I Have a Couple of Questions

Is there a global network of Nationalist terrorism? An innately human system tending toward militant Tribalism? Is there a widely held belief that humanity is genetically designed to live in a world of homogeneous cultures*, isolated from and hostile to other cultures, and entitled to dominate, exploit and destroy other cultures by the virtue of might in the guise of need?
What is the basis for such a system? Are there valid scriptures declaring the intentions of superhuman beings or forces for such a system? Is there historical, anthropological or archeological evidence that demonstrates the relative success of species populations who enjoy better survival status when they break into competing groups – tribes? Is there evidence that localized packs or tribal groups are more genetically stable when they do not incorporate genetic material from outside their tribe? Is there any philosophical, psychological or medical evidence that militant conflict improves the quality of life for the greater number of members of the tribe?
Is there any authoritative documentation, historical evidence or demonstrable rational that supports the superiority of the tribalist world? And if not, what drives such a wide spread and apparently sociopathic delusion?
Oh, make no mistake about it: I have answers to these questions. I think more people need to ask themselves these questions, and be prepared with answers to them.

*Culture: a community of people who share language, traditions and beliefs, which may or may not include the belief in a right to a certain geographic space and a qualification of “racial” purity as defined by certain physical characteristics. Such a community could be called a tribe or nation.

The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

——————————————————————————-

The classic example of Modernism lies in the line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” which by extension declares that there is a moral or social “center” from which we have lost hold, spiraling into the darkness of the unknown, ungoverned by any moral core. This is Yeats’ response to the world of the First World War, a war among wealthy, powerful, rather degenerate and often incompetent European monarchies fought by everyone but them.

How appropriate then for our Post-Modernist time when the world is racked by oppression, conflict, discord and violence in a chaos of the Ongoing World War, a war among wealthy, powerful, degenerate and often incompetent world autocracies, many of whom make war on their own subjects.  If there ever was a moral center, it has faded into complete obscurity.

What “rough beast’s” hour is coming around now to save us? How long must we wait for anything to come from without to save us from ourselves?

———————————————

The great lesson of history, well recorded in our Humanities: We have learned nothing from history, except how to repeat it, as this phrase has often coined.

A Tribute to Dr. King

I have just been listening to a couple of African American guests on a talk show. Both, as far as I could tell were perhaps in their 30’s and roughly comparably educated.
The first identified many ways that our U.S. society has been structured to maintain an inequitable and unjust system that uses race as a lever for applying power. He suggested that we must change the culture, and suggested some broad ways this might be done. Our culture – a complex cultural milieu, I would say, as there is no uniform cultural state for all the people – is the ultimate driver of any systemic or institutional change. Changing culture, under the best of circumstances, is a challenge.
The second speaker spoke about the inequities, largely in access to realizing aspirations, and generally economically expressed. Her general message seemed to be that things were worse now than they had been in her past – presumably the 90’s, and that it felt very defeating. Whether she got to what should be done to change things, to stop and perhaps reverse the decline, I don’t know. I was frankly unimpressed by what sounded like a complaint against not having gotten the fortune she deserved from life. This was a seemingly healthy, educated young woman who had recently had a book published, but the closest she came to speaking out for those very oppressed by conditions was her use of the first person plural pronouns.
When I was teaching, roughly half of my students were African American, many from low income or homeless/highly mobile situations. I sought readings by writers whose backgrounds were not unlike my students. I once asked if, in their experience, the students thought things were getting better, worse or staying the same for people of color. I didn’t ask this question again, however. Most of the students said nothing, but a couple took angry exception to having such a conversation.
I didn’t pursuing the topic. It was moving farther from our academic goals, but I wonder now about the reticence. Was I out of bounds for opening this discussion? I enjoy (albeit ashamedly) white male privilege. There are many accidents of birth that burden us with guilt. Or was their reluctance from a sense of pointlessness, bitter resignation to society’s chains? Or was it something else? A fear that it could become an avouchment of the guilt of their “accident of birth?” Was it that, as a representative of the system, I held power, not to be relinquished, and therefore not of any benefit to the African American case, and possibly a harm. Yet I was really, perhaps selfishly seeking affirmation of my observations from outside the situation that things really were, or seemed to be in decline.
Open forums are of course necessary, complex and difficult. But recognizing that a problem exists certainly is a good first step. Better still is envisioning a goal – one that is rewarding, but realistically achievable, generally legitimate and challenging enough to engage thought and energy. Then the problem becomes more clearly definable as what is keeping us from that goal. After that, developing and carrying out a plan to resolve the problem and achieve the goal become the hard work of positive change.
These are ancient algorithms, and on this day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2019, it seems a blind miss not to point to the great leaders of our Civil Rights Movement were by whatever avenue informed on moving against the problems that kept people from that mountain top. It was an historic period of our history as well and a significant and powerful action. Where has it left us though?
Perhaps we should stop worrying about whether things are better or worse; they’re not there yet. Perhaps it’s not so important that life isn’t fair or that the tangibles of injustice spring from the ephemerals of culture. Perhaps having a plan isn’t enough if we haven’t defined and generally agreed to a clear destination. Dr. King moved the plan forward toward a destiny. Yet that plan lost steam when the destination became increasingly unclear, fragmented and divergent. We make our own destinies, but when those are unaligned, we’re on the way to destiny in a bumper car ride.
Right now, it seems like more than anything, we need to get our destiny, which is not just the destiny of Black people but of all people, back to a rewarding, achievable, legitimate, challenging and defined destination. If it holds all of these conditions, its attainment will be so empowering that it could spark the further march to solving some of the even more daunting problems, such as saving the planet. The hardest part will be effectively redefining and agreeing upon our destiny, our mountain top. This will probably require another charismatic leader. When has this not been the case?

Yelling Fire

So if yelling “Fire!” in the crowded auditorium is not free speech but a disruptive and dangerous act, what would it mean if someone started to whisper “Poison gas! Pass it on.” Would that be free speech? Many free speech advocates are perhaps no more than adrenaline driven anarchists who revel in the spreading of incendiary discourse and hate speech through digital media outlets and social networks. Does this fall under American rights?

Will the courts take on a clarification of where free speech ends and dangerous speech and gestures and symbols begin, and how we can judge which is which? Free speech, as has the right to bear arms, seems to have run aground on the centuries old question of adhering to the letter of the law, or Constitution, or to the spirit of the law. Without a clarification that accurately describes in words the intent of such laws, putting aside how much the nuance of American English, and the milieu of contemporary life have shifted over two hundred plus years, we must get moving on creating practical mechanism for protecting the rights of the many without empowering perpetrators and threatening victims.

I suspect all of the creators and drafters of the Bill of Rights had that at heart. If we can’t accept that, then it’s time to reexamine what it is be an American.

I’m a Yank

I’m a Yank, but I don’t feel any pride, any satisfaction in the winning of the Civil war, only the satisfaction that the slaves were freed and the country was reunited.
It was the sorriest time in our history. We went to war with ourselves. Hating and killing our fellow Americans was the bottom. I can’t admire bragging about winning. I can only be proud that we put ourselves back together, not when we were trying to tear ourselves apart. Good goals were accomplished, but many bad things happened. The cost was horrendous, and worsened by the economic devastation of the South following our bloody victory.
I hardly wonder that a Southern would feel outrage at the pulling down of statues, when our Minnesota Capitol and Washington are adorned with Union soldiers. It must look like 150+ years of gloating—the ultimate poor sportsmanship.
This country has some growing up to do. Arrogant winners make sore loser. Defeat on the battlefield is bad enough. It isn’t necessary to take their honor as well. We were better to the Japanese following WWII than we were to the South after the Civil war. Can’t we show the world we’re better than that?
All the memorials of the war should be honored, but put away. Leave the memorials to the reuniting and the freeing of the slaves. Commemorate the good stuff.

Dear Commissioners: I need a little help

   From top down, I see leadership in this country being interpreted as holding and wielding power rather than working in the service of those being led. This seems a kind of mindless dictatorship, where the most persuasive is put into power, and it defeats true democracy where people choose the leaders who will advance their interests. This dichotomy and its current lopsidedness pervades our institutions and therefore all facets of our lives.

    Since this difference hinges between people’s informed ability to make good decisions for themselves on one side, and their susceptibility to persuasive showmen on the other, the distinction rests on deeply held, early years’ development of individuals’ perception of themselves in their world. I am convinced that the key to restoring any reasonable balance lies in providing good early childhood and family education. Children must learn from early on to be self-directed decision makers not obedient followers. If children are typically told what to do, and seldom told why or how they should do that (e.g., choosing right from wrong, good from bad), they will grow into adults who depend on external direction for their actions, rather than those internally motivated to strive and excel.

   Each generation must understand that it can only build on the previous generation, and each is responsible for passing that understanding along. Only through such building over time will substantial change occur. Consequently we must explore individual’s cultural and familial histories to understand how to support corrective measures in early childhood development, most of which takes place in the family home. I understand that different populations bring different resources and different cultural histories to the situation. Still, I believe the County may have the greatest access to influencing change. The State is too mired in money politics and the schools, beholden as they are to state funding, simply mirror their much more powerful benefactors. I want to help right the ship of reason.

   So to my request: Is there anyone in the county that I could meet with to discuss these ideas, with the possibility of starting a broader discussion? I would hope such a discussion might lead to policies and actions that would begin to understand where people in Hennepin County are “coming from,” and how we might strengthen their efforts to bring their children and their children’s children to a higher level of democratic – not just academic – success. We must get beyond “rearranging the deck chairs” and get about spotting and avoiding icebergs. Yes, it is a Titanic task. It must start, to ever have a hope of finishing.

(Adapted from a recent letter to a county worker of my acquaintance, jcr)

When You Make Your Voting Choice, Consider

Many folks will be trying to convince you to vote one way or another. Here are some ideas about what to listen and ask for, and how to react to what you hear. Persuasion works from three platforms, each a little lower than the least accessible, and each more accessible, but subject to misleading claims. Supporters and candidates will drop a mass of statements in your lap about truth, proof, evidence and facts in their attempt to persuade you to vote in their favor. Be ready.

  1. Rational arguments require the voter to have a broader knowledge base and be more willing to follow a line of reasoning. “This is how it would work.” (critical thinking)
  2. The voice of authority will ask the voter to rely on history and reputation as a matter of trust. “Have I ever lied to you?” (limited thinking)
  3. And the agitator will play on your baser feelings, especially those that lead to physical response. “FIRE!” (no thinking)

None of them however represents truth, though each has a relationship to facts. So let’s talk about that relationship first.

Facts are by definition real and present. They are not proven by evidence; they are evidence. Facts are accessible to anyone with functioning senses. Glass is hard. Water at room temperature is a liquid. These are not disputable. Right?

Fact Evidence

Not all evidence is factual however. If a person’s fingerprint is found on a murder weapon (fact) that indicates that that person held the (otherwise determined) murder weapon (evidence), but that does not make indisputable that that person actually committed the murder; it’s not proof.

Evidence Fact

A proof is an evidentially sustained conclusion. Proofs are reached by logically arranging factual and circumstantial evidence to a conclusion. Such an arrangement is called a “logic,” and when there are different possible logics, leading to different possible conclusions, any one conclusion cannot be considered an indisputable proof. Furthermore, one might reasonably guess that the more pieces of evidence needed to x_Jay's Oakreach a conclusion would suggest more possible arrangements of that evidence with more possible conclusions. And one would be correct. So does a proof lead to a truth?

Truth is a thorny issue. Is telling “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” possible? Putting aside Truth, as in the ultimate, divine truth about everything, truth is very simply a belief. If I feel a piece of glass and it feels hard, then I would believe that the hardness of glass is a truth. Of course, if I melt it down and blow it into a vase, I would find that it isn’t always hard. If I mix gelatin into hot water and cool it to room temperature, I might find it is no longer a liquid, but now a colloid. If I can’t count on facts being factual all the time, however will I be able to reach a proof I can accept as truth?

Evidence Proof

Proof Truth

Truth is a matter of what I believe it to be. I guess I’ll just have to have faith to get to the truth. Faith is accepting the unprovable as true. My faith and therefore my truth is mine alone.

Belief Truth

Undertaking actions then, such as voting, based on someone else’s truth is risky. If someone tells you they have the truth, and she or he wants you to accept that truth, you must remember that that “truth” may be believed but it is not provable, whether it’s really true or not. Even when someone tells you what she or he believes, you must still take his or her word for it or not. You can never really know. All evidence of belief and therefore “truth” must be highly circumstantial. The more “evidence,” necessarily circumstantial, that a person provides in support of a truth, the more you need to question that truth. Could such evidence even lead to a reasonable proof? Has that person really accepted that truth himself or herself, or is she or he really just trying to get you to accept it for some other purpose? If more evidence only makes any conclusion more debatable, what effect does more evidence have on the unprovable validity of someone else’s professed belief? How’s your faith in that? Now to the vote.

In choosing who or what to vote for, immediately dismiss any claims involving the word “truth.” Look for factual information that you can see or hear yourself, arranged in a reasonable logic that you can understand, and to a conclusion that weighs well against values and condition you support – Yes, align it with your truth. That’s still not enough.

You have to decide then if the proposition or candidate you “like” can actually get enough support to make that agreeable conclusion a reality. Beside aligning your vote to the most issues of yours that are supported, you must decide if enough of other voters’ issues are supported to have a hope of election. That will require looking more broadly at the whole campaign, all the candidates and issues, and many other societal factors that will impinge on the election.

In a statewide election, issues in one area may not be well supported in other areas. In any election, are their other candidates that support most or the most important of the issues you support? In rank choice voting, you’re asked for your alternative, compromise choices up front. Are there hot topic issues in the public eye that might influence voters? These can often be completely unrelated to the competencies necessary for the role to be played in governing. Such things as ethnicity, race, gender and religion are particularly common “false” factors in voting choices. Is the best outcome

  1. voting for the best candidate,
  2. getting the best alternative candidate elected or
  3. keeping the worst choice from getting elected?

Most of all, avoid the temptation to vote for something or someone because that’s what or whom you were told to vote for. Be wary. If you haven’t been worked up enough to do something constructive, how will it help you to have someone get you all worked up to do something destructive?

And finally, if you want to vote for someone because that candidate is just like you, then write your own name in. You’re probably just as qualified as he or she is.

 

What if our government actually listened?

A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today:

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution.

Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics.

When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.

Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot.

The [current] president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

This article was originally published as a Facebook post by Timothy Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

Existential Change

We generally change in response to what the past has done to the present, but frequently, we then ignore, even deny, what the present will do to the future. One day our past damages will exceed our resource for planned change. Ultimately, the grinding force of universal changes will sweep everything in, but we can’t do much about that. Meanwhile, how we change ourselves is ultimately our responsibility, and a clear definition of who we are.

From star dust to star dust, we are nothing special in the cosmos. There is no specialness, except what we create in the scope of our existence. In the year of a planet’s existence, life is but a millisecond, sentience a nanosecond, and then it’s over. In galactic terms, all sentient populations are effectively alone, incommunicably distant in time and space. The Here and Now is the universe we live in. Humans are all the sentient beings we will encounter and each of us is the only being of any kind we will fully encounter. Each of us lives in her or his own universe in effect. We can live there alone or we can try to merge into other universes, but our knowledge is our existential limit.

The Universe is everything we know; beyond our knowledge is Nothing. Heaven and hell are just our hopes for and fears of the Nothing. The Here and Now is the only thing we have. It is the only thing we can effectively change, and the effect will be the next here and now. Hopes and fears peer into nothingness. Only doing changes our course from one here and now to the next. Only learning grows our universe. We learn from what has been to predict what might be and that allows us to shape a plan.

A plan is a hopeful outcome of a calculated change, a shift in trajectory, an action taken or a stasis maintained. A plan guesses at the shape that will emerge from the nothingness of the future. As the future shapes itself into the here and now and slides into the past, we assess the accuracy of our planning.

Ultimately, each of us manages this process in his or her own universe, individually or in commune with others. Like vehicles on the roads, our plans and our changes will impact others, and others’ plans and changes will impact us. And like the galaxy, the solar system and the planet, the roads offer no support for the hopeful plans of the drivers. For all we can know, the road may end in a great void just over the next rise, or the truck on our left may suddenly swerve to the right. The only laws that truly apply to drivers’ planned changes are the laws of physics. What we see and hear and perhaps feel from the driver’s seat is all we know along with some rules of the road we have been led to believe. It is our known universe. It is our immediate knowledge of the here and now.

Knowledge is all we can have any faith in. Everything else is guess work, and its more courageous brother, belief, each weighting the wager placed on an outcome. Belief is not knowledge. Belief is a shroud to disguise ignorance. If knowledge enlarges our universe and who we are, then ignorance diminishes those.

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit…”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Gaining knowledge moves our here and now closer to heaven, while ignorance moves us closer to hell. The greater knowledge is on Earth then, the closer we are to heaven on Earth. Humans’ incredible capacity for learning is what most elevates us on the planet; not-learning then is bestial.

Learn to live.

Never a Truer Word

Things are not going well with the world. I have recently pondered the overwhelming, perhaps overshadowing, general sense of dysfunction, this decay of civility we now endure. It blares out of politics, economies, technologies and even organized religions. It erodes our quality of life, our access to necessities, our feelings of safety, our sense of humanity. As is natural, we strike out at the things that threaten us, usually people whom we are predisposed not to like. And we declare our injuries, real and anticipated, demanding justice, yet accepting revenge which is more tangible.

Even when justice and/or revenge is achieved, the sense of impending doom remains and seems to envelope us in a vague fog of unknowing. A place of victimization and powerlessness becomes the abode of tens of millions, even hundreds of millions. Much of what we hear when we listen are the screams of rage and fear. Reality is cracking.

There is a churning cloud of words and images hovering behind, around and over people, a cloud so unstable and so filled with threat, yet so impervious to any efforts to quell it or fend it off, that it can only be called the Darkness. It is as if the Void and the Chaos that were banished in Creation have truly crept back in, not from the starry heavens, offended by arrogant space venturers, but from the inner depths of the very people whom it afflicts.

It is as if malignant insecurity, buried under the nurturing soil of civilization is reaching up from its grave to fuel the chaos of misinformation, accusation, incrimination and virulent conflict that surrounds us. Nothing is as it seems; everything is confuted with evil forces reckoning to destroy each of us, isolated and confused. Yet, it is from within ourselves that this malignancy originates; it is our own internal dysfunctions, made manifest and fed on by parasites of power, that have created the Darkness that threatens us. We feed the turmoil we dread.

Walt Kelly’s words have never been more true, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Pogo, 1971)

Pogo quote

 

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