Music and Dance on the Mind

There is rhythmic entrainment that is orchestrated rapport, contributing to what some refer to as a hive mind. Taken together, this is collective identity and experience, collective thought and perception in sync with collective behavior. Most of us modern Westerners never experience it, with our obsession with individual identity and activity. But in earlier societies it would have been much more common.

Over at Ribbonfarm, Sarah Perry has written about this and similar things. Her focus is on the varieties and necessities of human consciousness. The article is “Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture“. It’s a longer piece and packed full of ideas, including an early mention of Jaynesian bicameralism.

The author doesn’t get around to discussing the above topics until about halfway into the piece. It’s in a section titled, “Hiving and Rhythmic Entrainment”. The hiving refers to Jonathan Haidt’s hive hypothesis. It doesn’t seem all that original of an understanding, but still it’s an important idea. This is an area where I’d agree with Haidt, despite my other disagreements elsewhere. In that section, Perry writes that:

Donald Brown’s celebrated list of human universals, a list of characteristics proposed to be common to all human groups ever studied, includes many entries on music, including “music related in part to dance” and “music related in part to religion.” The Pirahã use several kinds of language, including regular speech, a whistling language, and a musical, sung language. The musical language, importantly, is used for dancing and contacting spirits. The Pirahã, Everett says, often dance for three days at a time without stopping. They achieve a different consciousness by performing rituals calibrated to evoke mental states that must remain opaque to those not affected.

Musical language is the type of evidence that seems to bridge different aspects of human experience. It has been argued that language developed along with human tendencies of singing, dance, ritual movement, communal mimicry, group bonding, and other social behaviors. Stephen Mithen has an interesting theory about the singing of early hominids (The Singing Neanderthal).

That brings to mind Lynne Kelly’s book on preliterate mnemonic practices, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. Kelly goes into great detail about the practices of the Australian Aborigines with their songlines, which always reminds me of the English and Welsh beating of the bounds. A modern example of the power of music is choral singing, which research has shown to create non-conscious mimicry, physical synchrony, and self-other merging.

Eric Mankin, in the comment section of Perry’s article, mentions a book: Keeping Together in Time by  William H. McNeill. It’s about the history of coordinated rhythmic movement as collective ritual, from dances to drills. McNeill argues the important role this has played for groups, communities, and societies. He calls it “muscular bonding” because of the viscerality of the experience, as if the individuals involved physically expand into a larger sense of group-self and fellow-feeling.

It really gets me thinking. If Julian Jaynes was onto something with his bicameral mind, such things as group-oriented vocal and physical entrainment could explain how it could be possible. Not just vocalizations but voice-hearing as well might at times have had a group-oriented aspect, something hard for us to imagine.

One of the perplexing things is how could the early civilizations, lacking in much advanced technology and knowledge, have been able to build vast pyramids. Even today, it would require the most powerful cranes in the world to move the largest blocks of stone that were somehow moved into place in building those ancient structures. Obviously, there were some brilliant minds to help accomplish this, but there also must have been immense organized labor of a kind we never see in the modern world.

Strangest of all, this labor appears not to have been slavery, with no bureaucratic centralized government organizing it all or obvious physical infrastructure to make it possible. There was some kind of social commitment and obligation that compelled large numbers of people to take group action involving back-breaking, life-threatening labor toward a goal that required multiple generations to achieve.

Jaynes brings up one possibility in his book,

Another advantage of schizophrenia, perhaps evolutionary, is tirelessness. While a few schizophrenics complain of generalized fatigue, particularly in the early stages of the illness, most patients do not. In fact, they show less fatigue than normal persons and are capable of tremendous feats of endurance. They are not fatigued by examinations lasting many hours. They may move about day and night, or work endlessly without any sign of being tired. Catatonics may hold an awkward position for days that the reader could not hold for more than a few minutes. This suggests that much fatigue is a product of the subjective conscious mind, and that bicameral man, building the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the gigantic temples at Teotihuacan with only hand labor, could do so far more easily than could conscious self-reflective men.

If the impairment or lessening of “the subjective conscious mind” allows for impressive physical feats and stamina (along with higher pain threshold), that could explain some of the power unleashed by group rhythmic movements and vocalization. McNeill quotes A. R. Radcliffe about the Andaman islanders: “As the dancer loses himself in the dance, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a state of elation in which he feels himself filled with energy or force immediately beyond his ordinary state, and so finds himself able to perform prodigies of exertion” (Kindle Locations 125-126).

This is why armies can march long distances with little rest in a way that isn’t normally possible for an individual walking alone. As armies have their chants, the oarsmen on boats had their sea chanties and to similar ends. The songs of field laborers, slave or otherwise, would have served the same purpose as well. The individual, no matter how tired, is buoyed up by entrainment to a group activity.

Imagine an entire society organized along these lines. Imagine nearly all activities being done as a group and individuals rarely left alone.

That was what impressed me in reading about the early Roman Empire, as it seems that everything was a social experience, from going to the doctor to going to the bathroom. And the Roman Empire was many centuries following the hypothetical collapse of what Jaynes considered fully bicameral societies, even though traces of bicameralism apparently were still quite common at that time. A society dominated by the bicameral mind wouldn’t merely have been highly social but beyond social as identity itself wouldn’t have been individualistic. Bicameralism, according to theory, wasn’t about individuals relating for individual consciousness as we know it simply would have been nonexistent, not yet part of their sense of reality.

In singing with a choral group or marching in an army, we moderns come as close as we are able to this ancient mind. It’s always there within us, just normally hidden. It doesn’t take much, though, for our individuality to be submerged and something else to emerge. We are all potential goosestepping authoritarian followers, waiting for the right conditions to bring our primal natures out into the open. With the fiery voice of authority, we can be quickly lulled into compliance by an inspiring or invigorating vision:

[T]hat old time religion can be heard in the words and rhythm of any great speaker. Just listen to how a recorded speech of Martin Luther King jr can pull you in with its musicality. Or if you prefer a dark example, consider the persuasive power of Adolf Hitler for even some Jews admitted they got caught up listening to his speeches. This is why Plato feared the poets and banished them from his utopia of enlightened rule. Poetry would inevitably undermine and subsume the high-minded rhetoric of philosophers. “[P]oetry used to be divine knowledge,” as Guerini et al states in Echoes of Persuasion, “It was the sound and tenor of authorization and it commanded where plain prose could only ask.”

Poetry is one of the forms of musical language. Plato’s fear wasn’t merely about the aesthetic appeal of metered rhyme. Living in an oral culture, he would have intimately known the ever-threatening power and influence of the spoken word. Likewise, the sway and thrall of rhythmic movement would have been equally familiar in that world. Community life in ancient Greek city-states was almost everything that mattered, a tightly woven identity and experience.

We aren’t as different from ancient humanity as it might seem. Our societies have changed drastically, suppressing old urges and potentialities. Yet the same basic human nature still lurks within us, hidden in the underbrush along the well trod paths of the mind. The hive mind is what the human species naturally falls back upon, from millennia of collective habit. The problem we face is we’ve lost the ability to express well our natural predisposition toward group-mindedness, too easily getting locked into groupthink, a tendency easily manipulated.

Considering this, we have good reason to be wary, not knowing what we could tap into. We don’t understand our own minds and so we naively underestimate the power of humanity’s social nature. With the right conditions, hiving is easy to elicit but hard to control or shut down. The danger is that the more we idolize individuality the more prone we become to what is so far beyond the individual. It is the glare of hyper-individualism that casts the shadow of authoritarianism.

* * *

Musical Language
from Radiolab

Study: Music, language’s common evolutionary roots lie in emotion
by Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times

Speaking in Tones: Music and Language Partner in the Brain
by Diana Deutsch, Scientific American

“Music, Language, and the Brain” by Aniruddh D. Patel
by Barbara Tillmann, Psychomusicology Journal

330. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? — 1
(pt. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8)
by Victor Grauer, MUSIC 000001

Piraha Indians, Recursion, Phonemic Inventory Size and the Evolutionary Significance of Simplicity
by German Dziebel, Anthropogenesis

Musical protolanguage: Darwin’s theory of language evolution revisited
by Mark Liberman, Lanuguage Log

Music and the Neanderthal’s Communication
from PBS

Steven Mithen – The Singing Neanderthals
by Andreas Bick, silent listening

Steven Mithen: The Singing Neanderthals
by John Henry Calvinist, The New Humanities

The Singing Neanderthal
by Barbara J. King, Bookslut

The origins of music, part 2: Musilanguage
by Eugene Hirschfeld, Marxist Theory of Art

Synch, Song, and Society
by William L. Benzon, Human Nature Review

Survival Dance: How Humans Waltzed Through the Ice Age
by Heather Whipps, Live Science

Working in a team increases human pain threshold
by Ian Sample, The Guardian

Rhythm without the blues: how dance crazes make us feel a step closer
by Ian Sample, The Guardian

Synchrony and Cooperation
from Changing Minds

To like each other, sing and dance in synchrony
by Kaj Sotala, Less Wrong

It’s All in the Timing: Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Affiliation
Michael J. Hove & Jane L. Risen, Social Cognition Journal

Dance and Drill
by Erik Buys, Mimetic Margins

Moving images–Dance and repetition make your eye and heart sing, a book review
By Roberta Fallon, Artblog

Laban’s Movement Choirs vs. Nazi Soldier Parades and Propaganda Imagery: Spectacle or Gemeinschafstanz?
by Marjie Shrimpton, academia.edu

Moments of Geopolitical Choreography: Performance of Cultural Ideals in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Beyond
by Allison Bohman, The College at Brockport

Human Swarming and the future of Collective Intelligence
by Louis Rosenberg, Singularity

Ancient Greek Dance
by Michael Lahanas, Hellenica

Ancient Greek Dance
from Carnaval.com

War dances in Ancient Greece
from VSLM

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Hillary Clinton’s Laugh

 

Why is Hillary so often laughing? What is so funny?

It doesn’t seem to matter the topic nor how inappropriate the response. Even when discussing death and war, she’ll laugh. It’s usually in response to a question, seemingly as a way to either avoid or dismiss having to honestly answer. But at other times, it is plain bizarre, often following a longish pause when her face is completely unexpressive.

It’s not a new phenomenon. There are videos of her laughing at various things going back many years. Maybe she is just a manically happy person with a dark, sometimes demented sense of humor. Or maybe she is on some really good drugs.

I have absolutely no idea what all that laughing means. It probably says something about the kind of person she is. But the heck if I know what it indicates. I’ve never seen someone who laughs so much and at such odd times. It’s particularly strange coming from a professional politician.

If she had been elected president, would she just start laughing while talking to foreign leaders? I don’t think Putin would appreciate feeling like he was being laughed at. Or can she control when she does and doesn’t laugh? But if she can control it, why does she laugh at inappropriate moments?

After watching the videos below, I can’t get her laugh out of my head.

* * *

Hillary’s Laugh Track
from The Daily Show

What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?

In Dark Matter of the Mind, Daniel Everett contrasts Plato and Aristotle. He sides with the latter, specifically in terms of a blank slate view of the human mind. But most people wouldn’t understand what is meant by a blank slate in this context. He explains that (Kindle Locations 1140-1143),

Like Aristotle, Locke did not believe that the absence of knowledge on a tablet means that the tablet has no other properties. It has the capacity to receive and store information and more. Neither philosopher thought of the tabula rasa as devoid of capacity to be written on, not even of capacity to write upon itself. In my reading, they meant by tabula rasa not that there were no innate abilities, but that there were no innate specific concepts.

This is hard to grasp the exact distinction. It’s not an argument that nothing is preexisting. All that it means is nothing is predetermined, as already formed (i.e., Platonic forms). So, what exactly might be already present at birth and innate to all human minds?

I’m still not entirely sure about Everett’s answer to that question. He is critical of someone like Jung, based on the claim of Platonic error or overreach. Here is his description (Kindle Locations 971-973):

Jung (1875– 1961), another of the leading dark matter theorists in the Platonic tradition, was the founder of “analytical psychology” (Jung [1916] 2003). Fundamental to this form of therapy and the theory behind it was, again, Bastian’s elementary ideas, which Jung reconceived as the “collective unconscious,” that is, innate tacit information common to all humans.

It’s the last part that is relevant, “innate tacit information common to all humans”. But is that an accurate interpretation of Jung? Let’s turn to Jung’s explanation of his own view (“Concerning the Archetypes with Special Reference to the Anima Concept”):

It is in my view a great mistake to suppose that the psyche of a new-born child is a tabula rasa in the sense that there is absolutely nothing in it. In so far as the child is born with a differentiated brain that is predetermined by heredity and therefore individualized, it meets sensory stimuli coming from outside not with any aptitudes, but with specific ones, and this necessarily results in a particular, individual choice and pattern of apperception. These aptitudes can be shown to be inherited instincts and preformed patterns, the latter being the a priori and formal conditions of apperception that are based on instinct. Their presence gives the world of the child and the dreamer its anthropomorphic stamp. They are the archetypes, which direct all fantasy activity into its appointed paths and in this way produce, in the fantasy-images of children’s dreams as well as in the delusions of schizophrenia, astonishing mythological parallels such as can also be found, though in lesser degree, in the dreams of normal persons and neurotics. It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.

Everett says that Jung is claiming “innate tacit information” and speaks of this in terms of Bastian’s “elementary ideas”. That seems to be the same as inherited ideas. If so, Jung is denying Everett’s allegation before it ever was made. “It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.” That doesn’t sound all that different in how Everett discusses the topic (Kindle Locations 349-355):

The theses of learned tacit knowledge and nativism need not be opposed, of course. It is possible that both learned and innate forms of tacit knowledge are crucially implicated in human cognition and behavior. What we are genuinely interested in is not a false dichotomy of extremes but in a continuum of possibilities— where do the most important or even the most overlooked contributions to knowledge come from?

I am here particularly concerned with difference, however, rather than sameness among the members of our species— with variation rather than homeostasis. This is because the variability in dark matter from one society to another is fundamental to human survival, arising from and sustaining our species’ ecological diversity. The range of possibilities produces a variety of “human natures”

That in turn sounds much like Jung. A variety of “human natures”. Well, Jung developed an entire theory about this, not just a variety through archetypes as inherited possibilities but more specifically a variety of human personality types (i.e., “human natures”). The potentials within humanity could constellate into many patterns, according to Jung. And his book about personality types was directly influential on anthropology in developing a modern understanding of the variety of cultures, of which Everett writes much about.

So, if a supposedly Platonic thinker like Jung can make a basic argument that isn’t necessarily and clearly distinct from a supposedly Aristotelian thinker like Everett, then what precisely is the distinction being proposed? How does one differentiate innate ideas and innate possibilities of ideas? Is anyone “genuinely interested in… a false dichotomy of extremes”?

American Class Bigotry

“The system is still structured in such a way that one percent of the population owns 43 percent of the wealth, you end up with an embrace of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, especially upper–middle class and above, but the gay poor, the lesbian poor, they’re still catching hell . . . It’s not just black. It’s white. It’s brown. It’s the structure of a system . . . it’s worse [than ever].”
~ Cornel West

American society is divided by class and, ideology and parties aside, united according to class. Class identity and class conflict are the defining features.

That is because the lives of Americans are determined by class more than anything else, more than even race. Poor whites and poor blacks have more in common than either has with wealthy whites and wealthy blacks. This is seen in the most basic aspects of lives. The poor are more likely to live next to, work with, attend school with, be friends with, or even marry a poor person of another race than they are to do any of those things with a wealthy person of the same race. The class social order creates entirely different realities that Americans live within.

Racial animosity among the poor is often a result of proximity, not distance. But even then race is rarely the most important issue in the average person’s life. Most people simply worry about daily concerns of life, of getting by and making ends meet. It’s primarily the more economically privileged who have greater ability to racially segregate themselves by living in suburbs, gated communities, and gentrified neighborhoods, by attending elite colleges and sending their kids to private schools.

It is the middle-to-upper classes, a minority of the population, that hold not just most of the wealth but also most of the power and influence along with the privileges, opportunities, and resources that go with it. They don’t tend to worry about their next pay check, medical bills, paying rent, factory closings, home foreclosures, etc. In their greater luxury, these people are free to concern themselves about political galas, partisan campaigning, fundraising events, party primaries, political activism, identity politics, and culture wars. The rest of the population is mostly too busy living their lives and too disenfranchised from the system to worry about what concerns the economically well off.

It’s only the political class, not the majority of Americans, that are divided or like to pretend to be divided. But when it comes to issues of real political power and social privilege, most Republicans and Democrats of the political class are equally neocons and neoliberals. The political rhetoric that is used to create a mood of melodrama and divisiveness is rather superficial and misleading. Most Americans agree about most issues. Most Americans are for BOTH gun rights AND gun regulations, for BOTH abortion rights AND abortion limits, etc. Yet the divide and conquer strategy is quite effective, if only in terms of a sleight-of-hand diversion. It’s easy to rile people up momentarily or simply to demoralize them with the media-propagated sense of conflict.

There is a cynicism in how the political and media elite use these kinds of issues. They create an image of public opinion that doesn’t match the reality of public opinion. The ruse would be shown for what it is, if more of the population were to vote or revolt. It works so effectively because each individual realizes that the media-portrayed reality doesn’t match their own positions and experiences, which makes them feel disconnected from others and alienated from mainstream society, never realizing that people like them are the majority. It’s a highly developed form of social control, since it’s much easier for an elite to rule if the majority doesn’t realize they’re a majority.

The elite have a superior and often condescending attitude toward the rest of society. This expresses itself in many ways, from smug paternalism to righteous judgment, from fear of the dirty masses to opportunistic manipulation. You find it in how politicians of both parties act and in how the media talks. Listen to what Charles Murray says about poor whites in Fishtown, how Thomas Sowell talks about redneck culture, J.D. Vance’s admonishments of hillbillies, Bill Cosby’s criticisms of inner city blacks, etc. And that is just from the political right. The liberal class is known for this as well, specifically among the Clinton New Democrats and the mainstream media that is aligned with them. Smug liberalism was particularly bad this past campaign season and the arrogance of the liberal media was breathtaking.

Speaking of an elite can be misleading, though. The class divide can be remarkably slim at times. With economic troubles increasing and economic mobility decreasing, it’s getting easier and easier for the  upper class to slip down to the middle class and the middle class middle class to slip down to the working class while the working class itself falls further behind. But class identity maintains itself long after such changes occur, because as the entire class spectrum shifts downward almost everyone maintains their relative position within the hierarchy. It’s easy to forget how many Americans are on the bottom of society and how little it takes to gain a bit of class privilege.

The perceived or self-identified elite isn’t always extremely distant, either economically or geographically. Most Americans are working class without a college education. So, simply getting a college education leading to even the most minimal of professional jobs makes one a class above most of the population. It doesn’t matter that the public school teacher or county naturalist may make less money than someone with a good factory job. Class is ultimately an identity and having a college education can give someone a sense of superiority, no matter how slight it can sometimes be in economic terms.

What the college education can give an individual is potentially a position of authority, as even the most lowly of professional jobs can offer. A public school teacher can speak with authority to parents and the county naturalist can speak with authority to small farmers, and in both cases they have government backing their authority, even if that authority has little real force of power. It’s still a greater social position within the social hierarchy and that comes with certain privileges that are easily seen by those further down the ladder of respectability.

This is even seen in some traditionally working class jobs. Someone I know recently got a college degree and was hired on with the city department of parks and recreation. The previous head of the department liked to hire people who grew up on farms as they have practical knowledge about machinery, tools, etc. But the new head of the department prefers to hire college grads who have professional training as naturalists and so have expertise in forestry management, prairie restoration, controlled burns, etc. So, the newly hired employees are treated with more respect in the department and likely they’ll be promoted more quickly and paid more than the older workers. Working class experience and abilities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and of less economic value, hence of less social value. This person, simply by going to college, is now in a better position than most Americans. That certainly creates conflict in society and in the workplace.

It isn’t just that someone goes to college. It’s also what makes that possible. This person was raised upper middle class by college-educated parents. They made sure he took college preparation classes in high school, always encouraged him to go to college, and were willing and able to pay part for his college education. Plus, they modeled certain behaviors for him and helped him in school when asked. Most Americans never get these kinds of advantages that are the norm for middle-to-upper class families. At the most basic level, this is a very real class privilege, even when it is far from being part of the ruling elite.

I know many liberals who didn’t spend most of their lives in big cities in coastal states. They have all resided more years in rural farm states than anywhere else, but that has included living in liberal places like this Iowan college town. This creates a different mentality from someone in the same state who grew up on a farm or in an industrial town and who never went to college or lived in a college town. There are many college graduates in this liberal college town with working class jobs, but it is nothing like being working class in most places in the country working at some crap job like McDonald’s or Walmart.

I see how this different mentality effects people. Many of the people I know are good liberals. None of them are wealthy, often only a generation from working class, and yet they tend to have a strong sense of class identity, not unusually looking down on the poor. One liberal I know has made fun of coworkers for missing teeth. And another refuses to let his daughter play with the poor white children in the neighborhood. They dismiss poor whites as methheads and talk about tweakers for Trump. This also includes some fear and judgment of poor minorities, perceived as moving in from Chicago. It’s a strong sense of those other people being somehow inferior and unworthy, sometimes simply condescension but not unusually mockery. It’s not that they would openly be cruel toward the poor, but the attitude of superiority has to leak out even if unconsciously and I’m sure others pick up on it.

Some of that class consciousness was probably inherited from the larger society, learned from the behavior of older generations and absorbed from the media. That still wouldn’t explain how it came to be expressed so strongly in those who one might think, as liberals, shouldn’t be prone to class bigotry. Maybe it’s because many people I know, as with many of our generation, haven’t done as economically well as the previous generation. This creates class anxiety which is clear in many people having economic worries. The one thing they’ve got going for them is a college education. It’s what they have to prove their worth in the world and they hold the class attitude of seeing the lower classes as ignorant. Many of these people are of the liberal class of professionals, even if only barely.

This isn’t limited to liberals, of course. It’s just that I’ve become more aware of it among liberals. And it somehow seems worse when I observe it in liberals, as it contradicts how liberals see themselves. Many conservatives see no shame in class bigotry, as it is part of the conservative worldview of meritocracy and Social Darwinism. But in liberals, it feels particularly hypocritical.

For liberals, this also mixes up with identity politics. I’ve heard Democrats try to dismiss Bernie Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters by invoking what, to the liberal mind, are supposed to be protected groups. It was assumed that minorities, women, and LGBTQ people all supported Hillary Clinton. This was total bullshit, but it’s how a certain kind of liberal sees the world. In reality, Sanders won the majority of young and the poor, including among minorities and women and probably the LGBTQ as well. Then some of these people apparently went over to vote for Trump, as impossible as that seems to the liberal class.

This is an example of class disconnection. Economics doesn’t seem all that important when one has no serious and immediate economic problems. If you are of the liberal class, even on the lower end, most of the minorities and gay people you know are going to also be of the liberal class. This creates a distorted view of demographic identities. If you are a poor minority woman, Clinton’s middle class white feminism means little to you. If you are a working class gay man who lost his job when the factory closed, your most pressing concern at the moment isn’t same sex marriage. Worrying about such things as transgender bathrooms is a class privilege.

For most lower class people, gender and sexuality issues are far down the list of priorities. Even among working class straight white males, they don’t particularly care about culture war issues. Democrats have been pushing social liberalism for decades and yet the majority of the white working class kept voting for them. It was economics, stupid. The white working class isn’t going to vote against their own interests. It’s just that this election they didn’t see a corporatist candidate like Clinton as being in their best interest, whether that meant they chose to vote for another candidate or not vote at all.

The response of the liberal class is a clueless class bigotry. And if they’re not careful, Democrats will become the new party of class bigots, protecting the interests of the shrinking middle class against the interests of the growing working class. That would be a sad fate for the once proud working class party. The working class would be abandoned, left to fend for themselves with no party that represents them. Then the class divide will be complete, as economic inequality becomes a vast chasm. And the further the divide grows, the worse conflict will become. We might see some real class war, of the kind not seen for generations.

Is the smug satisfaction of class bigotry worth the harm it causes? As the economy worsens, perceived class position won’t save anyone nor will a sense of superiority be much comfort. Instead of Americans turning on one another, it would be to everyone’s advantage to see their interests more in line with the lower class majority than with the wealthy ruling elite. Even the rich would be better off in a society with less wasteful divisiveness and greater benefit for all.

But Then It Was Too Late

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. […]

“The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.”

~ Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13)

Bicameralism and Symbolic Conflation

I wanted to share some passages from the book that has been preoccupying me lately, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). Quite the mouthful. The book is still in print or can be bought as an ebook, but the entire text can be found various places for free online as a PDF.

The passages below get at the strangeness that Jaynes was exploring and attempting to explain. It involves: shared belief, collective imperative, authorization, induction, focusing and narrowing of consciousness, etc. And it would also connect to: authoritarianism, propaganda, brainwashing, etc. I’m not entirely sure what to think about it all. There is something profound involved, touching on the foundation of our humanity. It’s hard to grasp what it means. I’ve been sitting with it and contemplating it. It’s as perplexing as it’s fascinating.

I sense that this overlaps with my own thinking. I’ve had this idea of symbolic conflation. It’s a theory I came up with to explain some of my own observations of human oddity. Hypnosis might be a perfect explanation. A symbolic conflation involves storytelling, framing, rhetoric, and persuasion. And I can see how metaphor is related, as with Jaynes’ view of consciousness. A symbolic conflation creates not just a particular worldview but a particular mentality and identity, and then it anchors it in place.

That is a good word to describe this process, anchor. This reminds me of neruolinguistic programming. It was partly based on hypnosis. One of the NLP techniques that always interested me, along with rapport, is anchoring. It is establishing a link to something (experience, memory, etc) in order to be able to elicit it later on. That is what a symbolic conflation is, a collective anchoring of the individual mind.

I just wanted to throw this out for the time being. It’s just something rumbling around in my brain.

* * *

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes (1990 edition)

p. 325

The application of this general bicameral paradigm to the oracle at Delphi is obvious: the elaborate induction procedures, the trance in which consciousness is lost, the ardently pursued authorization of Apollo. But it is the collective cognitive” imperative or group belief or cultural prescription or expectancy (all of these terms indicating my meaning) which I wish to emphasize. The immensity of the cultural demand upon the entranced priestess cannot be overemphasized. The whole Greek world believed, and had for almost a millennium. As many as thirty-five thousand people a day from every part of the Mediterranean world might struggle by sea through the tiny port of Itea that snuggles the receptive coast just below Delphi. And they, too, went through induction procedures, purifying themselves in the Castalian spring, making offerings to Apollo and other gods as they persisted up the Sacred Way. In the latter centuries of the oracle, more than four thousand votive statues crowded this 220-yard-long climb up the side of Mount Parnassus to the temple of the oracle. It was, I suggest, this confluence of huge social prescription and expectancy, closer to definition than mere belief, which can account for the psychology of the oracle, for the at-once-ness of her answers. It was something before which any skepticism would be as impossible as for us to doubt that the speech of a radio originates in a studio that we cannot see. And it is something before which modern psychology must stand in awe.

p. 345

What was learned, I suggest, was a state approaching the bicameral mind as a response to the induction. This is important. We do not ordinarily think of learning a new unconscious mentality, a whole new relationship between our cerebral hemispheres, as we think of learning to ride a bicycle.

Since this is the learning of a now difficult neurological state, so different from ordinary life, it is not surprising that the cues of the induction had to be wildly distinctive and have an extreme difference from ordinary life.

And they certainly were different: anything odd, anything strange: bathing in smoke or sacred water, dressing in enchanted chitons with magical girdles, wearing weird garlands or mysterious symbols, standing in a charmed magic circle as medieval magicians did, or upon charakteres as Faust did to hallucinate Mephistopheles, or smearing the eyes with strychnine to procure visions as was done in Egypt, or washing in brimstone (sulphur) and seawater, a very old method which began in Greece, as Porphyry said in the second century A.D., to prepare the anima sfiritalis for the reception of a higher being. All these of course did nothing except as they were believed to do something — just as we in this latter age have no ‘free wil’ unless we believe we have.

p. 378-380

The modern poet is in a similar quandary. Once, literary languages and archaic speech came somehow to his bold assistance in that otherness and grandeur of which true poetry is meant to speak. But the grinding tides of irreversible naturalism have swept the Muses even farther out into the night of the right hemisphere. Yet somehow, even helplessly in our search for authorization, we remain “the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration.” And inspiration flees in attempted apprehension, until perhaps it was never there at all. We do not believe enough. The cognitive imperative dissolves. History lays her finger carefully on the lips of the Muses. The bicameral mind, silent. And since

The god approached dissolves into the air,
Imagine then, by miracle, with me,
(Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be)
What could not possibly be there,
And learn a style from a despair.

IF I ASK YOU to taste vinegar as champagne, to feel pleasure when I jab a pin in your arm, or to stare into darkness and contract the pupils of your eyes to an imagined light, or to willfully and really believe something you do not ordinarily believe, just anything, you would find these tasks difficult if not impossible. But if I first put you through the induction procedures of hypnosis, you could accomplish all these things at my asking without any effort whatever.

Why? How can such supererogatory enabling even exist?

It seems a very different company we enter when we go from the familiarity of poetry to the strangeness of hypnosis. For hypnosis is the black sheep of the family of problems which constitute psychology. It wanders in and out of laboratories and carnivals and clinics and village halls like an unwanted anomaly. It never seems to straighten up and resolve itself into the firmer proprieties of scientific theory. Indeed, its very possibility seems a denial of our immediate ideas about conscious self-control on the one hand, and our scientific idea about personality on the other. Yet it should be conspicuous that any theory of consciousness and its origin, if it is to be responsible, must face the difficulty of this deviant type of behavioral control.

I think my answer to the opening question is obvious: hypnosis can cause this extra enabling because it engages the general bicameral paradigm which allows a more absolute control over behavior than is possible with consciousness. […]

I shall even go so far as to maintain that no theory other than the present one makes sense of the basic problem. For if our contemporary mentality is, as most people suppose, an immutable genetically determined characteristic evolved back somewhere in mammalian evolution or before, how can it be so altered as in hypnosis? And that alteration merely at some rather ridiculous ministrations of another person? It is only by rejecting the genetic hypothesis and treating consciousness as a learned cultural ability over the vestigial substrate of an earlier more authoritarian type of behavioral control that such alterations of mind can begin to seem orderly.

p. 383-384

That the phenomenon of hypnosis is under the control of a collective cognitive imperative or group belief system is clearly demonstrated by its continual changing in history. As beliefs about hypnosis changed, so also its very nature. A few decades after Mesmer, subjects no longer twisted with strange sensations and convulsions. Instead they began spontaneously to speak and reply to questions during their trance state. Nothing like this had happened before. Then, early in the nineteenth century, patients spontaneously began to forget what had happened during the trance,2 something never reported previously. Around 1825, for some unknown reason, persons under hypnosis started to spontaneously diagnose their own illnesses. In the middle of the century, phrenology, the mistaken idea that conformations of the skull indicate mental faculties, became so popular that it actually engulfed hypnosis for a time. Pressure on the scalp over a phrenological area during hypnosis caused the subject to express the faculty controlled by that area (yes, this actually happened), a phenomenon never seen before or since. When the scalp area over the part of the brain supposedly responsible for “veneration” was pressed, the hypnotized subject sunk to his knees in prayer!3 This was so because it was believed to be so.

A little later, Charcot, the greatest psychiatrist of his time, demonstrated to large professional audiences at the Salpetriere that hypnosis was again quite different! Now it had three successive stages: catalepsy, lethargy, and somnambulism. These “physical states” could be changed from one to another by manipulating muscles, or various pressures, or friction on the top of the head. Even rubbing the head over Broca’s area produced aphasia! And then Binet, arriving at the Salpetriere to check on the findings of Charcot, promptly compounded the problem by returning to Mesmer’s magnets and discovering even more bizarre behavior.4 Placing magnets on one side or the other of the body of a hypnotized person, he could flip-flop perceptions, hysterical paralyses, supposed hallucinations, and movements from one side to the other, as if such phenomena were so many iron filings. None of these absurd results was ever found before or since.

It is not simply that the operator, Mesmer or Charcot or whoever, was suggesting to the pliant patient what the operator believed hypnosis to be. Rather, there had been developed within the group in which he worked a cognitive imperative as to what the phenomenon was ‘known’ to be. Such historical changes then clearly show that hypnosis is not a stable response to given stimuli, but changes as do the expectations and preconceptions of a particular age.

What is obvious in history can be shown in a more experimentally controlled way. Previously unheard-of manifestations of hypnosis can be found by simply informing subjects beforehand that such manifestations are expected in hypnosis, that is, are a part of the collective cognitive imperative about the matter. For example, an introductory psychology class was casually told that under hypnosis a subject’s dominant hand cannot be moved. This had never occurred in hypnosis in any era. It was a lie. Nevertheless, when members of the class at a later time were hypnotized, the majority, without any coaching or further suggestion, were unable to move their dominant hand. Out of such studies has come the notion of the “demand characteristics” of the hypnotic situation, that the hypnotized subject exhibits the phenomena which he thinks the hypnotist expects.5 But that expresses it too personally. It is rather what he thinks hypnosis is. And such “demand characteristics,” taken in this way, are of precisely the same nature as what I am calling the collective cognitive imperative.

Another way of seeing the force of the collective imperative is to note its strengthening by crowds. Just as religious feeling and belief is enhanced by crowds in churches, or in oracles by the throngs that attended them, so hypnosis in theaters. It is well known that stage hypnotists with an audience packed to the rafters, reinforcing the collective imperative or expectancy of hypnosis, can produce far more exotic hypnotic phenomena than are found in the isolation of laboratory or clinic.

Then What?

If you lived in an authoritarian society, how would you know? What would be the signs to look for?

Those are tough questions without easy answers. Here is one way to think about it. In a fully non-authoritarian free society with a well functioning social and political democracy, you wouldn’t expect to see:

Elections that look like banana republic spectacles, mainstream media consolidation and collusion, concentrated wealth and power…

Vast government secrecy, unaccountable government officials, growing executive power, increasingly centralized corporatism, a military-industrial complex where the defense industry is the single largest sector of the economy, agencies that operate outside the law, police state mass surveillance, COINTELPRO and similar tactics, two-tiered legal system, tough-on-crime policies that target minorities and the poor, mass incarceration that imprisons more African-Americans than were in slavery at its height…

Global neo-imperialism, military interventionism and adventurism, endless wars including wars of aggression, torture prisons and extreme rendition, such things as the School of the Americas and the arming of dangerous militant groups, an international drug war used to extend power into other countries, overthrowing of democratically elected governments, the killing and harming of millions of foreign non-combatants, multiple long-term alliances with authoritarian governments…

Et cetera.

So, when you see such things and begin to suspect that your society isn’t entirely non-authoritarian, then what is it? Maybe authoritarian? Does it matter if it seems like soft authoritarianism, in that overt and violent oppression is rare for most citizens? Even if that is the case, might you not worry that soft authoritarianism would lead to hard authoritarianism? Should we fear more the authoritarianism that might take over or the authoritarianism that is already here?

Let me put the original question in context. How many people in Nazi Germany knew they were living in an authoritarian society? When Hitler brought law and order back to the country, when the economy was revived and industry was booming, when infrastructure was rebuilt, did it feel like authoritarianism?

For the majority of Germans, much of life went on as before for a long time. The trappings of a liberal society remained in place. There were still relatively free markets, factories producing a variety of consumer goods along with stores that sold them, grocery stores with shelves of food, restaurants, bars, theaters, etc. People still owned their own houses, their own cars, and their own land. They still went to work, church, and school. They still socialized on weekends, distracted themselves with entertainment, and took vacations.

The main aspects of society continued in a fairly normal fashion, at least for certain segments of German society. That was particularly true for middle class professionals and upper class capitalists. But even most workers were too busy with their lives to think much about any of it. The worst oppression, the concentration camps, slave labor, and such was hidden from public view. The average German never saw it or was forced to acknowledge it.

This was confirmed after World War II. When Germans were interviewed, many said that they didn’t know what was happening at the time. How were they supposed to know?

If you had been there, are you so sure that you’d have figured out how bad it was? Probably not. And if you figured it out, would you have joined the resistance? That is doubtful. How many Americans noticed or were bothered by the hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian Americans who were registered, interrogated, or put into camps? Not many. Did most Americans know for sure what was happening? No. Did most Americans want to know? Of course not.

Sure, in Nazi Germany, there were rumors that people would have heard. There are always rumors and sometimes claims of proof: leaked info, eye witnesses, whistleblowers, etc. One hears about them in our own society, on talk radio and alternative news media. But that kind of thing is easy to dismiss and rationalize away. Only cranks and conspiracy theorists entertain such thoughts. The government offers official statements to explain and the mainstream media often reports it verbatim. Most want to believe what they are told. Most want to think of themselves as good people in a good society.

Are the citizens living under authoritarianism responsible for what the authoritarian government does? Does it matter if the authoritarian government is outwardly democratic and claims to act in the name of those citizens? Should average Germans have fought back and overthrown the Nazis? Should earlier Americans have fought back and overthrown the government that made possible mass slavery of African-Americans and genocide of Native Americans? What should Americans have been doing for these past decades as authoritarianism slowly established itself? And what should Americans now do? Who is responsible?

If you realized you were living in an authoritarian society, what would you do? Blame others? Or take responsibility? How bad does it have to get before it’s intolerable? How many innocents harmed is too many? If we aren’t at that point yet, how close are we? How do you know when your society is at a point of no return? Then what?

* * *

To think about authoritarianism, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Imagine you were a different person living a different life in different conditions faced with different problems and issues.

If you are white, imagine being non-white. If you are well-educated, imagine having little education. If you are economically comfortable and secure, imagine being poor. If you are fully employed, imagine being unemployed, underemployed or marginally employed. If you have a nice house or apartment, imagine living in slums or being homeless.

If you have lived your life free of oppression and fear, imagine experiencing police brutality on a regular basis, imagine being and knowing people who were shot by police or imprisoned. If you are a US citizen, imagine being an undocumented immigrant who lives in hiding or imagine being a poor brown person who had your country invaded and occupied, your home bombed, your family killed, your wedding drone attacked, and your government toppled. If you are a Christian, Jew, or atheist, imagine being a Muslim or someone perceived as a Muslim who lives in fear.

If you descend from generations of white privilege, imagine being a minority living in a community with fresh memory, sometimes still living memory, of stolen land, genocide, persecution, slavery, chain gang labor, Jim Crow, sundown towns, internment camps, race wars, and so much else. If you spend most of your time not thinking about such things, imagine being constantly reminded of continuing racism that is systemic and institutional often personal and sometimes violent and always demoralizing, imagine being constantly reminded of hate crimes, dog whistle politics, deportations and mass incarceration, imagine living in fear of the police or immigration officials.

Imagine all of that. Would you have the same view of authoritarianism? Would you have the same view of your government? Would you fear more about future possibilities that might or might not happen or would you fear more present realities continuing endlessly?

On Rural America: Understanding Is The Problem

There is an article, On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem, that has been getting some attention. It’s written by someone calling himself Forsetti and co-written with his Justice. The tagline for the blog is, “this is Truth”. Well, I like truth. But that is where ends my agreement with the author.

The piece is too simplistic, narrow-minded, uninformed, and cynical. I sometimes think liberals like this are projecting a bit about their own limited groupthink. In the words of one comment I saw in a discussion, “So it’s a tumblr post saying religious people are dumb. OK.”

There is only one reason that this is worth responding to. The author does express a fairly typical view among liberals. I understand the attraction to righteous judgment and, in the past, I might have felt more sympathy toward the anger expressed. But I’m now growing impatient with this kind of attitude that is driving a wedge between Americans who should be seeking common cause.

The very basis of the argument is blatantly false. The world is more complex than is allowed for by an us vs them mentality.

As many have pointed out, there is nothing specifically Republican and conservative about rural areas and states. Many of these places were Democratic and strongly union in the past. Also, there used to be a strong movement of rural socialism, cooperatism, and communitarianism. Plus, mining states like West Virginia once were breeding grounds for radical left-wing politics like communism, Marxism, and syndicalism.

Quite a few states in flyover country, in particular the Upper Midwest, still are largely Democratic. In the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton won many rural areas and rural states. And, after the nomination, many of those rural voters chose Obama and helped elect him to office. Obama didn’t just win all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. He also won the Midwestern states along with Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. He almost exactly repeated these results in 2012, minus Indiana and North Carolina. The difference for 2016 is that Clinton lost almost the entire Midwest, a region of flyover country that has been key for Democrats.

In recent elections, Democratic candidates win the presidency when they win the Midwest and lose the presidency when they lose the Midwest. The only Democratic candidate in the past half century who didn’t follow this pattern was Jimmy Carter, a Southerner who won with the support of Southern states.

I would point out that we really don’t know how most Americans would have voted this past presidential election because nearly half of Americans didn’t vote. If you live in a state that you think you’re candidate can’t win, you likely won’t vote at all. That is the problem with our winner take all system, where the winner takes every state in its entirety. This leads to Democrats losing presidential elections all the time, despite supposedly winning the popular vote, although to be fair it is impossible to determine the popular vote when not voting at all is so popular.

Population density and lack thereof is important. A person’s vote is worth more in a low density state than in a high density state, because if you’re surrounded by a vast concentrated population your vote has less ability to influence who becomes the victor. But the high density states aren’t entirely where you’d think they’d be.

Both Texas and California aren’t in the top ten of high density states. Rather, along with Florida, all the top ten most population dense states are found in New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. In the top twenty, a quarter are found in the Midwest. Only Iowa and Minnesota are particularly low density for the Midwest.

Let me give some specific responses to the piece. Forsetti wrote that,

“The real problem isn’t east coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because the don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.”

Well, it’s a fact that East Coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. Or rather, it’s a fact that research has shown the elites are disconnected from most of the population in general. The political elites are disconnected even from their own constituents. This is true for political elites from the coasts and from flyover country, because political elites tend to associate with other political elites along with elites in general.

That is only problematic if you support democracy. But if you don’t care about democracy, then everything is working just fine. Rural America doesn’t have much influence on politics. Even in rural states, most of the voters are concentrated in urban areas. It’s the cities more than anything that determine which candidate wins any given state, rural or otherwise.

“I have also watched the town I grew up in go from a robust economy with well-kept homes and infrastructure turn into a struggling economy with shuttered businesses, dilapidated homes, and a broken down infrastructure over the past thirty years. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand these people. The problem is they don’t understand themselves, the reasons for their anger/frustrations, and don’t seem to care to know why.”

First off, not all rural states are the same. Many farm and natural resources states with strong economies were largely untouched by the Great Recession. The housing market here in Iowa never took as much of a hit. Unemployment and poverty rates also have remained fairly low here. Maybe that is why Iowa has tended to vote Democratic in recent decades. Neighboring Minnesota has only voted for Republican presidential candidates in three of the last twenty-one elections, the only state to never have gone to Reagan. Iowa and Minnesota are as rural as they come and, as I pointed out, the most low density states in the Midwest (respectively ranked 36 and 31 in the country).

This author probably comes from the South. The rural South isn’t like rural anywhere else in the country. It is related to why working class whites everywhere outside of the South have tended to vote for Democratic presidential candidates. It is also related to the fact that, even in rural states, most working class whites live in urban areas. Also, keep in mind that many places considered rural today were considered urban in the past, until so much of the population left. My dad grew up in a thriving small town with multiple factories, but it was out in a rural area surrounded by farmland. Many small towns like that used to exist. The people left behind didn’t necessarily choose to be rural. It’s just the economy around them collapsed, with small businesses being closed, small factories disappearing, small farms being bought up by big ag, and small town downtowns slowly dying.

Many of those people understand just fine. They purposely didn’t vote for Clinton because she was the neoliberal candidate and they voted for Trump because he was the anti-neoliberal candidate. Trump promised to stop neoliberal trade agreements and to build infrastructure. They may have low education rates, but they aren’t utterly stupid. They are able to put two and two together.

“In deep red, white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems.”

That is more of a Southern thing. In Iowa, for example, rural areas are largely Catholic along with Lutheran and Methodist. You don’t find many Baptists and other Evangelicals around here. Religion is more of a private issue in much of the Midwest. There is no mass longing for theocracy or the Second Coming.

Look at religiosity rates. Most of the Midwest is average, about evenly split between those who are highly religious and not. Some Midwestern states rate lower than average. Minnesota, with the 15th lowest rate, is lower than California (#17). And Wisconsin, with the 6th lowest rate, is lower than New York (#9).

Besides Utah, none of the most highly religious states are found outside of the broad South. And many of those religious Southern states are coastal and have big cities. The coastal elite in the South are as clueless as the coast elite elsewhere.

“I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal.”

I’ve found the exact same thing with well educated liberals. It seems to be common to humans in general. It’s why I’ve given up on the Democratic Party. Self-questioning and looking at contrary info doesn’t seem to be a talent of partisan Democrats. Nor is it a talent of the liberal class in general, as the world they live in is rather insular.

“Another problem with rural, Christian, white Americans is they are racists. I’m not talking about white hood wearing, cross burning, lynching racists (though some are.) I’m talking about people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white.”

Are we to assume the Clintons and other Democrats don’t think they are superior white people when they use racist dog whistle politics, promote racist tough-on-crime policies and mass incarceration, and kill large numbers of brown people in other countries? Is racism fine, no matter how many are harmed, as long as it is unstated and veiled?

“For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God.”

Once again, that depends on what part of the country you’re talking about. Many rural Americans, especially Midwesterners, have been supportive of education. In high school graduate rankings, Wyoming gets 1st place, rural Iowa ties for 3rd place with rural Alaska, Montana is #7, and Utah ties Hawaii for #8, North Dakota is #11, South Dakota is #12, Nebraska and Wisconsin tie for #13, and Kansas ties Washington for #17.

Consider Minnesota again. They are ranked 2nd in the country for high school graduates, #10 for bachelor degrees, and #17 for advanced degrees. That is quite the accomplishment for rural flyover country. Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Methinks the author living on the coast doesn’t understand much about the rest of the country.

“Their economic situation is largely the result of voting for supply-side economic policies that have been the largest redistribution of wealth from the bottom/middle to the top in U.S. history.”

There is no evidence that, outside of the South, that rural states were more supportive of supply-side economics than the rest of the country. And even in the South, voting for Republicans probably has more to do with social and cultural issues than economic issues. Besides, this past election, it was the Clinton New Democrats who represented and defended the Reagan Revolution of neoliberal corporatism.

“They get a tremendous amount of help from the government they complain does nothing for them. From the roads and utility grids they use to the farm subsidies, crop insurance, commodities protections…they benefit greatly from government assistance. The Farm Bill is one of the largest financial expenditures by the U.S. government. Without government assistance, their lives would be considerably worse.”

In the Midwest, you hear less of such complaints. Farm states are more nuanced in their opinions about government, both local and national. It isn’t a coincidence that most major farm states are in the Midwest. The South doesn’t have as much farming as it used. The agricultural sector in states like Kentucky has largely disappeared. When I traveled through Kentucky, there were many collapsing old barns and fields slowly turning back into forest with some housing and old shacks mixed in between.

The reason I was visiting Kentucky was to see where my mother’s family used to live generations ago. Many Southerners left rural states like Kentucky to head up to the industrial Midwest, as did my family. Or else to move into one of the nearby metropolises such as Lexington. For those who remained in rural Kentucky, I doubt the Farm Bill is helping many of them.

“When jobs dry up for whatever reasons, they refuse to relocate but lecture the poor in places like Flint for staying in towns that are failing.”

Actually, most of them have relocated. The rural areas are depleted of population.

Many of those remaining there are the old, disabled, under-educated, low IQ, mentally ill, and generally struggling; plus, family members who stayed back to take care of aging parents and other independents, along with families that simply didn’t have the resources to move. Anyone who was in a position to leave has already left. And few young people and young families have any desire to move back to those kinds of places. It’s been a slow rural drain for more than a century now. We are just finally experiencing the death throes of rural America, quite literally as much of the rural population further ages and dies off.

It is heartless to judge these people. If they had the ability and opportunities to leave, they would have long ago. But even many who left for urban areas have simply faced problems of poverty and unemployment in their new location. If you were in their position, you’d also likely be in a state of bitter despair, frustration, and outrage. These people have literally been left behind, abandoned to die in obscurity. Besides, that is their home, maybe the home of their family for generations. Family and community is even more important when you’re poor.

What it is hard to understand is that it is immensely harder to be poor in a rural area than in an urban area. There are few public services available for rural residents. They might have to travel hours (an entire day trip back and forth) to get to the nearest government office, public health center, mental health services, food bank, etc. That is assuming they even have a reliable working vehicle to travel anywhere. There is no public transportation out in rural areas. They are lucky to have a convenience store and bar nearby. And if they are really fortunate, there might be a Walmart within an hour’s distance.

When most of the population left, most of the money, community centers, schools, churches, and social capital disappeared. There isn’t even much sense of basic safety. You want to know why they cling to their guns. It’s a desperate place to live, surrounded by some of the most impoverished and hopeless people in the country. The most thriving economy is probably illegal drugs, prostitution, and stolen goods. The violence and homicide rates are higher in rural areas than even the big cities. And if you feel threatened or have an emergency, it could be too late by the time the county sheriff arrives.

Yet many rural residents remember from their childhoods that these were great places to live with thriving communities and prosperous economies. They know full well what has been lost. And they are correct that coastal elites don’t care about them, even if they had the slightest understanding about their lives. They have every right to be angry. They’d have to either be crazy or saints to not be angry. Still, they probably don’t think much about it most of the time, as they’re too preoccupied with trying to get by.

“They complain about coastal liberals, but the taxes from California and New York are what covers their farm subsidies, helps maintain their highways, and keeps their hospitals in their sparsely populated areas open for business.”

That claim has little to do with reality. Most of the non-coastal states, even moreso in the Midwest (even Illinois with all of the “welfare queens”), give more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits. Also, many of the farm and natural resource states have large state GDPs that contribute immensely to the national GDP. Iowa gets ton of federal benefits but more than easily offsets that with federal taxes and general support to the economy.

The US economy was built on and has been largely maintained through farm and natural resource states. Even some of the natural resource states like Montana that receive more federal benefits than they pay in federal taxes only do so because the federal government funds projects there that benefit big biz. And so essentially it is a form of corporate subsidization that has little to do with the state itself as those are national and transnational corporations operating there. Sometimes the subsidies are more direct, such as the Koch brothers getting millions of state and federal dollars in Montana.

Ignoring the problem of corporate subsidies, the main economic divide of takers vs makers isn’t rural vs urban but South vs North. The South has a disproportionate part of the poor population in the country. And it is the single most populous region in the country.

“They make sure outsiders are not welcome, deny businesses permits to build, then complain about businesses, plants opening up in less rural areas.”

You can travel all over most of America and most often feel perfectly welcome. I’ve never felt unwelcome anywhere I’ve traveled, not even in the rural South. I’m surprised how many friendly people there are in the world when you act friendly to them.

About businesses, I have never seen such a pattern. The rural towns around here are more welcoming to businesses than this liberal city I live in. There is a crony capitalism and corporatism in this liberal town where local business owners tend to shut out anyone new from developing here. All major projects that are allowed by the City Council and given preferential treatment (e.g., TIFs) are those by local business owners. Otherwise, having a building permit denied isn’t unusual. And the liberals here aren’t shy about voicing their hatred of certain businesses, such as keeping a Walmart from being built in town.

I’ve never heard of any rural areas and small towns refusing to allow factories and businesses to be built. Most of them would be glad to see employment return. In the town my dad grew up in, the factories and stores didn’t disappear because local residents wanted them to disappear. The economy simply shifted elsewhere.

“Government has not done enough to help them in many cases but their local and state governments are almost completely Republican and so too are their Representatives and Senators. Instead of holding them accountable, they vote them in over and over and over again.”

Some rural state governments are Republican and some are Democratic. The pattern of party control seems to have more to do with regional culture, political traditions, and the kind of economy. Over time, though, there are changes in how rural state residents vote. Where the two parties tend to win has shifted vastly over the past century, including an entire political realignment. Just looking at the past 50 years doesn’t show a consistent pattern, except for in strong Blue states like Minnesota and the strong Red South.

“All the economic policies and ideas that could help rural America belong to the Democratic Party: raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, infrastructure spending, reusable energy growth, slowing down the damage done by climate change, healthcare reform…all of these and more would really help a lot of rural Americans.”

The problem is many Democrats haven’t done those things. The Clinton New Democrats made the party into a wing of the neoliberal corporatist hegemony. Hillary Clinton was against raising the minimum wage before she said she was for it, but she no doubt was lying about changing her mind as she obviously doesn’t care about the working poor. The Democrats have done little for unions this past half century and betrayed them almost every chance they got.

Tell me again who campaigned on infrastructure spending… oh yeah, that was Donald Trump. Who has been one of the strongest supporters of dirty energy? That would be Hillary Clinton. And which president created a healthcare (insurance) ‘reform’ that was designed to primarily benefit healthcare insurance companies, even though the majority of Americans wanted either single payer or public option that the president refused to put on the table? Barack Obama, of course.

This self-identified ‘coastal elite’ is calling rural Americans stupid and self-destructive when it’s obvious he is as clueless, ignorant, and bigoted as they come. This kind of rant is the opposite of helpful. But it is a useful example of why the Democrats have lost so much support.

Dark Matter of the Mind

The past half year has been spent in anticipation. Daniel Everett has a new book that finally came out the other day: Dark Matter of the Mind. I was so curious to read it because Everett is the newest and most well known challenger to mainstream linguistics theory. This is only an interest to me because it so happens to directly touch upon every aspect of our humanity: human nature (vs nurture), self-identity, consciousness, cognition, perception, behavior, culture, philosophy, etc.

The leading opponent to Everett’s theory is Noam Chomsky, a well-known and well-respected public intellectual. Chomsky is the founder of the so-called cognitive revolution — not that Everett sees it as all that revolutionary: “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Kindle Location 306). That brings into the conflict issues of personality, academia, politics, and funding. It’s two paradigms clashing, one of the paradigms having been dominant for more than a half century.

Now that I’ve been reading the book, I find my response to be mixed. Everett is running headlong into difficult terrain and I must admit he does so competently. He is doing the tough scholarly work that needs to be done. As Bill Benzon explained (at 3 Quarks Daily):

“While the intellectual world is rife with specialized argumentation arrayed around culture and associated concepts (nature, nurture, instinct, learning) these concepts themselves do not have well-defined technical meanings. In fact, I often feel they are destined to go the way of phlogiston, except that, alas, we’ve not yet discovered the oxygen that will allow us to replace them [4]. These concepts are foundational, but the foundation is crumbling. Everett is attempting to clear away the rubble and start anew on cleared ground. That’s what dark matter is, the cleared ground that becomes visible once the rubble has been pushed to the side. Just what we’ll build on it, and how, that’s another question.”

This explanation points to a fundamental problem, if we are to consider it a problem. Earlier in the piece, Benzon wrote that, “OK, I get it, I think, you say, but this dark matter stuff is so vague and metaphorical. You’re right. And it remains that way to the end of the book. And that, I suppose, is my major criticism, though it’s a minor one. “Dark matter” does a lot of conceptual work for Everett, but he discusses it indirectly.” Basically, Everett struggles with a limited framework of terminology and concepts. But that isn’t entirely his fault. It’s not exactly new territory that Everett discovered, just not yet fully explored and mapped out. The main thing he did, in his earliest work, was to bring up evidence that simply did not fit into prevailing theories. And now in a book like this he is trying to make sense of what that evidence indicates and what theory better explains it.

It would have been useful if Everett had been able to give a fuller survey of the relevant scholarship. But if he had, it would have been a larger and more academic book. It is already difficult enough for most readers not familiar with the topic. Besides, I suspect that Everett was pushing against the boundaries of his own knowledge and readings. It was easy for me to see everything that was left out, in relation to numerous other fields beyond his focus of linguistics and anthropology — such as: neurocognitive research, consciousness studies, classical studies of ancient texts, voice-hearing and mental health, etc.

The book sometimes felt like reinventing the wheel. Everett’s expertise is in linguistics, and apparently that has has been an insular field of study defended by a powerful and entrenched academic establishment. My sense is that linguistics is far behind in development, compared to many other fields. The paradigm shift that is just now happening in linguistics has been for decades creating seismic shifts elsewhere in academia. Some argue that this is because linguistics became enmeshed in Pentagon-funded computer research and so has had a hard time disentangling itself in order to become an independent field once again. Chomsky as leader of the cognitive revolution has effectively dissuaded a generation of linguists from doing social science, instead promoting the hard sciences, a problematic position to hold about a rather soft field like linguistics. As anthropologist Chris Knight explains it, in Decoding Chomsky (Chapter 1):

“[O]ne bedrock assumption underlies his work. If you want to be a scientist, Chomsky advises, restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science.[49] As Chomsky asks: ‘Is there anything in the social sciences that even merits the term “theory”? That is, some explanatory system involving hidden structures with non-trivial principles that provide understanding of phenomena? If so, I’ve missed it.’[50]

“So how is it that Chomsky himself is able to break the mould? What special factor permits him to develop insights which do merit the term ‘theory’? In his view, ‘the area of human language . . . is one of the very few areas of complex human functioning’ in which theoretical work is possible.[51] The explanation is simple: language as he defines it is neither social nor cultural, but purely individual and natural. Provided you acknowledge this, you can develop theories about hidden structures – proceeding as in any other natural science. Whatever else has changed over the years, this fundamental assumption has not.”

This makes Everett’s job harder than it should be, in breaking new ground in linguistics and in trying to connect it to the work already done elsewhere, most often in the social sciences. As humans are complex social animals living in a complex world, it is bizarre and plain counterproductive to study humans in the way one studies a hard science like geology. Humans aren’t isolated biological computers that can operate outside of the larger context of specific cultures and environments. But Chomsky simply assumes all of that is irrelevant on principle. Field research of actual functioning languages, as Everett has done, can be dismissed because it is mere social science. One can sense how difficult it is for Everett in struggling against this dominant paradigm.

Still, even with these limitations of the linguistics field, the book remains a more than worthy read. His using Plato and Aristotle to frame the issue was helpful to an extent, although it also added another variety of limitation. I got a better sense of the conflict of worldviews and how they relate to the larger history of ideas. But in doing so, I became more aware of the problems of that frame, very closely related to the problems of the nature vs nurture debate (for, in reality, nature and nurture are inseparable). He describes linguistic theoreticians like Chomsky as being in the Platonic school of thought. Chomsky surely would agree, as he has already made that connection in his own writings, what he discusses as Plato’s problem and Plato’s answer. Chomsky’s universal grammar are Platonic in nature, for as he has written such “knowledge is ‘remembered’” (“Linguistics, a personal view” from The Chomskyan Turn). This is Plato’s ananmesis and alethia, an unforgetting of what is true, based on the belief that humans are born with certain kinds of innate knowledge.

That is interesting to think about. But in the end I felt that something was being oversimplified or entirely left out. Everett is arguing against nativism, that there is an inborn predetermined human nature. It’s not so much that he is arguing for a blank slate as he is trying to explain the immense diversity and potential that exists across cultures. But the duality of nativism vs non-nativism lacks the nuance to wrestle down complex realities.

I’m sympathetic to Everett’s view and to his criticisms of the nativist view. But there are cross-cultural patterns that need to be made sense of, even with the exceptions that deviate from those patterns. Dismissing evidence is never satisfying. Along with Chomsky, he throws in the likes of Carl Jung. But the difference between Chomsky and Jung is that the former is an academic devoted to pure theory unsullied by field research while the latter was a practicing psychotherapist who began with the particulars of individual cases. Everett is arguing for a focus on the particulars, upon which to build theory, but that is what Jung did. The criticisms of Chomsky can’t be shifted over to Jung, no matter what one thinks of Jung’s theories.

Part of the problem is that the kind of evidence Jung dealt with remains to be explained. It’s simply a fact that certain repeating patterns are found in human experience, across place and time. That is evidence to be considered, not dismissed, however one wishes to interpret it. Not even most respectable nativist thinkers want to confront this kind of evidence that challenges conventional understandings on all sides. Maybe Jungian theories of archetypes, personality types, etc are incorrect. But how do we study and test such things, going from direct observation to scientific research? And how is the frame of nativism/non-nativism helpful at all?

Maybe there are patterns, not unlike gravity and other natural laws, that are simply native to the world humans inhabit and so might not be entirely or at all native to the human mind, which is to say not in the way that Chomsky makes nativist claims about universal grammar. Rather, these patterns would be native to to humans in the way and to the extent humans are native to the world. This could be made to fit into Everett’s own theorizing, as he is attempting to situate the human within larger contexts of culture, environment, and such.

Consider an example from psychedelic studies. It has been found that people under the influence of particular psychedelics often have similar experiences. This is why shamanic cultures speak of psychedelic plants as having spirits that reside within or are expressed through them.

Let me be more specific. DMT is the most common psychedelic in the world, it being found in numerous plants and even is produced in small quantities by the human brain. It’s an example of interspecies co-evolution, plants and humans having chemicals in common. Plants are chemistry factories and they use chemicals for various purposes, including communication with other plants (e.g., chemically telling nearby plants that something is nibbling on its leaves and so put up your chemical defenses) and communicating with non-plants (e.g., sending out bitter chemicals to help inform the nibbler that they might want to eat elsewhere). Animals didn’t just co-evolve with edible plants but also psychedelic plants. And humans aren’t the only species to imbibe. Maybe chemicals like DMT serve a purpose. And maybe there is a reason so many humans tripping on DMT experience what some describe as self-replicating machine elves or self-transforming fractal elves. Humans have been tripping on DMT for longer than civilization has existed.

DMT is far from being the only psychedelic plant like this. It’s just one of the more common. The reason plant psychedelics do what they do to our brains is because our brains were shaped by evolution to interact with chemicals like this. These chemicals almost seem designed for animal brains, especially DMT which our own brains produce.

That brings up some issues about the whole nativism/non-nativism conflict. Is a common experience many humans have with a psychedelic plant native to humans, native to the plant, or native to the inter-species relationship between human and plant? Where do the machine/fractal elves live, in the plant or in our brain? My tendency is to say that they in some sense ‘exist’ in the relationship between plants and humans, an experiential expression of that relationship, as immaterial and ephemeral as the love felt by two humans. These weird psychedelic beings are a plant-human hybrid, a shared creation of our shared evolution. They are native to our humanity to the extent that we are native to the ecosystems we share with those psychedelic plants.

Other areas of human experience lead down similar strange avenues. Take as another example the observations of Jacques Vallée. When he was a practicing astronomer, he became interested in UFOs as some of his fellow astronomers would destroy rather than investigate anomalous observational data. This led him to look into the UFO field and that led to his studying those claiming alien abduction experiences. What he noted was that the stories told were quite similar to fairy abduction folktales and shamanic accounts of initiation. There seemed to be a shared pattern of experience that was interpreted differently according to culture but that in a large number of cases the basic pattern held.

Or take yet another example. Judith Weissman has noted patterns among the stated experiences of voice-hearers. Another researcher on voice-hearing, Tanya Luhrmann, has studied how voice-hearing both has commonalities and differences across cultures. John Geiger has shown how common voice-hearing can be, even if for most people it is usually only elicited during times of stress. Based on this and the work of others, it is obvious that voice-hearing is a normal capacity existing within all humans. It is actually quite common among children and some theorize it was more common for adults in other societies. Is pointing out the surprisingly common experience of voice-hearing an argument for nativism?

These aspects of our humanity are plain weird. It was the kind of thing that always fascinated Jung. But what do we do with such evidence? It doesn’t prove a universal human nature that is inborn and predetermined. Not everyone has these experiences. But it appears everyone is capable of having these experiences.

This is where mainstream thinking in the field of linguistics shows its limitations. Going by Everett’s descriptions of the Pirahã, it seems likely that voice-hearing is common among them, although they wouldn’t interpret it that way. For them, voice-hearing appears to manifest as full possession and what, to Western outsiders, seems like a shared state of dissociation. It’s odd that as a linguist it didn’t occur to Everett to study the way of speaking of those who were possessed or to think more deeply about the experiential significance of the use of language indicating dissociation. Maybe it was too far outside of his own cultural biases, the same cultural biases that causes many Western voice-hearers to be medicated and institutionalized.

And if we’re going to talk about voice-hearing, we have to bring up Julian Jaynes. Everett probably doesn’t realize it, but his views seem to be in line with the bicameral theory or at least not in explicit contradiction with it on conceptual grounds. He seems to be coming out of the cultural school of thought within anthropology, the same influence on Jaynes. It is precisely Everett’s anthropological field research that distinguishes him from a theoretical linguist like Chomsky who has never formally studied any foreign language nor gone out into the field to test his theories. It was from studying the Pirahã firsthand over many years that the power of culture was impressed upon him. Maybe that is a commonality with Jaynes who began his career doing scientific research, not theorizing.

As I was reading the book, I kept being reminded of Jaynes, despite Everett never mentioning him or related thinkers. It’s largely how he talks about individuals situated in a world and worldview, along with his mentioning of Bordieu’s habitus. This fits into his emphasis on the culture and nurture side of influences, arguing that people (and languages) are products of their environments. Also, when Everett wrote that his view was there is “nothing to an individual but one’s body” (Kindle Location 328), it occurred to me how this fit into the proposed experience of hypothetical ancient bicameral humans. My thought was confirmed when he stated that his own understanding was most in line with the Buddhist anatnam, ‘non-self’. Just a week ago, I wrote the following in reference to Jaynes’ bicameral theory:

“We modern Westerners identify ourselves with our thoughts, the internalized voice of egoic consciousness. And we see this as the greatest prize of civilization, the hard-won rights and freedoms of the heroic individual. It’s the story we tell. But in other societies, such as in the East, there are traditions that teach the self is distinct from thought. From the Buddhist perspective of dependent (co-)origination, it is a much less radical notion that the self arises out of thought, instead of the other way around, and that thought itself simply arises. A Buddhist would have a much easier time intuitively grasping the theory of bicameralism, that thoughts are greater than and precede the self.”

Jaynes considered self-consciousness and self-identity to be products of thought, rather than the other way around. Like Everett, this is an argument against the old Western belief in a human soul that is eternal and immortal, that Platonically precedes individual corporality. But notions like Chomsky’s universal grammar feel like an attempt to revamp the soul for a scientific era, a universal human nature that precedes any individual, a soul as the spark of God and the divine expressed as a language imprinted on the soul. If I must believe in something existing within me that pre-exists me, then I’d rather go with alien-fairy-elves hiding out in the tangled undergrowth of my neurons.

Anyway, how might Everett’s views of nativism/non-nativism been different if he had been more familiar with the work of these other researchers and thinkers? The problem is that the nativism/non-nativism framework is itself culturally biased. It’s related to the problem of anthropologists who try to test the color perception of other cultures using tests that are based on Western color perception. Everett’s observations of the Pirahã, by the way, have also challenged that field of study — as he has made the claim that the Pirahã have no color terms and no particular use in discriminating colors. That deals with the relationship of language to cognition and perception. Does language limit our minds? If so, how and to what extent? If not, are we to assume that such things as ‘colors’ are native to how the human brain functions? Would an individual born into and raised in a completely dark room still ‘see’ colors in their mind’s eye?

Maybe the fractal elves produce the colors, consuming the DMT and defecating rainbows. Maybe the alien-fairies abduct us in our sleep and use advanced technology to implant the colors into our brains. Maybe without the fractal elves and alien-fairies, we would finally all be colorblind and our society would be free from racism. Just some alternative theories to consider.

Talking about cultural biases, I was fascinated by some of the details he threw out about the Pirahã, the tribe he had spent the most years studying. He wrote that (Kindle Locations 147-148), “Looking back, I can identify many of the hidden problems it took me years to recognize, problems based in contrasting sets of tacit assumptions held by the Pirahãs and me.” He then lists some of the tacit assumptions held by these people he came to know.

They don’t appear to have any concepts, language, or interest in God or gods, in religion, or anything spiritual/supernatural that wasn’t personally experienced by them or someone they personally know. Their language is very direct and precise about all experience and the source of claims. But they don’t feel like they’re spiritually lost or somehow lacking anything. In fact, Everett describes them as being extremely happy and easygoing, except on the rare occasion when a trader gives them alcohol.

They don’t have any concern or fear about nor do they seek out and talk about death, the dead, ancestral spirits, or the afterlife. They apparently are entirely focused on present experience. They don’t speculate, worry, or even have curiosity about what is outside their experience. Foreign cultures are irrelevant to them, this being an indifference and not hatred of foreigners. It’s just that foreign cultures is thought of as good for foreigners, as Pirahã culture is good for Pirahã. Generally, they seem to lack the standard anxiety that is typical of our society, despite living in and walking around barefoot in one of the most dangerous environments on the planet surrounded by poisonous and deadly creatures. It’s actually malaria that tends to cut their lives short. But they don’t much comparison in thinking that their lives are cut short.

Their society is based on personal relationships and “do not like for any individual to tell another individual how to live” (Kindle Locations 149-150). They don’t have governments or, as far as I know, governing councils. They don’t practice social coercion, community-mandated punishments, and enforced norms. They are very small tribe living in isolation with a way of life that has likely remained basically the same for millennia. Their culture and lifestyle is well-adapted to their environmental niche, and so they don’t tend to encounter many new problems that require them to act differently than in the past. They also don’t practice or comprehend incarceration, torture, capital punishment, mass war, genocide, etc. It’s not that violence never happens in their society, but I get the sense that it’s rare.

In the early years of life, infants and young toddlers live in near constant proximity to their mothers and other adults. They are given near ownership rights of their mothers’ bodies, freely suckling whenever they want without asking permission or being denied. But once weaned, Pirahã are the opposite of coddled. Their mothers simply cut them off from their bodies and the toddlers go through a tantrum period that is ignored by adults. They learn from experience and get little supervision in the process. They quickly become extremely knowledgeable and capable about living in and navigating the world around them. The parents have little fear about their children and it seems to be well-founded, as the children prove themselves able to easily learn self-sufficiency and a willingness to contribute. It reminded me of Jean Liedloff’s continuum concept.

Then, once they become teenagers, they don’t go through a rebellious phase. It seems a smooth transition into adulthood. As he described it in his first book (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 99-100):

“I did not see Pirahã teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Pirahã sense of productivity (good fishermen, contributing generally to the security, food needs, and o ther aspects of the physical survival of the community). One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Pirahã youth. They do not seem to be searching for answers. They have them. And new questions rarely arise.

“Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you. I asked the Pirahãs once during my early missionary years if they knew why I was there. “You are here because this is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people.” That was and is the Pirahãs’ perspective. Life is good. Their upbringing, everyone learning early on to pull their own weight, produces a society of satisfied members. That is hard to argue against.”

The most strange and even shocking aspect of Pirahã life is their sexuality. Kids quickly learn about sex. It’s not that people have sex out in the open. But it’s a lifestyle that provides limited privacy. Sexual activity isn’t considered a mere adult activity and children aren’t protected from it. Quite the opposite (Kindle Locations 2736-2745):

“Sexual behavior is another behavior distinguishing Pirahãs from most middle-class Westerners early on. A young Pirahã girl of about five years came up to me once many years ago as I was working and made crude sexual gestures, holding her genitalia and thrusting them at me repeatedly, laughing hysterically the whole time. The people who saw this behavior gave no sign that they were bothered. Just child behavior, like picking your nose or farting. Not worth commenting about.

“But the lesson is not that a child acted in a way that a Western adult might find vulgar. Rather, the lesson, as I looked into this, is that Pirahã children learn a lot more about sex early on, by observation, than most American children. Moreover, their acquisition of carnal knowledge early on is not limited to observation. A man once introduced me to a nine- or ten-year-old girl and presented her as his wife. “But just to play,” he quickly added. Pirahã young people begin to engage sexually, though apparently not in full intercourse, from early on. Touching and being touched seem to be common for Pirahã boys and girls from about seven years of age on. They are all sexually active by puberty, with older men and women frequently initiating younger girls and boys, respectively. There is no evidence that the children then or as adults find this pedophilia the least bit traumatic.”

This seems plain wrong to most Westerners. Then again, to the Pirahã, much of what Westerners do would seem plain wrong or simply incomprehensible. Which is worse, Pirahã pedophilia or Western mass violence and systematic oppression?

What is most odd is that, like death for adults, sexuality for children isn’t considered a traumatizing experience and they don’t act traumatized. It’s apparently not part of their culture to be traumatized. They aren’t a society based on and enmeshed in a worldview of violence, fear, and anxiety. That isn’t how they think about any aspect of their lifeworld. I would assume that, like most tribal people, they don’t have high rates of depression and other mental illnesses. Everett pointed out that in the thirty years he knew the Pirahã there never was a suicide. And when he told them about his stepmother killing herself, they burst out in laughter because it made absolutely no sense to them that someone would take their own life.

That demonstrates the power of culture, environment, and lifestyle. According to Everett, it also demonstrates the power of language, inseparable from the society that shapes and is shaped by it, and demonstrates how little we understand the dark matter of the mind.

* * *

The Amazon’s Pirahã People’s Secret to Happiness: Never Talk of the Past or Future
by Dominique Godrèche, Indian Country

Being Pirahã Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
by Christopher Ryan, Psychology Today

The Myth of Teenage Rebellion
by Suzanne Calulu, Patheos

The Suicide Paradox: Full Transcript
from Freakonomics

Old School Progressivism

It will be as exciting as the 1930s.
~ Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist

Here is a small history lesson.

It appears that many Americans, across the ideological and demographic spectrum, are quite confused by this seeming new species of politics we’re seeing. But the fact is that it isn’t new. And it isn’t just hidden prejudices surfacing from the deep like Moby Dick, the great white whale that destroys the ship. There is some racism and misogyny being churned up, and it is blatant in a way not seen in a long while. But the question is what is churning it up.

I’ve had a suspicion for a while and some statements by Trump’s adviser, Steve Bannon, seem to confirm it. Bannon said that he isn’t a white nationalist, rather an American nationalist and economic nationalist, and that if they do things right even minorities will support them. He talked about concrete policies like a trillion dollar infrastructure project. The Trump administration apparently is trying to revive old school progressivism. I find it interesting that liberal Democrats no longer recognize it, even as it smacks them upside the head — they viciously attacked economic populism as if it were a dangerous invader when it showed up in their own party.

So, what is old school progressivism?

Progressivism of the past did tend to be socially conservative in some ways and comfortable with certain kinds of prejudices. The old school progressive leaders were fine with making alliances with racists, if that was needed to accomplish their goals. The religious right has historically loved old school progressivism, when it comes to power, and old school progressives tend to find common cause with the religious right. Populist reform mixes economic reform with social and moral reform.

Progressive leaders like the Roosevelts, also coming from inherited business wealth, were strongly nationalistic and promoted patriotism. They were all for a strong military and strong borders, leading to a mistrust of perceived foreigners and restrictions on immigration. And if you were seen as not being in the national interest for the moment, as happened with certain minorities during WWII (Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans), you just might find yourself thrown into a internment camp. They were law and order presidents who didn’t mind using force when necessary, not always worrying about political correct niceties. But when possible, they were more than happy to use a carrot rather than a stick… or to walk quietly while carrying a big stick.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into power and cleaned house. He basically told everyone that they’d play nice together… or else! When unions tried to assert their power, he responded by being the most union-busting president seen in US history. Yet when big biz got out of hand in being overtly oppressive and even violent toward workers, he stepped in to demand that workers were treated with basic decency and fairness. The interests of both workers and capitalists were forced to fall in line with national interests. It was a progressive corporatism that only later became reactionary corporatism. And he raised the taxes on businesses and on the rich like never seen before or since to help fund those national interests.

He used that tax money to build the middle class with aid to veterans, cheap college and housing, a strong welfare state, and worker protections. If you were willing to work hard and work within the system, you felt secure in knowing you’d probably do well. This was the foundation of what many came to see as the American Dream. He also used that tax money to build infrastructure and modernize the entire country, bringing the national economy into position as part of the country’s new global power, so that American businesses had the power of the US government behind them in the boom years as US military and economy became a global force following the aftermath of WWII.

We haven’t seen an old school progressive elected to the presidency since that time. And so we’ve forgotten what it looks like… or at least what it sounds like. We have no idea if Trump will follow through on this political vision that is still in the process of being formulated. But that also fits into the uncertainty that is felt by many when progressivism comes to power, bringing along with it a tinge of radicalism and risk-taking, putting everything on the line to create a new order.

I’m not saying you should support Trump and feel inspired by his vision. I’ve never thought he necessarily meant anything he has said. And I’ve never trusted his motivations. I’d apply the same caution toward Bannon, of course. Even so, you should understand what it is that’s being said and why it is so powerful at times like these. This kind of populist rhetoric leading to this kind of populist movement is far from unknown in American history. And it doesn’t easily fall into simple left/right categories. Even if you want to fight it, you better understand what you’re fighting. Old school progressivism is a powerful beast.

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There is another aspect of old school progressivism. It just occurred to me. The aspect is that of technocratic management, sometimes associated with modern liberalism but with its origins in early Progressivism.

The clear example of it was FDR’s administration. He saw society and the economy as something to be managed and, of course, it was assumed that those who would manage it were the technocratic experts. It wasn’t just that there needed to be central management. That had existed before. The difference was that it was an overt and direct management.

That is what justified forcing both organized labor and the capitalist class to work together. Prior to that, the labor wars were often violent, sometimes erupting into gunfights between workers and corporate goons, often the Pinkertons. The Progressive vision was in response to a violent and lawless time in US history, what felt like social breakdown with the rise of gangs and organized crime, along with the privatized police forces like the Pinkertons.

It was also a time of corruption with many politicians being openly bribed. The idea of Progressivism was to create a professional bureaucracy that eliminated cronyism, favoritism, nepotism, and all other forms of corruption. The idea was to create a meritocracy within the government. The most qualified people would be put into official positions and so this decision-making taken out of the control of party leaders.

It would be a well managed government.

So, it was interesting when I heard Trump use similar rhetoric, from something he said a year ago. The specific issue he was talking about is irrelevant, as he walked back his support immediately afterward. It was the way of talking itself that matters most, as it shows the kind of attitude he will bring to politics. In explaining how he would accomplish something, he stated that:

“It would be just good management. What you have to do is good management procedures and we can do that… it’s all about management, our country has no management.”

The issue that he was talking about is relevant in one particular way. It was about law and order. That is what management meant in old school progressivism. A well managed society was an orderly society based on the rule of law and enforced by a professional bureaucracy. There is a paternalism in this worldview, the heart of progressivism. The purpose of a government was seen as taking care of problems and taking care of the citizenry.

I’ll be curious to see what this kind of language means for the Trump administration.