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.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A fascinating anniversary

A little less than a year ago, I came home from a long day at work to discover that thieves had come into my house and stolen a bunch of things.

During the season when I ride a bicycle all the way to work from home, my car stays in the driveway as a scarecrow of sorts. People associate a car in the driveway with someone being home, and an empty driveway with an unoccupied house. During periods when I have been without a car, I have looked out to see people turn away as soon as they see no motor vehicle parked out front.

As the days get shorter and drivers become less patient with a bicyclist on the road, no matter how well illuminated, I shift to park-and-ride commutes from various starting points. These let me salvage some exercise and reduce the amount of internal combustion in my life, but they also leave my driveway clearly empty.

Right after the break-in, I exhibited paranoia, hyper-vigilance, and a distinct drop in compassion. I felt anxious and quite alone. My anxiety would spike as I entered my driveway after any absence. In addition to my computer, my checkbook, my wife's jewelry, and several other items, the thieves had stolen the joy of homecoming.

As the months passed, I got used to my new security routines -- surveillance cameras inside and out, deadbolts, new and unusual places to hide valuables while I'm away -- and began to feel more relaxed. When my wife returned from her job out of state to spend the summer, our comings and goings were random enough to make our home less attractive to larceny. The pair who had broken into my house had been arrested within a month or so, ending quite a spree in the surrounding towns, but they showed no remorse and no inclination to cooperate. Their operation was apparently related to drugs. If they're out, I doubt that they have straightened out much. And even without them, others are ready to fill the vacancy.

The daylight shortens. I prepare to take up the park and ride routes again. My anxiety is climbing as the conditions begin to replicate what attracted the criminals in the first place.

Recovery from any traumatic experience traditionally takes at least a full year. You have to live through the entire cycle and beyond it to fully experience the new normal. What happened to me was fairly minor. It has a larger effect because it's easy to imagine how it could have been worse. One incident provides no immunity against future incidents. Will my upgraded defenses be sufficient? Will they even be tested? Has the criminal element that preyed on this area disbanded, or have I simply missed hearing about their depredations?

A detached part of me observes these thoughts and emotions with the fascination of a researcher. Meanwhile, the rest of me is experiencing them to the fullest.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Crisis was Foretold

For most of my 61 years, people have been discussing the various ways in which the human species was lurching toward destruction. Whether the discussion started with population pressure, environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, runaway diseases or some other self-created hardship, it usually led to the collapse of civilization and a time of violence as humans fought each other for a piece of whatever was left.

The inescapability of nightmare scenarios led to three distinct coping strategies: Averters, Deniers, and Enjoyers.

Averters are trying to figure out how to prevent disaster. They want to slow down the pace of destruction and try to give everyone alive a shot at an enjoyable life while we figure out the balance between unfettered freedom and long-term survival. They generally advocate population control through voluntary family planning. The more radical of them might make it mandatory. They believe in environmental stewardship, and often promote respect for human diversity as another way to forestall conflict based on xenophobia.

Deniers just please themselves and hope for the best. They may take on attributes of Averters or Enjoyers, but they really just live as opportunistic scavengers, as we have done for millions of years. Don't think, just live. It's attractive because it's easy.

Enjoyers are those scary bastards who are eager for the shooting to start. They like to divide into armed camps exhibiting close philosophical uniformity. They may be defenders of a narrow definition of goodness or they may look forward to being marauders, preying on the multitude of weaker people just asking to be slapped around.

As you can see, at least two thirds of the population are aiding the collapse.

The Averters keep trying to find ways to persuade the other factions to either smarten up or stand down. As some of them get more desperate, they really do start to sound like the totalitarian overlords that the Enjoyers have always said they were.

It has to be hard to bring kids into a world you think is evolving -- or is at least capable of evolving -- a certain way, and then realize that the future is forming much more ominously. Even a peacenik has limits.

The vitriol with which the Enjoyers greet every idea presented by the Averters creates a climate of frustration and anger on both sides. The tension pulls a few Deniers to each camp, and unsettles the remainder of the herd. For the most part, consumption goes on unabated, or even increases, as the depressed and anxious populace consoles itself with material things. Everyone has a justification, and everyone thinks that their little bit can't hurt that much.

Add them up. The whole material universe is made of tiny particles. They add up. Elections are made one vote at a time. They add up. You may not matter, but you do count.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Roll the dice: Health care American style

My wife is about to get out of the emergency room after several hours. She had some chest pains this morning, after I had left for work. She took herself to a local walk-in urgent care center. They recommended that she head on down to the hospital to get a bit more in-depth examination.

Right after the stab of death fear, those of us on the lower economic rungs immediately ask ourselves whether our symptoms are really bad enough to incur the long slog through the medical billing process that will drain our coffers for months. When you're part of the huge deductible or self pay category, you are placing a sizable bet. You hope that it's expensive nothing, because the alternative will be lingering and could be death.

We've convinced ourselves that this is the way to treat ourselves and each other, rather than the easy access and peace of mind that comes with a universal system of health care. Peace of mind is tyranny! 

When you turn out to be okay, that means you're in good shape to get back to work and pay off that debt.