Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature

I was listening to the audio version of Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. It’s less than five hours long and so I listened to it multiple times to get a good sense of it. I’ve read plenty about the topic and I’m already generally familiar with the material, but it was still helpful getting an overview.

One part that interested me was about split brain research, something that always interests me. The roles of and relationship between the hemispheres indicates much about how our minds operate. Blackmore discussed one often referenced study where split brain patients had information given separately to each hemisphere in order to see how the individual would explain their behavior. As the left hemisphere typically controls linguistic communication, individuals couldn’t give accurate reasons for what was done by their right hemisphere.

The author wrote that (pp. 72-3),

“In this way, the verbal left brain covered up its ignorance by confabulating. It did the same when the other half was shown an emotional picture – making up a plausible excuse for laughing, smiling, blushing, or whatever emotional reaction had been provoked. This might help to explain how these patients can appear so normal. But it should also make us wonder about ourselves. Our brains consist of lots of relatively independent modules, and the verbal part does not have access to everything that goes on, yet it frequently supplies convincing reasons for our actions. How many of these are plausible confabulations rather than true reasons, and can we tell?

“From these experiments, Sperry concluded that his patients had two conscious entities in one head; each having private sensations and free will. In contrast, Gazzaniga argued that only the left hemisphere sustains ‘the interpreter’, which uses language, organizes beliefs, and ascribes actions and intentions to people. Only this hemisphere has ‘high-level consciousness’, leaving the other hemisphere with many abilities and skills but without true consciousness.”

She points out that there is no way to resolve this issue. We can’t prove what is really going on here, even as it touches upon our most personal experience. But she adds that, “Bundle theory does away with the problem altogether. There is neither one self nor two selves inside the split brain; there are experiences but there is no one who is having them” (p. 74). What this means is that our experience of an egoic consciousness is overlaid on the entire experiential field, one experience presenting itself as all experience. Or else an interpretation of experience that alters what we experience and how we experience it. The self as coherent individuality is a mirage. That isn’t to say it is meaningless. Our minds naturally look for patterns, even or especially within our own minds. Meaning is always what we bring to our experience.

As for actual reading, as opposed to listening to audiobooks, my focus has still been on Daniel Everett’s recent publication, Dark Matter of the Mind. It is a difficult read in many parts because much of the linguistics scholarship goes over my head and the academic language can get tiresome, but I’ve been determined to finish it and I’m now near the last chapter. Parts of it are quite interesting, such as his mentioning the theory that “gestures and speech were equally and simultaneously implicated in the evolution of language” (Kindle Location 5102). He then details the relevance of gestures and the embodied communication (Kindle Locations 5108-5111):

““Mead’s loop,” wherein one’s own gestures are responded to by one’s own mirror neurons in the same way that these neurons respond to the actions of others, thus bringing one’s own actions into the realm of the social and contributing crucially to the development of a theory of mind— being able to interpret the actions of others under the assumption that others have minds like we do and think according to similar processes.”

That is what came to mind while listening to what Blackmore had to say about bundle theory of experience. The parts of the ‘self’ don’t form a coherent whole so much as they are involved in intimate contact and communication.

Our experience is social at the most fundamental level, a social phenomenon within each person’s body and social connection to the bodies of others. Our embodied selves are shifting realities with blurred boundaries, out of which forms patterns of social order and social identities. As others have argued, we develop a theory of mind within ourselves by first sussing out a theory of mind about others. So, our sense of self is built on our sense of others, which is to say we understand the relationships between experiences within own embodied minds as an inseparable understanding of our relationships with the larger world.

It’s hard to get at what this might mean. But one important factor is that of language. As Julian Jaynes argued in his book about the bicameral mind, “language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication” (p. 50, Kindle edition). Perception is always embodied. In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist offers a summary that resonates with what I shared above by Everett (pp. 122-123):

“language originates as an embodied expression of emotion, that is communicated by one individual ‘inhabiting’ the body, and  therefore the emotional world, of another; a bodily skill, further, that is acquired by each of us through imitation, by the emotional identification and intuitive harmonisation of the bodily states of the one who learns with the one from whom it is learnt; a skill moreover that originates in the brain as an analogue of bodily movement, and involves the same processes, and even the same brain areas, as certain highly expressive gestures, as well as involving neurones (mirror neurones) that are activated equally when we carry out an action and when we see another carry it out (so that in the process we can almost literally be said to share one another’s bodily experience and inhabit one another’s bodies); a process, finally, that anthropologists see as derived from music, in turn an extension of grooming, which binds us together as physically embodied beings through a form of extended body language that is emotionally compelling across a large number of individuals within the group.”

Both Everett and McGilchrist are concerned with the evolution and development of language. They see it as inseparable from the embodied mind and the enculturated self. As Everett discusses the importance of gesture, McGilchrist explores the role of music and poetry. There is a strong argument that non-linguistic communication (gesture and/or poetry-music) was well established and highly effective among the earliest hominids, including pre-linguistic homo sapiens. It seems likely that this was the base upon which was built language as we know it.

Jaynes argues that written language was one of the factors that weakened the bicameral mind, a particular pre-egoic bundle theory. Prior to that, oral culture dominated; and in oral culture, language is intertwined with other aspects of human experience and behavior. Some of the evidence supporting this is how ancient humans sometimes spoke of body parts as having their own minds (a way of talking that continued into late Axial Age such as the New Testament canon, such that hands and eyes aren’t necessarily considered part of an integrally whole self; and it should be noted that the New Testament tradition was passed on orally for a number of generations before being written down). This is an experience still spoken of by some of those with schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Even otherwise normal people will have voice-hearing experiences where the voices heard aren’t located in the head, sometimes in or around other parts of the body.

Most of human cognition and behavior is unconscious. The same goes for most of human communication and much of that non-conscious communication is also non-linguistic. This is the bodily or embodied unconscious. This relates to the social nature of our psyches, as with rapport where people mimic each other unawares (gestures, posture, breathing, etc) along with how yawns and laughter can be contagious. What I’m wondering about is how does the body-mind create rapport with itself in order to coordinate its vast multitudinous complexity.

Because of hemispheric divisions, for example, parts of the mind act rather independently. The corpus callosum doesn’t just allow the hemispheres to communicate for it also inhibits and restricts that communication, in ways and for reasons we don’t yet fully understand. Even when the corpus callosum is entirely cut making direct neurological communication impossible, the two hemispheres are able to coordinate behavior such that a person appears normal, even as two separate minds seem to be operating within the skull. Without directly communicating with one another, how do the hemispheres accomplish this?

The simplest answer is that both hemispheres have access to the sensory organs on the opposite side of the body and so can indirectly observe what the other hemisphere is doing (and, in the case of the left hemisphere, hear it’s explanations). But interestingly the two divided hemispheres can come to different conclusions based on different their separate input and processing. They can also act independently, a literal scenario of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

Here is a different kind of example from Everett (Kindle Locations 5071-5076):

“At age nineteen, IW suddenly lost all sense of touch and proprioception below the neck due to an infection. The experiments conducted by McNeill and his colleagues show that IW is unable to control instrumental movements when he cannot see his hands (though when he can see his hands, he has learned how to use this visual information to control them in a natural-appearing manner). What is fascinating is that IW, when speaking, uses a number of (what IW refers to as) “throwaway gestures” that are well coordinated, unplanned, nonvisually reliant, speech-connected gestures. McNeill concludes that at a minimum, this case provides evidence that speech gestures are different from other uses of the hands— even other gesturing uses of the hands.”

So, gestures are connected to speech. And gestures happen spontaneously. But even without proprioreception, other senses can be used to bridge the gap between conscious and unconscious expression. There are clearly different areas of behavior, cognition, and communication that relate in different ways. We are embodied minds and we know our minds through our bodies. And most of what our mind does is never accessed or controlled by consciousness. As research has shown, consciousness often only plays a role after behavior has already been initiated (less a power of will than a power of won’t).

So, what kind of mind is it that we have or rather that has us?

Orderliness and Animals

There is another example that demonstrates the conservative mind. It comes from my parents, as did the last one I discussed. This one is also about the conservative relationship to animals.

My parents have a lovable fat cat, Sam. He is getting old and this requires more effort than it used to. This past year he was diagnosed with diabetes and he has to have an insulin shot twice a day, which makes traveling anywhere difficult.

There are always clear rules in my parents’ house, the way things are supposed to be done and what is not allowed. This was true when I was a kid. And it still is true for Sam who lives under their roof. One of those rules is that cats are only allowed on particular pieces of furniture, such as the furniture in the basement and footstools on the main floor. But Sam has a fondness for a couple of chairs he isn’t supposed to be on.

Just the other day he barfed on the chair. It’s a high quality chair that was expensive. My parents have had it for a long time and it matches the way they have their house decorated. The cat barf doesn’t seem to be cleaning up or else some of the dye came out of the fabric. This is unacceptable, as this chair is directly where they entertain guests.

I could see how upset my mother was. Sam then barfed in some other places as well. One of those places was a silk rug. My parents wouldn’t normally buy a rug that was made out of silk, but they didn’t realize that is what it was when they bought it. The barf came out fine with the rug, but it added to the stress.

This made me think of a couple of things.

My parents always threatened that any pet that caused too much trouble would be gotten rid of. They like Sam, as they’ve liked other pets we’ve had, but my parents aren’t bleeding-heart liberals. They wouldn’t feel the kind of sadness I’d feel by putting down an animal. They, in particular my mother, have a more practical view of pet ownership and death. Their attitude about such things is very much an expression of a thick boundary. It’s easier for them to cut off emotion, specifically as compared to my namby-pamby soft heart.

The other thing about the thick boundary type is the need for orderliness. My parents go to great effort to create and maintain an orderly house. Not just clean but but also well decorated, well organized, and generally well kept. Nothing broken or with a burned out light is likely to remain that way for very long. In the middle of a conversation, my mother will start wiping the counters that didn’t look dirty.

A pet, like a child, is a potential agent of disorder. My parents are fine with pets and children, as long as they are well-behaved. But a pet, in particular, is secondary to the home itself. A cat that adds to the good feeling of a home is allowed, but if the cat detracts it might quickly wear out its welcome.

My parents have an idea of what house and a home should be like. It’s a very specific vision built on a conservative worldview and conservative social norms. If you watch a Hallmark movie or an early black-and-white sitcom, you know the guiding vision of this conservative attitude, expressing a desire to fit in and be normal. Rules are put in place to ensure this is maintained.

None of this is a judgment of this conservative-mindedness. Nor is this the only way conservative-mindedness can be acted on. For some conservatives, a sense of loyalty to a pet such as a dog might override orderliness or else the kind of order considered the norm might be far different. My parents are filtering their conservative-mindedness through a particular middle class attitude, specifically as idealized in mainstream culture and as seen in mainstream media. A working class conservative, however, might conform to some other social norm, such as keeping religious paraphernalia in a particular way or having regularly cooked family meals. But however it is perceived and given form, one thing that conservative-mindedness strongly correlates with is orderliness.

What is clear is that, for conservatives, the social order is prioritized. This is true of both the larger sense of order in a society or as defined in ideological worldviews and the smaller sense of order in a personal living space or an office. Order is greater than the individual or, pushed to the extreme, that there is no individual outside the order. One way or another, individuals are expected to conform to the order rather than the structuring the order to conform to individuals. It’s the job of the individual to remain in the place allotted to them and to follow the role demanded of them; or else to work hard and compete for the opportunity to gain a new social position, which then would require new expectations and norms to be accepted.

On the other hand, a strongly liberal-minded person would have a less clear cut or more malleable sense of order. If the cat kept getting on furniture and barfing, the liberal-minded would tend toward arranging the house to accommodate the cat. Liberal-mindedness also correlates to a weaker sense of disgust and so occasional barf wouldn’t be as bothersome and distressing. Of course, it depends on how liberal-minded a person is. Many self-identified liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded in all or even most ways, and so such liberals might take a more conservative-minded attitude about order and cleanliness.

This doesn’t seem all that important on a personal level. How someone wants to maintain their house is a personal issue, since it doesn’t generally effect others. Whether you have barfy animals in a cluttered house or the opposite, it is mostly irrelevant in the big picture. But these personal attitudes are inseparable from our social and political opinions.

This relates to an insight I had many years ago. The abortion issue isn’t about the overt issue itself. The whole debate is ultimately about the question of social order. Conservatives wouldn’t support liberal policies, even if it meant that the abortion rate would be lower than under conservative policies. The reason is that the social order about relationships, sexuality, and family values are more important than even the lives of fetuses.

Someone who gets pregnant, to the conservative mind, must suffer the consequences. It is irrelevant how actual people act in the real world, such that abortion bans lead not to fewer abortions but simply to an increased rate of illegal abortions. That is irrelevant, for those who are harmed by botched illegal abortions would be getting the punishment they deserve. If they were a good person, they wouldn’t be having sex when they don’t want kids. And if they were a good person who did have sex, they would take responsibility by allowing the pregnancy go to term and then raising the child. The conservative social order never fails, for it is individuals who fail the conservative social order, which in no ways disproves and invalidates it.

Order is at the heart of the conservative worldview. More than anything else, this is what motivates conservative-mindedness. Through the lens of a thick boundary, there is right and wrong that must be defended even at high costs. The greater the conservative-mindedness the greater the willingness to enforce those costs, even when it is personally harmful. Psychological research shows that a fair number of people, presumably the most conservative-minded, are willing to punish those who break social norms even when it doesn’t personally benefit the punisher. Maintaining the social order is worth it, within a certain worldview.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that few people are at either extreme of conservative-mindedness or liberal-mindedness. Most people want some social order, but most people also have clear limits to how far they will go in enforcing a social order. The average person can switch between these mindsets, to varying degrees and according to different situations.

That is true of my parents. As conservatives go, they are actually quite liberal-minded. Even though they strongly prefer order, they aren’t willing to enforce it at any costs. They have their breaking point where order would come to the forefront and be prioritized over all else, but they would have to be pushed fairly far before they got to that point. Sam would have to destroy some other pieces of furniture and cause other problems as well before they finally got around to getting rid of him, which at this age would mean putting him down. Plus, my parents have softened quite a bit with age and so have become more tolerant, one might say more liberal-minded. Still, this kind of thing bothers them in a way it would less likely bother someone much further up the scale on liberal-mindedness.

Plus, my parents know that I love Sam and would be heartbroken if they put him down. Family is important to conservatives. With that in mind, my parents realize keeping Sam around is a way to get me to visit more often. They are manipulating my soft liberal-mindedness, not that I mind.

Obama’s Lack of a Legacy

This is when a president’s legacy becomes a central focus.

Barack Obama has been positioning his post-presidential role and trying to frame his legacy. This becomes much more important for the fact that Obama supported Hillary Clinton in her candidacy as the official representative of his continuing legacy. Instead, his party has faced one of the greatest losses and public shamings in living memory.

Many others have discussed the issue of how Obama will be remembered. There are those who think he will be seen as one of the worst presidents. There is an argument for this, as even many of his supporters have been severely disappointed by his weak and ineffective presidency. And no doubt the other party winning with such a pathetic and hated candidate does feel like a powerful rebuke. But it goes far beyond the loss of power by the Democratic Party in Washington and across the country.

It’s true, for example, that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has turned out badly and will make it all the more difficult for future politicians to push for genuine reform. Most Americans wanted healthcare reform that was further to the left, but instead they got yet another corporatist policy that didn’t solve the problem and for many people made it worse. This was a major reason for why most eligible voters, including partisan Democrats, couldn’t get all that excited about yet another corporatist, i.e., Clinton.

Yet I doubt Obama’s presidency will be recorded in history books as a failure. He simply wasn’t all that memorable of a president.

His signature ‘achievement’ was the ACA. But it was based on and inspired by healthcare reforms that had been pushed and implemented by both parties going back to the middle of last century. In the long term, Obama won’t get much credit or blame for the ACA. It’s not that significant by itself, just another half-assed corporatist policy. The only significance it might have is if, in its failure, future politicians are forced to remedy it with effective policies that actually ensure and make accessible healthcare for all Americans.

Even his being the first black president won’t necessarily be all that important to those looking back from a century or two in the future. Give it enough time with a few more non-white presidents and later generations won’t fully understand why it was ever a big deal. It will likely just be a footnote in the history books.

Compare this to JFK, the first Catholic president. JFK being remembered fondly by most Americans has nothing to do with his Catholicism, despite a Catholic president having been unimaginable before that time. It is hard for young people today to grasp that Catholics were once one of the most hated and feared groups in the Anglo-American world and were one of the main targets of the Second Klan.

When a norm has been shattered and a new norm established, it stops seeming all that unusual to following generations. A new normal makes nearly incomprehensible what came before. When an event passes far enough out of living memory, the world that gave it meaning can be seen as foreign and strange.

Besides, as legacies of black leaders go, Obama’s presidency will always be overshadowed by the greater legacy of Martin Luther King, jr. All that Obama succeeded in showing is that a black president doesn’t really change anything. He had no more genuine concern about poor, disenfranchised blacks than did George W. Bush. Class politics trumps all else because class privileges and class disadvantages go across racial divides. This is something MLK understood and Obama did not. Obama represents everything that MLK fought against.

The reality is that Obama was a mediocre president. He had two terms to prove his worth. But all that he proved was that he was solidly entrenched within the Democratic establishment and the political elite, that he was yet another neoliberal and neocon as all presidents have been for decades. This is emphasized by his having continued so many of his Republican predecessor’s policies on war and economics, demonstrating that the two parties in recent history have been more alike than different.

Not even his failures were all that unique and impressive. He is just another professional politician, a typical example of an all too familiar variety of political elite. In the end, he represented his party, his cronies, his class, and his corporate donors more than he ever represented the American public.

At most, his administration will be remembered as the end of an era. His legacy will be that of the last president who attempted to maintain a failing status quo, at a time when the American public was demanding change. As an individual and in his presidency, though, he isn’t that important. He won’t be remembered as either a great president or a horrible president. In his legacy, he won’t even be considered a major representative of this era now coming to an end.

The best that Obama can hope for is that Trump’s presidency will be so undeniably bad that people will feel nostalgia for Obama’s mediocrity. Maybe over time that nostalgia will make the details of his presidency so fuzzy that all of the failures and lost opportunities will be forgotten. But hoping that the next administration will lead to even worse results is not an inspiring way to end a presidency.

Athens is starved so that Sparta can be fed.

“It’s not the Americans, what they are doing in this country or that, or the Germans or the French or such. It’s the dominant interests in that country. If anything, the common people in these countries are themselves also the victims. It’s their taxes that are used to raise the armies. It’s their sons and brothers and now daughters and such who go in and pay the price in blood.

“The empire feeds off of the republic’s resources. The people end up doing without essentials so that Patricians can pursue their far off plunder. Athens is starved so that Sparta can be fed. And you see that very same thing happening today. You see, for instance, an estimated 200 to 250 billion is going to be spent on Iraq. Meanwhile, the Republican Congress is proposing about 300 billion in cuts in human services, in public services, in healthcare, in aid to public education, and the like.

“Every time they raise your tuition you are paying for the cost of empire. Every time they cut funds to the state of Wisconsin you have to make up the difference. Everywhere I go… and, when I pick up the local newspapers, it often seems like the same paper and every paper has the same story for a while, factoring when the fiscal year was ending, it would say: ‘State facing huge deficits’, ‘City council voting cuts in budget’…

“That is the cost of empire. What happens then is our economic democracy is under attack.

“Not everyone, as they say, pays the costs. Some people profit immensely.”

That is from a talk given by Michael Parenti at the University of Wisconsin.

What he spoke of here was part of a larger point he was making. Empires don’t happen by accident or by absentmindedness. Empires are built and that happens intentionally with immense effort and costs. We imperial subjects don’t always notice the costs because we aren’t used to thinking about our country as an empire. But the costs are always there, however hidden by mechanisms that externalize them, that defer and displace them.

Yet there are also benefits, powerful interests that are being served. The purpose for imperialism isn’t simply about brute power, though. It’s about control toward specific ends.

Parenti explains that, even without Western domination, many non-Western countries were more than willing to sell oil and participate in global trade. Still, that isn’t enough. The Western oil cartels want to be able to control the oil supply in foreign countries. Here is the problem presented by those like Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t sell his oil but that he insisted on selling his oil that was driving down oil prices. That is contrary to the interests who want to control and manipulate the oil markets, to artificially set the prices so that they will bring in the largest profits.

Also, the problem wasn’t that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. It was the US who put him in power in order to ensure the destruction of Iraqi democracy, an action that required the death, torture, and imprisonment of Iraqis fighting for their freedom. The US wanted a brutal dictator and supported him most strongly (with money and weapons, including weapons of mass destruction and biological weapons) precisely when he was at his most brutal, for he was being brutal in serving Western interests. What sealed his doom was his ultimate refusal to play the role of a subordinate puppet dictator. It turned out that, as leader, he wanted to serve the interests of Iraqis instead of the interests of Western powers. That is the one thing Western powers can’t tolerate.

All of that is obvious, to anyone who isn’t entirely propagandized by Western education and media. The main issue remains what I quoted. And it isn’t a new insight. Parenti is simply rephrasing what Dwight D. Eisenhower stated earlier last century, in his famous Chance for Peace speech. But it bears repeating, until one day the American people finally grasp the horrific injustice that has been forced on them, costs that aren’t just monetary but human. As Eisenhower explained it,

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

“This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Confused Liberalism

Here are some thoughts on ideological labels and mindsets in the United States. I had a larger post I was working on, which I may or may not post. But the following is bite-sized commentary. Just some things to throw out there.

These views are not exactly new to my writing. They are issues my mind often returns to, because I’m never quite satisfied that I fully understand. I can’t shake the feeling that something is being misunderstood or overlooked, whether or not my own preferred interpretations turn out to be correct.

The two thoughts below are in response to this question:

What do we mean when we speak of liberalism?

* * *

We live in a liberal society, in that we live in a post-Enlightenment age where the liberal paradigm is dominant. But what exactly is this liberalism?

What I find interesting is that conservatives in a liberal society aren’t traditionalists and can never be traditionalists. They are anti-traditionalists and would be entirely out of place in a traditional society. These conservatives are forced to define themselves according to the liberal paradigm and so their only choice is to either become moderate liberals or reactionaries against liberalism.

Even if they choose the latter, they still don’t escape liberalism because our identities are shaped as much by what we react to as by what we embrace. In some ways, we become what we react to, just in a distorted way. That is why reactionary conservatives use liberal rhetoric, often unconsciously.

Ironically, the illiberalism of such reactionary politics is only possible in a liberal society. And, sadly, that reactionary politics has become the dominant ideology in a liberal society like this. The liberal and the reactionary are two sides of the same coin.

This is quite the conundrum for the liberal and reactionary alike. Both are chained together, as they pull in opposite directions.

* * *

There are a large number (how many?) of self-identified liberals who aren’t strongly liberal-minded and maybe a bit conservative-minded, aren’t consistent supporters of liberal politics, are wary of liberal economic reforms, are unsure about the liberalism of human nature, and/or doubt a liberal society is possible. These kinds of ‘liberals’ are their own worst enemies. They make it easy for the political right to dominate, for the authoritarians and social dominance orientation types to gain and maintain power.

I’ve come to a suspicion. It’s not just that many of these supposed liberals aren’t particularly liberal. I’d go further than that. Some of them, possibly a large number of them, could be more accurately described as status quo conservatives. But this isn’t to say that some liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded. My thought goes in a different direction, though. Maybe the crux of the matter isn’t self-identified liberals at all.

Self-identified liberals have proven themselves easily swayed by the rhetoric of reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Because of this, the label of ‘liberal’ has become associated with weakly liberal positions and what are sometimes illiberal attitudes. Liberalism has become identified with the liberal class and bourgeois capitalism, with mainstream society and the status quo social order, with a waffling fence-sitting and Washington centrism.

My thought is that most liberal-minded people (specifically in the US) don’t identify as liberals and never have. Instead, the strongly liberal-minded have taken up other labels to identify themselves: independents, non-partisans, social democrats, progressives, leftists, left-wingers, socialists, democratic socialists, communists, communalists, communitarians, Marxiststs, unionists, anarchists, anarcho-syndialists, left-libertarians, etc. Pretty much anything but ‘liberal’.

This is where mainstream thought goes off the rails. The most liberal-minded tend to be ignored or overlooked. They don’t fit into the mainstream framework of ideological labels. These strongly liberal-minded people might be a fairly large part of the population, but they can’t be seen.

We don’t have the language to talk about them, much less study them. We have nuanced language to distinguish people on the political right and this nuanced language is regularly used in collecting and analyzing data. Pollsters and social scientists are often careful to separate conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Such nuance is rarely seen in mainstream thought about the political left.

It seems, in the mainstream, that it is assumed that ‘liberals’ can be taken as mostly representative of the entire political left. This is based on the assumption that leftists in the US are so small in number and therefore insignificant and irrelevant. But if we define leftists as all those who are to the left of the liberal class found in the Democratic Party establishment and the mainstream corporate media, we might discover there are more leftists than there are so-called liberals. And if many of those leftists are far more liberal-minded than the self-identified liberals, then how useful is the social science research that uses self-identified liberals as a proxy for all liberal-mindedness?

Deep Roots in Dark Soil

In doing genealogy research, I’ve made many connections to American history, some of it quite dark and much of it not that far back in time. It is something that has been bothering me for a while. I had a longer series of posts I was writing about it, but I got bogged down with the topic. It’s overwhelming and hard to grapple with. So, let me keep this post simple and to the point.

Possibly the earliest line of my family that came to America was the Peebles. They were Scottish and, maybe for siding with the king, they arrived in the Virginia colony (1649 or 1650) during the English Civil War. David Peebles, the patriarch, came with some help (either indentured servants or slaves) and built a plantation. Later generations of the Peebles were definitely slave owners and they fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The family across the generations drifted further South and West, ending up in Texas. That is where my paternal grandmother was born in 1912, well within living memory of slavery and the Civil War. The last Civil War veterans died in the 1950s, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States died in the 1930s, the last American born into slavery died in the 1970s — the latter happening just a few years before I was born and about a decade before my grandmother died. None of this is ancient history. It’s possible that if my grandmother had bothered to ask that there were people in the family who still remembered owning slaves.

Also, the early twentieth century was a time of the last of the Indian Wars. There were major battles that happened in that part of the country when my grandmother was a child. The last significant altercation in the United States happened in 1924 when she was twelve years old and that is the age when kids begin to gain awareness of the larger world. But there were Indian holdouts who kept fighting in Mexico and weren’t defeated until nine years later in 1933. My grandmother was twenty-one years old at that point and so this was part of the world she was entering into.

David Peebles himself had been an Indian fighter, a captain in the Virginia militia. He was a well respected man. As reward, he had been given a Native American captive and I’m sure that person was treated as a slave. It’s assumed that David Peebles received an injury from fighting and he slowly disappeared from the records. Between those first Peebles in America and my grandmother, I’m sure there were numerous Indian fighters in my ancestry. After all, that part of my family was involved in the push Westward, as Native Americans retreated or were forcibly removed. And then they ended up in the region of the last battles with the last free natives.

All of this national history is intimately intertwined with my family history. And much of it was still living memory into my grandmothers childhood and even into her adulthood (in some cases, even into my parents’ adulthood). More importantly, it was an ongoing history. The struggles of blacks didn’t end with the Civil War any more than the struggles of Native Americans ended with the Indian Wars. I could understand how much of this history was hidden at the time, even as the suffering and oppression continued. Native Americans, after all, were forced onto reservations that made their plight practically invisible to the rest of the country. It was a problem that wasn’t seen and so didn’t need to be thought about. But the problems facing blacks would have been impossible to ignore for those living in the South and also in the North.

In the South my grandmother grew up in, Jim Crow was in full force and blacks had for decades faced re-enslavement through chain gang labor. My grandmother was a few years old when the Second Klan was founded. The Klan was a growing force during her childhood and was at its height in her teenage years: “At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men” (Wikipedia). I have no doubt that many generations and many lines of my family were involved in the various incarnations of the Klan, along with other violently racist organizations and activities; but there is no family stories about any of this, as it’s one of those things that people don’t talk about.

When my grandmother was eight years old, a short distance from her childhood home the Tulsa race riots occurred where white mobs rioted and terrorized the black population. It was an actual battle with whites and blacks fighting in the streets (many of them WWI veterans, including black veterans who took their military weapons home with them), snipers were positioned in buildings shooting at people below, airplanes firebombed the wealthiest black community in America at the time (Black Wall Street), and belatedly troops were sent in to restore order. Hundreds of blacks were killed, hundreds more ended up in the hospital, 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, and in the detention centers blacks were forced to do labor. In the aftermath, most of the black population became refugees who had lost everything and thousands of white residents in Tulsa joined the Klan.

It was one of the most violent and destructive events in American history. Yet it was erased from public awareness almost instantly, as if it had never happened. “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place” (A.G. Sulzberger, “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past“, NYT).

This was just one of many race riots and other acts of mass racial violence that occurred in the decades before and following what happened in Tulsa. Violence like this, including lynchings, would have been common events for the first two-thirds of her life. After her family left Oklahoma, they moved to a part of Mississippi that was a major center of the Second Klan. Then as an adult in 1940, she moved her own young family to Indiana, the headquarters and epicenter of the Second Klan, during a time when the last vestiges of the organization were still to be seen. It was in the 1950s and 1960s when a splintered KKK reasserted itself in fighting the Civil Rights Movement.

Indiana is close to the South and not just geographically. It’s been culturally and economically connected to Kentucky from early on. This area is sometimes referred to as Kentuckiana. Much of Indiana’s population originally came from Kentucky and that has made Indiana the most Southern state in the Midwest (my maternal ancestry includes Indian fighters who came to Kentucky shortly after the American Revolution). A generation after my mother’s family left the border region of Kentucky and Indiana, she grew up in a large industrial city in central Indiana and yet she maintained a Southern accent well into her twenties.

Indiana was a destination of many white Southerners looking for work. Yet Southern blacks knew to mostly avoid Indiana, except for Northern parts of the state closer to Chicago. This wasn’t just a vague notion that blacks had about Indiana. The local white population, Klan and otherwise, made it overtly clear they weren’t welcome in most parts of the state.

My father was born in small town Indiana and then moved to another nearby small town. They were both in an area of much racism, but the second town where he spent most of his early life was a sundown town. When my father and his family moved there, a sign warning blacks to stay away was still visible on a major road into town. My father would have been too young to understand, my Southern grandmother could not have missed something so obvious. They had to have known they moved into a sundown town. Did my father know about this? No. Did his mother, my grandmother, ever talk about it? No. It wasn’t talked about. As my grandfather was the town minister, he could have challenged this racism from the pulpit. Did he? No. The reason for this is that my grandfather My was a racist, although like many he softened his prejudiced views later in life. Still, that doesn’t change the moral failure.

My grandmother was always a religious and spiritual person, moreso than my grandfather despite his being a minister. She grew in that old time religion, Southern Baptist church. When she moved to the West Coast, she became quite liberal and joined extremely liberal churches, such as Unity Church and Science of Mind. It was because of my grandmother that I was raised in the same kind of liberal churches. This led me to become the liberal I am today. Even so, my grandmother never spoke of our family’s ancestral sin of racial oppression, even though she had spent so much of her life right in the middle of it.

My father went off to college at Purdue. The city, Lafayette, had been a sundown town at one point. The systemic racism was lessening there by the time my parents attended, but the black population remained low. While they were at college, the Civil Rights Movement was growing and violence was happening. Professors and college students from Purdue even joined in some of the major events of that time. The world was changing all around my parents, but they apparently were oblivious to it all. When I’ve asked them, they had only slight memory of what was happening at the time, other than some brief news stories that they paid little attention to. It didn’t seem all that important to them, as white conservatives in a white conservative state with a hopeful future before them.

Systemic and institutional racism continued in some parts of the country long after the death of MLK. Blacks were still fighting for basic rights and demanding that laws against racism be enforced, well into my own lifetime (in fact, the struggle for justice continues to this day). For my parents, living in Ohio after college, that was a happy time of their life. As their children were born, protests and riots were going on around the country (including nearby), but it all seemed distant and insignificant, maybe a bit incomprehensible. After that, during the 1980s, our family moved to Deerfield, Illinois — a Chicago suburb with a history of keeping blacks out, something my parents were also unaware of. Then we headed to Iowa, which at the time was a demographic bubble of whiteness.

In my own childhood, I don’t recall my parents or other adults talking about race and racism. I also was oblivious to it all, until we moved to South Carolina when I was thirteen years old. It was a shock to my system. I didn’t grow up with that world and so I saw it with fresh eyes in a way someone wouldn’t have if they had grown up with it. Even then, amidst obvious racism and an overt racial social order, few people talked about it. I saw blacks at school, but no blacks lived in my neighborhood or went to my church. Black kids didn’t come home with me nor did I go home with them.

I was facing generations of denial in my own family. No one gave me any tools to deal with any of it. If not for genealogy research, I might never have realized how close to home all of this comes. Even now, I live in a liberal college town where at an earlier point in time a racist mob chased out of town the radical abolitionist John Brown, shortly before his execution. And a muted form of that old racism lingers still.

How do we deal with the legacy of centuries of oppression when it’s almost impossible to even publicly acknowledge what has happened within living memory? How do we come to terms with the fact that the legacy continues with systemic and institutional racism? How do we open up dialogue? How do we move forward? If more people simply dug into their own family histories, what might they find? And if they put that into context of the larger national history, what understandings might they come to?

My eternal refrain: Then what?

I’ve gained this knowledge and it was no easy task, as I had to find it for myself through decades of obsessive research and intense study. Generations of my own family have avoided this knowledge, built on centuries of ignorance and denial, supported by a vast social order designed to maintain the status quo. So, here we are. Many others like me are looking at these hidden truths now brought to light. What are we supposed to do with it all? How does a society come to terms with collective guilt?

William Faulkner spent most of his life a few counties away from my great grandmother’s home in Mississippi, the last place my grandmother lived before adulthood and the area she returned to after college to work a teaching job for a couple of years, around 1935. That is where my father would visit as a child and where he saw his first “colored” water fountain. Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was set in that part of Mississippi, as were other of his novels. The events in the story were fictionally placed in the years immediately following my grandmother’s departure. The world that Faulkner described was the world that shaped my grandmother, a world she couldn’t leave behind because she carried it with her.

One of Faulkner’s best known lines comes from that novel. He wrote:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

My grandmother was an educated woman, a teacher in fact. I wonder. Did she ever read those words? And if so, what did she think of them? Did she ever look to the past, her own past and that of her family? Or was she trying to escape the past by getting as far away as possible, ending up in the Northwest? It’s ironic that she spent the last years of her life in Oregon, the only state in the Union that was once fully sundown, excluding blacks entirely.

From what I gather, my grandmother was a kindhearted woman, but that could be said of many people. Few white Americans are overtly mean-spirited. People simply try to live their lives, and yet their lives exist along a moral arc bending from the past into the future. How often do any of us consider our place in the larger scheme of things and wonder about what future generations will think of us?

A System of Unhappiness

The unhappiness, frustration, outrage, and whatever else many Americans are experiencing is hardly new. It has been around for as long I can remember.

Even back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing sense of unease and a sense that something had gone askew, as wages stagnated and inequality grew while the lower classes waited for the promises of trickle-down. Long before the 2008 recession and Trump’s economic populism, there were the WTO protests in 1999. The failures have been apparent for at least decades, failures of American-style globalization and neoliberal corporatism (inverted totalitarianism?) along with the political elite, lobbyists, and think tanks that serve it.

The sense of tension and conflict has only grown worse, as the economic situation for most Americans has deterioriated. For this past decade or so: Large parts of our government, such as Congress, have had microscopic levels in the general public’s approval ratings. In polls, large percentages (often a majority) of Americans regularly say that they don’t think the government represents them and that we don’t have a functioning democracy. Also, accusations of political manipulation, vote rigging, and media bias/collusion have been regularly heard all across the political spectrum.

With this past campaign season and the presidential election, all of this has been magnified to the point it can no longer be ignored or dismissed by the political and media elite. It seems to have hit a tipping point. But the culmination of it all is still unclear. Sanders voters accused Clinton and the DNC in rigging the primary. Trump accused Democrats of rigging the election. And then Democrats returned the favor by accusing Trump and now the Russians. It seems almost everyone now agrees our system is dysfunctional and being rigged somehow by someone. Whatever it is, it ain’t democracy.

Yet, at the same time, the American public (myself included, sadly) has grown so cynical and apathetic that few can be bothered to start protests and riots in the street to demand democracy. If people are so unhappy, where is the march on Washington or the occupation of statehouses? It feels like most Americans have given up on the system, which is dangerous for that is when the system is most vulnerable to authoritarianism, demagoguery, and dictatorship. When a society gets to that point, the best that can be hoped for is all-out revolution that overthrows the entire system and starts from scratch.

It’s highly probable that the Russians were meddling in American politics. It would be shocking if they weren’t. Russians and Americans have been meddling with each other’s countries since the beginning of the Cold War. The CIA is infamous for its covert activities in fucking around with other countries. You’d have to be naive to the point of idiocy to think that every major government isn’t constantly meddling in the affairs of other countries. We might as well have an open system of international spy exchange, just to simplify things. And it isn’t even just government. Do you really think the Chinese government doesn’t have spies in Western technology companies? Do you really think the Russian government doesn’t have spies in American companies manufacturing and operating voting machines? Come on! Don’t be stupid. In our heart of hearts, we already know this.

As for a functioning democracy, our government was from the beginning designed to not be a functioning democracy. That is what happened when the Federalists won. It’s true the Anti-Federalists got some semi-democratic concessions in trying to protect against the worst aspects of the Federalist aspirations of monarchy, aristocracy, and imperialism. But those concessions have turned out to be impotent.

Consider the electoral college. It was a compromise in the hope of balancing power. The reality of it, however, was that it gave power to the elite. It ultimately wasn’t a compromise between the public and the powerful nor between large and small states. Rather it ended up being an agreement between elites and other elites, in the struggle over which elites would rule and how they would rule.

Electors are part of the political elite, first and foremost. Their purpose is to represent state governments (i.e., local political elite) more than it is to represent local voters. This is why electors have always had the freedom to elect anyone they want. The idea was that, if the public voted incorrectly, the political elite by way of the electors could ensure the correct candidate was elected president. So, if the electors in this election did choose Clinton over Trump, they would simply be doing what is in their job description. Clinton is part of the political establishment and Trump isn’t. The electors purpose is to protect the political establishment, and the party-affiliation of the electors guarantees the state political establishments remains aligned with the federal political establishment.

From this perspective, nothing is exactly malfunctioning.

It’s sort of like modern warfare. The United States didn’t lose the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They achieved their purpose in destabilizing these countries to keep other global powers from establishing control. It’s how geopolitics is played. The United States could have simply blown any of those countries off the map or turned any of them into permanent colonies, but that isn’t how the modern geopolitical game is played and won. Plus, it is effective as spectacle and entertainment to distract the masses, by playing out scapegoating rituals and propaganda narratives on the global stage. This redirects the public’s unhappiness and anger toward state-approved targets, allowing for emotional catharsis and temporary appeasement of collective anxiety.

As explained by Diana Johnstone, in Queen of Chaos:

For most Americans, U.S. wars are simply a branch of the entertainment industry, something to hear about on television but rarely seen. These wars give you a bit of serious entertainment in return for your tax dollars. But they are not really a matter of life and death…

In fact, it hardly seems to matter what happens in these wars. The United States no longer even makes war in order to win, but rather to make sure that the other side loses. Hillary Clinton accused Vladimir Putin, quite falsely, of adhering to a “zero-sum game in which, if someone is winning, then someone else has to be losing”. The United States is playing something even worse: a “no win”, or a “lose-lose”, game in which the other side may lose, yet the United States cannot be called the winner. These are essentially spoiler wars, fought to get rid of real or imagined rivals; everyone is poorer as a result. Americans are being taught to grow accustomed to these negative wars, whose declared purpose is to get rid of something – a dictator, or terrorism, or human rights violations.

The United States is out to dominate the world by knocking out the other players.

“Our ideals” are part of the collateral damage.

If you don’t understand the purpose and agenda behind a system, you can’t judge how effective it is in achieving those ends. Maybe that is what is happening with the American public right now. They are waking up to the reality that the world isn’t as they thought it was, that their country isn’t the kind they had been sold.

So, by what right do the elite rule over us? The social contract is being questioned, the legitimacy of the government challenged. Then what?

A Holiday Experiment

During the holiday season, there is an increase in alcohol consumption. This led me to some thoughts.

Liberals have higher rates of alcoholism (and drug addiction) than conservatives. But oddly it is conservative states that have the highest rates of drunk driving arrests, accidents, and deaths. Why is that? Do liberals hold their alcohol better? Or do they fall into a drunken stupor more quickly? Are most liberals simply too lazy to try to drive after drinking? Or did all that pot they smoked while drinking cause them to get the munchies and so they’re waiting for the pizza to be delivered?

Research has found that, when inebriated, liberals tend to think and act more like conservatives. For example, they are more likely to express conservative-minded stereotypes and prejudices. So, when conservatives get drunk, do they simply become even more conservative? If so, how does a conservative act when they are even more conservative? Do the conservatives look at the temporarily conservative-minded drunk liberals, saying “that’s not conservatism” and then telling someone to hold their drink?

These are important questions. For those with a nice mix of liberal and conservative family members, I recommend you get them all drunk and observe the results. Think of it as a scientific experiment.

Gravy, the Elixir of Youth!

We’re in the holiday season. It’s the time of year when there are lots of deserts and delicious foods. Many struggle against gaining weight.

Let me share Stella Blue’s dieting tip. She is my calicao cat, about 18 years old now. She has always maintained her girly figure.

How does she do it? Like anyone else, she enjoys food. She prefers tasty wet food multiple times a day. But she has a trick to not letting the weight creep up.

Here it is: Only eat the gravy. Fill your plate with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and whatever else. Pour gravy over it all. And then lick the gravy off the top, leaving the rest on your plate.

All the gravy you want and that trim figure you’ve always dreamed of!

I’m going to try it out this year. I’ll have to make sure there is plenty of extra gravy for the coming week. I might need to carry around my own personal supply of gravy when family is around.

Maybe I’ll keep a flask of gravy in my pocket, for those moments of temptation. That piece of pie or candy is looking tasty. Well, just pour gravy on it. Problem solved.

Thanks, Stella! Your wisdom is neverending. I guess she should be wise at this point, since she is entering her 90s in human years. May we all be equally as wise when we reach that that ripe old age. And may we all still be able to run up cat trees as if we were still wee kittens.

Gravy, the elixir of youth. Eat up and enjoy the holidays!

On Rodents and Conservatives

My parents are always worrying about the bird feeders in the backyard. They think they’ll attract rodents that will get in the house.

First of all, in the years my parents have lived here, they’ve had the bird feeders and rodents have never gotten in the house. And, second, rodents are unlikely to ever get in because it is one of these modern sealed-up houses with no cracks in the foundation, no loose siding, no crawlspace to be easily accessed, and not even a drafty attic.

This is how the conservative mind leads to paranoia. Somehow something or someone who isn’t supposed to be here will get in, no matter how improbable according to a rational analysis. This is the same fear that is seen with immigrants, minorities, the poor, or anyone who is different. The way my parents talk you’d think that rodents are welfare queens trying to game the system, and admittedly rodents are sneaky critters who will take advantage of any situation. This is what would lead some extreme conservatives to sitting on their back stoop shooting at shadows in the dark — fortunately, my parents’ fearful attitude is a milder variety.

The fear isn’t rational, for fear is ultimately never rational, just an emotion that may or may not indicate something beyond itself. And so there is no way to counter fear with rationality. There is only one response that fear demands and that is taking action, which pushed to its end point means fight or flight. In my parents’ imaginations, it’s almost as if the rodents are already in the house scurrying about. There is very little distinction, in the conservative mind, between imagining something as real and it actually being real.

I love my parents dearly. But it can be a challenge sometimes. It’s not that the bird feeder issue is a big deal. It’s just one of those thousands of things that regularly come up. As my parents gave voice to their fear of a rodent plague destroying all that is good in the world, an uprising of nature against mankind and civilization, I could see the gears in their head clicking away. Looking out the window, they could see the rodents that weren’t there… not yet, but once night comes with naive liberals sleeping soundly in bed the rodent threat will swarm over the landscape.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect. I’m just feeling amused.

It reminds me of a popular Buddhist story. Two Buddhist monks were walking along. They came to a stream where a woman was having difficulty in trying to cross. The older monk helped carry her to the other side. Then the monks continued on. Further down the path, the younger monk decided to chastise his companion because it was against their religious vows to touch a woman. In response, the older monk shared a bit of wisdom. He said, I put the woman down back at the stream, but you’re still carrying her.

As a liberal, that is how I see conservatives. They are constantly carrying in their minds all kinds of things, from rodents to immigrants, from welfare queens to terrorists, their minds overflowing with fears and anxieties. And they rarely if ever put them down. It’s hard for anyone to shake something once it gets in their mind, but it’s particularly hard for conservatives. Even when their thick boundaries allow them to temporarily cut off their worries and concerns in order to focus on some other matter, those worries and concerns never really leave their minds and will quickly return to their awareness with the slightest trigger.

It’s not as if my parents will bring up the imagined rodent problem all that often, but for as long as they live in this house it will remain at the back of their minds. Every time they see those bird feeders, the narrative of rodent invasion will play in their minds, though probably most often below the threshold of consciousness.

I should clarify a point. Conservatives aren’t always wrong about what they fear. Theoretically, rodents could get into my parents’ house. It’s just the probability is extremely low (from a liberal perspective, ridiculously low), not the kind of thing worth worrying about. If my parents lived in an old house with lots of cracks and crevices, their fear would be valid. That is the problem. Conservative fears aren’t dependent on context. To the extent that someone is conservative-minded, there is a state of fear constantly on the look out.

Still, motivated by rodent phobia, conservatives such as my parents might be less likely to have rodent problems or at least more likely to deal with them swiftly and harshly. War on rodents? Maybe Trump could look into that. With conservatives in the world, maybe we liberals benefit from being kept safe from the rodent plague, although it must be admitted that conservative European societies back in the day failed to prevent the rodent-inflicted Black Plague. So, I don’t know.

I just like watching the birds.