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.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Substance is so passe

Human history has been divided into periods with weighty names like Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. There was the Age of Discovery, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial Age. We proudly proclaimed The Nuclear Age, The Space Age and The Information Age. It was all part of our glorious progress to a brilliant future. But now, like an airplane climbing too steeply, it seems to be stalling.

We're in the Entertainment Age.

Despite the principle that we are all created equal, some people clearly have had more technical minds and more detailed visions of the future. This minority has managed to forge ahead against various setbacks, to advance technology that makes all things seem possible.

Advancement depends on conveying information clearly and memorably, and on creating searchable repositories of knowledge. Enlisting mass cooperation depends on various techniques of persuasion or coercion. And people just like to diddle with things, and express their interpretations of the world around them. Art was born, in all its forms: verbal, performance, visual, sculptural, musical, to create a world of entertainment.

When all the major challenges to survival seemed to be surmounted, and information technology made the transmission of beguiling images pervasive and immediate, The Entertainment Age began.

Entertainers have always attracted a following, but when stars could be recorded and displayed nationally and globally they became major economic and social influences, rapidly displacing actual thinkers and producers. We have become a culture of the entertaining and the entertained. If you are entertaining enough, you can become wealthy. Wealthy is good, right? Wealthy is the best. Anyone who has become wealthy is automatically better than anyone who has not.

The majority of people in any age are idle dreamers. Before The Entertainment Age, they might dream idly of actual inventions and achievements. Now they dream of performance skills most of them don't have the work ethic to develop. And even if they do, someone still has to set up the stage and clean up after the show.

Our existence serves no discernible purpose, so entertainment is as good a goal as any. As long as we can imagine great things and depict them in more and more convincing facsimile, we don't really need to accomplish anything. Someone will always manage to be good enough to keep us watching.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A dark truth becomes ever more obvious

As a Baby Boomer, I accepted without question that the human race wanted to last a long time and grow ever more friendly toward each other. How could I have been so blind to the fact that nearly half of all people are outright hostile to such a utopia? I joined vast numbers of others who bought into a vision of a world beyond hatred and divisiveness, unaware that the very concept fostered deeper and more bitter divisions.

The descendants of that world view continue to work toward it in spite of the continuing opposition. We dig through the muck of hostility and greed, thinking we're building a permanent road to higher ground, only to see the mire close behind us and grow deeper in front.

Believers in a higher power have an advantage when it comes to organizing. That's the way in which they will gather and march forth to destroy a secular society created by ethical -- but non-religious -- citizens who may come to outnumber the believers in a specific, narrow version of religious doctrine. The believers in their small groups can plan their campaigns of violence and sabotage in the name of goodness and righteousness. With the stamp of God's approval they can dedicate themselves to destroying the enemies of their belief system. These enemies include religious people who believe that believers in different faiths can and should get along.

Any way you look, you can see a final confrontation brewing. Obstinacy and superstition demand it.

In the Christian tradition, God will whisk the virtuous true believers straight to heaven before the shit hits the fan. It would be interesting if this roster included a lot of people who were not scripture-waving churchgoers.

Meanwhile, in another Abrahamic religion, the self-styled Islamic State is trying to bring about their own version of the final battle, as described in an article from 2016 about the attacks to date in Europe and America.

No religious narrative has to be true for religious warfare to bring about the end of our species. Everything does happen for a reason. Unfortunately, the reason turns out to be that humans are suckers for suicidal delusions.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The future of opportunistic scavengers

Modern media have made it possible to worry about the future far beyond the lifespan of any human currently alive. We can use our concern for future generations to support arguments in favor of everything from environmental stewardship to ethnic cleansing.

Various cultures considered less evolved by the technology-obsessed Europeans had a sense of generational responsibility and a reverence for the land that gave them life. Whether their practices actually worked we cannot say, since the Europeans sprawled across so much of the globe and smashed the balance those cultures had maintained. That's a part of history and a reality from which the life of our species must go forward. Technologically advanced science may manage to put measurable numbers on the things that older cultures handled intuitively, so it could net out as a gain overall.

Our ancestors did hunt species to extinction. You have to eat, after all, and they were only human. On the rise to become human, plenty of them probably became meals for other predators. This engrained a sense that humans can do anything they feel they need to do, in order to survive and proliferate.

In reality, in any era, a person will do whatever looks like a good idea at the time, to get ahead. This may mean just staying one jump ahead of starvation or it could mean acquiring another million dollars to bolster an already immense fortune. Most people are wired to seek a sense of security. If a little is good, more is better. While many things may be normal, their effects can still be pathological. In other words, everybody feels a certain way, so it is widely accepted, but its long-term effect is detrimental. Think of fossil fuel consumption, or the presumption that wealth is good.

The idea that one individual's actions can do no harm grows directly from the sense that a person can and should do whatever is necessary to survive and proliferate. When survival itself is no longer in doubt, the perception extends to mere wants that loom in stature to seem like needs.

Humans have eaten carrion and each other in the course of our often unappetizing history. Someone, somewhere, has tried to eat just about everything. And when we learned to exploit more difficult resources, we developed more and more efficient implements to extract and refine everything from trees to minerals to sea creatures.

We are really just opportunistic scavengers. While some of us have figured out that we need to set limits on this tendency, the vast majority of people live by the old rules: if you need something, take it. If you no longer need something, drop it by the wayside, or throw it somewhere far from your house, if you don't want it stinking up the neighborhood. That may be in someone else's back yard, but we can deal with that later if they complain.

Sure, we have Earth Day and a lot of public awareness. But then a guy I know who seems quite environmentally aware shows up with the lunch his wife packed, with every single item in an individual plastic bag, and he tosses all the bags into the trash after he extracts the food. These bags get used for a total of three or four hours to contain this guy's food before they go into the waste stream. And we're talking sturdy zippered sandwich bags. Opportunistic scavenging supersedes education even in someone who appears to care. Lunch comes to him in these bags, and he consumes it without a critical thought.

As we revert to divisiveness and distrust, as we embrace insular religions and draw up teams for a future of conflict, our children's children could end up eating carrion and each other once again. Will we be honest enough to admit that we don't really care how they live? Evolution moves forward on a broad front, never stopping. Whatever is alive at any given time figures out how to manage conditions as they find them. There is no real need for long life, or happiness. Planetarily speaking, there is no need for life at all. We who are alive at this moment will do whatever makes us feel happy.  If you want to cloak it with some glorious embroidery about the future, go ahead. We're all just taking our best guess, and hoping we remain comfortable up to the point of our individual deaths.

Our species will only have the future that enough of us collectively turn out to want.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Flipside of The Greatest Generation

Never underestimate the value of a good bad example.

Well-deserved praise has been heaped on those who answered the call of duty to defeat militarily the Axis powers in World War II. If you ignore the fact that we couldn't have done it without our own ally, that sweetheart Joseph Stalin, it really was a clash between Good and Evil.

The Nazis in particular did future generations a favor by being so categorically and undeniably evil. Of course they didn't view it as evil. They considered it an admirable rigidity of principle, and the iron will to carry out a ruthless plan to impose a virtuous monoculture across the globe. The urge itself is evil, but it has its adherents even now.

Because World War II came along when humans had developed film, broadcast, and recording technology, and because the Nazis were so stuck on themselves that they kept meticulous records, we have a lot of detailed history about who did what when. We can rapidly draw parallels to current events and show without a doubt what can happen when the logic of a hateful ideology is drawn out to its grimmest conclusion.

Mass killing is a human tradition. Some instinct impels us to try to wipe out rival DNA, to compete for global domination, starting right in our own back yards. It doesn't happen everywhere, all the time, but it recurs enough throughout history to show that we have a chronic problem. Returning to the bloodbaths of the mid 20th Century, we find plenty of historical records related to every theater of war and land under occupation.  Other examples than the aggressive Nazi regime haven't had the great marketing that makes the Third Reich such a strong brand, but the idea of killing people who don't agree with you needs no introduction, wherever it arrives.

It is this very archive of evil that gives us the graphic rebuttal to plans put forward now in countries that once considered themselves bastions of freedom. The hypocrisy of the United States is unfortunately evident in the persistence of official and unofficial racial segregation after the Second World War, but at least some efforts were made to acknowledge the rights of more than just white guys as the 20th Century passed the half. Those very efforts solidified the core of evil that predated the Nazis by a couple of centuries in our great country, and that sympathized with the actual Nazis in their rise to power.

Recognizing an evil does not automatically cure it, but it is the vital first step. Parallels to the Nazis are too freely drawn, but the sensitivity to Nazi-like encroachments is an early warning system for the advancement of a truly free and inclusive society.

The monoculturists consider the desire for a free and inclusive society to be the evil. They despise the weakness of accommodation. They pride themselves on their admirable rigidity of principle and iron will. That's why we keep having this argument. They must be refuted on principle, not just bested on the field of combat. In fact, combat merely obscures the real issues in a cloud of smoke and a spray of blood. That's why hardasses would rather fight a war than lose an argument. War is exciting, and some day they might win. Until then, they'll take whatever beating they have to, and retire, grumbling, if it goes against them again.

The real Greatest Generation will be the one that confronts and vanquishes its own evil in quiet meditation, and never inflicts its misery on the rest of the world. While I would welcome that at any time, I'm not holding my breath. Every generation has to interpret the world they find, and choose a way through it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Do you deserve to live?

The capitalist system places a dollar value on everything and everyone. More dollars mean greater value. Greater value means greater virtue, because success is money, and success is good. The rich really are better than the rest of us, simply because they are rich.

When ambition is satisfied with modest returns, a money-based system can perk along fairly sustainably. But ambition is a virtue in the pursuit of money, and the power that money represents. A money-seeking system stimulates ambition.

When someone's pursuit of money succeeds enough to surpass a certain threshold, the money itself attracts more money. But social forces will also be trying to strip away that money, as other seekers try to get their own pile. A big enough pile of money creates its own community, feeding off of it and supporting it, which is why immensely wealthy people are not bled dry and left as stripped carcasses. The ownership of the fortune is irrelevant to the industry that forms to exploit it. The symbionts know better than to kill the host.

Sometimes the symbionts turn into parasites and do kill the host. Or the pile of money is too small to breed its own protective colony of workers and soldiers, so rival colonies raid it. Picture the poor schmoe whose investment portfolio tanks, leaving him without a retirement income just when he needs it. Sorry, loser! Please see the Assisted Suicide Department for your new retirement plan.

Unfortunately, fortunes are often made in destructive endeavors. The supporting community that feeds off of the wealth at the center of it must therefore serve the destructive enterprise faithfully in order to maintain position. The destructive enterprises tear down society as a whole, but this only makes the island built around wealth look like a more vital refuge against personal failure, poverty, and misery.

All the while, humans have been getting better and better at staying alive. Even during the mass slaughter of World War II, the human population went up, as we fought back against the diseases and famines that had always been more deadly to us than our own aggressive tendencies. All those people want to live. They look for the necessities first and luxuries soon afterward.

Clearly, a lot of the world's population still seeks to secure the necessities, while a privileged minority seeks more and more luxury. That privileged core shrinks steadily as it attracts more and more resources to itself. This places an ever growing number of people at risk of calamity.

A major part of the problem is the ever growing number itself. Instinct drives us to replicate. Hardship encourages us to replicate more energetically, so that someone might survive to carry on. Instinct never notices how successful this imperative has already been. And instinct gets awfully whiny when intellect tries to take a different path.

In a world already carrying more people than the ecosystem can support, people from many different belief systems can see the value of eliminating some of them. The ranks of the disposable will vary depending on the belief system. Even that is based in instinct, as our centuries of warfare over territory and resources will attest.

The United States is currently under the control of a faction that believes with religious fervor in the notion that your monetary worth defines your actual worth. They'll pay lip service to charity, but their actions betray the sink or swim mentality that motivates their policies. It's pay to play here in the land of the free.

Pay to play sounds okay as a way to eliminate the dead wood, as long as you believe that a person's ability to attract money is the primary filter by which we should select. Get a job, slacker! Pull your weight! No work, no eat! Of course a sufficiently disciplined communist or socialist society could say the same things, without the slippery pricing structure. Truly inert people are a drain on any form of society. But in capitalism as currently practiced in the United States, every person is an independent contractor, trying to negotiate prices in a hostile marketplace where everything is priced for the vendors' maximum profit.

I'll bet insurance actuaries have already figured out the optimum lifespan that will provide the most profit. This information will be more tightly guarded than the nuclear launch codes, and is potentially more explosive. But it is also a moving target, as the people's earning power changes. For vast numbers of us, that change is downward.

Is downward bad? A massive die-off, particularly among industrialized nations, would take a lot of pressure off of the environment. First you become poor. Then the industrialist system makes sure you die of it. The industrialist system subsequently dies because no one is left to buy its products, but it's a good run of quarterly reports leading up to that. Think of mass death among the poor as the ultimate layoff.

I try to be a useful citizen, but I set myself against the destructive economy decades ago. Thus, I have been worthless to society my entire adult life. Promoting tolerance and a gentle, largely non-motorized lifestyle is an attack on what the monetarians believe makes this country great. If a younger generation decides I was on the right track, norms may shift, but I fear it will be too late for me. Even if the social climate embraces sustainable and kindly practices, it may discover that longevity is itself unsustainable. A person needs to be contributing to the general welfare. Anyone who does not is just an expensive pet. That includes Grandmom and Granddad. Who cares if you're still enjoying yourself? If we have to chip in for expensive medical interventions, you need to go out into the wilderness and quit burdening the tribe.

It's easy to play with such thought experiments until the pangs of age start to chip away at you. Life is a habit. Even in my darkest depression (so far) I don't want to give it up. But logic inclines me more frequently to run a balance sheet on myself to see if it might be time to get out of the way. I dread the day when I can't make the equation work in my favor. I also find myself running the calculation every morning.

Having failed to provide myself with the protective cocoon of money I would need to pay for the various medical services that an aging person requires, I don't deserve to live, as far as capitalism is concerned. I can spin the game out a bit longer by selling my home and most of my possessions. Poor people don't deserve homes and possessions. And in nature, any creature that can no longer furnish a nest and dodge predators will shortly become food. So by any measure, the vast majority of humans do no good, even if they do no harm. The bottom line is suffering. Ask not what the money supply can do for you. Ask what you can do for the money supply.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Why health care fails in the USA

Most of the opposition to universal health care in America is based on our longstanding traditions of greed and double crossing.

The colonies that became the United States were founded as business ventures. Religious dissenters may have been used to staff some of them, but that was because they provided a substantial number of people willing to relocate far, far away. Along with their conscientious convictions, they had obligations to provide returns to their investors. As far as the investors were concerned, the obligations were all that mattered. This was the leading edge of capitalist expansion.

Business thrives on a certain amount of deceit. Profit is itself the amount that a business is able to overcharge for goods and services, in order to have funds to invest in things like other ventures, and the egotistical indulgences of people in charge. We put up with a little of it. The businesses push for a little more. Various forces push back if they can. But between nations, and against indigenous peoples, the deceit includes frequent signing -- and then violation -- of treaties. As the colonies became the nation and the nation developed, deals were struck in back rooms, palms were greased, and history written to show that the good guys always won.

Time and again the little guys have been reminded that the big guys look out for themselves first, and the rabble a distant second. We're conditioned to expect to be double crossed if we're not paying constant attention to how the cards are being dealt. It's almost a point of pride.

We do have our traditional belief in honesty and integrity, truth and justice, freedom and equality. But little of that was reflected in the period when robber barons amassed legendary fortunes to set the contemptible standard of wealth that still afflicts us.

All this conditions us to expect that any system will be gamed, and that cheaters will abound at the top and the bottom. What do you hear most often from people carping about social programs? They hate paying for freeloaders. And the second most common thing? They fear that the system will be inefficient and corrupt. It does not matter to them that the current system is already inefficient and corrupt. They assume, from historical precedent, that the government and corporate interests will collude to fix prices to the advantage of rich investors, and that the users of the programs will most likely be goldbricking slackers.

There is more support for the first contention than for the second. Most Americans work as hard a they can. Some strivers are fortunate enough to be able to find enough jobs to work way more than the 40-hour week we were once led to believe was a reasonable standard. Others fail to connect as well with virtuous toil,  and end up living with their parents for a few decades, or falling onto public assistance. And yes, there are goldbricking slackers, but to assume that the person you see using food stamps or lining up for unemployment is just a loser with low morals looks through a pretty distorted lens. Most people have dreams and hopes. Unrealistic though many of them may be, they're generally innocent enough.

When it comes to health care, I often hear that objectors to a universal system don't want to pay for someone else's health care.

You pay for someone else's health care whenever you do business with a company that provides benefits for its employees. You pay for someone else's health care whenever you pay your own insurance premium. You pay for someone else's health care whenever you pay your taxes. By inserting the overhead costs and profit desires of insurance companies into a haphazard agglomeration of risk pools, we jack our own costs higher and higher. The idea that you are not paying for someone else's problems is a dangerous illusion. We all pay for other people's problems, and we always will. Even in libertarian anarchy we would pay dearly for other people's problems, as they acted them out without restraint for as far as they could extend their influence.

Accepting for the moment that we will believe in the innocence and integrity of most clients of a universal health care system, that still leaves the cheaters on the supply side. Only the unwavering resolve of a citizen government will restrain that. Raising children with better ethics will help keep such a government going. Abandon the unrealistic expectation that anyone can become filthy rich and that it's perfectly fine to try.

The social contract becomes complicated when it depends on the good faith and responsible behavior of large numbers of people, but the only alternatives are authoritarianism or anarchy. Put the unruly mob under an iron heel, or pull off all the controls and let the forces of nature bring tides of slaughter, interrupted by brief respites of exhaustion. Breed without restraint, planning on the deaths of many. Become less attached to specific people, places and things, because all will be in danger. Let most of civilization go. It's too expensive and complicated to maintain.

Reproduction is a controversial issue. The compulsion is basic and powerful. On the one hand, I can imagine a thoughtful society replenished by small families with carefully raised children. On the other hand, who knows where the next great mind might come from? The fruitfully multiplying crowd says to replicate early and often. On yet another hand, each generation uses the ideas that are born near it and within it to interpret and shape the world in which they find themselves. You never know to miss what you never had. So controlling the inflow to population seems much better than speeding up the outflow to maintain sustainable levels. Otherwise, any social system will be overwhelmed.

A democratic government, even on a republican model, requires educated, informed citizens asking good questions and focusing on the balance between the desires and needs of individuals and the best interests of the group. That seems to be falling apart, as the desires of individuals and sub-groups supersede the national interest. And that national interest has to acknowledge that the nation exists on a finite planet with other people on it. Conquest has not been possible, nor should it be. All we are left with is cooperation or annihilation. Didn't someone we revere once say "Join or Die?"
It goes beyond the borders of 13 colonies or 50 states now. We don't have to like each other. But we are stuck with each other. We have to figure out how to make it work.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Health insurance is an enemy of freedom

In a comment on Senator Jeanne Shaheen's Facebook page, I reported that I could not afford insurance under the ACA:

Senator Jeanne, due to peculiarities in my circumstances, I am unable to afford coverage under the ACA. Health insurance is not health care. And at this point I have neither one anyway. Last month, I had to pass a kidney stone alone at home and then go to work the next day, business as usual. My retirement plan consists of various scenarios for suicide when I can no longer take care of myself. I guess this makes me the ideal citizen, as far as the conservatives are concerned. Work 'em 'til they drop.

Another commenter suggested this:

Really maybe you need to find a better job. personally I have never had a job that didn't offer insur(ance). (Actual post had a typo in the last word.)

I answered:

Forcing people's career choices in search of insurance is not freedom. It indicates a country run for the benefit of insurance companies.

Isn't that pretty obvious? Along with getting people to use the terms health insurance and health care interchangeably, we've conditioned ourselves to seek "benefits" as a survival need, in a wilderness where we have to grub for every resource. Those who control the wealth determine how it is doled out, even if that means working for the destructive economy or choosing to live at risk for the sake of what you believe in. We are all soldiers facing death for a cause, even if we conscientiously avoid using combat for conflict resolution. I happen to have ended up in a place where the job that suited many of my abilities and needs only briefly provided "benefits," regardless of my usefulness to the business or that business's service to the community. Society at large benefits from the unheralded life and death of numerous benefactors for whom no public buildings are ever named.

With a system of universal care, rather than profiteering schemes of insurance, freedom of movement, choice, and work will make our society more innovative and our citizens more free. By making health insurance a marketed commodity, we actually hurt many other aspects of the free market economy. If you want unfettered freedom, live in anarchy now and take whatever happens to you. If you want a reasonably free society with well-maintained infrastructure and civilized amenities, accept that some things cannot be turned to profit. Some things are autonomic functions of society, that need to run quietly in the background. These include health care and energy production. If either of those intrudes on the peace and progress of the human species, we're doing something wrong. Right now, those intrusions make up most of the news. The rest of it hinges on inanities like what color we want our neighbors to be.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Evolution exemption

The debate over abortion rights and birth control stems from our most basic instincts, filtered through our language and thought processes.

The hardest hard core opposes all abortion and birth control. You copulate, you live with the consequences. That is a very naturalistic viewpoint, albeit frequently espoused by people who claim that dominion over all of nature was granted to us by a deity. We can selectively breed any species but our own. Our own species must proliferate without restraint, to be selectively killed in arguments over esoteric points of philosophy, or conflict over possession of natural resources.

A debatable theory that the use of cesarean section births has already shaped physical evolution points out that pregnancy and childbirth would be fatal to some women. In the naturalistic view, these deaths are necessary to purge those defective genes. If God had meant those women to survive, He would have given them wider pelvises.

From a practical standpoint, if we develop a significant population that can only give birth surgically, we have created a dependent group that will die out if they are cut off from medical facilities at the wrong time. This can happen in a number of ways, not least of which is by cutting health care in a developed nation, or by the collapse of civilization in general as a result of an overblown argument about esoteric points of philosophy, or conflict over possession of natural resources.

Fertility is destiny in a world without birth control. Conceive and be replicated, or conceive and be eliminated. The so-called sexual revolution granted control over fertility to those most affected by it. Horny people, mostly men, hoped that this would lead to lots of recreational copulation. Control-freak prudes seize on that aspect alone to excoriate it as the foulest sin. In all the smoke and chaos of that debate, the fact that fertility control gives women the freedom to live productive non-sexual lives is submerged in the swinging melee of religious symbols and insults.

The control freaks say that a woman who wants to live a non-sexual life can simply refuse to participate in sex. No other mitigation is necessary. Reality constantly refutes this.

Everything that affects birth and death shapes evolution. Because humans react to ideas, not just to the passage of genetic material and the survival of better or worse hunters and gatherers, social and political choices shape whether the species of tomorrow goes upward and outward on intellectual advancement or devolves into superstitious hunters and gatherers again.

Our instincts constantly speak to our intellect in ancient, wordless ways we often do not recognize as the primitive promptings that they are. We call this the subconscious. Sometimes the subconscious draws on intellectual concepts running subroutines, but more often you can find the biological prompting that predates the invention of words. The ancient world called. It wants its species back.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Collected thoughts

Just a few snippets from social media posts

If corporations are people, what gender are they? And should that affect their right to merge?

In case anyone still thinks that term limits would fix anything, look at what Trump has done in the first 10 days of his first term in the only elective office for which he has ever run.

Authoritarian conservatism is a system of selectively breeding for obedience. It's remarkable how they bait the trap by saying they're protecting liberty.

I vastly prefer people who remind me to be peaceful over those who try to solicit my aggression.

There are two kinds of people in this world: the ones who realize that we're all in this together and the ones who are wrong.

With all the heartwarming support for climate change awareness and opposition to pipelines and fracking, how much are you doing as a consumer to reduce fossil fuel use? No corporate behemoth will waste money on a product that is not selling. For all that we need to stand up for regulation and oversight, those will never win as long as we keep supporting the social model that made the problems in the first place. By the way, I realize this is hopeless.

Just the fact that health care is referred to as an industry tells you everything you need to know about America's attitude toward human suffering. The health care industry is highly rated as an investment these days. That means lots of return for shareholders.

Getting people to use "health insurance" and "health care" as interchangeable terms has been one of the biggest propaganda victories of the last couple of decades.

When the result is millions of people turned into cannon fodder on both sides, you have to wonder whether titanic clashes of good and evil serve either side very well.

Who knew that the some of the people you can fool all of the time would turn out to be such a significant voting bloc?

I'm sure we can all agree that there is no issue on which we can all agree.

A country that threatens other countries with its nuclear arsenal is a hostage taking suicide bomber.

Human race informed that they will not get their security deposit back as they depart from Earth to find a new planet.

In 2017, millions of people in the developed world followed through on their resolution to get rid of the clutter and excess possessions in their homes. Suddenly, everyone was living in airy spaciousness and marvelous simplicity! It was also the first year in which you could walk across the Pacific Ocean on the mat of trash and discarded possessions.

If you try to challenge and refute every ignorant assertion with well-reasoned, fact-based arguments, you will spend your time doing only that, until you die of exhaustion. On the other hand, unchallenged ignorant assertions often become accepted as truths because they sound snappy and no one has publicly blown them up.

I got in touch with my emotions. They seemed pissed off that I had found their hideout.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

What would you do? Way beyond Quinones

As we enter what could be a period of violent upheaval in this country, you might want to think about how you would react in various scenarios.

The ABC show "What Would You Do?" plays with light versions of social issues, but the legitimization of white nationalism, sexism, LGBTQ-phobia and strong-arm tactics in general coming out of the recent presidential campaign has already spawned incidents of violence.

The wonderful Women's Marches all over the country and in the world in general made a commendable display of peaceful protest. However, the climate in authoritarian circles, and in the right wing, is not at all receptive to protest demonstrations.

What would you do if law enforcement covering a demonstration opened fire with automatic weapons? Would you back down immediately, take cover, and run? Or would you march forward to be mowed down, as a rebuke to the vestiges of conscience left in the world? If you fled on the first day, would you come back for a second day? If you fled on the first day, would you begin to organize for civil war?

What would you do if you saw a group of white people beating up a brown person? A non-heterosexual person? A Jewish person? What would you do? How would you intervene, if at all?

What would you do if Jewish businesses were vandalized and ransacked in your town? What about Muslim businesses?

What would you do if lynching began again, law enforcement did not investigate, and district attorneys did not prosecute? What would you do if perpetrators who did face token trials always went free?

The current administration drew heavily on the influence of paranoia and hatred to build momentum for their campaign. They used voters disenfranchised by corporate influence, economically burdened by overpopulation and by technological advancement, feeding the popular myths about poor people, dark people, unfamiliar religions, and government conspiracies to advance the real conspiracy, which is corporate dominance of political, social, and economic life.

What would you do if oligarchy took over your country and you still had to look the word up every time you heard it, or just ignore it and hope it goes away?

It will start so slowly that you can easily tell yourself it's going nowhere. And it may really simmer down. But if it doesn't, you should have some idea what you would do.