Nothing Is Inevitable

What is the relationship between who we used to be and who we became, who we might have been and who we might yet become? What defines who we are as a whole? Is there an essence to our identity, a center to our being? If so, is our ‘character’ destiny, does that center hold? After it is all over, who ultimately judges a life and what it means?

I’ve often contemplated these questions. It seems strange how I ended up where I now find myself, a path that I followed because other ways were blocked or hidden, difficult or treacherous. I really have no clue why I am the way I am, this self that is built on all that came before.

From moment to moment, I’ve acted according to what has made sense or seemed necessary in each given situation. This isn’t to imply there weren’t choices made, but it can feel as if life only offers forced choices. Certainly, I didn’t choose the larger context into which I was born, all the apparently random and incomprehensible variables, the typically unseen constraints upon every thought and action. Nor did I even choose the person I am who does the choosing.

I simply am who I am.

It’s hard for me to imagine myself as being different, but it isn’t entirely beyond my capacity. I sense, even if only in a haze, other possibilities and directions. I try to grasp that sense of unlived lives, potentials that on some level remain in the lived present. It is important not to forget all the choices made and that are continually made. Life is a set of endless choices, even if we don’t like the choices perceived or understand their implications. But choices once made tend to lose their sense of having been chosen.

We look at our personal and collective pasts with bias, most especially the bias of knowing what resulted. The telling of history, our own and that of others, has the air of inevitability. We read the ending into the beginning.

Historians don’t usually talk about what didn’t happen and might have happened, the flukes of circumstance that pushed events one direction rather than another. The same is true for all of us in making sense of the past. We comfort ourselves with the narrative of history as if it offers us an answer for why events happened that way, why people did what they did, why success or failure followed. We judge the individuals and societies of the past with 20/20 hindsight. But as the narrators of their story, we aren’t always reliable.

Before I go further about history, let me return to the present. I was involved in a debate that became slightly heated. The fundamental difference of opinion had to do with how society and human nature is defined and perceived, the specific topic having been victimization.

I mentioned the author Derrick Jensen as he offers the best commentary on victimization that I’ve ever come across. But one person responded that, “Lastly I just can’t have a serious conversation about Derrick Jensen. I’m sorry.” Though they never explained their dismissive comment, I suspect I know what they meant.

The thing about Jensen is that there is a distinction between his earliest writings and his more recent writings. He began as an ordinary guy asking questions and looking at the world with a sense of wonder, considering the panorama of data with a voraciousness that is rare. Then he found an answer and it was all downhill from there. The answer he found was a cynical view of society, in which he hoped for the collapse of civilization. The answer was anarcho-primitivism.

Jensen’s answer is less than satisfying. It is sad he went down that road. He wasn’t always like that. In his early writings, there is a profound sense of beauty and love of humanity, all of humanity. Yes, there was more than a hint of darkness in his first couple of books, but it was only a shadow of doubt, a potential that had not yet fully manifested, that had not yet become untethered from hope. His younger self didn’t dream of destruction.

I knew Jensen’s early writings years before he began his cynical phase. Nothing he could write would negate the worthiness of what he wrote before. But if all you knew were his later writings, it is perfectly understandable that your criticisms might be harsh.

I had the opposite experience in my discovery of George Orwell.

I mostly knew him as a name, having never read his works for myself. I had seen the movie adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and I’ve come across quotes of his writings in various places. But I knew nothing about Orwell as a man and a writer. He was just another famous dead white guy who said some interesting stuff.

Recently, I decided to lessen my ignorance and read something by him. I randomly chose Homage to Catalonia which had an introduction by Lionel Trilling. At the same time, I did web searches about Orwell, about that particular book, and about Trilling’s intro. This led me to info about Orwell having colluded with the British government when he became an informant. He informed on people in his own social circle and, having been a critic of the British Empire, he had to have known the consequences could have destroyed lives.

That marred any respect I might have had for Orwell, maybe permanently.

So, why could I be so critical of Orwell while being so forgiving of Jensen? Well, for one, Jensen never has colluded with an oppressive government against those who voiced dissent. Plus, it might be the basic reason of my having no personal connection to Orwell’s writings. Jensen’s writings, on the other hand, helped shape my mind at a still tender age when I was looking for answers. I have a sense of knowing Jensen’s experience and worldview, and hence a sense of knowing why he turned to cynicism. But maybe I should also be more forgiving of Orwell and more accepting of his all too human weaknesses, or at least more willing to separate his early writings from his later actions.

My basic sense is that nothing in life is inevitable. As such, it wasn’t inevitable that lives of Jensen and Orwell happened as they did. Almost anything could have intervened at any moment along the way and redirected their lives, forced different choices upon them, allowed them to see new possibilities. And, in the case of Jensen, that is still possible for he remains alive.

Now, for the historical aspect, let me continue on the level of individuals and then shift to a broader perspective.

I’ll use my two favorite examples: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. They are long dead and so that air of inevitability hangs heavy over their respective histories. Whatever they might have become, it would be hard for either to surprise us at this point, unless previously unknown documents were to be found.

Both Burke and Paine began as progressive reformers. There was nothing in their childhoods or even their young adulthoods that would have portended the pathways of their lives, that would have predicted Burke becoming what some have deemed a reactionary conservative, an anti-revolutionary defender of the status quo, and that would have predicted Paine becoming a revolutionary, a radical rabblerouser, and one of the greatest threats to tyranny. Before all of that, they were friends and allies. They wrote letters to one another. Paine even visited Burke at his home. If events hadn’t intervened, they both might have remained partners in seeking progressive reform in Britain and her colonies.

What drove them apart began with the American Revolution and came to its head in the French Revolution. They came to opposite views of the historical forces that were playing out before them. Burke responded in fear and Paine in hope. But these responses were dependent on so many circumstantial factors. Change any single thing and a chain of events would have shifted into a new pattern, a new context.

Like Paine, Burke at one point considered going to America, and yet unlike Paine he never got around to it. His early life didn’t hit any major bumps as Paine’s did. There is no evidence that Paine had seriously considered going to America until all of his other options had been denied. There is nothing inevitable at all about these two lives. It was a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin that sent Paine toward his seeming destiny. And it was the lack of such a similar chance meeting that kept Burke in Britain.

Along these lines, it was a complex web of events and factors that led the two revolutions down divergent paths. The French Revolution wasn’t fated to transform into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s empire. Likewise, the American Revolution wasn’t fated to end in the further institutionalization of slavery that would lead to a bloody civil war, wasn’t fated to lead to imperial expansion, Indian removal and genocide.

There is no shared character that predetermines a people’s fate. The potential of individual members of a nation are magnified by all of their potential combined, the choices and actions of each affecting those of others, millions of paths intertwining like a flock of birds shifting along unseen currents in the wind. History is a thing of luck and chance, infinite possibilities bounded by necessity and circumstance, an interplay of forces that can’t be controlled or predicted. People act never knowing for sure what may or may not come of it.

People and nations are filled with near infinite potential. None of us knows what might have been or what yet might become. Nothing is inevitable.

The path we seem to be on may change in an instant, may change in ways we can’t even imagine. But, no matter what changes, it will never alter all that came before. The many facets of our lives, individual and shared, offer diverse windows onto the world we see. Even as the past doesn’t change, our relationship to the past does and along with it our understanding, along with it the memories we recollect and the stories we tell. And from understanding, one hopes, comes empathy and compassion.

We are who we are, all the many selves we hold within, all the many identities we have taken. The past and the future, the potential and the manifest meets in the world in which we live. No story is completely told while the actors remain.

Racism Without Racists: Victimization & Silence

Violence, what does it mean? Whose violence against whom? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t violence? The victor? The imprisoner? The ruling powers, whomever they may be?

Who is the real victim and who is the real victimizer in this contest for power, this fight for freedom and justice? In what sense does might make right? Why do we so willingly accept the history written by the victors?

The world is full of violence, the United States most of all. This country, my country, our country (for my fellow Americans) has a long history of ethnic cleansing, slavery, oppression, war, conquest, punishment, exploitation, and imperialism. Violence in all of its forms. The U.S. is the most violent country among affluent nations. We spend more money on our military and we imprison more of our citizens than any country in history. There has never been a more powerful empire.

Living in a society of violence, how do we talk about violence? It isn’t just data like homicide rates. Such data is a small percentage of total violence.

I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin:

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

An earlier version is even more apt, from the Watertown Daily Times citing a “crazy statesman” (1939):

“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”

Violence, at its most basic, is about suffering. It is a matter of who does and doesn’t feel suffering, who inflicts the suffering and who is inflicted. This brings us to the issue of compassion and lack thereof. These are more complex issues than the simplistic data collected by bureaucrats and academics, data-collecting that can at times verge closer to sociopathy than to compassion. The demands of objectivity, as a recent study has shown, often have a deadening effect on our ability to empathize. People are living beings with hopes and fears, not numbers, not statistics. When looking at data as we are wont to do, we must never forget what that data represents, the human reality.

I’ve struggled with understanding the suffering and violence that I see all around me, understanding it on the human level. It can feel overwhelming and senseless. How does one find humanity within inhumanity? How does one find meaning in it all?

I’m not sure about meaning, but I have come across one particular articulation and portrayal that offers a larger context to begin considering it more deeply. I speak of the work of Derrick Jensen, specifically two of his earliest books: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. For many years, I searched and searched for even a glimpse of understanding. Jensen’s work was the first voice to give voice to my own sense of suffering. It felt like an acknowledgement, a validation of what I knew in my own experience, a breaking through the isolation of silence like a glimmer of light in the dark.

“If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be. When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic — I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’ So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this eternal and internal propaganda system. At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”
~ Derrick Jensen quoting David Edwards, The Culture of Make Believe, pp 141-142

Jensen offers two main explanations: the victimization cycle and dissociation.

The victimization cycle is a framework to make sense of how violence perpetuates itself. The line between victim and victimizer is very thin. This is demonstrated by how victimizers often have histories of victimization, typically in childhood. Jensen makes a good case for putting this into the terms of our collective history, violence endlessly leading to more violence.

Dissociation, however, is the key that unlocks the mechanism of victimization. This is how we are silenced, blinded, numbed.

Jensen uses many examples, but one stands out. In Nazi Germany, there were many doctors who did horrific experiments on children in the concentration camps. Each night, these doctors would go home and many of them had children of their own. They were good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. The two sides of their lives never crossed. It was as if these doctors had two separate selves with an absolute cognitive disconnection between them.

Nazi doctors is an extreme example, but the behavior is completely normal human psychology. Less extreme examples are commonplace. We all do it to varying degrees for our lives are divided in so many ways. It is easy to not feel and understand the connection between our personal lives and our work lives, between the Sunday sermon and the rest of the week, between what we see on the news and the world immediately around us, between what we buy at the store and what is happening in another country, between what we learn in school and in books and how we think about our everyday experience. We know many things in many aspects of our lives, but we don’t quite make the connections. In this way, we know and we don’t know many things.

We know and don’t know about about mass incarceration and racial injustice:

“The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.

“Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.

“Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

“Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know— that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 181-182

We know and don’t know about sundown towns:

“White Americans encounter sundown towns every day but rarely think about them or even realize that they’re in one. They look like other towns, especially to most non-black people, who often don’t notice the difference between 95% white and 100% white. Motorists driving through Anna, Illinois, might stop to see its famous library, designed in 1913 by Walter Burley Griffith, the Prairie School architect who went on to design Canberra, Australia. Or they might be visiting a mentally ill relative in the Illinois State Hospital. They don’t notice that Anna is a sundown town unless they know to ask. Most sundown towns and suburbs are like that: invisible, until a black wayfarer appears and the townspeople do something about it.

“At the same time, whites have nicknames for many overwhelmingly white towns: “Colonial Whites” for Colonial Heights, near Richmond, Virginia; “the White Shore” across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, instead of the West Shore; “Caucasian Falls” for Cuyahoga Falls near Akron, Ohio; “Whiteface Bay” for Whitefish Bay, north of Milwaukee; and so forth across the country to “Lily White Lynwood” outside Los Angeles. Whites make up jokes about the consequences of an African American being found after dark in many sundown towns and suburbs. “Even the squirrels are white in Olney” is a quip about a sundown town in southeastern Illinois known also for its albino squirrels. Such nicknames and jokes show that the whiteness of these towns has registered; whites do understand that the absence of blacks is no accident. Residents of a metropolitan area also know which suburbs are said to be the whitest and which police departments have a reputation for racial profiling. The practice of stopping and questioning African Americans in Darien, Connecticut, for example, was “an open secret in town,” according to Gregory Dorr, who grew up there. Nevertheless, when told that many American towns and suburbs kept out African Americans for decades and some still do, often these same individuals claim to be shocked.

“Perhaps it is more accurate to say that white Americans know and don’t know about sundown towns. This curious combination of knowing and not knowing seems eerily reminiscent of Europe, 1938–45: surely Germans (and Poles, French, Dutch, etc.) knew that Jewish and Romany people were being done away with—their houses and apartments were becoming vacant and available before their very eyes, after all. Yet many professed shock when told about it afterward. I do not claim that America’s rash of sundown towns is a Holocaust. The murdered probably total fewer than 2,000 and the refugees fewer than 100,000, nothing like the fury the Nazis unleashed upon Jewish and Rom people. Yet there is a parallel question: why have so few white Americans ever heard of sundown towns, even when they live in one?

‘“Yvonne Dorset,” for example, grew up in Buffalo, Illinois, near Springfield. In 2002 she replied to a discussion at Classmates.com: “I graduated from Tri-City [the high school in Buffalo] in 1963. There weren’t any African Americans in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence. We were brought up to respect all races.” As best I can tell, Dorset has lived in Buffalo from 1945 to now. What would we make of a long-term resident of, say, Heidelberg, Germany, who wrote in 2002, “There weren’t any Jews in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence”? Buffalo drove out its African Americans on August 17, 1908. The absence of African Americans from Buffalo today is no more a “coincidence” than the near-absence of Jewish Germans from Heidelberg.”
~ James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns, Kindle Locations 3829-3856

There seemingly is no end to the things we know and don’t know.

Dissociation protects against suffering that is simply too great to comprehend, protects us against uncomfortable truths. This is a psychological form of plausible deniability that usually goes hand in hand with collective forms of plausible deniability. Like structural racism, there is structural dissociation that can be found in government, in the media, in schools, in churches; it can be found everywhere.

Dissociation is how reality tunnels form, and while in them we see nothing else, know nothing else. It is simply our reality. It is our attempt to make sense of the senseless, our dysfunctional response to a dysfunctional world. It is adaptive behavior to a bad situation and no one can doubt that we humans excel at being adaptable.

Dissociation is how victims become victimizers, how good people do bad things. We judge others as immoral or even evil: Nazis, rapists, child abusers, etc. They are different than the rest of us, we assure ourselves. We are good people. We aren’t racists, we aren’t murderers. It isn’t our fault that racism and violence exists in our society. Yes, there are bad people. But that has nothing to do with us. We are innocent. We aren’t perfect, but we have good intentions.

Ah yes, good intentions. *sigh* The road to hell is well paved.

We are all culpable, all responsible for we are all part of this same society, this same history. The past is never past. We can’t pretend that the world we live in has nothing to do with what came before. The past, as it has been said, is prologue.

Indentured servitude led to slavery. After Reconstruction came the Redeemers with the worst forms of sharecropping, debt peonage, chain gangs and forced labor camps. Then came Jim Crow and now mass incarceration. It never ends. It morphs and each time it becomes more resilient to scrutiny. But at a basic level it remains the same. It is just more injustice and oppression, just more violence and suffering. It is the same old story of justice delayed.

The horror of this has become clear to me as I’ve read more and more about American history. I keep being shocked by the arguments people made in the past. I recognize them as arguments I hear today. It is eery how little changes. Most people who made rationalizations and excuses in the past were good people, whether slaveholders or Nazis. Most people today who make rationalizations and excuses are also good people. The world is full of good people and yet not-so-good things continue on.

There is no evil master plan. It isn’t necessary.

“The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society. Academics have developed complicated theories and obscure jargon in an effort to describe what is now referred to as Structural racism, yet the concept is fairly straightforward. One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage , it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape.”
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 184

This makes it all the more frustrating. It is racism without any need for racists, a cognitive prison of our own making.

How does one discuss racial bias with those who don’t see it? When something is unconscious, it simply and seamlessly is part of a person’s sense of reality and a part of the reality shared by nearly everyone around them. There is no conscious intention to be racially prejudiced, but there is an instinctive fear or resistance toward the status quo being challenged. Or else it is simply indifference, a lack of understanding and so a lack of knowing why they should care. It isn’t real at a gut-level in the way it is real to someone who has been the victim of it.

In trying to discuss this, my frustration in part comes from how it too often gets misdirected to side issues, slipping away from the core truth that needs to be spoken and heard. The apparent explanation is that some people literally can’t see the main issue or can’t see it on its own terms, can’t see it for what it is. This is a cultural blindspot. It is as if it doesn’t exist for, in their reality tunnel, it doesn’t exist to them. So, they latch onto side issues that are the only things they can see as relevant. Discussion, such as it is, just goes around and around never getting to the heart of the matter.

This frustration eventually gets to me and gets the better of me, thus bringing out the worse in me. There is this immense injustice in our society, injustice that is cruel beyond belief. It is hard to resist responding with mean-spiritedness, resist falling into bitterness and anger. The excuses and rationalizations for this collective ‘evil’ are soul-crushing, and there is no other word besides ‘evil’ that can capture the depth of moral failure and in some cases outright moral depravity. It is ‘evil’ because it is so much greater than any individual, greater than any generation of individuals, greater even than a single nation. The roots of this shared human sin go back into the distant past. Our entire society is built on it. Simply by being born into this society, we all bear some responsibility, first and foremost the responsibility to become aware and then responsibility to give voice.

It has been with us so long that it is immense. Most people don’t have the time and energy, much less the interest, to study the long and detailed history of oppression and injustice that has continued up to the present. Most people simply don’t comprehend it and, because of the collective shame about it (along with fear and anger), there is little to compel understanding. When confronted with this knowledge, many people complain that you’re trying to make them feel guilty. This seems to be an unconscious acknowledgment that there is something to be guilty about, an acknowledgment that can only be stated through projection for that is always how the unconscious first emerges. The budding awareness of mass suffering isn’t a comfortable experience, to feel it like a raw wound.

The systemic oppression and prejudice truly is immense, beyond any individual. It is actively enforced on the societal level of politics and law. It is pervasive throughout our culture. It is the air we breathe, the ground we walk upon, the world we know. It is just there. As such, on the individual level, it is largely passive and mindless. Most people just go along to get along (I know that I usually do exactly this). Most people don’t ever give much thought to other people’s problems and sufferings, even when or especially when their own continued benefit and comfort is dependent upon it. It is motivated reasoning which is why it must operate to some degree subconsciously.

“Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans— of all colors— oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet [...] racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 14

It is obvious for anyone who has fully looked at and seriously considered the data that racism is rampant in all aspects and at all levels of American society. But the typical stumbling block is that few have much, if any, familiarity with such data. There is always a reason to deny it and dismiss it, to rationalize it away before even considering it. There is always a reason for those who want a reason to not face what is in front of them. Humans are extremely talented at rationaization.

“There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious” —Albert Memmi, Racism

“Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organizations, few whites in the United States claim to be “racist.” Most whites assert they “don’t see any color, just people”; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances; and, finally, that, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they aspire to live in a society where “people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” More poignantly, most whites insist that minorities (especially blacks) are the ones responsible for whatever “race problem” we have in this country . They publicly denounce blacks for “playing the race card,” for demanding the maintenance of unnecessary and divisive race -based programs, such as affirmative action, and for crying “racism” whenever they are criticized by whites. Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could “all get along.”

“But regardless of whites’ “sincere fictions,” racial considerations shade almost everything in America. Blacks and dark-skinned racial minorities lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life; they are about three times more likely to be poor than whites, earn about 40 percent less than whites, and have about an eighth of the net worth that whites have. They also receive an inferior education compared to whites, even when they attend integrated institutions. In terms of housing, black-owned units comparable to white-owned ones are valued at 35 percent less. Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods. Blacks receive impolite treatment in stores, in restaurants, and in a host of other commercial transactions. Researchers have also documented that blacks pay more for goods such as cars and houses than do whites. Finally, blacks and dark-skinned Latinos are the targets of racial profiling by the police, which, combined with the highly racialized criminal court system, guarantees their overrepresentation among those arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated , and if charged for a capital crime, executed. Racial profiling on the highways has become such a prevalent phenomenon that a term has emerged to describe it: driving while black. In short, blacks and most minorities are “at the bottom of the well.”

“How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant? More important, how do whites explain the apparent contradiction between their professed color blindness and the United States’ color-coded inequality?”
 ~ Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Kindle Locations 168-195

I don’t want to get into the details right now, the statistics and research results, the endless examples and anecdotes. There are a lot of details. I’m not exaggerating. The research demonstrating racial prejudice has been discussed in hundreds of books and it really does take a book to do it justice, although it is the type of book that the most racially biased are unlikely to read (yes, that was meant as a challenge; I can offer a list of books for anyone wanting to be challenged). I hope that maybe there are some fence-sitters who can be convinced that sitting on fences is a less-than-comfortable position.

I recognize this is a difficult issue. It isn’t about blame for there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Who here is without sin? I’m certainly not in a position to cast the first stone. My personal life is a mess. I’m no hero or saint. I’m nobody important. I’m just trying to understand. I still don’t know what to make of it all, much less what should be done about it. My only purpose is to be yet another voice. My only hope is that if enough voices are joined maybe we will be heard. And in being heard that the silence will be broken.

Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 3)

I’ve been in a mood of retreat recently, less spiritual retreat and more battle retreat. I’m fed up with the whole shebang. Even NPR is pissing me off (NPR: Liberal Bias?“This is the type of issue I’m tired of posting about. But I’m posting it because the lying pundits and deceiving political strategists never tire… and, more annoying to my everyday interactions, because the un-/mis-/disinformed followers never tire.”).

It’s not just about disagreeing. It’s more fundamental. I want truth, authenticity. I want to know what is real, feel it in my gut. All the spin and rhetoric is getting to me. I’ve hit breaking points before, but this one is different. I’ve been studying history and politics in great detail for a number of years now. I’m not entirely giving up on that, but I can feel a part of me beginning to back off from it all.

Various things clarified this for me recently. What really pushed me over the edge was actually reading something inspiring, something that felt authentically real. The book in question is Homegrown Democrat by Garrison Keillor, the inspiration then led to sadness when I watched and listened to some mainstream media and politics. A while back, I was similarly inspired and saddened by reading Harvey J. Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Thomas Paine was a classical liberal I could respect).

Inspiration and depression have always gone hand in hand for me. I’ve always thought that if modern society doesn’t make you feel suicidally depressed, then there is something seriously wrong with you. I say that only half humorously.

“From a certain point onward, there is a no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
 ~ Franz Kafka 

- – – 

Here is a long comment from a recent post where I expressed my feelings:

What Paine and many others realized is that civilization is built on and dependent on violence. All the good of our modern lives is inseparable form horrible violence. It’s a conundrum, but one that must be faced. The worst violence doesn’t come from a gun or not in a direct sense. There is no choice between violence or no violence in this world. A completely peaceful world is a nice utopia, but for right now we have to deal with the reality in front of us.

As for guns democratically controlled, this happened because they were controlled undemocratically in the past. The world is violent. That is just the way reality is, like it or not (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t aspire toward peace). It’s just that a gun controlled democratically is better than a gun controlled by a tyrant or a gang or a corporation. I’m not a fan of choosing between the lesser of two evils, but in this case there is no other choice… except by either fundamentally altering human nature or fundamentally altering all of human civilization (both being very long term projects that certainly won’t see fruition in our lifetimes, if ever).

Freedom from violence is an abstract ideal. The land you live on is made of the corpses of Native Americans who unwillingly sacrificed their freedom for yours. The products you buy are made through an oppressively violent global economy. If you own property, you are participating in the continuation of a history of colonial genocide and oppression. The land you own is theft from the indigenous and theft from the commons. The landless peasants, many who are homeless, still suffer because of an ownership class that defends it’s stolen land by use of violence, both public and private. How many more people have to die and how much longer does oppression have to last for the sake of these abstract ideals?

“I might disagree, for example if you were asserting that the label “socialism” can be interpreted to mean MERELY valuing the collective good, and fairness.”

I’m not asserting anything in describing what socialism is. I didn’t invent socialism. What I was doing is pointing out the fact that many people are misinformed about socialism. Many of the criticisms of socialism are against views that many socialists don’t advocate. ‘Socialism’ is a favorite straw man of American society, In response to this sad state of affairs, I was offering accurate definitions of socialism.

It’s just a fact that socialists care more about the common good than any other group. It’s the very heart of socialism: social good, social concerns, social-ism. Socialists merely point out that in an interconnected world as we live in it’s literally impossible to separate individual good from collective good, private good from public good. The distinctions between these things only exist in the human mind and in human language, but they don’t exist in the actual lived reality of the world we all share. I know many Americans don’t want to accept these facts. Still, the facts remain.

The distinction I put forth is that anyone who cares will always put people before ideology, including the ideology of ‘freedom’. The question is: Freedom from what and towards what? Whose freedom at whose cost? Too many people want to defend their own freedom while trampling on the freedom of others and then rationalizing that it isn’t their fault that their freedom is built on violence and oppression. People suffer, there are winners and losers, some are just inferior and deserve the horrible fate an oppressive society forced on them. In my heart of hearts, I hope such people one day experience the suffering of those they look down upon or simply ignore. The distinction I put forth is between those who know suffering in the marrow of their bones and those who live comfortable, contented lives.

I’m tired of ideology. I really don’t know how to communicate what I feel other than to say I feel frustrated. The freedom to be poor and oppressed isn’t a freedom I want. The freedom to live in a dog eat dog world is a freedom that makes me want to commit suicide, not joking. If that is freedom, then I’m with Derrick Jensen and I want to see civilization be demolished.

I’m tired of people who, while seemingly meaning well, promote an ugly view of society and of human nature. I’m tired of people who act patriotic about ‘America’ when it’s obvious they have little faith in what America stands for. To them, America just means an attitude of ‘me and my own’ (“Real Americans”).

And I’m tired of people who righteously defend freedom while not acknowledging that most people still live without basic rights and opportunities, that the freedom they defend is in reality just the denial of the freedom of others. Freedom can’t be taken away when it has yet to exist in our society (yes there is some freedom for some people, but even that limited freedom is mostly held by a minority… when freedom means wealth and power, then freedom no longer has any valid meaning).

I’m just plain tired. The worldview that America has come to stand for is something I feel compelled to stand against. Freedom has become a choice between Coke or Pepsi, between Republican or Democrat, between America or the Commies. It’s a simpleminded, black/white conception of freedom. It’s an empty, superficial freedom… just propaganda for mass control.

What inspires me is very simple: people caring about people. Not people caring about people because they think it will boost their own self-interest. Just people caring about people because it’s the right thing to do. We can worry about abstract ideals later… after the starving are fed, the freezing are housed, the sick and dying are cared for. Jesus didn’t ask for money before healing someone, didn’t wonder if such actions conformed to some abstract ideal of liberty. Jesus just helped people.

Basically, what I’m proposing is Midwestern liberalism which partly originates from the early settlers who brought along with them a pragmatic socialism (from Northern Europe). Midwestern liberalism/socialism is just basic Heartland values. The Milwaukee socialists were known as the Sewer Socialists because they were concerned about very practical issues of community life such as making sure there was clean air and water so that people didn’t get sick (which was a major problem with the rise of industrialization). The Sewer Socialists were proud of having a sewer system that actually worked (quite an achievement at the time), to have public services that actually served the public. They didn’t give a damn about ideology. They just wanted people in their community to be healthy and cared for.

Such simple pride in having a healthy community seems almost odd today, but such Midwestern liberalism/socialism still exists… at least in some parts of the Midwest. I was just reminded of this tonight while reading Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat:

“The state was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You’re Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have—a green Jell-O salad with mandarin oranges, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and Miracle Whip is by God good enough for anybody. I grew up in the pure democracy of a public grade school where everybody brought a valentine for everybody on Valentine’s Day so we should feel equally loved though of course some valentines are more equal than others, some have lace and little flaps under which special endearments are written, and others are generic, printed six to a page with bumpy edges where they were torn on the dotted line. But you should be happy with what you get and Don’t Think You’re Special Because You’re Not. (Those people on daytime TV talking about how their parents never gave them the positive feedback they needed and that’s why they shot them—those are not Minnesotans. Nor are the people who go to court to win their children the right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance or not be in the room when other children are saying it.) We take pains to not be Special. If there is one meatball left on the platter, you do not take it, you take half of it, and someone else takes half of that and so it is endlessly divided down to the last crumb. Not a state of showboats or motor-mouths.

“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

Keillor is the first person I’ve come across in a long while who captures that down-to-earth sense of the common good. It’s very Midwestern thing and so I’m not sure people from other parts of the country can fully understand it. In the Midwest, community has more centrality than individuality. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it’s farming country. When it was first settled, farmers were fairly isolated and were dependent on their neighbors. They shared their resources to have schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, etc. They truly had a government for and by the people.

Second, it’s partly the religion of the first settlers. They were largely Catholics and Quakers who are very community-oriented. Catholics and Quakers built public schools, orphanages and hospitals where ever they settled. They put collective action and collective benefit above individual freedom and self-interest. It’s why the Catholic Church has often had an uneasy relationship to unbridled capitalism and it’s why the areas of the US with the highest rates of Catholic membership are also the same areas with the highest rates of union membership.

- – -

In case you didn’t notice from that comment, let me state it obviously: I’M TIRED! Lordy Lordy!

But, more importantly, I was impressed by Garrison Keillor. He is what is known as ‘good people’. I just finished reading his book. It made me so happy… well, while reading it. Paine made me proud to be an American. And Keillor makes me proud to be a Midwestern liberal. Keillor is so down-to-earth and easygoing. Reading Keillor’s words, I felt a genuine attitude of emotional honesty, an open-hearted sense of humanity. Whatever it is, it’s a rare thing. Some people thought Bush jr was the type of guy you could have a beer with by which I assume they were referring to his past as an alcoholic frat boy. Well, Keillor is the kind of guy you imagine having breakfast with in a cheap diner while discussing important issues such as weather, town gossip and last Sunday’s sermon.

However, it’s more than just that friendly, down-to-earth midwestern sensibility that values people over ideology and community over politics, that emphasizes the enjoyment of the simple things in life, that looks for the good in others while emphasizing that one is no better than anyone else. All of that is there in Keillor, but he also comes off as having great self-awareness and social insight. You can tell he has thought deeply and carefully. He isn’t expressing his opinions for the sake of proving that he is right and that those who disagree with him are wrong.

In thinking about Keillor, I was thinking of others of a similar authentic, easygoing bent. Some obvious examples are Jim Wallis, Noam Chomsky and Thom Hartmann. I might also add people like Henry David Thoreau, Philip K. Dick and Terrence McKenna. The common theme among all of these is a basic quality of humanness rather than ideology or ulterior motive. All of these people seem to genuinely like people, something I admire for the reason I too often fail at it. I realize I would be a better person if I was able to feel and express such empathy and compassion.

  – – – 

There is one part of Keillor’s attitude that is most relevant to my own recent focus. I described it somewhat in the above blog comment when I mentioned community as a traditional Midwestern value.

Community is such a simple thing, but these days it can seem like a strange alien artifact. Some American citizens are so messed up in the head that they think hating the American government is patriotic. Instead of being about people and community, patriotism has been made into self-righteous folk religiosity. Instead of being about democracy and public service, patriotism has become about partisan self-interest and xenophobic fear-mongering.

All of this got me thinking about individualism, specifically the American variety of hyper-individualism that became increasingly popular in recent decades. Although clearly popular among conservatives, it isn’t limited to conservatives. It’s not unusual for me to come across liberals who promote their own kind of hyper-individualism. There is a type of person who is so concerned about individual liberty and rights that everything else, at best, becomes of secondary value or, at worst, becomes entirely occluded from their vision of reality.

Basically, such a person can’t see the forest for the trees. You can point at the trees and they will see the trees and they might go on about the value of each and every tree. They might be sad as tree after tree is cut down or infested by insects or strangled by kudzu or becomes sickly from pollution, but they won’t put it all together, won’t see an entire ecosystem dying, won’t understand that when this particular ecosystem dies the entire life-supporting biosphere is further weakened. A rainforest, for example, can take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years to form. But once destroyed they can’t be replanted. They’re just gone, a major source of the very oxygen we breathe gone forever (or at least gone forever as far as the human species is concerned).

 – – – 

I had an insight about where hyper-individualism came from in American history. I see two major factors.

Right from the beginning America has been a favorite destination of people escaping oppression, violence and various other kinds of suffering and horror. Many first generation immigrants were psychologically traumatized which led to a rootlessness. These people had a mentality of escape and Americans are always getting away and moving on, always planning escape routes. The Native Americans also were traumatized, but we hid their trauma by sending them off to places we didn’t have to see them.

The history of America has been trauma, victim becoming victimizer creating new victims. It’s our founding mythology, told and retold: slavery, religious persecution, indigenous genocide, revolution, etc. After independence was declared, there soon followed the Civil War which was in many ways just re-opening old wounds of revolutionary era conflicts. The Civil War ripped America apart and we’ve never really healed from it. We are still a divided people.

This is where the second factor comes in. The symbol of American (hyper-)individualism is the lone cowboy, sometimes fighting the good fight but reluctantly, always escaping a haunted past. Have you ever wondered what the haunted past was that caused movie cowboys to often be silent and at other times violent. In reality, many Wild West gunslingers (such as Jesse James) were Civil War veterans, quite a few Southerners. They saw many friends die in the war. A lot of them lost their homes and their livelihood. For a few, the entire town they left behind was burned to the ground. Some lost family members or even whole families (My dad was telling me about one of our neighbors in South Carolina who told him about how on one side of his family every male had been killed in the Civil War; and he explained to my dad that, after losing a war of that magnitude, such personal losses aren’t forgotten even generations later).

These were severely traumatized veterans and they didn’t go to therapy to heal their trauma. They were real men, and as real men they turned to booze and prostitutes, guns and adventure. Many went West because of their haunted pasts that were driving them to get as far away as possible. As the first immigrants escaped the horrors of other countries, the Civil War veterans were escaping the horrors of America.

Here is a clear description of the horrors, both collective and personal, of the Civil War and its aftermath (from Rebirth of a Nation by Jackson Lears):

“EARLY AS April 1862 Americans had a sense of what happened when massive assaults provoked massive counterassaults. Near Shiloh Church in Tennessee, Generals Beauregard and Grant threw armies at each other for thirty-six hours. As reports of the battle filtered back to the home front, the staggering losses mounted, eventually up to 24,500 killed, wounded, or missing on both sides. The numbers were numbing; in any case there was little popular protest, North or South. A few Democratic newspaper editors in the North, never too keen on the war in the first place, deplored the losses and demanded Grant’s scalp. No one knew that they had seen the future. Shiloh was only the first of many bloodbaths—the first of many indications that the most successful Union commanders would be the ones most willing to sacrifice unprecedented numbers of men. The West Point Code was on the way out.

“Neither side sought to avoid bloodbaths; both seemed addicted to frontal assaults (preferably uphill) on entrenched fortifications. The casualties were fearful, in the mass and in detail. The failed assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863 by the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the black regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, left an eyewitness aghast: “The ditch was literally choked up with dead bodies and it was possible to walk upon them for fifty yards without touching ground.” Those who survived often faced their own protracted horrors, as Walt Whitman reported from a Washington hospital: a Union soldier shot through the bladder, marinating in his own piss; a Confederate soldier the top of whose head had been blown off and whose brains were suppurating in the sun, surviving for three days while he dug a hole in the ground with his heel. These scenes were repeated by the hundreds of thousands. And there were many witnesses.

“Looking back on the war in Specimen Days, Whitman strained to capture the enormity of the evil unleashed by raw rage. After describing John Mosby’s Confederate guerrillas gunning down the Union wounded they had captured near Upperville, Virginia, Whitman then recalled the Union cavalry’s counterattack, capture, and summary execution of seventeen guerrillas in the Upperville town square, where they left the bodies to rot. “Multiply [this scene] by scores, aye hundreds,” Whitman wrote, “light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.”

“Whitman’s recollection of “the light of burning farms” underlined the other major feature of total war: the treatment of civilians as belligerents. Early in the war, Confederates fantasized about bombarding Northern cities, and Stonewall Jackson was always champing at the bit to bring the war to the Northern people. But despite Jackson’s murderous ferocity, the Confederates did not have the resources to sustain an aggressive war. Apart from the two abortive invasions that ended at Antietam and Gettysburg, the main damage done by the Confederate Army to the Yankee population was the tactically pointless burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1864. The chief Southern war on civilians was conducted in Missouri, by guerrillas and other irregulars who resisted the Union army of occupation and terrorized its civilian sympathizers, torching their property and gunning them down at random. William Quantrell and his guerrilla band in Missouri, along with John Mosby and his raiders in Virginia, led what might today be characterized as the terrorist wing of the Confederate insurgency.

“Confederate guerrillas practiced insurgent terrorism, the Union Army gradually embraced a policy that can accurately be characterized as state terrorism. By 1865, fifty thousand Southern civilians had been killed as a direct result of Northern combat operations. The policy was embodied in Lincoln’s General Order #100, authored by Francis Lieber, a German émigré, romantic nationalist, and erstwhile professor at the University of South Carolina. The first part of the order aimed to restrict “savage” behavior, such as the bombardment of civilian areas in cities or the pillage of farms; the second part eviscerated those restrictions by stating that any of them could be ignored in the event of “military necessity.” In a counterinsurgency campaign, the phrase justified shelling cities and torching farms. Like other insurgencies, the secessionist movement depended for its support on the local population. The recognition of that fact was behind Grant’s famous order to Philip Sheridan: “turn the Shenandoah into a barren waste so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender.” Other rationales for treating civilians as belligerents foreshadowed contemporary excuses for “collateral damage.” Sherman bombarded Atlanta neighborhoods, he said, because the Confederates were using civilians as human shields. The mass of the Southern population was neither armed nor dangerous. But they were in the war, whether they wanted to be or not. Total war swept all before it.

“Conventional accounts of Appomattox and its aftermath have everyone rolling up his sleeves and getting ready to pitch into an expansive economy. But given the ravages of total war, North and South, one could just as easily describe a postwar landscape littered with lost souls. Consider, for example, how the war shaped the lives of two James boys: Garth Wilkinson James and Jesse James.

“James was the younger brother of William and Henry James, one of the two less favored sons in a talented, ambitious family. Plump, good-natured, and fervently antislavery, Wilky enlisted in the Forty-fourth Massachusetts regiment in September 1862. Both his older brothers managed to avoid the army, with their father’s approval and connivance. Henry James Sr. showed no such solicitude for his younger boys. But war would be Wilky’s one chance to step out of his brothers’ shadow. Transferred to Shaw’s Fifty-fourth, Wilky became one of the white officers who led the black regiment’s doomed charge on Fort Wagner. He was seriously wounded, hit by a shell in the side and a canister ball in the foot. After months of convalescence he returned to the Fifty-fourth, but he never really recovered from his wounds. He survived for eighteen years after Appomattox, in nearly constant pain from rheumatism in his wounded foot. He bumped from one bad business venture to another, beginning with the failure of his idealistic plan to provide recently freed black families an economic foothold by employing them on his farm in Florida. Having run through many thousands of his father’s dollars, he was finally disinherited and died in poverty in Milwaukee, where he and his family had been scraping by after several failed business ventures. For Wilky the war brought not regeneration but ruin. He was one of many men whose physical and emotional wounds never healed.

“James, in contrast, was not physically wounded but psychologically brutalized by the war. Coming of age amid the white-hot hatreds of wartime Missouri, he grew up in a world where casual murder was a manly sport and a rite of passage, the only conclusive proof that you had become (and remained) a man. He proved himself many times during the war, when he rode with Quantrell’s raiders. After Appomattox new opportunities presented themselves. In Missouri, ten years of blood feuds had bred widespread longings for retribution. Many returning veterans could not give up the habit of violence and helped to swell a postwar crime wave. Gunslinging became a way of life.

“Much of the violence was rooted in Reconstruction politics. Bushwhackers wanted revenge against Radical Republicans and money from the companies the Republicans financed. That was enough, among embittered Confederates, to make the James gang seem more than mere bandits and killers. But that is what they were. For fifteen years, they took money at gunpoint from banks and later from express companies, whose monies were being transported on the expanding network of railroads. They also killed a lot of innocent people. Throughout his short life, Jesse remained irresistibly attracted to arbitrary violence.

“Wilkinson James and Jesse James were both permanently scarred by the war, though in profoundly different ways. Wilky limped through the postwar period, failing at everything he tried, knowing that nothing he did would ever match the heroism of storming Fort Wagner. Jesse was filled with partisan rage and vicious notions of manhood that transformed him into a driven killer. The war ravaged lives in unpredictable ways and left a wounded nation.”

In the years following the Civil War, some gunslingers became idolized as heroic lawmen and others became idolized as anti-heroic lawless gunslingers. Jesse James, mentioned above, is a good example of the latter. And Virgil Earp is a good example of the former:

“Private Virgil Earp was still a teenager when marched off to war in 1862 leaving his wife with a baby girl just two weeks old. He would not see his wife or daughter again for thirty-seven years because in the summer of 1863, Ellen was told that Virgil had been killed in Tennessee. Heartbroken, Ellen took her daughter and headed west with her parents. Unaware of the reports of his death, Virgil served throughout the Civil War seeing action in Tennessee and Kentucky. His regiment was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland commanded by Major General George H. Thomas. By the end of the war, the 83rd Illinois had lost one hundred twenty-one men and officers. Private Earp was not among those who died. He returned home in the summer of 1865, three years after he left, to find his wife and baby gone and no way to contact them.

“Like tens of thousands of Civil War veterans, the Earp brothers headed west for a fresh start and new opportunities. For the next ten years, Virgil Earp moved around the country holding various jobs such as farming, railroad construction, and stagecoach driver. He married, divorced, and married again.”

Whether lawman or lawless, it was a popular romantic myth of violent justice where the individual determined his own sense of justice. There was not much if any government in the Wild West. Both heroic lawmen and anti-heroic lawless gunslingers were uneasy of the encroachment of civilization with a new brand of lawmen who were a privatized law and military force, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. There were more Pinkerton agents than there were US soldiers, and probably quite a few Civil War veterans were hired as Pinkerton agents. The lawless gunslingers were seen as heroes because they were fighting big businesses that used violence and oppression to get their way. This was an era that was fomenting the public unrest eventually leading to the Populist Era.

At the same time, this was the era of the Indian Wars which continued into the early 20th century. The Native Americans were fighting their last battles as the unions were fighting their first battles. Between Indians and Pinkertons, the Wild West cowboy was in the middle of enemies. It was a time of violence that created a culture of violence.

 – – –

Furthermore, this violence became the mythology which was permanently emblazoned on the collective psyche through early publications of the exploits of gunfighters and later on with movies.

After those earliest cowboy movies, the lone cowboy myth was being modernized during the Reagan Era when hyper-individualism took on new meaning. Reagan was the actor pretending to be a cowboy who pretended to be a corporate spokesperson and then a president. The romanticized myth of the lone cowboy helped get Reagan elected. It was at that time when macho hyper-individualism fully became the new American mythos: the lone cowboy, the lone rogue cop, the lone businessman. And I suppose it was no accident that the rise of hyper-individualism came at the high point of communist paranoia, communism after all being the antithesis of hyper-individualism.

It was the death knell of liberalism. Rambo was one of the first modernized versions of the lone cowboy. There is the book The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke which analyzes how a legend formed around the claim that many Vietnam vets were spit upon by protesters (Damn hippies!) when they came home. In that book, he attributes the origins of this legend to movies such as Rambo: First Blood where there is a scene of Rambo raging about the injustices he met upon his return:

Colonel Trautman: It’s over Johnny. It’s over!

Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!

Of course, this ignores that the anti-war protesters directed their anger and criticism at the political leaders and not the soldiers. It also ignores the fact that a fair number of Vietnam vets became anti-war protesters. But facts never get in the way of a good story.

Obviously, the Vietnam War was traumatizing to the American psyche similar to the Civil War. Both wars created a generation of physically and psychologically battered veterans many of whom felt victimized and resentful. And out of that trauma was born a sense of isolation and a sense of the individual being against the world. Rambo describes this in his words directly following the above speech about “all those maggots”:

Colonel Trautman: It was a bad time for everyone Rambo. It’s all in the past now.

Rambo: For you! For me civilian life is nothin’! In the field without a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Col. Trautman: You’re the last of an elite group. Don’t end it like this. Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!!!! UUHHHH!!!!! (Throws M-60 at wall and then slight emotional pause. He drops to the ground in a crouched position out of breath and very upset) Wha…I can’t…oh, I jus–omigod. Where is everybody? Oh God…I…I had a friend, who was Danforth. Wha–I had all these guys man. Back there I had all these fucking guys. Who were my friends. Cause back here there’s nothin’. Remember Danforth? He wore this black head band and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, ‘Hey mail us to Las Vegas cause we were always talkin’ about Vegas, and this fucking car. This uh red ’58 Chevy convertible, he was talkin’ about this car, he said we were gonna cruise till the tires fall off. (upset pause) We were in this bar in Saigon. And this kid comes up, this kid carryin’ a shoe shine box, and eh he says uh ‘shine please, shine.’ I said no, eh an’ uh, he kept askin’ yeah and Joey said ‘yeah,’ and I went to get a couple beers and the ki–the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fuckin’ blew his body all over the place. And he’s layin’ there and he’s fuckin’ screamin’, there’s pieces of him all over me, jus like–! (frustrated he grabs at his bullet chain strapped around his chest and yanks it off) like this. And I’m tryin’ to pull em off you know? And ehe.. MY FRIEND IT’S ALL OVER ME! IT’S GOT BLOOD AND EVERYTHING! And I’m tryin’ to hold him together I put him together his fucking insides keep coming out, AND NOBODY WOULD HELP!! Nobody help me. He sayin’ plea I wanna go home I wanna go home. He keeps callin’ my name, I wanna go home Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy. I said well (upset and breaking down) WHY I can’t find your fucking legs. I can’t find you legs. (softly now) I can’t get it out of my head. I fuc..I dream of seven years. Everyday I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I dunno where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day–a week. (Almost inaudible) I can’t put it out of my mind…fucking…I can’t…….(totally sobbing now)

For the Rambo at the heart of our culture, the past is never past. The violence is continually relived.

Rambo, of course, was overly simplistic melodramatic violence porn. Maybe for that reason it had such an impact on the American psyche. Rambo expressed something that Americans felt, something that Americans wanted to believe. It gave all of the conflicts and doubts an emodied form. It put it all into the context of a story. And stories have a way of informing our perceived reality, our shared sense of identity.

 – – – 

I touched upon these issues in my book review of David Sirota’s Back to the Future. Here is the relevant section:

First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.

Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence.

In that same post, I gave an example that resonates with my having been a child in the 80s, a child who watched all of those 80s shows and absorbed their lessons. The 80s didn’t make me into a conservative, but the scars of cynical hyper-individualism are upon me.

Reagan considered Family Ties one of his favorite shows and offered to be in an episode. Sirota considers that show to have been central. Many young conservatives took inspiration from the Alex P. Keaton’s rebellion against his liberal former hippie parents. Alex stated a classic line when he complained about his parents being arrested for protesting nuclear weapons:

“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”

Many Republican and Tea Party conservatives still feel that way today. It’s something like a Calvinist sense of fatalism combined with the self-assurance of a car salesman. Nothing good can be accomplished collectively and so you might as well narrowly focus on your own self-interest. Rambo’s despicable spitting protesters became Alex’s naive yuppie parents.

As I recall, in that episode Alex’s parents were protesting nucler weapons in an attempt to revive the memories of their past activism. Even if well intentioned, these old former hippies are almost pitiful. Alex maybe correctly perceives them as having sold out for careers and a middle class lifestyle. And so maybe he reasons that it would save time by going straight to the selling out.

What is the point of trying to make the world a better place? What did the hippies accomplish? The answer from conservatives is that at best hippies accomplished nothing and at worst they helped destroy everything that was good about America. Specifically, the 60s hippies are the archetypal enemy of the idyllic 50s. It was all going so well until the hippies came along. Never mind the fact that the 50s was the era when liberalism reigned unchallenged. Never mind the fact that what ended the idyllic liberal 50s was the rising neo-conservatism of the 60s. Never mind inconvenient facts.

To me, facts matter. But in the culture wars, story matters even more. It saddens me that there is such a dark and ugly story at the heart of American culture. It’s a festering wound that needs to be opened in order to let out the puss and be cleansed. There is a conflict of narratives, a conflict that I feel like a knot in my chest. It’s scary to believe in something as great as the collective good. It’s so much easier to be cynical or merely focused one’s own individual life, one’s own private concerns. Why stick one’s head out onto what might turn out to be a chopping block? The veterans who fought the wars know that there is rarely much reward offered for their sacrifices. Most homeless people are veterans, forgotten and uncared for. The conservative politicians campaign on sending young men to war and upon their return they seek to cut benefits for veterans.

It’s hard to blame anyone in feeling cynical after such treatment. And it’s not just veterans. Recent decades have been an endless parade of lies and deceit, an endless betrayal by politicians who serve their corporate masters and their ideological bases. As I write, Washington elites are discussing how far they can get away with balancing the budget on the backs of the average Americans. Tax cuts for the rich and bailouts to the banks received less discussion than this.

 – – – 

Nonetheless, I refuse to believe that it has to be this way.

I know in my heart of hearts that humanity has such great potential. I want to believe in what America stands for. I want to believe in it in the way Thomas Paine believed in it. Yes, to believe so passionately is foolhardy. Even so, if there were no fools, there would never have been an American Revolution in the first place. If the founding generation didn’t foolishly believe in the common good they shared with their countrymen, they wouldn’t have fought for and won their independence. And none of us would be here to argue about the potential of the American Dream.

But I realize that my cynicism too often wins out. My cynicism is constantly confirmed and what little hope I have is constantly dashed. Still, I want to believe. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to fear of losing my job and becoming homeless, of going bankrupt because of health problems, of one day becoming yet another forgotten and lonely elderly person who barely gets by eating God knows what. I’m tired of it all. It’s so depressing because there is no practical reason it has to be this way.

It reminds me of how there is enough food in the world to feed every single person and yet hunger, starvation and malnutrition are widespread. If we spent even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of our military budget on medical research, we probably could have found cures or improvements for all of the major illnesses. If instead of spending money on fighting over oil we spent that money investing in R&D, we would already have viable, cost effective alternative energies. Rather than helping the poor, we build prisons to house the poor. Rather than funding public education, we fund the military-industrial complex.

In heartfelt despair and bewilderment, Derrick Jensen writes (The Culture of Make Believe, pp. 140-1),

“As this dawning dissonance began to tear at my insides, again and again I considered that the confusion must come from within, that I must be missing some simple point: No one could be so stupid as to kill their own planet, all the while chatting breezily about golf, “reality-based TV” (whatever that means), bulging stock portfolios, and How ’bout them Cubbies? What seemed profoundly important to me seemed of no importance whatsoever to most people, and what seemed important to so many people seemed trivial to me. I couldn’t wrap my my mind aroundit. Lawrence Summers promotes the poisoning of poor people, and is elevated to secretary of the treasury. People profess concern over child prostitution as they continue to promulgate the economic and familial conditions that lead to it. The United states bombs Vietnam to save the Vietnamese people, it arms death squads through Latin America to save the people there, it bombs Iraq to save the people there. I kept thinking: Is there something I’m missing?”

Endless violence. Endless stupidity.

I sympathize with those who seek to escape into stories detached from reality. But I also understand that stories have the capacity touch upon deeper truths.

“There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of the earth, and it is the language of our bodies. It is the language of dreams, and of action. It is the language of meaning, and of metaphor. This language is not safe, as Jim Nollman said of metaphor, and to believe in its safety is to diminish the importance of the embodied. Metaphors are dangerous because id true they open us to our bodies, and thus to action, and because they slip – sometimes wordlessly, sometimes articulated – between the seen and unseen. This language of symbol is the umbilical cord that binds us to the beginning, to whatever is the source of who we are, where we come from, and where we return. To follow this language of metaphor is to trace words back to our bodies, back to the earth.”
~ A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen, p. 311

In the end, maybe I’m just hoping to find a story I can believe in.

Stories: Personal & Collective

I came across various things this past month that taken together created a thought-web in my mind. For anyone who cares, let me explicate (or, if you prefer, skip to the end for my summarization).

- – -

The first thing was an interview on The Diane Rehm Show from a few weeks ago. The guest was Meredith Maran and she was talking about her book, My Lie. When she was younger, she got caught up in the repressed memory obsession of decades past. Therapists at the time were taught to look for signs of childhood molestation and trauma in adults. Her therapists convinced her that her psychological issues were caused by repression and she came to believe her father had done something to her as a child.

Years later after much conflict, she started questioning that there was any repressed memory there at all. She realized she had no clear memories and that she had made false allegations. The response of many callers (and commenters on the internet) was to scapegoat the author similar to how the author had scapegoated her own father.

I was too young at the time to remember that time of our culture. I did, however, get a taste of it having been a child during that time. When I went to college in the mid 90s, my parents warned me about cults which seems a bit silly in retrospect. Through study I’ve come to understand better why my parents and many people had such fears. The 80s was when the Cold War era was coming to an end. Decades of fear-mongering were coming home to roost. Before that time, people were paranoid of commies among us. The commies were gone as a serious threat but the culture of fear remained. The religious element that fueled much of the fear against the Godless commies now fueled fear about child molesters and satanic cults.

There was mass hysteria as our culture shifted into a new era. Mass hysteria is hard to understand from the outside and it’s easy to criticize with 20/20 hindsight. We can look back at people such as the author and wonder how she could’ve been so naive, so easily misled by others. But this mass hysteria included not just people like the author. It included the entire mainstream media and the entire community of psychotherapists and psychiatrists. It’s not called mass hysteria for nothing.

Fears always feel real because they are real even when what they get projected upon is innocent. In the future, people will look back upon our present terrorist fear-mongering in the same way we look back at other eras. Also, what makes fears real is that there usually is a kernel of truth. People do sometimes repress memories, but it’s very hard to know the truth about what is repressed especially when it happened in childhood. I have no doubt that child abuse is more common than it should be. The Catholic priest molestation issue is just the tip of the iceberg. As a society, we are only beginning to come to terms with this uncomfortable problem. The repressed memory hysteria was simply a part of this process of society dealing with what it would rather ignore. When something has been denied and dismissed for so long, it tends to manifest in rather negative ways.

The story of Meredith Maran reminded me of Derrick Jensen. He many books dealing with his personal experiences of childhood abuse and with victimization cycle in our society. I have no reason to think that Jensen’s memories of childhood are false. Unlike Maran, he has clear memories of specific events. It really doesn’t matter to me. The larger truth of victimization in our society is true whether or not any given case is true.

- – -

My thoughts temporarily stopped there. I meant to think more about the connection to Derrick Jensen and write a post about it, but I got distracted with other things. Last night, two things brought my mind back to the subject. I was sitting at work listening to the radio while playing around with my new Kindle.

On Coast to Coast AM, the guest was Daniel Pinchbeck who is an author I’m somewhat familiar with. Near the beginning of the interview, Pinchbeck briefly mentioned Terrence McKenna which made me happy.  McKenna used to be a regular guest on C2CAM. Like Philip K. Dick, McKenna had a way of expressing wonder about the world.

On the Kindle, I was looking at books I might want to purchase. Out of curiosity, I looked at the reviews of some of Derrick Jensen’s newer books. I wasn’t thinking about Jensen because of my previous thoughts from some weeks past. Jensen just often comes up in my thoughts because his views have strongly influenced my own views. I’ve been wondering for a long time whether or not I wanted to buy Jensen’s two volume Endgame. I felt uncertain because I have the sense that Jensen’s views changed somewhat from his earliest books. Part of what made me become a fan was how he combined a sense of wonder with a sense of compassionate understanding of suffering (which is also the same combination in different form that made me a fan of Philip K. Dick), but it seemed that his later writings had lost some of the wonder that made A Language Older Than Words so beautiful and moving.

This is where the web of my thinking becomes a bit convoluted. One of the connections is that I had in mind is that of nature. Pinchbeck and McKenna discuss nature in terms of wonder. Jensen also shows his sense of wonder when he writes about nature. The difference is that Pinchbeck and McKenna seem to have an endless sense of wonder (McKenna’s enthusiasm was always contagious), whereas Jensen’s sense of wonder too often becomes eclipsed by the suffering of the world. A favorite middle position between these two attitudes is Philip K. Dick who expressed wonder and suffering as inseparable facets of the same reality.

As I was looking at the reviews of Jensen’s books, my inkling about Jensen was strengthened by two reviews I read. The first reviewer (of Endgame, volume 1) wrote about his mixed response to the book and to the author with whom he claims to have had an e-mail exchange. The reviewer’s personal experience was that Jensen was defensive about his personal trauma which made him question the author’s work:

Now I need to question the entire thesis of the book, since I find I now question the mental and emotional stability of the author. Now I look at the long screeds (rants), the repetition, the extreme focus on abuse and victimhood at every turn, the utter lack of humor, it all starts to add up to something that I frankly have second thoughts about putting much stock in. Yes, the world is in trouble, no doubt about it. Should I look at it all through a lens of abuse, violence, slavery and victimhood just because Derrick Jensen has personal issues which he projects onto everything he sees or comes into contact with? Maybe not. It’s been interesting, but the search for a sane approach to our problems continues, I’m afraid.

A commenter who claimed to know Jensen gave a defense of the author:

I will say that despite my immense gratitude to Derrick for his great work and despite my friendship with him, I sympathized with your post… up to a certain point. I do think Derrick can be harsh, often harsher than I would be in a similar circumstance. Of course, that hardly makes me right… he has experienced abuse on a level I cannot imagine.

Anyhow, the point at which I started to lose sympathy with your situation was when you actually quoted from your email to Derrick. I feel confident that I know what offended him, and I think he’s right. It may have been poor word choice on your part, I do not know. One thing you wrote is, “It strikes me that this trauma seems to be a primary “personal issue” that you are projecting onto the rest of the world.” Now, this is something Derrick has heard a lot, as have most activists who openly acknowledge that they have suffered from abuse, and he has responded to this kind of critique in his work. Derrick’s father, who raped and beat him and his siblings and mother, was an unusually extreme manifestation of the broader culture of objectification, exploitation, control, nihilism, and abuse which is civilization itself. Derrick is not “projecting” his abusive father onto the dominant institutions of the culture when he sees them obliterating life on Earth. 1% annual species extinction is real. 90%+ extirpation of large fish is real. Global deforestation is real. The BP spill and the endless spills in the Niger Delta are real. Global toxification is real. Resource wars and genocide and patriarchy and systematic rape are real. And so on, as infinitum, or as Derrick says, ad omnicidium, which is more to the point. This is not “projection.” Projection is when a battered child acts out toward neutral or compassionate elders because that child has learned to hate and fear all adults, or all men, or all men with beards, or something like that. It is not when a battered child learns the nature of batterers and fights to stop them. Projection is manifesting one’s hatred and fear of a particular abuser irrationally onto others who bear no actual relation to the abuser. This is profoundly different from Derrick’s analysis and activism, and I agree with Derrick that it is offensive to call we he does “projection.”

My own response was halfway between these two. I understand both views, but I think the commenter is incorrect in simply dismissing the power of projection. Any self-aware person knows that everyone projects their personal issues… well, everyone except maybe those who are enlightened. The reviewer probably was lacking a bit of tact and so was Jensen in his response. Both were probably feeling defensive.

Ignoring the issue of tact, I’ve often felt that Jensen has made a mythology out of his personal trauma… which I don’t mean as a criticism per se. Mythologizing of this sort is powerful and can be an effective way of creating a transformative vision of reality (e.g., Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis), but there are obvious dangers. In Jensen’s earliest work, there was a profound sense of wonder that blew me away and awoke me to the suffering in the world like few other authors. However, in Jensen’s later work, my perception is that the rage and frustration has tarnished some of that wonder.

To be fair, I don’t doubt that I’m projecting as well. It’s easy for everyone to get weighed down by life’s frustrations and lose our sense of wonder. Jensen has written about the attempt to regain that sense of wonder after having lost it and that inspired me. For that reason, it would sadden me if the ideology of anarcho-primitivism began to trump that regained wonder. I somehow doubt that any action taken without that sense of wonder will lead to positive results.

This reminds me of another reviewer who was reviewing another of Jensen’s books, What We Leave Behind:

While Jensen is clearly passionate and energizes people towards activism, I agree with Bill McKibben who is quoted on the back cover of Jensen’s book that he is “…occasionally unfair….” I know McKibben’s judgment is accurate because of what Jensen writes about Buckminster Fuller, in which he completely misinterprets Fuller. Fuller was not a “technotopian.” Fuller considered a tree or a dragonfly as the most exquisite technology, so when he uses the word technology he is not suggesting some future machine world; he’s talking about our entire physical environment. Fuller simply shows that by reforming our physical world we can bring out the best in every individual. That’s why Fuller embraced the ideas of Maria Montessori, for example. Fuller’s ideas begin and end with a reverence and awe of nature. Fuller’s roots go back to the transcendentalists of Emerson and his great aunt Margaret Fuller who celebrated enlightenment ideas not divorced from their spiritual underpinnings. When Jensen writes, “If the ultimate Fullerian future did exist, it wouldn’t include humans.” Or, “In short, technotopians are insane: out of touch with physical reality,” he is so wrong about Fuller that it calls everything else he writes into question.

I don’t recall Jensen’s opinions on Fuller. I’m assuming the reviewer is correctly quoting Jensen. Going by the reviewer’s commentary, I find myself in agreement with criticizing Jensen on seemingly misunderstanding Fuller. However, I don’t agree with the conclusion of calling “everything else he writes into question.” I understand Jensen’s biases and I share them to a large degree. I’m wary of technophilia that often is disconnected from the larger world, but I’m also wary of technophobia in that it can imply a lack or constraint of open-minded wonder.

Yes, I see all the destruction of civilization. I hate it. And I can feel that hate in the marrow of my bones. Civilization is unbelievably cruel. There is something fundamentally sick about our society, but I don’t know that it’s inevitable as Jensen believes. I don’t see as clear of a distinction between nature and technology. I find myself resonating with both the views of Jensen and of Fuller. I want to feel the rage at all that is wrong , but I don’t want to lose my sense of wonder in the process. As I wrote in a post once:

Yes, Jensen is correct about how humans victimize one another, is correct about how civilization is destroying all life on earth. And, yes, Ligotti is correct about how humans are paralyzed by suffering, is correct that all of human culture arose as a distraction from this primal horror. Yes, yes, yes. Even so, there is something beyond all of that.

- – -

What all of these authors (Maran, Jensen, Pinchbeck, McKenna, and PKD) share is some understanding of how humans create (collectively and individually) the world we live in.

Maran’s story is a morality tale about what can happen when someone gets lost in their own confused experience of suffering and fear. When Maran tried to make sense (give a story to) her experience, she accepted the story that society offered her. It took her a long time to question this culturally approved story and to explore again her own direct experience.

Jensen’s story of childhood trauma may be true, but that isn’t what matters. The significant aspect is that it has been made into a story, a story writ large creating a cultural mythology of all of civilization. Jensen started off questioning the story society gave him by exploring his own direct experience, but his retelling of childhood experiences made his past into something greater than mere memory.

I find this fascinating. Philip K. Dick did something similar with a bit more imaginative flair. He took his twin sister who died in infancy and his experience of Nixon era California and through his Exegesis and stories he created a sprawling Gnostic narrative of suffering and salvation sought.

So, I’m far from being entirely critical of this kind of mythologizing, but not all mythologizing is equal. Despite Jensen’s profound insights, I prefer PKD’s vision of the world. There is the imagination, but also even with all the suffering expressed PKD seems to take himself less seriously than Jensen. PKD never became a True Believer even of his own mythology. Although he wanted to believe, questions compelled him more than any answer. I’m more like PKD in this regard. However, I do have a bit of Jensen in me. I tend to take myself too seriously. I wish I had an ounce of PKD’s imagination.

I was just now reminded of a previous post of mine (The Elephant That Wasn’t There) where I covered similar territory. The first point I made was about the unreliability of memory:

None of us really knows how much of our memories are correct. Few of us are ever motivated or capable of fact-checking most of our memories. Stories we’ve encountered over our lifetimes (especially when young) can become incorporated into our own personal story… Science has proven that we literally re-member every time we recall something. The more often we recall something the less reliable the memory becomes. We don’t remember the thing itself. We remember our own retellings.

My concluding point was about the significance of this on the collective level:

In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?

If we aren’t careful, we can end up creating self-enclosed stories that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

- – -

Okay… now for the last strand of my thought web.

I saw two videos that used the same phrase: epistemic closure. The first video surprised me because it’s not the type of phrase I usually come across when watching the mainstream media. The clip is from a CNN discussion and the person who used the phrase is Andrew Sullivan (in the last part of the video):

“The only answer is empiricism. You ask what the facts are and you do your best to find out what the truth is. And sometimes the truth is truly weird. It really is. And sometimes the truth is the truth. So, I think that is all you can do. I think the other thing I think you can do is constantly ask yourself whether you are trapped in your own, what they call, epistemic closure.”

Andrew Sullivan is talking about the media bubbles that can form, but he points out that we can always choose to step outside of any particular bubble. I think this relates to why people don’t trust institutions (especially media institutions) as much as they used to. It’s not that media is necessarily less trustworthy than it used to be.  It’s just that people can more easily escape media bubbles than they used to be able to back when a few networks controlled nearly all of collective reality in this country. Epistemic closure used to be the normal mode of functioning, but new generations are growing up in a permanent state of epistemic openness and some of the older generations feel their world(-view) is threatened.

The second video is about epistemic closure in terms of philosophy versus science… with philosophy being idealized as the opposite of epistemic closure and science in the form of scientism being criticized.


The latter video is a bit dry compared to the first, but the two caught my attention as I randomly happened to watch them around the same time. I don’t normally come across ‘epistemic closure’ being mentioned in YouTube videos. This serendipity caused me to consider ‘epistemic closure’ in terms of the thought web that my mind has been tangled in.

Science in it’s most extreme form (as scientism) and in it’s manifestation as respected institution is an example of epistemic closure… or, in other terms, the bureaucratization that creates Max Weber’s Iron Cage… which, of course, always reminds me of PKD’s gnostic description of this world as the Black Iron Prison – Wonder vs the Wonder-Killers: two related thought experiments:

Our idealizing and rewarding sociopathic behavior has created modern bureaucratic civilization. Maybe this alters our very experience of reality. In terms of Robert Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels, maybe we get trapped in a specific worldview. It could be the world isn’t as we think it is or rather that the world becomes as we think it is. The Iron Cage not only destroys the ancient societies of superstition but also destroys the very experience of the supernatural. Research shows that thin boundary types claim to have more supernatural experiences. Research also shows that most people in general have supernatural experiences. The Iron Cage not only disconnects us from a larger context of the supernatural. It disconnects our personal experience from society and often disconnects the individual from their own experience. Maybe there is some truth to the supernatural worldview, but we simply can’t see it because we are trapped in a reality tunnel, trapped in the Iron Cage, in the Black Iron Prison.

This subject is discussed in immense detail in Hansen’s book (The Trickster and the Paranormal). Hansen explains why science has such difficulty grappling with the fundamental issues of our experience of reality. I should point out that neither Hansen nor PKD perceives science as the enemy. However, science is just one viewpoint and when we hold too tightly to one model of reality we become blind to other perspectives, other experiences.

I want to add that I’m wary about criticizing science. Between scientism and anti-intellectualism, I suspect the latter is the greater problem. Besides, I doubt most scientists subscribe to scientism. There is an important distinction between scientific method and scientism. Also, there is an important distinction between scientific research and scientific application. Technology, of course, has many problems which someone like Jensen is correct in criticizing… but I generally think of technology in and of itself as being value neutral (although I understand Jensen would argue the opposite). I don’t think Jensen’s luddite anarcho-primitivism is any more helpful than the anti-intellectualism of certain types of right-wingers.

There is some similarity between anti-technology and anti-intellectualism. Both show a suspicion of modernism, of modern civilization… but, in Jensen’s case, one aspect saves him from complete epistemic closure – Playing for Keeps:

“PEOPLE WHO READ MY WORK often say, “Okay, so it’s clear you don’t like this culture, but what do you want to replace it?” The answer is that I don’t want any one culture to replace this culture. I want ten thousand cultures to replace this culture, each one arising organically from its own place. That’s how humans inhabited the planet (or, more precisely, their landbases, since each group inhabited a place, and not the whole world, which is precisely the point), before this culture set about reducing all cultures to one.”

Which is basically what Noam Chomsky says:

Political anarchism is only ever respectable when it includes some element of self-questioning epistemological anarchism. There are no easy answers. And any easy answer that is given by society is probably wrong and possibly dangerous. That also goes along with any narrative offered by any authority, whether a media pundit or a therapist. Answers must come from within one’s experience rather than be forced onto one’s experience. This attitude needs to be taught at a young age. Unfortunately, our education system teaches the opposite which destroys the natural joy of learning, the natural curiosity and wonder about the world. It’s easier to teach kids to be obedient and rote memorize factoids.

- – -

So, that’s that. I just had all of that jumbling around in my head and needed to express it.

The basic point is this:

1) People want an explanation for the world and for their personal experiences.
2) The most powerful form of explanation is that which is told as a story.
3) Stories can induce wonder, but they can also stunt it.
4) Stories become most dangerous when we forget they are stories.
5) We should respect the power of stories even as we question them.

Anarchism vs Progressivism

I was having a discussion with an anarcho-capitalist who was moderate rather than ideological. It was quite refreshing. Most of the anarcho-capitalists I’ve met have been extremely ideological.

I myself am persuaded by both anarcho-primitivism and progressivism. I think civilization is problematic, but as long as civilization exists I consider it morally optimal to seek the greatest good for the greatest numbers while preventing as many problems as possible. I’m unpersuaded by the idolization of enlightened selfishness and the monetization of human life.

Here is a video this person shared with me to present his anarcho-capitalist view:


Here are two of my responses:

FIRST RESPONSE

He is right about the problems of government building logging roads and selling trees at below market cost. Derrick Jensen discusses that issue. Ownership does increase short-term responsibility. A company will want to ensure its profits are maintained in the near future, but this becomes less certain in terms of decades & completely uncertain in terms of generations.

Also, this video leaves out some important issues.

Big businesses want big governments. Big businesses don’t want anarchistic markets that they can’t control or reliably predict and they don’t want anarchistic societies with populations that aren’t controlled where protesters can shut down factories and an unrestrained population can start revolutions.

People who advocate ownership rights in terms of capitalism too often ignore the non-capitalist ownership rights of indigenous people. Big business wants big government to deal with unruly indigenous people who think they have a right to the land their people have lived on for centuries. Big businesses are too often fine with colluding with the genocide or displacement of the indigenous. Sometimes they don’t even need big govt to do this since there are examples of big business hiring mercenaries or local goons to kill or scare away the indigenous.

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/does-poverty-rise-as-biodiversity-falls-pavan-sukhdev/

Anarcho-capitalism might benefit small businesses, but it would never benefit big businesses. Big businesses have immense power. If big businesses didn’t like big govt, they could easily use their power to decrease the size of govt. But big business types such as the Bush family want the big govt. The Bush family is even personal friends with Saudi royal family which rules one of the most oppressive big governments in the world. There is no incentive for a big business owner to help create a truly free market where they have to fairly compete. If competition existed, then businesses would be forced to decrease in size and wealth would no longer be concentrated. These big business types like having their wealth and power. They would never willingly give it up just for some noble ideals of a free market.

SECOND RESPONSE

We seem to both agree that the extreme examples of corruption and oppression as seen with concentrated power isn’t human nature. However, I take it a step further in saying all modern civilization is contradictory to human nature.

Maybe I’m less critical of statism and progressivism simply because I’m equally critical of all modern systems of social, political and economic organization. My cynicism makes me have lower standards and more moderate expectations. I’m more accepting of the failings of our society because I just assume that one kind of failure or another is inevitable with civilization as we know it. Or maybe, as someone who feels like a failure at life, I feel it would be hypocritical to be too judgmental of the failure of others. I have a strong sense of sympathy for human imperfection.

Anyway, I had some thoughts that I wondered how you would respond to.

Not all costs and benefits can be monetized, but capitalism (whether free market or not) almost entirely by design excludes anything that can’t be monetized. This is less of a problem with small communities. Hunter-gatherer tribes, for instance, were more widely spread apart so the actions of one community were less likely to impact other tribes. Similarly, early small agricultural communities caused less large-scale problems. But in todays world of industrialization and globalism, impacts are non-local and the human mind isn’t evolved to understand or care about non-local impacts or the strangers elsewhere impacted. I don’t see how a free market can solve this problem inherent to the limits of human nature.

Some costs and benefits are collective such as fire prevention. A private for-profit company couldn’t solve this problem nor could you get everyone to voluntarily agree to a single solution. A collective solution has to be forced on all because the dangers and costs of fires, especially wildfires, impact everyone in a community. A fire can spread from house to house and from community to community. Fires don’t know property boundaries. If not for government, who would bear the costs and implement collective action to do control burns and watch over vast areas of wilderness to spot fires before they spread?

Also, what about long-term costs and benefits such as with local ecosystems? And what about the extremely non-local costs and benefits of the entire biosphere? Pollution doesn’t know property boundaries or national boundaries. We all collectively share the same water and air and we share even many of the same food sources such as seafood. The challenge with environmental costs and benefits is that they’re usually only seen after decades or centuries. A problem prevented may have no short term benefits, but if not prevented it may have massive long-term costs.

As an example, the President Carter helped create the EPA. The reason it was created was because there was little monetary incentive for companies to solve the problems of pollution and environmental destruction. Much of the costs were invisible to everyday experience. Even scientists didn’t know all the potential problems with pollution, but they knew enough that prevention was the wise course despite there being no immediate and apparent benefits. One of the pollutants decreased was lead and the benefits to this weren’t seen for decades. It was only until recent research that scientists could see that the decrease of lead helped to vastly decrease the violent crime rate. No one could’ve predicted this, but problems like this need to be prevented for the very reason we don’t understand them. It’s the precautionary principle.

This issue is complicated with the inherent conflict between transnational corporations and local communities. What monetarily benefits a company such as mining often doesn’t benefit the local community. And the costs of the companies actions may not be seen until years or decades after the company has moved it’s business elsewhere or maybe even has gone out of business. Who is responsible for those costs?

When indigenous people experiences diseases introduced by foreigners… when the water supply is polluted or the wildlife scared away causing the indigenous to be no longer able to sustain their traditional lifestyle… when industrialism leads to poor health because of pollution and malnutrition, who is responsible for the costs to individuals and communities? How does a free market monetize the costs and benefits that are collective and long-term?
I’m reminded of an example that Derrick Jensen used. He was describing this particular community that was established before there was a large federal government and when people mostly solved their own problems. The first settlers killed and scared off the Native Americans living there. The people who live there and own the land are the descendants of the people who stole the land originally. The same Native Americans still live in the area among the people who still possess their stolen land, the people who are descendants of those who killed their ancestors and destroyed their way of life. The creation of such an ownership class is inherently built upon violence and sustained through oppression. All of that violence and oppression happened before big govt.

This story has been repeated a million times around the world. Right now as I write there are indigenous people being exploited and oppressed often by big business or sometimes by small business owners that settled on the homeland of the indigenous. Early settles used the principle of property rights to steal land because they believed/rationalized that he who makes use of the land has the right to the land. This was based on the concept that land in it’s natural state is worthless. This bias continues to this day. We are only beginning to understand the value of health ecosystems to ensuring water and air is clean, things we normally take for granted without considering the costs and benefits.

All these problems I speak of have their origins at the beginning of civilization. The problems of pollution and environmental destruction, malnutrition and disease became apparent the moment people left behind the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and formed permanent villages which became city-states which became states which became empires which became our present industrialized globalism. Indigenous people have perfectly healthy teeth until they are civilized and start eating a grain and sugar based diet. Capitalism or statism then offers the solution of dentistry, but capitalism and statism are part of the social condition that caused the problem in the first place. That relates to wildfires as well. We have to control nature in order to build stable societies and economies, but that control leads wildfires to become larger than they would ever have become naturally. So, once again, businesses or governments have to create solutions for the problem created by the entire system. All of civilization is the solving of problems that civilization created and every solution creates further problems.

So, the fundamental problem is civilization itself. The human species and human communities, ecosystems and the biosphere didn’t evolve under the conditions of civilization. Civilization has only existed for a few thousand years. Civilization has developed faster than evolution can happen. This has led to the extinction of massive numbers of species and the destruction of massive numbers of cultures.

The further problem is that civilization has created massive concentrated populations which are in themselves unnatural and which preclude natural solutions. We humans are a clever species, but it’s our cleverness that gets us into trouble. We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but fundamentally we are driven by the same non-rational impulses as any animal. The difference is that no other species has ever had the power to destroy nearly all life on the planet.

I don’t see how free markets or any other human idea can solve all these problems without just causing more problems… as history has proven. As has been said before, when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging. But how do we stop? Civilization is built on continual progress or else the whole house of cards might fall down. We collectively as a species have to keep running just to stay in place. Solution? We don’t even understand the problem. We are the problem or are at least inseparable from the problem. Any solution will have to be a complete transformation of how humans operate on a collective level, but such a solution could never be predicted just as we have never been able to predict any of the problems we’ve created. So, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best.

I feel frustrated when someone offers up something like the free market. The striving for freedom won’t save us. The problem is that we aren’t free. We are embedded and enmeshed in, intertwined with and integral to the entire world. We aren’t free of anything. The very idea of freedom is one of those many abstractions that keeps us trapped in the Iron Cage of rationality, the bureaucratization of humanity… costs and benefits, ideologies and systems, improvement and progress. It’s not that any given idea is wrong. Free markets, for example, sound wonderful. What frustrates me is the mindset that constantly creates more ideas to be forced on humanity, on reality, on all the world around us. We think that if we just find the right idea or principle, the right method or framework then the the problems will be solved… but the fundamental problems of civilization are never solved… or at least not so far.

Maybe you don’t share my frustration. Maybe you have more hope in solutions despite the all the failings of history. I realize most people don’t see the world as I do. I just don’t see anything changing until something forces humans to change. I’m not filled with hope.

Self-Enclosed Stories, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I often watch the videos of Stefan Molyneux. I highly admire some of his insights, but I’m also highly critical of the conclusions he bases on these insights. Here is a very high quality video he just made to which I have a mixed response.

He tells a compelling story. It’s not unlike the story told by Alex Jones and other right-leaning libertarians. Stefan is essentially an intelligent conspiracy theorist which I don’t mean as an insult. It’s just an apt description.

I have a cynical nature with a bit of intelligent paranoia thrown in. I’m quite fond of criticizing the government and the established system of modern civilization. So, I resonate with the general attitude of questioning as seen with Alex Jones or in a less bombastic way with Stefan Molyneux. I resonate, but I also feel repulsed by a tendency towards fear-mongering. At worst, this kind of fear-mongering leads to a dark sensationalism as portrayed in the above video.

My own sensibility is not any less dark, but I lean leftwards away from this rightwing way of portraying a cultural narrative. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is. Liberals seem less prone to use overt emotional persuasion/manipulation. A particular kind of right-leaning libertarian makes progressive leftwingers such as Michael Moore seem like moderates.

Noam Chomsky is no less critical of the government than Molyneux, but Chomsky would never make a video like the above. As another example, Derrick Jensen easily competes with Molyneux on the level of cynical analysis of our present society… and, yet, there is a difference. What is this difference?

Both Chomsky and Jensen have a more open-ended analysis. They’re less likely to come to an absolute conclusion, less likely to tell an ideological narrative. Derrick Jensen explicitly says that no ideology is right, no single answer will solve our problems. Molyneux, however, is selling a specific ideology: anarcho-capitalism. So, the story Molyneux is telling leads to a specific ideological vision of how society should be.

In this, I sense something like naivette. Molyneux believes in his ideological vision. He has faith in the theory of anarcho-capitalism even though there is no real-world evidence supporting it.

The story told by Stefan Molyneux and by Alex Jones could be true. I have a strong suspicion that parts of it are true. My worry is that there are elements of truth mixed in with massive amounts of speculation. Alex Jones is particularly bad about ungrounded speculation, but even the more moderate Molyneux dangerously courts with the paranoid vision. The specific danger I see is that stories have a way of becoming self-enclosed worldviews which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Death: PKD, WSB, & Derrick Jensen

Fred: D… Substance D. “D” is dumbness, and despair, desertion-desertion of you from your friends, your friends from you, everyone from everyone. Isolation and loneliness… and hating and suspecting each other, “D” is finally death. Slow death from the head down. Well… that’s it.

Why does Control need humans, as you call them?
Answer: Wait… wait! Time, a landing field. Death needs time like a junkie needs junk.
And what does Death need time for?
Answer: The answer is sooo simple. Death needs time for what it kills to grow in, for Ah Pook’s sake.

The conversion of the living to the dead has been converted from a moral, human, question into a technical problem to be solved, and, if at all possible, profited from.
 ~ Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe (p 568)

New-Path resident: Living and unliving things are exchanging properties.
Second New-Path resident: The drive of unliving things is stronger than the drive of living things.
Freck as New-Path resident: The living should never be used to serve the purposes of the dead. But the dead should, if possible… serve the purposes of the living.

Fred: I saw death rising from the earth, from the ground itself, in one blue field.

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