supporting your worthless ass. When insurance companies can't make bank off of frightened sick people anymore, they'll take their fat investment portfolios somewhere else. It's just money to them. You are just money. And you're only good money as long as you pay in more than you take out.

Health service providers feel the same way. They're not going to come right out and say they don't care whether you live or die, because they're in a somewhat competitive marketing situation. But no one can survive in that business if they start caring too much about individual patients. Even with the best of intentions and the best of care, some of the patients are going to die, and all of the patients die eventually. So that wall of detachment goes up. Away from the clinic floor, up where accounting decisions are made, that wall never comes down. It's bricks thick and yards tall. And you're on the other side of it. You are just money. When the money stops, you'd better be gone already. By the way, your bills are still due, even if you don't make it.

Why do 88 percent of uninsured patients fail to pay their bills? Could it be that the inflated prices have been out of control for so many decades that we're in a death spiral, nearing impact? Any observer of the health care situation as it evolved could have told you that a system based on profit-driven insurance and profit-driven care providers would continue to drive inflated prices and force ordinary working people over the brink. Even with insurance, Americans have trouble paying medical bills. Meanwhile, health insurers and clinics, even cancer treatment centers, are finding the money to donate to public broadcasting. Don't get me wrong, I love public broadcasting. But if I'm giving you money to treat and cure cancer, I want all of that money to go toward treating and finding cures for cancer.

So another year goes by and I appear to slap away that helping hand. "Look, we're giving you hundreds of dollars a month." Yes, but the insurance company has set the premium well over a grand, so the remainder is still going to wipe out every penny I can scrape together. And that's before my out of pocket costs for anything I do need.

I repeat: America is the land where you must pursue happiness with all your energy, and find the good death at the end of a short, glorious run. Get out there and grab it. The 20th Century fantasy of a middle class with a reasonable work load, a pleasurable personal life, and a comfortable retirement was never going to work. Those countries where it seems to work are a beautiful beacon, as unreachable as heaven. Like a favorite TV show where the characters are all friendly and lovable but the actual actors turn out to hate each other, it's probably just a facade. In reality, we are all here to find our deadly pleasure and run to it.

I'll advocate and vote for something more sociable and compassionate. But I expect fierce resistance from many of my fellow Americans who are fighting their own battles and can't see how all of our battles relate to each other. The accounting department stands against us all. And money always wins. Prove me wrong, people. Prove me wrong.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A hard and necessary realization

I was almost 30 before I realized that I was not inherently good.

Feeling good about yourself is a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege we are all born with, but it can be squandered before you even realize you've lost it. Doting parents mean well, but they give you the benefit of the doubt. Through that loving loophole you can slip forward, onward, downward, on a path of self indulgence, because you are basically good.

You don't make a person good by telling them that they are good. You do it by making sure they know all the ways in which they can be bad.

I had the goal of being good. I just had to learn how to identify it. It seems obvious in hindsight. Later generations love to condemn earlier generations on the basis of later knowledge and customs. Later forms of myself rip the earlier forms of myself to shreds even though the damage is done. My few good memories are islands in a sea of contemptibility. And rightly so.

I've met a few genuinely good people. They make me wonder if there really are chosen people for whom a heaven is prepared. I am not one of them. I am lustful, impatient, harsh. In eternity, all nows are equal. What I was in the beginning, I am now, and ever shall be.

This lesson is abundantly clear in the treatment of public figures who end up judged solely on their transgressions. Most sins are unpardonable. You would do well to identify them early and avoid them completely.

This will cut down on how often you get laid.

Sexual relations get complicated in a hurry. I once had a relationship with a woman who for reasons of her own liked it rough. She did not always like it rough, which was good, because I was not able to be rough. So she would get bored with me and go to the guy who would knock her around, and then come back to me to recuperate. Eventually, he made her an offer she liked, and she relinquished me to go with him full time. I have no idea how their relationship actually worked. I only know how she looked and what she told me when she arrived at my apartment one night, moving gingerly from the pain.

"Careful," she said. "He slammed me in the abdomen with a rifle butt." Then she smiled slyly. "Of course I was trying to shoot him with it at the time."

I've always been attracted to interesting women.

I was raised to develop a thick hide. Keep the pain on the inside, preferably far enough that you don't even feel it yourself. Show no weakness. Show no fear. My two years in an all-male prep school were a crash course in how to deal with constant bullying in an ocean of testosterone. Hazing and harassment were staples in male culture, and male culture dominated the adult world. 

My father's military academy stories often dealt with hazing by the dominant upper classes. The pecking order continued after graduation. The Coast Guard remained all male until near the end of his career.

Given the option to avoid it, I did. But I had absorbed the methodology even as I thought I was rejecting it. I had developed armored skin and iron heels. I could walk all over someone without noticing it, no problem.

Not being very perceptive, I fell into the trap of stereotyping. All of a given group were the same, or similar enough that I could treat them with a simple and uniform set of responses. This is common. Keep it simple.

You can keep it simple, if your default is polite deference. If your default is to look for your own advantage, you will constantly cross lines that you should have respected.

Good = Polite Deference.

Bad = Look for your own advantage.

It really is that simple. You can, with polite deference, look for mutual advantage. Then you need to look at the wider effects to see if this spreads disadvantage to third parties and beyond. But one on one, be respectful. This does not mean subservient.

I learned all this the hard way, earning my place in hell. I share it with you now in hopes of saving others. The worst of my sins are moderate -- as much as I would like to call them minor -- but, combined with the minor ones, are numerous enough to make any glance backward a painful and necessary reminder that a work in progress is never finished. Just because you are hopelessly condemned by your past misdeeds is no excuse to quit trying to be better.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Human Nature and the Death of Hope

Self-styled realists remind us constantly that human nature has its ineradicable dark side. I can attest to that.

Most people who know me now think that I'm a good person and a nice guy. I indulge a house full of cats. I try to control my judgmental nature. I even thought of myself as a good person and a nice guy for almost the first three decades of my life.

Only gradually did I notice the cracks in my facade through which the darkness showed. They would have been obvious to any person or animal I harmed, but not to me. At one time or another I have done nearly everything that I despise. I fear that only lack of opportunity prevented me from being worse, before I realized how bad I was to begin with.

Feeling good about yourself is a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege we are all born with, but it can be squandered before you even realize you've lost it. Doting parents mean well, but they give you the benefit of the doubt. Through that loving loophole you can slip forward, onward, downward, on a path of self indulgence, because you are not that bad.

 Once I learned to recognize self esteem as a warning sign instead of a reward, I had a much better detection system to prevent outbreaks of cruel and destructive behavior.

The improvement is gradual. And much of the insult and deprecation that people think I've leveled at them is really aimed at forces that have misled them. As for the physical cruelty, that pretty well ended before I was 40. I had control issues. Figuring out how little I can actually control has gone a long way to promote a peaceful resignation.

If I can get better, anyone can get better. So why is hope dead?

Time.

Time is short, probably too short.

As much of an asshole as I was from preadolescence through the onset of middle age, at least I had a glimmer, then a gleam, then a full-blown dawning awareness that I needed to get on my case. I am one among billions, many of whom need to get on their own case and straighten their shit out. There is no pill. There is no switch to throw. First you have to admit that you have a problem. Then you have to figure out how to address it in the way that works best for you.

For every problem, there is a program. But no program works until the individual agrees to follow it. And the program itself may have an agenda other than simply helping each individual to live with more awareness of others.

That's it right there: live with more awareness of others. Care what you do to them.

Do I get angry? Yes. Do I contemplate violence? Yes. I see people continuing to act with either no awareness of others or with malicious intent, and my primitive hostility rises immediately. And the warning buzzer tells me that I need to think. Force will not bring the change I want to see in the world.

Unfortunately many people seem unable to learn from the mere story of bad events. And the genuine power of darkness in some of them compels them to create bad events. They have no desire to play nicely with others. Neo-Nazis want to correct the strategic errors of their role models. Would-be tyrants and their eager minions of all types welcome any opportunity to inflict pain on the targets they choose.

The problem gets worse because there have been too many of us since the grateful survivors of World War II fucked us into the Baby Boom. The Boom has gone on to spawn further waves of incoming souls, each equipped with instinct, intellect, and reproductive systems.

There were probably too many of us long before that. After all, Europe overflowed into the Americas from the 15th Century onward, but they had to eradicate existing indigenous populations to do it.

Eradicating each other is a longstanding human tradition.

In the 1960s, I grew up in a culture where a lot of people seemed to be questioning the practice of eradicating each other. That seemed good to me. Eradicate not, lest ye be eradicated. Let's all be cool and have a good time together. We can learn a lot from each other.

Tradition will not be denied. The eradicators want to do their thing. The swarm of humanity thickens on the moldy surface of the globe that brought us forth so long ago.

I miss hope. The realist in me kept me childless, but the hopeful dope inside thought that maybe I would turn out to be wrong. Being right brings no satisfaction except the grim one that I have not personally sentenced anyone to the future that my species collectively seems to have chosen. What remains of that hopeful dope still wants the things that I valued to be valued and carried forward by the people who come after me. An idea has a life of its own. We did not all have to spring from the loins of the framers of our founding documents to embrace their ideas and try to carry them forward, distributed more widely.

Most of human life is in the mind. Instinct and intellect are expressed through technology, from the first stone tools to the latest sophisticated marvel. We imagine, then we do. So what we imagine is the most important influence on our individual acts. One plus one plus one plus one, billions of times over, imaginations combine their actions. We can't really plan. But if, by chance, each person imagines the world with more care for each other, the result will be what I would call better. It would be downright hopeful.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Civilization by consent of the civilized

Reading an article in the New Yorker about a white collar crime prosecution that was withdrawn against Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr., it resonated strangely with the bloody carnage of the Las Vegas massacre.

The white collar case involved tons of research and evidence collection. It taxed the ingenuity of investigators not only to put together a case, but to figure out what charges, if any, they could bring. It was an intricate intellectual exercise extended over a couple of years. The exchange with defense attorneys involved all sorts of strategy on both sides. Some of the arguments were legal. Others appear to have been more...intangible. But it was all a brain game.

What does a white collar crime have in common with the brutal slaughter of an unsuspecting crowd? Both of them breach the trust of civil society. While the massacre is clearly worse, both are acts of people who have put aside the restraint of lawfulness to pursue their own gratification.

The massacre represents a far more visceral experience, both to perpetrate and to experience. If you want a laboratory perfect example of the value of civilized behavior, there it is. 

White collar shenanigans can have less obviously bloody, but still far reaching consequences. It may seem like a battle of wits between lawyers and accountants, far removed from the daily lives of ordinary citizens, but the money supply they’re playing with is the one we all use. Sleazy business dealings cost enough on their own, even before you add the bills for the lawyers when the scam goes off the rails. It’s a more sophisticated version of sociopathy, but sociopathic nonetheless.

Civilization as a benign influence relies on the consent of the participants to stay within a certain range of behavior. Here in the Land of the Free, good behavior makes us nervous. Are we really free if we’re not pushing the limit somewhere? Are the rules really for our benefit?

A free society cannot survive if a significant percentage of its citizens don’t agree to accepted conventions of personal restraint. Laws represent nothing but an expensive enforcement hassle if enough people ignore them. I wonder if fatigue and apathy are the real forces protecting us from chaos. Not enough people possess both the armament and the gumption to unleash their own little flames of hell on whoever happens to be around. Whatever the reason, as bad as things are, I can be glad they aren’t worse.

Coexisting strangely with the American obsession with freedom is the American need for control. For some of us, the freedom they cherish the most is the freedom to restrict behavior that makes them uncomfortable. This can take the form of a double standard, in which the dominant group wants rights and privileges that they deny to groups they suppress. Then there are people who have very narrow tastes, and feel that their norm should represent the full scope of permitted behavior. Having accepted their own limits, they want to remain competitive by framing the rules by which everyone else has to play.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Thoughts, prayers, and argument

Another lone gunman has raised the bar yet again for mass shootings in the USA.

My employer's son was at Virginia Tech in 2007. He just missed being in one of the classrooms where that shooter struck. Ten years later, he lives and works in Las Vegas. He dodged these bullets, too. But I wonder how the world looks to a young person whose life has already been closely invaded by unhinged murderers not once but twice.

Along with normalizing virulent bigotry in the name of free speech, we have normalized personal violence. America was settled at gunpoint. The wave of white people moved westward, hunting, gathering, and subduing the natives as it went. A gun was a tool, like an ax or a plow. The gun was woven into our national identity here far more than anywhere else. It is as American as the flag, and more widely worshipped.

Popular fiction has long celebrated heroes who can handle a shootin' iron. From tall tales around the camp fire to pulp fiction to radio, movies, and television, we admire the man who says little while his gun barks a sharp response to the impertinence of evil. And our super villains push the arms race. Deadly combat is the ultimate test of a person's skill and courage.

Actually, singing solo, unaccompanied, on a stage in front of a large audience is the ultimate test of a person's skill and courage. This probably explains the greater popularity of gunplay.

I'm sure that watching people drop before your hail of lead is very satisfying. Many of these killers have already accepted that this will be the last thing they do. Good luck figuring out how to detect those tendencies in a free-range population.

Here in the Land of the Free, we must be careful when we tell people what they cannot do or own. But how many times do we have to see someone misuse a high-capacity weapon before we acknowledge that the tool itself is part of the problem?

When I first got a handgun, I had the weirdest flood of thoughts. I looked at it and saw all the ways in which it could inflict suffering. I could shoot someone else. I could shoot myself. I could shoot an animal. I could put a bullet hole in anything I could hit. I did not buy the gun. My first wife already owned it. It was never enough gun for her, it was just the gun she could afford at the time. She left it behind when she left me.

The idea of inflicting suffering repelled me, I'm happy to say. But we are primitive creatures who have killed since before the invention of language. In all those years, some of us have clearly enjoyed it more than others. That willingness to push things to the ultimate extreme lives inside all of us. It's controlled in some, and unbridled in others.

My gun-worshipping friends repeat over and over that humans are dangerous creatures, and that access to weapons is all that will save the good ones from the bad ones. Sometimes, people get killed who don't deserve it. That's an unfortunate side effect. To the gun believer, it reinforces their contention that everyone should be armed, in order to participate fully in the exchange of lead when it inevitably breaks out.

That sounds incredibly bleak to me. It may be true, but it's sad. Any family picnic in a park, any public entertainment, any convergence of people whatsoever, may be interrupted by a murderer. Get used to it. It's the will of the people and the intent of our founders.

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the other forms that had been tried. Granted, a majority could vote to give their government strong police powers, and agree that only trained professionals in the government's service should be allowed to have the most powerful weapons. But we already voted to let the wealthy have all the money, and now they're using it to crush ordinary citizens. In other words, a free society needs to pay attention and stay in control of the people's government to keep the power from being misused.

I wonder if it can be done. How do you keep everyone informed at all times about the actions of all the public officials at all levels of government, in real time? The internet? That hacker-infested, troll-plagued repository of convincing disinformation? What else ya got?

I wish I had an answer. A lie can go halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its shoes tied. That concept has been attributed to a number of famous people, but its origin matters far less than its validity. Especially now, a lie can travel at the speed of light. So can the truth, but a good lie sounds convincing, and a great lie can cast doubt on the truth.

And then there's opinion. An opinion may turn out to be true. It may sound so attractive that its supporters treat it as true, regardless. All this competes for attention in a busy world where increasing numbers of strivers struggle to stay alive and feel like it's worth something. We are asked to make quick decisions about policies with far-reaching consequences. We are represented by elected officials that most of us don't fully trust, because we don't have time to keep track of all the influences  on them.

Broad-brush government haters and conspiracy theorists simplify their lives by condemning the whole thing. It's rotten, they all stink, destroy it all. Maybe they scale it back to certain departments and party affiliations, but a nihilist view of government in general is the foundation of both anarchy and tyranny.

By now I'm sure that someone has already posted the opinion that the tragedy in Las Vegas could have been contained with much lower losses if trained individuals in the crowd, openly and legally carrying their own automatic weapons, had been allowed to identify the target and pin him down with return fire. If we really live in a land where outbreaks of gunplay need to be tolerated, we all need not just weapons, but combat training as well. The best remedy for bad speech is more speech. The best remedy for bad gun use is super-precise, heroically competent, instant retaliation. That would obviate the need for heavily armed police forces and eliminate the lag time between calling 911 and the actual arrival of help.

When you're writing the script, you get to pick who wins. Reality is seldom so courteous.

Police misconduct further complicates any simplistic prescription. Armored vehicles and extensive arsenals present quite a temptation. As we learn from many reports of misbehavior ranging from mildly questionable to outright heinous in both law enforcement and the armed forces, some who serve are gratifying a personal urge to dominate more than a lofty calling to protect. Anarchy or tyranny will serve their purposes equally well.

Anyone with a heart feels wounded when we hear of a murder, mass or otherwise. Naturally, those inclined to care will offer warm words at the very least. Those inclined to celebrate violence will exult. There will be a lot of opinions and statistics back and forth. Thoughts, prayers, and argument will create a jumble of noise that will fade to the usual grumble until the next time.