Death By Incuriosity

Whether or not curiosity killed the cat, it is the lack of curiosity that killed the human. And sadly, lack of curiosity is common among humans, if not cats.

There are two people I’ve known my entire life. They are highly intelligent and well educated professionals, both having spent their careers as authority figures and both enjoying positions of respect where others look up to them. One worked in healthcare and the other in higher education. They are people one would expect to be curious and I would add that both have above average intellectual capacity. They are accomplished men who know how to get things done.

I pick these examples because each has had health issues. It’s actually the one in healthcare who has shown the least curiosity about his own health. I suspect this is for the very reason he has been an authority figure in healthcare and so has acted in the role of defending establishment views. And nothing kills curiosity quicker than conventional thought.

This guy didn’t only lack curiosity in his own field of expertise, though. In general, he wasn’t one who sought out learning for its own sake. He had no habit of intellectual inquiry. So, he had no habit of intellectual curiosity to fall back on when he had a health scare. The bad news he received was a diagnosis of a major autoimmune disorder. I would assume that he took this as a death sentence and most doctors treat it that way, as no medication has shown any significant improvement. But recent research has shown dietary, nutritional, and lifestyle changes that have reversed the symptoms even in people with somewhat advanced stages of this disease.

Once diagnosed, he was already beginning to show symptoms. He had a brief window to respond during which he maintained his faculties enough that he might have been able to take action to seek remedy or to slow down the decline. But this window turned out to be brief and the choice he made was to do nothing with some combination of denial and fatalism. Inevitably, this attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was not the diagnosis but his lack of curiosity that was the death sentence. His mind is quickly disintegrating and he won’t likely live long.

The second guy has a less serious diagnosis. He a fairly common disease and he has known about it for a couple of decades. It is one of those conditions more easily managed if one takes a proactive attitude. But that would require curiosity to learn about the condition and to learn about what others have successfully done in seeking healing. The body will eliminate damage and regrow cells when the underlying problems are resolved or lessened while ensuring optimal nutrition and such, not that one is likely to learn about any of this from a standard doctor.

Like the healthcare figure, this educational figure’s first response was not curiosity. In fact, he spent the past couple of decades not even bothering to ask his doctor what exactly was his condition. He didn’t know how bad it was, didn’t know whether it was worsening or remaining stable. He apparently didn’t want to know. He has a bit more curiosity than most people, although it tends to be on narrow issues, none of them being health-related. The condition he has that risks the length and quality of his life, however, elicited no curiosity.

I had more opportunity to speak to him than to the other guy. In the past few months, we’ve had an ongoing discussion about health. I recently was able to get him to read about diet and health. But the real motivation was that his doctor told him to lose weight. Also, he was beginning to see serious symptoms of aging, from constant fatigue to memory loss. It was only after decades of major damage to his body that he finally mustered up some basic curiosity and still he is resistant. It’s easier to thoughtlessly continue what one has always done.

I sympathize and I don’t. Not much in our society encourages curiosity. I get that. It not only takes effort to learn but it also takes risk. Learning can require challenging what you and many others have assumed to be true. In this case, it might even mean challenging your doctor and taking responsibility for your own healthcare decisions. Maybe because these two are authority figures, it is their learned response to defer to authority and any dominant views that stand in for authority. That is the same for others as well. We are all trained from a young age to defer to authority (even if you were raised by wolves, you received such training, as it is a common feature of all social animals).

So, yes, I understand it is difficult and uncomfortable. Some people would rather physically die than allow their sense of identity die. And for many, their identities are tied into a rigid way of being and belonging. Curiosity might lead one to question not only the ideological beliefs and biases of others but, more importantly, one’s own. It could mean changing one’s identity and that is the greatest threat of all, something that effects me as much as anyone (but in my case, I’m psychologically attached to curiosity and so my identity might be a bit more fluid than most; the looseness of ego boundaries does come at a cost, as is attested by the psychiatric literature).

Yet, in the end, it is hard for me to grasp this passive attitude. I’ve always been questioning and so I can’t easily imagine being without this tendency (I have many weaknesses, limitations, and failures; but a lack of curiosity is not one of them). I do know what it is like to be ignorant and to feel lost in having no where to turn for guidance. In the past, knowledge was much harder to come by. When I was diagnosed with depression decades ago, after my own life threatening situation (i.e., suicide attempt), I was offered no resources to understand my condition. The reason for that is, at the time, doctors were as ignorant as anyone else when it came to depression and so much else. High quality information used to be a scarce and unreliable resource.

It has turned out that much of past medical knowledge has proven wrong, only partly correct, or misinterpreted. Because of the power of the internet and social media, this has forced open professional and public debate. We suddenly find ourselves in an overabundance of knowledge. The lack of curiosity is the main thing now holding us back, as individuals and as a society. Still, that downplays the powerful psychological and social forces that keep people ignorant and incurious. For the older generations in particular, they didn’t grow up with easy access to knowledge and so now reaching old age they don’t have a lifetime of mental habit in place.

That is part of the difference. I’m young enough that the emerging forms of knowledge and media had a major impact on my developing brain and my developing identity. On the other hand, there is obviously more going on than mere generational differences. I look to my own generation and don’t see much more curiosity. I know people in my generation who have major health issues and their children have major health issues. Do most of these people respond with curiosity? No. Instead, I observe mostly apathy and indifference. There is something about our society that breeds helplessness, and no doubt there are plenty of reasons to be found for giving up in frustration.

That is something I do empathize with. There is nothing like decades of depression to form an intimacy with feelings of being powerless and hopeless. Nonetheless, I spent the decades of my depression constantly looking for answers, driven to question and doubt everything. I should emphasize the point that answers didn’t come easily, as it took me decades of research and self-experimentation to find what worked for me in dealing with my depression; curiosity of this variety is far from idle for it can be an immense commitment and investment.

My longing to understand never abandoned me, as somehow it was a habit I learned at a young age. That leaves me uncertain about why I learned that habit of open-minded seeking while most others don’t. It’s not as if I can take credit for my state of curiosity, as it is simply the way I’ve always been (maybe in the way an athlete, for random reasons of genetics and epigenecs, might be born with greater lung capacity and endurance). Even in my earliest memories, I was curious about the world. It is a defining feature of my identity, not an achievement I came to later in life.

Because it is so integral to my identity, I’m challenged to imagine those who go through life without feeling much inclination to question and doubt (as happier people may be challenged to imagine my sometimes paralyzing funks of depression). It is even further beyond my comprehension that, for many, not even the threat of death can inspire the most basic curiosity to counter that threat. How can death be more desirable than knowledge? That question implies that it is knowledge that is the greater threat. Put this on the level of national and global society and it becomes an existential threat. In facing mass extinction, ecosystem collapse, superstorms, and refugee crises, most humans are no more motivated to understand what we face, much less motivated to do anything about it.

We don’t have habits of curiosity. It isn’t our first response, not for most of us. And so we have no culture of curiosity, no resources of curiosity to turn to when times are dire. More than a lack of curiosity alone, it is a lack of imagination which is a constraint of identity. We can’t learn anything new without becoming something different. Curiosity is one of the most radical of acts. It is also the simplest of acts, requiring only a moment of wonder or probing uncertainty. But radical or simple, repeated often enough, it becomes a habit that might one day save your life.

Curiosity as an impulse is only one small part. The first step is admitting your ignorance. And following that, what is required is the willingness to remain in ignorance for a while, not grasping too quickly to the next thing that comes along, no matter who offers it with certainty or authority. You might remain in ignorance for longer than you’d prefer. And curiosity alone won’t necessarily save you. But incuriosity for certain will doom you.

* * *

For anyone who thinks I’m being mean-spirited and overly critical, I’d note that I’m an equal opportunity critic. I’ve written posts — some of my most popular posts, in fact — that have dissected the problems of the curious mind, specifically as liberal-mindedness such as seen with the trait openness. The downside to this mindset are many, as it true when considering any mindset taken in its fullest and most extreme form. For example, those who measure high on the openness trait have greater risk of addiction, a far from minor detriment. Curiosity and related attributes don’t always lead to beneficial results and happy ends. But from my perspective, it is better than the alternative, especially in these challenging times.

My argument, of course, is context-dependent. If you are living in an authoritarian state or locked away in prison, curiosity might not do you much good and instead might shorten your lifespan. So, assess your personal situation and act accordingly. If it doesn’t apply, please feel free to ignore my advocating for curiosity. My assumption that my audience shares with me a basic level of life conditions isn’t always a justified assumption. I apologize to anyone who finds themselves stuck in a situation where curiosity is dangerous or simply not beneficial. You have my sympathy and I hope things get better for you in that one day you might have the luxury to contemplate the pros and cons of curiosity.

I realize that life is not fair and that we don’t get to choose the world we are born into. If life was fair, a piece like this would be unnecessary and meaningless. In a society where we didn’t constantly have to worry about harmful advice, including from doctors, in a society where health was the norm, curiosity might not matter much in terms of life expectancy. The average hunter-gatherer no doubt lacks curiosity about their health, but they also lack the consequences of modern society’s unhealthy environment, lifestyle, and diet. As such, in some societies, how to have a healthy life is common knowledge that individuals pick up in childhood.

It would be wonderful to live in such a society. But speaking for myself, that isn’t the case and hence it is why I argue for the necessity of curiosity as a survival tool. Curiosity is only a major benefit where dangerous ignorance rules the social order and, until things change in this society, that major benefit will continue. This isn’t only about allegations of psychological weakness and moral failure. This is about the fate of our civilization, as we face existential crises. The body count of incuriosity might eventually be counted in the numbers of billions. We are long past the point of making excuses, specifically those of us living in relative privilege here in the West.

* * *

To make this concrete, let me give an example beyond anecdotal evidence. It is an example related to healthcare and deference to medical authority.

The United States is experiencing an opioid crisis. There are many reasons for this. Worsening inequality, economic hardship, and social stress are known contributors. We live in a shitty society that is highly abnormal, which is to say we didn’t evolve to act in healthy ways under unhealthy conditions. But there is also the fact that opiods have been overprescribed because of the huge profits to be had and also because painkillers fit conventional medicine’s prioritizing of symptom treatment.

Ignoring why doctors prescribe them, why do people take them? Everyone knows they are highly addictive and, in a significant number of cases, can destroy lives. Why take that risk unless absolutely necessary? It goes beyond addiction, as there are numerous other potential side effects. Yet, in discussing alternatives, Dr. Joseph Mercola points to an NPR piece (Jessica Boddy, POLL: More People Are Taking Opioids, Even As Their Concerns Rise):

“Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that as many as 1 in 4 people who use opioid painkillers get addicted to them. But despite the drugs’ reputation for addiction, less than a third of people (29 percent) said they questioned or refused their doctor’s prescription for opioids. That hasn’t changed much since 2014 (28 percent) or 2011 (31 percent).

“Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and commissioner of health for the City of Baltimore, says that’s the problem. She says patients should more readily voice their concerns about getting a prescription for narcotics to make sure if it really is the best option. […]

” “Ask why,” Wen says. “Often, other alternatives like not anything at all, taking an ibuprofen or Tylenol, physical therapy, or something else can be effective. Asking ‘why’ is something every patient and provider should do.” ”

* * *

“Knowing is half the battle. G.I. Joe!” That was great wisdom I learned as a child.

The Spell of Inner Speech

Inner speech is not a universal trait of humanity, according to Russell T. Hurlburt. That is unsurprising. Others go much further in arguing that inner speech was once non-existent for entire civilizations.

My favorite version of this argument being that of Julian Jayne’s theory of the bicameral mind. It was noted by Jaynes how bicameralism can be used as an interpretative frame to understand many of the psychological oddities still found in modern society. His theory goes a long way in explaining hypnosis, for instance. From that perspective, I’ve long suspected that post-bicameral consciousness isn’t as well established as is generally assumed. David Abrahms observes (see at end of post for full context):

“It is important to realize that the now common experience of “silent” reading is a late development in the story of the alphabet, emerging only during the Middle Ages, when spaces were first inserted between the words in a written manuscript (along with various forms of punctuation), enabling readers to distinguish the words of a written sentence without necessarily sounding them out audibly. Before this innovation, to read was necessarily to read aloud, or at the very least to mumble quietly; after the twelfth century it became increasingly possible to internalize the sounds, to listen inwardly to phantom words (or the inward echo of words once uttered).”

Internal experience took a long time to take hold. During the Enlightenment, there was still contentious debate about whether or not all humans shared a common capacity for inner experience — that is, did peasants, slaves and savages (and women) have minds basically the same as rich white men, presumably as rational actors with independent-mindedness and abstract thought. The rigid boundaries of the hyper-individualistic ego-mind required millennia to be built up within the human psyche, initially considered the sole province of the educated elite that, from Plato onward, was portrayed as a patriarchal and paternalistic enlightened aristocracy.

The greatest of radical ideals was to challenge this self-serving claim of the privileged mind by demanding that all be treated as equals before God and government, in that through the ability to read all could have a personal relationship with God and through natural rights all could self-govern. Maybe it wasn’t merely a change in the perception of common humanity but a change within common humanity itself. As modernity came into dominance, the inner sense of self with the accompanying inner speech became an evermore prevalent experience. Something rare among the elite not too many centuries earlier had suddenly become common among the commoners.

With minds of their own, quite literally, the rabble became rabblerousers who no longer mindlessly bowed down to their betters. The external commands and demands of the ancien regime lost their grip as individuality became the norm. What replaced it was what Jaynes referred to as self-authorization, very much dependent on an inner voice. But it is interesting to speculate that it might have required such a long incubation period considering this new mindset had first taken root back in the Axial Age. It sometimes can be a slow process for new memes to filter across vast geographic populations and seep down into the masses.

So what might the premodern mentality have been like? At Hurlburt’s piece, I noticed some comments about personal experience. One anonymous person mentioned, after brain trauma, “LOSING my inner voice. It is a totally different sensation/experience of reality. […] It is totally unlike anything I had ever known, I felt “simple” my day to day routines where driven only by images related to my goals (example: seeing Toothbrush and knowing my goals is to brush my teeth) and whenever I needed to recite something or create thoughts for communication, it seemed I could only conjure up the first thoughts to come to my mind without any sort of filter. And I would mumble and whisper to myself in Lue of the inner voice. But even when mumbling and whispering there was NO VOICE in my head. Images, occasionally. Other than that I found myself being almost hyper-aware of my surroundings with my incoming visual stimuli as the primary focus throughout my day.”

This person said a close comparison was being in the zone, sometimes referred to as runner’s high. That got me thinking about various factors that can shut down the normal functioning of the egoic mind. Extreme physical activity forces the mind into a mode that isn’t experienced that often and extensively by people in the modern world, a state of mind combining exhaustion, endorphins, and ketosis — a state of mind, on the other hand, that would have been far from uncommon before modernity with some arguing ketosis was once the normal mode of neurocogntivie functioning. Related to this, it has been argued that the abstractions of Enlightenment thought was fueled by the imperial sugar trade, maybe the first time a permanent non-ketogenic mindset was possible in the Western world. What sugar (i.e., glucose), especially when mixed with the other popular trade items of tea and coffee, makes possible is thinking and reading (i.e., inner experience) for long periods of time without mental tiredness. During the Enlightenment, the modern mind was borne out of a drugged-up buzz. That is one interpretation. Whatever the cause, something changed.

Also, in the comment section of that article, I came across a perfect description of self-authorization. Carla said that, “There are almost always words inside my head. In fact, I’ve asked people I live with to not turn on the radio in the morning. When they asked why, they thought my answer was weird: because it’s louder than the voice in my head and I can’t perform my morning routine without that voice.” We are all like that to some extent. But for most of us, self-authorization has become so natural as to largely go unnoticed. Unlike Carla, the average person learns to hear their own inner voice despite external sounds. I’m willing to bet that, if tested, Carla would show results of having thin mental boundaries and probably an accordingly weaker egoic will to force her self-authorization onto situations. Some turn to sugar and caffeine (or else nicotine and other drugs) to help shore up rigid thick boundaries and maintain focus in this modern world filled with distractions — likely a contributing factor to drug addiction.

In Abrams’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous, he emphasizes the connection between sight and sound. By way of reading, seeing words becomes hearing words in one’s own mind. This is made possible by the perceptual tendency to associate sight and sound, the two main indicators of movement, with a living other such as an animal moving through the underbrush. Maybe this is what creates the sense of a living other within, a Jaynesian consciousness as interiorized metaphorical space. The magic of hearing words inside puts a spell on the mind, invoking a sense of inner being separate from the outer world. This is how reading can conjure forth an entire visuospatial experience of narratized world, sometimes as compellingly real or moreso than our mundane lives. To hear and see, even if only imagined inwardly, is to make real.

Yet many lose the ability to visualize as they age. I wonder if that has to do with how the modern world until recently has been almost exclusively focused on text. It’s only now that a new generation has been so fully raised on the visual potency of 24/7 cable and the online world, and unlike past generations they might remain more visually-oriented into old age. The loss of visual imagination might have been more of a quirk of printed text, the visual not so much disappearing as being subverted into sound as the ego’s own voice became insular. But even when we are unaware of it, maybe the visual remains as the light in the background that makes interior space visible like a lamp in a sonorous cave, the lamp barely offering enough light to allow us follow the sound further into the darkness. Bertrand Russell went so far as to “argues that mental imagery is the essence of the meaning of words in most cases” (Bertrand Russell: Unconscious Terrors; Murder, Rage and Mental Imagery.). It is the visual that makes the aural come alive with meaning — as Russell put it:

“it is nevertheless the possibility of a memory image in the child and an imagination image in the hearer that makes the essence of the ‘meaning’ of the words. In so far as this is absent, the words are mere counters, capable of meaning, but not at the moment possessing it.”

Jaynes resolves the seeming dilemma by proposing the visuospatial as a metaphorical frame in which the mind operates, rather than itself being the direct focus of thought. And to combine this with Russell’s view, as the visual recedes from awareness, abstract thought recedes from the visceral sense of meaning of the outer world. This is how modern humanity, ever more lost in thought, has lost contact with the larger world of nature and universe, a shrinking number of people who still regularly experience a wilderness vista or the full starry sky. Our entire world turns inward and loses its vividness, becomes smaller, the boundaries dividing thicker. Our minds become ruled by Russell’s counters of meaning (i.e., symbolic proxies), rather than meaning directly. That may be changing, though, in this new era of visually-saturated media. Even books, as audiobooks, can now be heard outwardly in the voice of another. The rigid walls of the ego, so carefully constructed over centuries, are being cracked open again. If so, we might see a merging back together again of the separated senses, which could manifest as a return of synaesthesia as a common experience and with it a resurgence of metaphorical thought that hews close to the sensory world, the fertile ground of meaning. About a talk by Vilanayur S. Ramachandran, Maureen Seaberg writes (The Sea of Similitude):

“The refined son of an Indian diplomat explains that synesthesia was discovered by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, and that its name is derived from the Greek words for joined sensations. Next, he says something that really gets me to thinking – that there is greater cross wiring in the brains of synesthetes. This has enormous implications. “Now, if you assume that this greater cross wiring and concepts are also in different parts of the brain [than just where the synesthesia occurs], then it’s going to create a greater propensity towards metaphorical thinking and creativity in people with synesthesia. And, hence, the eight times more common incidence of synesthesia among poets, artists and novelists,” he says.

“In 2005, Dr. Ramachandran and his colleagues at the University of California at San Diego identified where metaphors are likely generated in the brain by studying people who could no longer understand metaphor because of brain damage. Proving once again the maxim that nature speaks through exceptions, they tested four patients who had experienced injuries to the left angular gyrus region. In May 2005, Scientific American reported on this and pointed out that although the subjects were bright and good communicators, when the researchers presented them with common proverbs and metaphors such as “the grass is always greener on the other side” and “reaching for the stars,” the subjects interpreted the sayings literally almost all the time. Their metaphor centers – now identified – had been compromised by the damage and the people just didn’t get the symbolism. Interestingly, synesthesia has also been found to occur mostly in the fusiform and angular gyrus – it’s in the same neighborhood. […]

“Facility with metaphor is a “thing” in synesthesia. Not only do Rama’s brain studies prove it, but I’ve noticed synesthetes seldom choose the expected, clichéd options when forming the figures of speech that describe a thing in a way that is symbolic to explain an idea or make comparisons. It would be more enviable were it not completely involuntary and automatic. In our brains without borders, it just works that way. Our neuronal nets are more interwoven”

The meeting of synaesthesia and metaphor opens up to our greater, if largely forgotten, humanity. As Jaynes and many others have made clear, those in the distant past and those still living in isolated tribes, such people experience the world far differently than us. This can be seen in odd use of language in ancient texts, which we may take as odd turns of phrase, as mere metaphor. But what if these people so foreign to us took their own metaphors quite literally, so to speak. In another post by Maureen Seaberg (The Shamanic Synesthesia of the Kalahari Bushmen), there are clear examples of this:

“The oldest cultures found that ecstatic experience expands our awareness and in its most special form, the world is experienced through more sensory involvement and presence, he says. “The shaman’s transition into ecstasy brought about what we call synesthesia today. But there was more involved than just passively experiencing it. The ecstatic shaman also performed sound, movement, and made reference to vision, smell, and taste in ways that helped evoke extraordinary experiences in others. They were both recipients and performers of multi-sensory theatres. Of course this is nothing like the weekend workshop shamans of the new age who are day dreaming rather than shaking wildly…. Rhythm, especially syncopated African drumming, excites the whole body to feel more intensely. Hence, it is valued as a means of ‘getting there’. A shaman (an ecstatic performer) played all the senses.” If this seems far afield from Western experience, consider that in Exodus 20:18, as Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to retrieve the tablets, the people present were said to have experienced synesthesia. “And all the people saw the voices” of heaven, it says. And we know synesthesia happens even in non-synesthetes during meditation — a heightened state.” “

The metaphorical ground of synaesthesia is immersive and participatory. It is a world alive with meaning. It was a costly trade in sacrificing this in creating our separate and sensory-deprived egoic consciousness, despite all that we gained in wielding power over the world. During the Bronze Age when written language still had metaphorical mud on its living roots, what Jaynes calls the bicameral mind would have been closer to this animistic mindset. A metaphor in that experiential reality was far more than what we now know of as metaphor. The world was alive with beings and voices. This isn’t only the origins of our humanity for it remains the very ground of our being, the source of what we have become — language most of all (“First came the temple, then the city.”):

“Looking at an even more basic level, I was reading Mark Changizi’s Harnessed. He argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature.” That reminded me of Lynne Kelly’s description of how indigenous people would use vocal techniques and musical instruments to mimic natural sounds, as a way of communicating and passing on complex knowledge of the world. Changizi’s argument is based on the observation that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” and that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (p. 19). Certain sounds give information about what is going on in the immediate environment, specifically sounds related to action and movement. This sound-based information processing would make for an optimal basis of language formation. This is given support from evidence that Kelly describes in her own books.

“This also touches upon the intimate relationship language has to music, dance, and gesture. Language is inseparable from our experience of being in the world, involving multiple senses or even synaesthesia. The overlapping of sensory experience may have been more common to earlier societies. Research has shown that synaesthetes have better capacity for memory: “spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference” (Wikipedia). That is relevant considering that memory is central to oral societies, as Kelly demonstrates. And the preliterate memory systems are immensely vast, potentially incorporating the equivalent of thousands of pages of info. Knowledge and memory isn’t just in the mind but within the entire sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place.”

We remain haunted by the past (“Beyond that, there is only awe.”):

“Through authority and authorization, immense power and persuasion can be wielded. Jaynes argues that it is central to the human mind, but that in developing consciousness we learned how to partly internalize the process. Even so, Jaynesian self-consciousness is never a permanent, continuous state and the power of individual self-authorization easily morphs back into external forms. This is far from idle speculation, considering authoritarianism still haunts the modern mind. I might add that the ultimate power of authoritarianism, as Jaynes makes clear, isn’t overt force and brute violence. Outward forms of power are only necessary to the degree that external authorization is relatively weak, as is typically the case in modern societies.

If you are one of those who clearly hears a voice in your head, appreciate all that went into creating and constructing it. This is an achievement of our entire civilization. But also realize how precarious is this modern mind. It’s a strange thing to contemplate. What is that voice that speaks? And who is it that is listening? Now imagine what it would be like if, as with the bicameral gods going silent, your own god-like ego went silent. And imagine this silence spreading across all of society, an entire people suddenly having lost their self-authorization to act, their very sense of identity and social reality. Don’t take for granted that voice within.

* * *

Below is a passage from a book I read long ago, maybe back when it was first published in 1996. The description of cognitive change almost could have been lifted straight out of Julian Jaynes book from twenty years earlier (e.g., the observation of the gods becoming silent). Abrams doesn’t mention Jaynes and it’s possible he was unfamiliar with it, whether or not there was an indirect influence. The kinds of ideas Jaynes was entertaining had been floating around for a long while before him as well. The unique angle that Abrams brings in this passage is framing it all within synaesthesia.

The Spell of the Sensuous
by David Abrams
p. 69

Although contemporary neuroscientists study “synaesthesia”—the overlap and blending of the senses—as though it were a rare or pathological experience to which only certain persons are prone (those who report “seeing sounds,” “hearing colors,” and the like), our primordial, preconceptual experience, as Merleau-Ponty makes evident, is inherently synaesthetic. The intertwining of sensory modalities seems unusual to us only to the extent that we have become estranged from our direct experience (and hence from our primordial contact with the entities and elements that surround us):

…Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear, and feel. 20

pp. 131-144

It is remarkable that none of the major twentieth-century scholars who have directed their attention to the changes wrought by literacy have seriously considered the impact of writing—and, in particular, phonetic writing—upon the human experience of the wider natural world. Their focus has generally centered upon the influence of phonetic writing on the structure and deployment of human language, 53 on patterns of cognition and thought, 54 or upon the internal organization of human societies. 55 Most of the major research, in other words, has focused upon the alphabet’s impact on processes either internal to human society or presumably “internal” to the human mind. Yet the limitation of such research—its restriction within the bounds of human social interaction and personal interiority—itself reflects an anthropocentric bias wholly endemic to alphabetic culture. In the absence of phonetic literacy, neither society, nor language, nor even the experience of “thought” or consciousness, can be pondered in isolation from the multiple nonhuman shapes and powers that lend their influence to all our activities (we need think only of our ceaseless involvement with the ground underfoot, with the air that swirls around us, with the plants and animals that we consume, with the daily warmth of the sun and the cyclic pull of the moon). Indeed, in the absence of formal writing systems, human communities come to know themselves primarily as they are reflected back by the animals and the animate landscapes with which they are directly engaged. This epistemological dependence is readily evidenced, on every continent, by the diverse modes of identification commonly categorized under the single term “totemism.”

It is exceedingly difficult for us literates to experience anything approaching the vividness and intensity with which surrounding nature spontaneously presents itself to the members of an indigenous, oral community. Yet as we saw in the previous chapters, Merleau-Ponty’s careful phenomenology of perceptual experience had begun to disclose, underneath all of our literate abstractions, a deeply participatory relation to things and to the earth, a felt reciprocity curiously analogous to the animistic awareness of indigenous, oral persons. If we wish to better comprehend the remarkable shift in the human experience of nature that was occasioned by the advent and spread of phonetic literacy, we would do well to return to the intimate analysis of sensory perception inaugurated by Merleau-Ponty. For without a clear awareness of what reading and writing amounts to when considered at the level of our most immediate, bodily experience, any “theory” regarding the impact of literacy can only be provisional and speculative.

Although Merleau-Ponty himself never attempted a phenomenology of reading or writing, his recognition of the importance of synaesthesia—the overlap and intertwining of the senses—resulted in a number of experiential analyses directly pertinent to the phenomenon of reading. For reading, as soon as we attend to its sensorial texture, discloses itself as a profoundly synaesthetic encounter. Our eyes converge upon a visible mark, or a series of marks, yet what they find there is a sequence not of images but of sounds, something heard; the visible letters, as we have said, trade our eyes for our ears. Or, rather, the eye and the ear are brought together at the surface of the text—a new linkage has been forged between seeing and hearing which ensures that a phenomenon apprehended by one sense is instantly transposed into the other. Further, we should note that this sensory transposition is mediated by the human mouth and tongue; it is not just any kind of sound that is experienced in the act of reading, but specifically human, vocal sounds—those which issue from the human mouth. It is important to realize that the now common experience of “silent” reading is a late development in the story of the alphabet, emerging only during the Middle Ages, when spaces were first inserted between the words in a written manuscript (along with various forms of punctuation), enabling readers to distinguish the words of a written sentence without necessarily sounding them out audibly. Before this innovation, to read was necessarily to read aloud, or at the very least to mumble quietly; after the twelfth century it became increasingly possible to internalize the sounds, to listen inwardly to phantom words (or the inward echo of words once uttered). 56

Alphabetic reading, then, proceeds by way of a new synaesthetic collaboration between the eye and the ear, between seeing and hearing. To discern the consequences of this new synaesthesia, we need to examine the centrality of synaesthesia in our perception of others and of the earth.

The experiencing body (as we saw in Chapter 2) is not a self-enclosed object, but an open, incomplete entity. This openness is evident in the arrangement of the senses: I have these multiple ways of encountering and exploring the world—listening with my ears, touching with my skin, seeing with my eyes, tasting with my tongue, smelling with my nose—and all of these various powers or pathways continually open outward from the perceiving body, like different paths diverging from a forest. Yet my experience of the world is not fragmented; I do not commonly experience the visible appearance of the world as in any way separable from its audible aspect, or from the myriad textures that offer themselves to my touch. When the local tomcat comes to visit, I do not have distinctive experiences of a visible cat, an audible cat, and an olfactory cat; rather, the tomcat is precisely the place where these separate sensory modalities join and dissolve into one another, blending as well with a certain furry tactility. Thus, my divergent senses meet up with each other in the surrounding world, converging and commingling in the things I perceive. We may think of the sensing body as a kind of open circuit that completes itself only in things, and in the world. The differentiation of my senses, as well as their spontaneous convergence in the world at large, ensures that I am a being destined for relationship: it is primarily through my engagement with what is not me that I effect the integration of my senses, and thereby experience my own unity and coherence. 57 […]

The diversity of my sensory systems, and their spontaneous convergence in the things that I encounter, ensures this interpenetration or interweaving between my body and other bodies—this magical participation that permits me, at times, to feel what others feel. The gestures of another being, the rhythm of its voice, and the stiffness or bounce in its spine all gradually draw my senses into a unique relation with one another, into a coherent, if shifting, organization. And the more I linger with this other entity, the more coherent the relation becomes, and hence the more completely I find myself face-to-face with another intelligence, another center of experience.

In the encounter with the cyclist, as in my experience of the blackbird, the visual focus induced and made possible the participation of the other senses. In different situations, other senses may initiate the synaesthesia: our ears, when we are at an orchestral concert; or our nostrils, when a faint whiff of burning leaves suddenly brings images of childhood autumns; our skin, when we are touching or being touched by a lover. Nonetheless, the dynamic conjunction of the eyes has a particularly ubiquitous magic, opening a quivering depth in whatever we focus upon, ceaselessly inviting the other senses into a concentrated exchange with stones, squirrels, parked cars, persons, snow-capped peaks, clouds, and termite-ridden logs. This power—the synaesthetic magnetism of the visual focus—will prove crucial for our understanding of literacy and its perceptual effects.

The most important chapter of Merleau-Ponty’s last, unfinished work is entitled “The Intertwining—The Chiasm.” The word “chiasm,” derived from an ancient Greek term meaning “crisscross,” is in common use today only in the field of neurobiology: the “optic chiasm” is that anatomical region, between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, where neuronal fibers from the right eye and the left eye cross and interweave. As there is a chiasm between the two eyes, whose different perspectives continually conjoin into a single vision, so—according to Merleau-Ponty—there is a chiasm between the various sense modalities, such that they continually couple and collaborate with one another. Finally, this interplay of the different senses is what enables the chiasm between the body and the earth, the reciprocal participation—between one’s own flesh and the encompassing flesh of the world—that we commonly call perception. 59

Phonetic reading, of course, makes use of a particular sensory conjunction—that between seeing and hearing. And indeed, among the various synaesthesias that are common to the human body, the confluence (or chiasm) between seeing and hearing is particularly acute. For vision and hearing are the two “distance” senses of the human organism. In contrast to touch and proprioception (inner-body sensations), and unlike the chemical senses of taste and smell, seeing and hearing regularly place us in contact with things and events unfolding at a substantial distance from our own visible, audible body.

My visual gaze explores the reflective surfaces of things, their outward color and contour. By following the play of light and shadow, the dance of colors, and the gradients of repetitive patterns, the eyes—themselves gleaming surfaces—keep me in contact with the multiple outward facets, or faces, of the things arrayed about me. The ears, meanwhile, are more inward organs; they emerge from the depths of my skull like blossoms or funnels, and their participation tells me less about the outer surface than the interior substance of things. For the audible resonance of beings varies with their material makeup, as the vocal calls of different animals vary with the size and shape of their interior cavities and hollows. I feel their expressive cries resound in my skull or my chest, echoing their sonorous qualities with my own materiality, and thus learn of their inward difference from myself. Looking and listening bring me into contact, respectively, with the outward surfaces and with the interior voluminosity of things, and hence where these senses come together, I experience, over there, the complex interplay of inside and outside that is characteristic of my own self-experience. It is thus at those junctures in the surrounding landscape where my eyes and my ears are drawn together that I most readily feel myself confronted by another power like myself, another life. […]

Yet our ears and our eyes are drawn together not only by animals, but by numerous other phenomena within the landscape. And, strangely, wherever these two senses converge, we may suddenly feel ourselves in relation with another expressive power, another center of experience. Trees, for instance, can seem to speak to us when they are jostled by the wind. Different forms of foliage lend each tree a distinctive voice, and a person who has lived among them will easily distinguish the various dialects of pine trees from the speech of spruce needles or Douglas fir. Anyone who has walked through cornfields knows the uncanny experience of being scrutinized and spoken to by whispering stalks. Certain rock faces and boulders request from us a kind of auditory attentiveness, and so draw our ears into relation with our eyes as we gaze at them, or with our hands as we touch them—for it is only through a mode of listening that we can begin to sense the interior voluminosity of the boulder, its particular density and depth. There is an expectancy to the ears, a kind of patient receptivity that they lend to the other senses whenever we place ourselves in a mode of listening—whether to a stone, or a river, or an abandoned house. That so many indigenous people allude to the articulate speech of trees or of mountains suggests the ease with which, in an oral culture, one’s auditory attention may be joined with the visual focus in order to enter into a living relation with the expressive character of things.

Far from presenting a distortion of their factual relation to the world, the animistic discourse of indigenous, oral peoples is an inevitable counterpart of their immediate, synaesthetic engagement with the land that they inhabit. The animistic proclivity to perceive the angular shape of a boulder (while shadows shift across its surface) as a kind of meaningful gesture, or to enter into felt conversations with clouds and owls—all of this could be brushed aside as imaginary distortion or hallucinatory fantasy if such active participation were not the very structure of perception, if the creative interplay of the senses in the things they encounter was not our sole way of linking ourselves to those things and letting the things weave themselves into our experience. Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies.

And yet most of us seem, today, very far from such experience. Trees rarely, if ever, speak to us; animals no longer approach us as emissaries from alien zones of intelligence; the sun and the moon no longer draw prayers from us but seem to arc blindly across the sky. How is it that these phenomena no longer address us , no longer compel our involvement or reciprocate our attention? If participation is the very structure of perception, how could it ever have been brought to a halt? To freeze the ongoing animation, to block the wild exchange between the senses and the things that engage them, would be tantamount to freezing the body itself, stopping it short in its tracks. And yet our bodies still move, still live, still breathe. If we no longer experience the enveloping earth as expressive and alive, this can only mean that the animating interplay of the senses has been transferred to another medium, another locus of participation.

IT IS THE WRITTEN TEXT THAT PROVIDES THIS NEW LOCUS . FOR TO read is to enter into a profound participation, or chiasm, with the inked marks upon the page. In learning to read we must break the spontaneous participation of our eyes and our ears in the surrounding terrain (where they had ceaselessly converged in the synaesthetic encounter with animals, plants, and streams) in order to recouple those senses upon the flat surface of the page. As a Zuñi elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our tribal ancestors, so the “inert” letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless—as mysterious as a talking stone.

And indeed, it is only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent. Only as our senses transfer their animating magic to the written word do the trees become mute, the other animals dumb.

But let us be more precise, recalling the distinction between different forms of writing discussed at the start of this chapter. As we saw there, pictographic, ideographic, and even rebuslike writing still makes use of, or depends upon, our sensorial participation with the natural world. As the tracks of moose and bear refer beyond themselves to those entities of whom they are the trace, so the images in early writing systems draw their significance not just from ourselves but from sun, moon, vulture, jaguar, serpent, lightning—from all those sensorial, never strictly human powers, of which the written images were a kind of track or tracing. To be sure, these signs were now inscribed by human hands, not by the hooves of deer or the clawed paws of bear; yet as long as they presented images of paw prints and of clouds , of sun and of serpent , these characters still held us in relation to a more-than-human field of discourse. Only when the written characters lost all explicit reference to visible, natural phenomena did we move into a new order of participation. Only when those images came to be associated, alphabetically, with purely human-made sounds, and even the names of the letters lost all worldly, extrahuman significance, could speech or language come to be experienced as an exclusively human power. For only then did civilization enter into the wholly self-reflexive mode of animism, or magic, that still holds us in its spell:

We know what the animals do, what are the needs of the beaver, the bear, the salmon, and other creatures, because long ago men married them and acquired this knowledge from their animal wives. Today the priests say we lie, but we know better. The white man has been only a short time in this country and knows very little about the animals; we have lived here thousands of years and were taught long ago by the animals themselves. The white man writes everything down in a book so that it will not be forgotten; but our ancestors married animals, learned all their ways, and passed on this knowledge from one generation to another. 60

THAT ALPHABETIC READING AND WRITING WAS ITSELF experienced as a form of magic is evident from the reactions of cultures suddenly coming into contact with phonetic writing. Anthropological accounts from entirely different continents report that members of indigenous, oral tribes, after seeing the European reading from a book or from his own notes, came to speak of the written pages as “talking leaves,” for the black marks on the flat, leaflike pages seemed to talk directly to the one who knew their secret.

The Hebrew scribes never lost this sense of the letters as living, animate powers. Much of the Kabbalah, the esoteric body of Jewish mysticism, is centered around the conviction that each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew aleph-beth is a magic gateway or guide into an entire sphere of existence. Indeed, according to some kabbalistic accounts, it was by combining the letters that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the ongoing universe. The Jewish kabbalists found that the letters, when meditated upon, would continually reveal new secrets; through the process of tzeru, the magical permutation of the letters, the Jewish scribe could bring himself into successively greater states of ecstatic union with the divine. Here, in other words, was an intensely concentrated form of animism—a participation conducted no longer with the sculpted idols and images worshiped by other tribes but solely with the visible letters of the aleph-beth.

Perhaps the most succinct evidence for the potent magic of written letters is to be found in the ambiguous meaning of our common English word “spell.” As the roman alphabet spread through oral Europe, the Old English word “spell,” which had meant simply to recite a story or tale, took on the new double meaning: on the one hand, it now meant to arrange, in the proper order, the written letters that constitute the name of a thing or a person; on the other, it signified a magic formula or charm. Yet these two meanings were not nearly as distinct as they have come to seem to us today. For to assemble the letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, was precisely to effect a magic, to establish a new kind of influence over that entity, to summon it forth! To spell, to correctly arrange the letters to form a name or a phrase, seemed thus at the same time to cast a spell , to exert a new and lasting power over the things spelled. Yet we can now realize that to learn to spell was also, and more profoundly, to step under the influence of the written letters ourselves, to cast a spell upon our own senses. It was to exchange the wild and multiplicitous magic of an intelligent natural world for the more concentrated and refined magic of the written word.

THE BULGARIAN SCHOLAR TZVETAN TODOROV HAS WRITTEN AN illuminating study of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, based on extensive study of documents from the first months and years of contact between European culture and the native cultures of the American continent. 61 The lightning-swift conquest of Mexico by Cortéz has remained a puzzle for historians, since Cortéz, leading only a few hundred men, managed to seize the entire kingdom of Montezuma, who commanded several hundred thousand . Todorov concludes that Cortéz’s astonishing and rapid success was largely a result of the discrepancy between the different forms of participation engaged in by the two societies. The Aztecs, whose writing was highly pictorial, necessarily felt themselves in direct communication with an animate, more-than-human environment. “Everything happens as if, for the Aztecs, [written] signs automatically and necessarily proceed from the world they designate…”; the Aztecs are unable to use their spoken words, or their written characters, to hide their true intentions, since these signs belong to the world around them as much as to themselves. 62 To be duplicitous with signs would be, for the Aztecs, to go against the order of nature, against the encompassing speech or logos of an animate world, in which their own tribal discourse was embedded.

The Spaniards, however, suffer no such limitation. Possessed of an alphabetic writing system, they experience themselves not in communication with the sensuous forms of the world, but solely with one another. The Aztecs must answer, in their actions as in their speech, to the whole sensuous, natural world that surrounds them; the Spanish need answer only to themselves.

In contact with this potent new magic, with these men who participate solely with their own self-generated signs, whose speech thus seems to float free of the surrounding landscape, and who could therefore be duplicitous and lie even in the presence of the sun, the moon, and the forest, the Indians felt their own rapport with those sensuous powers, or gods, beginning to falter:

The testimony of the Indian accounts, which is a description rather than an explanation, asserts that everything happened because the Mayas and the Aztecs lost control of communication. The language of the gods has become unintelligible, or else these gods fell silent. “Understanding is lost, wisdom is lost” [from the Mayan account of the Spanish invasion]….As for the Aztecs, they describe the beginning of their own end as a silence that falls: the gods no longer speak to them. 63

In the face of aggression from this new, entirely self-reflexive form of magic, the native peoples of the Americas—like those of Africa and, later, of Australia—felt their own magics wither and become useless, unable to protect them.

Inequality in the Anthropocene

This post was inspired by an article on the possibility of increasing suicides because of climate change. What occurred to me is that all the social and psychological problems seen with climate change are also seen with inequality (as shown in decades of research), and to a lesser extent as seen with extreme poverty — although high poverty with low inequality isn’t necessarily problematic at all (e.g., the physically and psychologically healthy hunter-gatherers who are poor in terms of material wealth and private property).

Related to this, I noticed in one article that a study was mentioned about the chances of war increasing when detrimental weather events are combined with ethnic diversity. And that reminded me of the research that showed diversity only leads to lowered trust when combined with segregation. A major problem with climate-related refugee crises is that it increases segregation, such as refugee camps and immigrant ghettoization. That segregation will lead to further conflict and destruction of the social fabric, which in turn will promote further segregation — a vicious cycle that will be hard to pull out before the crash, especially as the environmental conditions lead to droughts, famines, and plagues.

As economic and environmental conditions worsen, there are some symptoms that will become increasingly apparent and problematic. Based on the inequality and climatology research, we should expect increased stress, anxiety, fear, xenophobia, bigotry, suicide, homicide, aggressive behavior, short-term thinking, reactionary politics, and generally crazy and bizarre behavior. This will likely result in civil unrest, violent conflict, race wars, genocides, terrorism, militarization, civil wars, revolutions, international conflict, resource-based wars, world wars, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, right-wing populism, etc.

The only defense against this will be a strong, courageous left-wing response. That would require eliminating not only the derangement of the GOP but also the corruption of the DNC by replacing both with a genuinely democratic and socialist movement. Otherwise, our society will descend into collective madness and our entire civilization will be under existential threat. There is no other option.

* * *

The Great Acceleration and the Great Divergence: Vulnerability in the Anthropocene
by Rob Nixon

Most Anthropocene scholars date the new epoch to the late-eighteenth-century beginnings of industrialization. But there is a second phase to the Anthropocene, the so-called great acceleration, beginning circa 1950: an exponential increase in human-induced changes to the carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle and in ocean acidification, global trade, and consumerism, as well as the rise of international forms of governance like the World Bank and the IMF.

However, most accounts of the great acceleration fail to position it in relation to neoliberalism’s recent ascent, although most of the great acceleration has occurred during the neoliberal era. One marker of neoliberalism has been a widening chasm of inequality between the superrich and the ultrapoor: since the late 1970s, we have been living through what Timothy Noah calls “the great divergence.” Noah’s subject is the economic fracturing of America, the new American gilded age, but the great divergence has scarred most societies, from China and India to Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Australia, and Bangladesh.

My central problem with the dominant mode of Anthropocene storytelling is its failure to articulate the great acceleration to the great divergence. We need to acknowledge that the grand species narrative of the Anthropocene—this geomorphic “age of the human”—is gaining credence at a time when, in society after society, the idea of the human is breaking apart economically, as the distance between affluence and abandonment is increasing. It is time to remold the Anthropocene as a shared story about unshared resources. When we examine the geology of the human, let us also pay attention to the geopolitics of the new stratigraphy’s layered assumptions.

Neoliberalism loves watery metaphors: the trickle-down effect, global flows, how a rising tide lifts all boats. But talk of a rising tide raises other specters: the coastal poor, who will never get storm-surge barriers; Pacific Islanders in the front lines of inundation; Arctic peoples, whose livelihoods are melting away—all of them exposed to the fallout from Anthropocene histories of carbon extraction and consumption in which they played virtually no part.

We are not all in this together
by Ian Angus

So the 21st century is being defined by a combination of record-breaking inequality with record-breaking climate change. That combination is already having disastrous impacts on the majority of the world’s people. The line is not only between rich and poor, or comfort and poverty: it is a line between survival and death.

Climate change and extreme weather events are not devastating a random selection of human beings from all walks of life. There are no billionaires among the dead, no corporate executives living in shelters, no stockbrokers watching their children die of malnutrition. Overwhelmingly, the victims are poor and disadvantaged. Globally, 99 percent of weather disaster casualties are in developing countries, and 75 percent of them are women.

The pattern repeats at every scale. Globally, the South suffers far more than the North. Within the South, the very poorest countries, mostly in Africa south of the Sahara, are hit hardest. Within each country, the poorest people—women, children, and the elderly—are most likely to lose their homes and livelihoods from climate change, and most likely to die.

The same pattern occurs in the North. Despite the rich countries’ overall wealth, when hurricanes and heatwaves hit, the poorest neighborhoods are hit hardest, and within those neighborhoods the primary victims are the poorest people.

Chronic hunger, already a severe problem in much of the world, will be made worse by climate change. As Oxfam reports: “The world’s most food-insecure regions will be hit hardest of all.”

Unchecked climate change will lock the world’s poorest people in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats, and loss of livelihood. Children will be among the primary victims, and the effects will last for lifetimes: studies in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Niger show that being born in a drought year increases a child’s chances of being irreversibly stunted by 41 to 72 percent.

Environmental racism has left black Americans three times more likely to die from pollution
By Bartees Cox

Without a touch of irony, the EPA celebrated Black History Month by publishing a report that finds black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life. Because of this, more than half of the 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color, and black Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than their white counterparts.

The statistics provide evidence for what advocates call “environmental racism.” Communities of color aren’t suffering by chance, they say. Rather, these conditions are the result of decades of indifference from people in power.

Environmental racism is dangerous. Trump’s EPA doesn’t seem to care.
by P.R. Lockhart

Studies have shown that black and Hispanic children are more likely to develop asthma than their white peers, as are poor children, with research suggesting that higher levels of smog and air pollution in communities of color being a factor. A 2014 study found that people of color live in communities that have more nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that exacerbates asthma.

The EPA’s own research further supported this. Earlier this year, a paper from the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment found that when it comes to air pollutants that contribute to issues like heart and lung disease, black people are exposed to 1.5 times more of the pollutant than white people, while Hispanic people were exposed to about 1.2 times the amount of non-Hispanic whites. People in poverty had 1.3 times the exposure of those not in poverty.

Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real
by Vann R. Newkirk II

Late last week, even as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump administration continued a plan to dismantle many of the institutions built to address those disproportionate risks, researchers embedded in the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. Specifically, the study finds that people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above poverty. According to the study’s authors, “results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”

The study focuses on particulate matter, a group of both natural and manmade microscopic suspensions of solids and liquids in the air that serve as air pollutants. Anthropogenic particulates include automobile fumes, smog, soot, oil smoke, ash, and construction dust, all of which have been linked to serious health problems. Particulate matter was named a known definite carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and it’s been named by the EPA as a contributor to several lung conditions, heart attacks, and possible premature deaths. The pollutant has been implicated in both asthma prevalence and severitylow birth weights, and high blood pressure.

As the study details, previous works have also linked disproportionate exposure to particulate matter and America’s racial geography. A 2016 study in Environment International found that long-term exposure to the pollutant is associated with racial segregation, with more highly segregated areas suffering higher levels of exposure. A 2012 article in Environmental Health Perspectives found that overall levels of particulate matter exposure for people of color were higher than those for white people. That article also provided a breakdown of just what kinds of particulate matter counts in the exposures. It found that while differences in overall particulate matter by race were significant, differences for some key particles were immense. For example, Hispanics faced rates of chlorine exposure that are more than double those of whites. Chronic chlorine inhalation is known for degrading cardiac function.

The conclusions from scientists at the National Center for Environmental Assessment not only confirm that body of research, but advance it in a top-rate public-health journal. They find that black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and that Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites. The study found that people in poverty had about 1.3 times more exposure than people above poverty. Interestingly, it also finds that for black people, the proportion of exposure is only partly explained by the disproportionate geographic burden of polluting facilities, meaning the magnitude of emissions from individual factories appears to be higher in minority neighborhoods.

These findings join an ever-growing body of literature that has found that both polluters and pollution are often disproportionately located in communities of color. In some places, hydraulic-fracturing oil wells are more likely to be sited in those neighborhoods. Researchers have found the presence of benzene and other dangerous aromatic chemicals to be linked to race. Strong racial disparities are suspected in the prevalence of lead poisoning.

It seems that almost anywhere researchers look, there is more evidence of deep racial disparities in exposure to environmental hazards. In fact, the idea of environmental justice—or the degree to which people are treated equally and meaningfully involved in the creation of the human environment—was crystallized in the 1980s with the aid of a landmark study illustrating wide disparities in the siting of facilities for the disposal of hazardous waste. Leaders in the environmental-justice movement have posited—in places as prestigious and rigorous as United Nations publications and numerous peer-reviewed journals—that environmental racism exists as the inverse of environmental justice, when environmental risks are allocated disproportionately along the lines of race, often without the input of the affected communities of color.

The idea of environmental racism is, like all mentions of racism in America, controversial. Even in the age of climate change, many people still view the environment mostly as a set of forces of nature, one that cannot favor or disfavor one group or another. And even those who recognize that the human sphere of influence shapes almost every molecule of the places in which humans live, from the climate to the weather to the air they breathe, are often loathe to concede that racism is a factor. To many people, racism often connotes purposeful decisions by a master hand, and many see existing segregation as a self-sorting or poverty problem. Couldn’t the presence of landfills and factories in disproportionately black neighborhoods have more to do with the fact that black people tend to be disproportionately poor and thus live in less desirable neighborhoods?

But last week’s study throws more water on that increasingly tenuous line of thinking. While it lacks the kind of complex multivariate design that can really disentangle the exact effects of poverty and race, the finding that race has a stronger effect on exposure to pollutants than poverty indicates that something beyond just the concentration of poverty among black people and Latinos is at play. As the study’s authors write: “A focus on poverty to the exclusion of race may be insufficient to meet the needs of all burdened populations.” Their finding that the magnitude of pollution seems to be higher in communities of color than the number of polluters suggests, indicates that regulations and business decisions are strongly dependent on whether people of color are around. In other words, they might be discriminatory.

This is a remarkable finding, and not only because it could provide one more policy linkage to any number of health disparities, from heart disease to asthma rates in black children that are double those of white children. But the study also stands as an implicit rebuke to the very administration that allowed its release.

Violence: Categories & Data, Causes & Demographics

Most violent crime correlates to social problems in general. Most social problems in general correlate to economic factors such as poverty but even moreso inequality. And in a country like the US, most economic factors correlate to social disadvantage and racial oppression, from economic segregation (redlining, sundown towns, etc) to environmental racism (ghettos located in polluted urban areas, high toxicity rates among minorities, etc) — consider how areas of historically high rates of slavery at present have higher levels of poverty and inequality, impacting not just blacks but also whites living in those communities.

Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.

Percentages of Suffering and Death

Even accepting the data that Pinker uses, it must be noted that he isn’t including all violent deaths. Consider economic sanctions and neoliberal exploitation, vast poverty and inequality forcing people to work long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, covert operations to overthrow governments and destabilize regions, anthropogenic climate change with its disasters, environmental destruction and ecosystem collapse, loss of arable land and food sources, pollution and toxic dumps, etc. All of this would involve food scarcity, malnutrition, starvation, droughts, rampant disease, refugee crises, diseases related to toxicity and stress, etc; along with all kinds of other consequences to people living in desperation and squalor.

This has all been intentionally caused through governments, corporations, and other organizations seeking power and profit while externalizing costs and harm. In my lifetime, the fatalities to this large scale often slow violence and intergenerational trauma could add up to hundreds of millions or maybe billions of lives cut short. Plus, as neoliberal globalization worsens inequality, there is a direct link to higher rates of homicides, suicides, and stress-related diseases for the most impacted populations. Yet none of these deaths would be counted as violent, no matter how horrific it was for the victims. And those like Pinker adding up the numbers would never have to acknowledge this overwhelming reality of suffering. It can’t be seen in the official data on violence, as the causes are disconnected from the effects. But why should only a small part of the harm and suffering get counted as violence?

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
by Roy Scranton
Kindle Locations 860-888 (see here)

Consider: Once among the most modern, Westernized nations in the Middle East, with a robust, highly educated middle class, Iraq has been blighted for decades by imperialist aggression, criminal gangs, interference in its domestic politics, economic liberalization, and sectarian feuding. Today it is being torn apart between a corrupt petrocracy, a breakaway Kurdish enclave, and a self-declared Islamic fundamentalist caliphate, while a civil war in neighboring Syria spills across its borders. These conflicts have likely been caused in part and exacerbated by the worst drought the Middle East has seen in modern history. Since 2006, Syria has been suffering crippling water shortages that have, in some areas, caused 75 percent crop failure and wiped out 85 percent of livestock, left more than 800,000 Syrians without a livelihood, and sent hundreds of thousands of impoverished young men streaming into Syria’s cities. 90 This drought is part of long-term warming and drying trends that are transforming the Middle East. 91 Not just water but oil, too, is elemental to these conflicts. Iraq sits on the fifth-largest proven oil reserves in the world. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has been able to survive only because it has taken control of most of Syria’s oil and gas production. We tend to think of climate change and violent religious fundamentalism as isolated phenomena, but as Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley argues, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.” 92

A few hundred miles away, Israeli soldiers spent the summer of 2014 killing Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has also been suffering drought, while Gaza has been in the midst of a critical water crisis exacerbated by Israel’s military aggression. The International Committee for the Red Cross reported that during summer 2014, Israeli bombers targeted Palestinian wells and water infrastructure. 93 It’s not water and oil this time, but water and gas: some observers argue that Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” was intended to establish firmer control over the massive Leviathan natural gas field, discovered off the coast of Gaza in the eastern Mediterranean in 2010.94

Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the north, Russian-backed separatists fought fascist paramilitary forces defending the elected government of Ukraine, which was also suffering drought. 95 Russia’s role as an oil and gas exporter in the region and the natural gas pipelines running through Ukraine from Russia to Europe cannot but be key issues in the conflict. Elsewhere, droughts in 2014 sent refugees from Guatemala and Honduras north to the US border, devastated crops in California and Australia, and threatened millions of lives in Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, India, Morocco, Pakistan, and parts of China. Across the world, massive protests and riots have swept Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand, while conflicts rage on in Colombia, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and India. And while the world burns, the United States has been playing chicken with Russia over control of Eastern Europe and the melting Arctic, and with China over control of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, threatening global war on a scale not seen in seventy years. This is our present and future: droughts and hurricanes, refugees and border guards, war for oil, water, gas, and food.

Donald Trump Is the First Demagogue of the Anthropocene
by Robinson Meyer

First, climate change could easily worsen the inequality that has already hollowed out the Western middle class. A recent analysis in Nature projected that the effects of climate change will reduce the average person’s income by 23 percent by the end of the century. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts that unmitigated global warming could cost the American economy $200 billion this century. (Some climate researchers think the EPA undercounts these estimates.)

Future consumers will not register these costs so cleanly, though—there will not be a single climate-change debit exacted on everyone’s budgets at year’s end. Instead, the costs will seep in through many sources: storm damage, higher power rates, real-estate depreciation, unreliable and expensive food. Climate change could get laundered, in other words, becoming just one more symptom of a stagnant and unequal economy. As quality of life declines, and insurance premiums rise, people could feel that they’re being robbed by an aloof elite.

They won’t even be wrong. It’s just that due to the chemistry of climate change, many members of that elite will have died 30 or 50 years prior. […]

Malin Mobjörk, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, recently described a “growing consensus” in the literature that climate change can raise the risk of violence. And the U.S. Department of Defense already considers global warming a “threat multiplier” for national security. It expects hotter temperatures and acidified oceans to destabilize governments and worsen infectious pandemics.

Indeed, climate change may already be driving mass migrations. Last year, the Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was mocked for suggesting that a climate-change-intensified drought in the Levant—the worst drought in 900 years—helped incite the Syrian Civil War, thus kickstarting the Islamic State. The evidence tentatively supports him. Since the outbreak of the conflict, some scholars have recognized that this drought pushed once-prosperous farmers into Syria’s cities. Many became unemployed and destitute, aggravating internal divisions in the run-up to the war. […]

They were not disappointed. Heatwaves, droughts, and other climate-related exogenous shocks do correlate to conflict outbreak—but only in countries primed for conflict by ethnic division. In the 30-year period, nearly a quarter of all ethnic-fueled armed conflict coincided with a climate-related calamity. By contrast, in the set of all countries, war only correlated to climatic disaster about 9 percent of the time.

“We cannot find any evidence for a generalizable trigger relationship, but we do find evidence for some risk enhancement,” Schleussner told me. In other words,  climate disaster will not cause a war, but it can influence whether one begins.

Why climate change is very bad for your health
by Geordan Dickinson Shannon

Ecosystems

We don’t live in isolation from other ecosystems. From large-scale weather events, through to the food we eat daily, right down to the minute organisms colonising our skin and digestive systems, we live and breath in co-dependency with our environment.

A change in the delicate balance of micro-organisms has the potential to lead to disastrous effects. For example, microbial proliferation – which is predicted in warmer temperatures driven by climate change – may lead to more enteric infections (caused by viruses and bacteria that enter the body through the gastrointestinal tract), such as salmonella food poisoning and increased cholera outbreaks related to flooding and warmer coastal and estuarine water.

Changes in temperature, humidity, rainfall, soil moisture and sea-level rise, caused by climate change is also affecting the transmission of dangerous insect-borne infectious diseases. These include malaria, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, chikungunya and West Nile viruslymphatic filariasis, plague, tick-borne encephalitis, Lyme diseaserickettsioses, and schistosomiasis.

Through climate change, the pattern of human interaction will likely change and so will our interactions with disease-spreading insects, especially mosquitoes. The World Health Organisation has also stressed the impact of climate change on the reproductive, survival and bite rates of insects, as well as their geographic spread.

Climate refugees

Perhaps the most disastrous effect of climate change on human health is the emergence of large-scale forced migration from the loss of local livelihoods and weather events – something that is recognised by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. Sea-level rise, decreased crop yield, and extreme weather events will force many people from their lands and livelihoods, while refugees in vulnerable areas also face amplified conditions such as fewer food supplies and more insect-borne diseases. And those who are displaced put a significant health and economic burden on surrounding communities.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than political. Around 36m people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009; a figure that is predicted to rise to more than 50m by 2050. In one worst-case scenario, as many as 200m people could become environmental refugees.

Not a level playing field

Climate change has emerged as a major driver of global health inequalities. As J. Timmons Roberts, professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University, put it:

Global warming is all about inequality, both in who will suffer most its effects and in who created the problem in the first place.

Global climate change further polarises the haves and the have-nots. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that climate change will hit poor countries hardest. For example, the loss of healthy life years in low-income African countries is predicted to be 500 times that in Europe. The number of people in the poorest countries most vulnerable to hunger is predicted by Oxfam International to increase by 20% in 2050. And many of the major killers affecting developing countries, such as malaria, diarrhoeal illnesses, malnutrition and dengue, are highly sensitive to climate change, which would place a further disproportionate burden on poorer nations.

Most disturbingly, countries with weaker health infrastructure – generally situated in the developing world – will be the least able to copewith the effects of climate change. The world’s poorest regions don’t yet have the technical, economic, or scientific capacity to prepare or adapt.

Predictably, those most vulnerable to climate change are not those who contribute most to it. China, the US, and the European Union combined have contributed more than half the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions in the last few centuries. By contrast, and unfairly, countries that contributed the least carbon emissions (measured in per capita emissions of carbon dioxide) include many African nations and small Pacific islands – exactly those countries which will be least prepared and most affected by climate change.

Here’s Why Climate Change Will Increase Deaths by Suicide
by Francis Vergunst, Helen Louise Berry & Massimiliano Orri

Suicide is already among the leading causes of death worldwide. For people aged 15-55 years, it is among the top five causes of death. Worldwide nearly one million people die by suicide each year — more than all deaths from war and murder combined.

Using historical temperature records from the United States and Mexico, the researchers showed that suicide rates increased by 0.7 per cent in the U.S. and by 2.1 per cent in Mexico when the average monthly temperatures rose by 1 C.

The researchers calculated that if global temperatures continue to rise at these rates, between now and 2050 there could be 9,000 to 40,000 additional suicides in the U.S. and Mexico alone. This is roughly equivalent to the number of additional suicides that follow an economic recession.

Spikes during heat waves

It has been known for a long time that suicide rates spike during heat waves. Hotter weather has been linked with higher rates of hospital admissions for self-harmsuicide and violent suicides, as well as increases in population-level psychological distress, particularly in combination with high humidity.

Another recent study, which combined the results of previous research on heat and suicide, concluded there is “a significant and positive association between temperature rises and incidence of suicide.”

Why this is remains unclear. There is a well-documented link between rising temperatures and interpersonal violence and suicide could be understood as an act of violence directed at oneself. Lisa Page, a researcher in psychology at King’s College London, notes:

“While speculative, perhaps the most promising mechanism to link suicide with high temperatures is a psychological one. High temperatures have been found to lead individuals to behave in a more disinhibited, aggressive and violent manner, which might in turn result in an increased propensity for suicidal acts.”

Hotter temperatures are taxing on the body. They cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, reduce sleep quality and disrupt people’s physical activity routines. These changes can reduce well-being and increase psychological distress.

Disease, water shortages, conflict and war

The effects of hotter temperatures on suicides are symptomatic of a much broader and more expansive problem: the impact of climate change on mental health.

Climate change will increase the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, storms, floods and wildfires. It will extend the range of infectious diseases such as Zika virus, malaria and Lyme disease. It will contribute to food and water shortages and fuel forced migration, conflict and war.

These events can have devastating effects on people’s health, homes and livelihoods and directly impact psychological health and well-being.

But effects are not limited to people who suffer direct losses — for example, it has been estimated that up to half of Hurricane Katrina survivors developed post-traumatic stress disorder even when they had suffered no direct physical losses.

The feelings of loss that follow catastrophic events, including a sense of loss of safety, can erode community well-being and further undermine mental health resilience

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 3-4 (see here)

[W]hen the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

PP. 119-120 (see here)

But how can something as abstract as inequality or social comparisons cause something as physical as health? Our emergency rooms are not filled with people dropping dead from acute cases of inequality. No, the pathways linking inequality to health can be traced through specific maladies, especially heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and health problems stemming from obesity. Abstract ideas that start as macroeconomic policies and social relationships somehow get expressed in the functioning of our cells.

To understand how that expression happens, we have to first realize that people from different walks of life die different kinds of deaths, in part because they live different kinds of lives. We saw in Chapter 2 that people in more unequal states and countries have poor outcomes on many health measures, including violence, infant mortality, obesity and diabetes, mental illness, and more. In Chapter 3 we learned that inequality leads people to take greater risks, and uncertain futures lead people to take an impulsive, live fast, die young approach to life. There are clear connections between the temptation to enjoy immediate pleasures versus denying oneself for the benefit of long-term health. We saw, for example, that inequality was linked to risky behaviors. In places with extreme inequality, people are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, more likely to have unsafe sex, and so on. Other research suggests that living in a high-inequality state increases people’s likelihood of smoking, eating too much, and exercising too little.

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

This social order, this political system, this economy — it is the best we can hope for, some claim. The best of all possible worlds. Or else the best under present conditions. Good enough for the time being. Be grateful for what we have. It could be a lot worse. Accordingly, what we should accept: A little less suffering is good even if not confronting the cause for the time being, as pain management for the symptoms is better than nothing at all. Let’s moderate and reform a bad system, small steps toward small changes. We’ll deal with the real issues and hard problems later on… after the next election… after the next crisis…

Just don’t rock the boat or we might capsize. Radical ideals and revolutionary aspirations are dangerous. Let’s settle for compromise, no matter how imperfect, no matter how often it fails, no matter how bad it gets. We need to be reasonable and practical, to be patient and accept the lesser evil. After all, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Keep our dreams manageable. Because if you shoot for the stars, you might crash and burn. It’s better to stay safe and succeed at low standards. These are dangerous times and we are fighting a rearguard action. This is not time for big talk. The barbarians are at the gate. Let’s just hunker down and hope the storm passes.

And on and on.

Bullshit! That isn’t good enough, not for those suffering and oppressed. These are the excuses of fearful children cowering before abuse, of the comfortable classes trying to soothe their own guilty consciences while they look the other way.

On this day in 1936, David Lummis was born. And on the same date a little over a quarter century later in 1963, W.E.B. Dubois died. The former said that, “The spirit of democracy appears now and then in history, at those moments when people fight for it. If you try to achieve democracy by waiting for it, you will wait forever.” And the latter had similar sentiments: “Call back some faint spirit of Jefferson and Lincoln, and when again we can hold a fair election on real issues, let’s vote, and not till then. Is this impossible? Then democracy in America is impossible.” (see REAL Democracy History Calendar: August 27 – September 2)

Those are words not intended for the faint hearts of good liberals with their good intentions. These aren’t calm and compliant voices. Instead, the sentiment expressed is that of immediacy and urgency. There is no time like the present, and it will only get worse and harder as time goes on. This attitude of social responsibility and moral courage is nothing new. It’s what our country was founded upon, what the greatest of the revolutionaries hoped for us later generations — in the words of Thomas Paine, the most democratic of the founders, on more than one occasion:

“I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.” And: “If we fail to act, we’re self-deceiving cowards condemning our children to tyranny and cheating the world of a beacon of liberty.” And: “let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” And another:

“As parents, we can have no joy, knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure any thing which we may bequeath to posterity: And by a plain method of argument, as we are running the next generation into debt, we ought to do the work of it, otherwise we use them meanly and pitifully. In order to discover the line of our duty rightly, we should take our children in our hand, and fix our station a few years farther into life; that eminence will present a prospect which a few present fears and prejudices conceal from our sight.”

Paine’s only child was lost earlier in his life when his wife died in childbirth. It didn’t stop him from caring about the children of others, from being willing to sacrifice his own personal benefit for the sake of future generations. He had many opportunities to have settled down and lived an easy life. Yet it wasn’t in him to remain silent before injustice and bow down before oppression. Yes, he was quite capable of being an asshole and a troublemaker but more important he did it with moral righteousness. Having watched The Young Karl Marx, I realized much of the same could describe Marx as well, someone who like Paine refused to back down from what he knew was right.

Without righteous assholes pushing for change, there would have been no revolutionary era, no progressive reform, no abolition of slavery, no labor movement, no universal suffrage, and no United States as a battleground for justice and fairness. Paine for certain was ahead of his time and, in many ways, he is ahead of our time as well (such as his having advocated for the equivalent of a basic income). What are we waiting for to finally live up to the vision and ideals our country was founded upon? If the time has never been quite right for fully functioning democracy in more than two centuries of American history, the time will never be right. Otherwise, we have to accept that the time is always right when what needs to be done is before us, a lesson hammered home by the fiery sermonizing of Martin Luther King, jr:

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

The thing is the American public knows this. They feel the urgency in the everyday experience of their lives, as the chasm of inequality grows. Americans feel stressed and anxious, often desperate in not knowing what is coming next. This isn’t a stable situation that will last much longer. Maintaining the status quo and seeking gradual reform is not an option at this point. Either we collectively make major changes that transform our society or revolution will follow, probably sooner than later.

None of this is a secret. The population is getting restless and, as long as freedom and justice is denied, we’ll keep getting demagogues like Donald Trump and eventually an authoritarian far more dangerous. Most Americans have lost faith in public institutions and, realizing how it is rigged by dark money and hidden influences, have stopped voting in most elections. This leaves the field open for the worst elements in our society. If the ruling elite keep this up, they might as well point a gun at their own heads because that is essentially what they’re doing. All of their power-mongering will harm themselves in the end.

The public has made clear what they are demanding. The problem is the public, short of revolution, has no power to enforce their demands. Still, the demands remain and the pressure continues to build, as the American public shifts further to the left of the political establishment… and in reaction, the political establishment pushes further right.

For example, the Clintons and Obama only came out in support of same sex marriage a few years ago, long after the majority of Americans had already declared being in favor. This same pattern is seen on numerous popular and important issues, from abortion rights to free college tuition. Also, consider the fact that most Americans have long wanted healthcare reform far to the left of anything Democratic politicians were willing to fight for and their corporate backers were willing to allow. Even now, the Washington cronies of the DNC won’t back the radical healthcare reform that the public is demanding, despite the majority of Republicans having joined the majority of Americans in supporting Medicare for all. The same is establishment failure is seen with net neutrality, as 83% of voters and three out of four Republicans are in support). And I could list many other examples.

The DNC follows, doesn’t lead.

Pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and let that sink in. On issues like this that could decide elections, the DNC is to the right of the average Republican. That is mind blowing! Claims of lesser evil that again and again leads to ever greater evil? No thanks and fuck you! And Democratic ignoramuses pretend to act surprised by how Donald Trump, in having made promises reminiscent of the New Deal (e.g., infrastructure rebuilding), won the presidency. Maybe it has something to do with their own candidates being neck-deep in corruption and cronyism, not to mention their pockets overflowing with dirty money. The American public isn’t so stupid as to not realize that the Clintons are full of shit and a danger to our society. There was no lesser evil but instead two greater evils, one a blunt force trauma to the skull that was an immediate shock to the body politic and the other a putrid gangrenous rot that will kill more slowly.

The polarization isn’t between conservative and liberals but between the powerful and disfranchised, the rich and the poor, the comfortable and desperate, those against self-governance and those for it (this has been true for centuries, going back to the American Revolution: “we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”). A century ago, popular conservative politicians made powerful conservative arguments for economic populism and corporate regulation: “The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth,” as it was put by Theodore Roosevelt (New Nationalism speech), a born plutocrat who was no friend of left-wingers but smart enough to know the only sustainable path into the future was social democracy. Here we are after generations of hard fighting and what do we have? Supposed ‘liberals’ like the Clinton Democrats are in the back pocket of big money (of big tech, big banks, etc) with their backroom deals, closed door talks, and games of pay-to-play. This has given covering fire for Republicans to go far right-wing and so given a platform for the most radical of reactionaries.

The ruling elite keeps talking about moderation and centrism. But we the American public don’t want moderation toward the center of the ruling elite. What we want is fairness and justice, pure and simple. If democracy is allowed, most Americans would love to have it. Failing that, there are darker paths we could go down. That would be a sad fate for a country that began with so much promise. We shouldn’t allow that to happen, not without a fight. Instead, let us choose democracy and commit to it with every fiber of our being. No matter how dark it gets, it’s never too late to do the right thing. Now is the time.

“…just order themselves.”

“Walking through the Montreal airport, my 10-year-old observes: “It’s interesting how people, without any signs or directions, just order themselves. It’s almost like they mindlessly work together.”” That was shared by Corey Robin, on Twitter (ignore the fact that airports do have signs and directions, the point being that people who regularly take flights at a particular airport don’t consciously need to pay attention to the signs and directions, as a driver on familiar roads can get to their destination on mental automatic mode). To which David Crespo responded that it “reminds me of what Herbert Simon said about complex behavior coming more from the complexity of the environment than the complexity of the agent.”

Crespo then points to a passage (from The Sciences of the Artificial), ending with this conclusion: “We watch an ant make his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach. He moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dune let, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. […] It is a sequence of irregular, angular segments — not quite a random walk, for it has an underlying sense of direction, of aiming toward a goal. […] He has a general sense of where home lies, but he cannot foresee all the obstacles between. He must adapt his course repeatedly to the difficulties he encounters and often detour uncrossable barriers. His horizons are very close, so that he deals with each obstacle as he comes to it; he probes for ways around or over it, without much thought for future obstacles. It is easy to trap him into deep detours. Viewed as a geometric figure, the ant’s path is irregular, complex, hard to describe. But its complexity is really a complexity in the surface of the beach, not a complexity in the ant.” That is to say behavior exists within environmental constraints. A simple but profound observation. And often forgotten.

Let me put it into a different context. The ego-mind with its thick isolating boundaries of hyper-individualism, the post-bicameral Jaynesian consciousness of self-authorization (“…just order themselves,” as Robin’s kid observed) — this has never fully taken hold. It’s more of a story we tell ourselves than anything else, not to dismiss the power of stories in constructing social reality nor to dismiss the potent realism of its all too real consequences.

The closest we have to self-aware willpower might be Benjamin Libet’s veto power, that is the inhibition of volition. Not free will but free won’t. Still, that doesn’t tell us the source of inhibition, even as an action being vetoed elicits what is subjectively experienced as consciousness. A point not to ignore is that consciousness doesn’t seem to emerge until that moment of volitionary crisis, when two aspects of self come into conflict. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue. We simply go along, following our routines and scripts, automatons of learned behavior and heuristics.

It’s easy to miss the significance of this. We have no way of pulling back the curtain of our own mind to see what, if anything, is acting behind the scenes. Even probing into the brain can’t pull us up by the bootstraps into this aspirational ideal of self-understanding. Libet simply points to the moment of consciousness as it emerges, in medias res. If nothing else, this demonstrates what we are not, whatever it may or may not say about what we are. The mystery remains (see Conal Boyce, “Recovering from Libet’s Left Turn into Veto-as-Volition“).

We are in the territory of embodied mind and extended mind, of situated cognition. We live in a world of hyper-objects that are cast as shadows by collective hyper-subjectivity, a reminder of other modes of being (such as what Timothy Morton calls entangledness: “Knowing more about hyperobjects is knowing more about how we are hopelessly fastened to them.”), modes of being that if not acknowledged become demonic as forces of nature (e.g., climate change). We are immersed, not standing outside peering in. Some of this is discussed by Patrick Grim in his lecture “Thinking Body and Extended Mind”, as part of The Great Courses’ Mind-Body Series:

“The core of [J.J.] Gibson’s theory of perception is that we don’t perceive objects and don’t operate cognitively in terms of representations. What we perceive, what any animal perceives, are what Gibson terms affordances.

“Squirrels don’t see trees, represent them internally, and calculate how to climb them. What they see is something more immediate and more action-oriented than that. They see a way up. That way up, the thing Gibson says they really see, isn’t an object, but an affordance.

“We don’t see a door hinge to the right, a knob, and calculate that we can get out of the room by turning the knob. We see something much more immediate and much more action-oriented than that. We see a way out. That way out isn’t an object, but an affordance. For Gibson, a mind in the world operates in terms of those performances…”

Ah, a way out. That is a funny phrase, one that caught my attention in a book by Anke Snoek, Agamben’s Joyful Kafka. Although already familiar with Franz Kafka’s fiction, Snoek gave me new perspective (Kindle Locations 358-375):

“Kafka’s ideas on imprisonment, catastrophe, freedom and ways out are not as simple as they might seem on the first reading of, for example, The Trial . The short story ‘A Report to an Academy’ provides further insight into the type of freedom that Kafka had in mind. The hunting expedition of the Hagenbeck Company captured an ape. To train him, they put him in a very small cage on the company’s steamboat, a cage that was too low for him to stand up and too small for him to sit down. At the same time the sailors tormented him. The ape realizes that if he wants to live he has to find a way out. But he does not contrast his distressing situation with freedom: ‘No, it was not freedom I wanted. Just a way out; to the right, to the left, wherever ; I made no other demands ’. 24 The way out is not directed so much to a specific goal, i.e. freedom or return, but is simply a way out.”

This relates to Giorgio Agamben’s notion of ‘gesture’. A gesture is not freedom but a confounding of systems of power and oppression. It’s important to be reminded that, according to Julian Jaynes, post-bicameral consciousness is not only the ground of individualism but authoritarianism as well. Once humans were shook loose from the bicameral mind, new systems of control came to the fore, both in controlling others and controlling the self.

This brings us back to what is doing the controlling. I’d suggest that the divine voices that once directed Bronze Age humans still direct us. The difference is that we internalized them and, in the fashion of Stockholm Syndrome, came to identify with one of our captors, a singular and monolithic egoic tyrant who rules the seat of our soul — that is to say we have been possessed and enthralled ever since. We aren’t free and can’t hope to be free, at least not on the terms of the demiurgic ego-mind. The best we can do is offer a gesture or rather become a gesture, the closest approximation to Libet’s veto power.

Maybe the only way to become truly aware of the self is by becoming aware of the world that surrounds us. The kind of culture and language, social order and environmental conditions, lifeworld and mazeway, reality tunnel and ideology —- however you wish to describe the world we are thrown into by circumstances of inheritance and birth — shapes who we are and how we think, what choices we perceive and how we act. As with the ant, we live moment to moment, not seeing the trajectory of our path from where we came from to where we are going. We are like the river defined by the contours of the land, meandering this way and that, damned up here and flowing over that way, but always heading in a particular direction.

Rather than simplifying down the human to the manageable size of ant-like, maybe this viewpoint has ended up revealing how complex we are in our immensity — far beyond isolated bodies and individual egos. The negative space between confining boundaries is not who we are. Instead, as water is shaped by what contains and directs it, we are the world around us; and as the water seeps into the earth, we are intimately a part of it and embedded within it. This doesn’t make us lesser but greater. The functioning of an airport is no less impressive than the building of a pyramid. Be amazed that we make it seem so simple in our mindlessly working together, somehow getting to where we are going.

* * *

Related Posts:

“Beyond that, there is only awe.”
Edge of the Depths
On Being Strange
Dark Matter of the Mind
Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature
Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond
The Psychology and Anthropology of Consciousness
Reading Voices Into Our Minds
Lock Without a Key
“How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.”
Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation
Making Gods, Making Individuals
Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral
Music and Dance on the Mind
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
Individualism and Isolation
Incentives of Individualism

Health From Generation To Generation

Traveling around the world, Weston A. Price visited numerous traditional communities. Some of them hunter-gatherers and others agricultural, including some rural communities in Europe. This was earlier last century when industrialization had yet to take hold in most places, a very different time in terms of diet, even in the Western world.

What he found was how healthy these people were, whether they consumed more or less meat, dairy or not — although none were vegetarian (the typical pre-agricultural diet was about 1/3 to 2/3 animal products, often a large part of it saturated fat). The commonality is that they ate nutrient-dense foods, much of it raw, fermented, or prepared traditionally (the singlemost nutrient-dense food is organ meats). As a dentist, the first thing Price looked for was dental health. A common feature of these traditional societies was well-developed jaws and bone structure, straight uncrowded teeth, few cavities facial symmetry, etc. These people never saw a dentist or orthodontist, didn’t brush or floss, and yet their teeth were in excellent condition into old age.

This obviously was not the case with Price’s own American patients that didn’t follow a traditional diet and lifestyle. And when he visited prisons, he found that bone development and dental health was far worse, as indicators of worse general health and by implication worse neurocognitive health (on a related note, testing has shown that prisoners have higher rates of lead toxicity, which harms health in diverse ways). Between malnutrition and toxicity, it is unsurprising that there are so many mentally ill people housed in prisons, especially after psychiatric institutions were closed down.

Another early figure in researching diet and health was Francis M. Pottenger Jr, an American doctor. While working as a full-time assistant at a sanatorium, he did a study on cats. He fed some cats a raw food diet, some a cooked food diet, and another group got some of both. He also observed that the cooked food diet caused developmental problems of bone and dental structure. The results were worse than that, though. For the cats fed cooked food, the health of the next generation declined even further. By the third generation, they didn’t reach adulthood. There was no generation after that.

I was reading about this at work. In my normal excitement about learning something new, I shared this info with a coworker, a guy who has some interest in health but is a conventional thinker. He immediately looked for reasons for why it couldn’t be true, such as claiming that the generations of cats kept as pets disproves Pottenger’s observations. Otherwise, so the argument goes, domestic cats would presumably have gone extinct by now.

That was easy to counter, considering most pets are born strays who ate raw food or born to parents who were strays. As for purebred cats, I’m sure breeders have already figured out that a certain amount of raw food (or supplementation of enzymes, microbes, etc that normally would be found in raw food) is necessary for long term feline health. Like processed human food, processed pet food is heavily fortified with added nutrients, which likely counteracts some of the negative consequences to a cooked food diet. Pottenger’s cats weren’t eating fortified cooked food, but neither were the cats fed raw food getting any extra nutrients.

The thing is that prior to industrialization food was never fortified. All the nutrients humans (and cats) needed to not only survive but thrive was available in a traditional/natural diet. The fact that we have to fortify foods and take multivitamins is evidence of something severely wrong with the modern, industrialized food system. But that only lessens the health problems slightly. As with Pottenger’s cats, even the cats on a cooked food diet who had some raw food added didn’t avoid severely decreased health. Considering the emerging health crisis, the same appears to be true of humans.

The danger we face is that the effects are cumulative across the generations, the further we get from a traditional diet. We are only now a few generations into the modern Western diet. Most humans were still consuming raw milk and other traditional foods not that long ago. Earlier last century, the majority of Americans were rural and had access to fresh organic food from gardens and farms, including raw milk from pastured cows and fertile eggs from pastured chickens (pastured meaning high in omega-3s).

Even living in a large city, one of my grandfathers kept rabbits and chickens for much of his life and kept a garden into his old age. That means my mother was raised with quite a bit of healthy food, as was my father living in a small town surrounded by farms. My brothers and I are the first generation in our family to eat a fully modern industrialized diet from childhood. And indeed, we have more mental/neurocognitive health problems than the generations before. I had a debilitating learning disorder diagnosed in elementary school and severe depression clearly showing in 7th grade, one brother had stuttering and anxiety attacks early on, and my oldest brother had severe allergies in childhood that went untreated for years and since then has had a host of ailments (also, at least one of my brothers and I have suspected undiagnosed Asperger’s or something like that, but such conditions weren’t being diagnosed when we were in school). One thing to keep in mind is that my brothers and I are members of the generation that received one of the highest dosages of lead toxicity in childhood, prior to environmental regulations limiting lead pollution; and research has directly and strongly correlated that to higher rates of criminality, suicide, homicide, aggressive behavior, impulse control problems, lowered IQ, and stunted neurocognitive development (also many physical health conditions).

The trend of decline seems to be continuing. My nieces and nephews eat almost nothing but heavily processed foods, way more than my brothers and I had in our own childhoods, and the produce they do eat is mostly from nutrient-depleted soil, along with being filled with farm chemicals and hormones — all of this having continuously worsened these past decades. They are constantly sick (often every few weeks) and, even though still in grade school, all have multiple conditions such as: Asperger’s, learning disorder, obsessive-compulsion, failure to thrive, asthma, joint pain, etc.

If sugar was heroin, my nephew could be fairly called a junky (regularly devouring bags of candy and on more than one occasion eating a plain bowl of sugar; one step short of snorting powdered sugar and mainlining high fructose corn syrup). And in making these observations, I speak from decades of experience as a junkfood junky, most of all a sugar addict, though never quite to the same extreme. My nieces too have a tremendous intake of sugar and simple carbs, as their families’ vegetarianism doesn’t emphasize vegetables (since going on the paleo diet, I’ve been eating more organic nutrient-dense vegetables and other wholesome foods than my brothers and their families combined) — yet their diet fits well into the Standard American Diet (SAD) and, as the USDA suggests, they get plenty of grains. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or all of them already has pre-diabetes and likely will get diabetes before long, as is becoming common in their generation. The body simply can only take so much harm. I know the damage done to my own body and mind from growing up in this sick society and I hate to see even worse happening to the generations following.

To emphasize this point, the testing of newborn babies in the United States shows that they’ve already accumulated on average more than 200 synthetic chemicals from within the womb; and then imagine all the further chemicals they get from the breast milk of their unhealthy mothers along with all kinds of crap in formulas and in their environments (e.g., carcinogenic fire retardants that they breathe 24/7). Lead toxicity has decreased since my own childhood and that is a good thing, but thousands of new toxins and other chemicals have replaced it. On top of that, the hormones, hormone mimics, and hormone disruptors add to dysbiosis and disease — some suggesting this is a cause of puberty’s greater variance than in past generations, either coming earlier or later depending on gender and other factors (maybe partly explaining the reversal and divergence of educational attainment for girls and boys). Added to this mix, this is the first generation of human guinea pigs to be heavily medicated from childhood, much of it medications that have been shown to permanently alter neurocognitive development.

A major factor in many modern diseases is inflammation. This has many causes from leaky gut to toxicity, the former related to diet and often contributing to the latter (in how the leaky gut allows molecules to more easily cross the gut lining and get into the bloodstream where they can freely travel throughout the body — causing autoimmune disorders, allergies, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, etc). But obesity is another main cause of inflammation. And one might note that, when the body is overloaded and not functioning optimally, excess toxins are stored in fat cells — which makes losing weight even more difficult as toxins are released back into the body, and if not flushed out causing one to feel sick and tired.

It’s not simply bad lifestyle choices. We are living in unnatural and often outright toxic conditions. Many of the symptoms that we categorize as diseases are the bodies attempt to make the best of a bad situation. All of this adds up to a dysfunctional level across society. Our healthcare system is already too expensive for most people to afford. And the largest part of public funding for healthcare is going to diabetes alone. But the saddest part is the severe decrease in quality of life, as the rate of mood and personality disorders skyrockets. It’s not just diet. For whatever reason (toxins? stress?), with greater urbanization has come greater levels of schizophrenia and psychosis. And autism, a rare condition in the past, has become highly prevalent (by the way, one of the proven effective treatments for autism is a paleo/keto diet; also effective for autoimmune conditions among much else).

It’s getting worse and worse, generation after generation. Imagine what this means in terms of epigenetics and transgenerational trauma, as nutritional deficits and microbiotic decimation accumulates, exacerbated by a society driven mad through inequality and instability, stress and anxiety. If not for nutrients added to our nutrient poor food and supplements added to our unhealthy diet, we’d already be dying out as a society and our civilization would’ve collapsed along with it (maybe similar to how some conjecture the Roman Empire weakened as lead toxicity increased in the population). Under these conditions, that children are our future may not be an affirmation of hope. Nor may these children be filled with gratitude once they’ve reached adulthood and come to realize what we did to them and the world we left them. On the other hand, we aren’t forced to embrace fatalism and cynicism. We already know what to do to turn around all of these problems. And we don’t lack the money or other resources to do what needs to be done. All that we are waiting for is public demand and political will, although that might first require our society reaching a point of existential crisis… we are getting close.

The stumbling block is that there is no profit in the ‘healthcare’ industry for advocating, promoting, incentivizing, and ensuring healthy diet and healthy conditions for a healthy population. Quite the opposite. If disease profiteering was made illegal, there would be trillions of dollars of lost profit every year. Disease is the reality of capitalist realism, a diseased economic system and social order. This collective state of sickliness has become the norm and vested interests will go to great lengths to defend the status quo. But for most who benefit from the dysfunctional and destructive system, they never have to give it much thought. When my mother brought my nephew to the doctor, she pointed out how he is constantly sick and constantly eating a poor diet. The doctor’s response was that this was ‘normal’ for kids (these days), which might be true but the doctor should be shocked and shamed by his own admission. As apathy takes hold and we lose a sense of hope, low standards fall ever lower.

We can’t rely upon the established authority figures in seeking better health for ourselves, our families, and our communities. We know what we need to do. It might not be easy to make such massive changes when everything in society is going against you. And no doubt it is more expensive to eat healthy when the unhealthiest foods (e.g., high fructose corn syrup) are being subsidized by the government. It’s no accident that buying off the dollar menu at a fast food is cheaper than cooking a healthy meal at home. Still, if you are willing to go to the effort (and it is worth the effort), a far healthier diet is possible for many within a limited budget. That is assuming you don’t live in a food desert. But even in that case, there is a movement to create community gardens in poor neighborhoods, people providing for themselves what neither the government nor economy will provide.

Revolutions always begin from the bottom up. Or failing that, the foundations of our society will crumble, as the health of our citizenry declines. It’s a decision we must make, individually and collectively. A choice between two divergent paths leading to separate possible futures. As we have so far chosen suicidal self-destruction, we remain free to choose the other option. As Thomas Paine said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

* * *

Primal Nutrition
by Ron Schmid, ND
pp. 99-100

Parallels Between Pottenger’s and Price’s Work

While the experiments of McCarrison and Pottenger show the value of raw foods in keeping animals remarkably healthy, one might wonder about the relevance to human needs. Cats are carnivores, humans omnivores, and while the animals’ natural diet is raw, humans have cooked some foods for hundreds of thousands of years. But humans, cats, and guinea pigs are all mammals. And while the human diet is omnivorous, foods of animal origin (some customarily eaten raw) have always formed a substantial and essential part of it.

Problems in cats eating cooked foods provided parallels with the human populations Weston Price studied; the cats developed the same diseases as humans eating refined foods. The deficient generation of cats developed the same dental malformations that children of people eating modernized foods developed, including narrowing of dental arches with attendant crowding of teeth, underbites and overbites, and protruding and crooked teeth. The shape of the cat’s skull and even the entire skeleton became abnormal in severe cases, with concomitant marked behavioral changes.

Price observed these same physical and behavioral changes in both native and modern cultures eating refined foods. These changes accompanied the adoption by a culture of refined foods. In native cultures eating entirely according to traditional wisdom resulted in strength of character and relative freedom from the moral problems of modern cultures. In modern cultures, studies of populations of prisons, reformatories, and homes for the mentally delayed revealed that a large majority of individuals residing there (often approaching 100 percent) had marked abnormalities of the dental arch, often with accompanying changes in the shape of the skull.

This was not coincidence; thinking is a biological process, and abnormal changes in the shape of the skull from one generation to the next can contribute to changes in brain functions and thus in behavior. The behavioral changes in deficient cats were due to changes in nutrition. This was the only variable in Pottenger’s carefully controlled experiments. As with physical degenerative changes, parallels with human populations cannot help but suggest themselves, although the specific nature of the relationship is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Human beings do not have the same nutritional requirements as cats, but whatever else each needs, there is strong empirical evidence that both need a significant amount of certain high-quality raw foods to reproduce and function efficiently.

pp. 390-393

Certain groups of these cats were fed quality, fresh, undenatured food and others were fed varying degrees of denatured and processed food, then the effects were observed over several generations. The results from the inferior diets were not so startling for the first-generation animals but markedly and progressively so in subsequent generations. From the second generation on, the cats that were fed processed and denatured diets showed increasing levels of structural deformities, birth defects, stress-driven behaviors, vulnerability to illness, allergies, reduced learning ability, and, finally, major reproductive problems. When Pottenger attempted to reverse the effects in the genetically weakened and vulnerable later-generation animals with greatly improved diet, he found it took fully four generations for the cats to return to normal.

The reflections that Pottenger’s work casts on the health issues and dietary habits of modern-day society are glaring and inescapable. […]

Pottenger’s work has shown us that progressive generations with poor dietary habits result in increasingly more vulnerable progeny and that each subsequent generation with unhealthy dietary habits results in impaired resistance to disease, increasingly poor health and vitality, impaired mental and cognitive health, and impaired capacity to reproduce. It is all part of what we are seeing in our epidemic levels of poor health and the overwhelming rates of autism, violence, attentional disorders, childhood (and adult) behavioral problems, mental illness, fertility issues, and birth defects.

Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied

There were yet more outraged upper middle class people at work last night. It’s not an isolated incident, working as I have in a parking ramp for the past two decades. I see all types and it’s not as if working class and minority people never get upset, but never quite so often or to the same degree.

This particular couple was so angry that, if it were a cartoon, steam would have been blowing out their ears. They were screaming and honking their horn. They got out of their car a couple of times. I was starting to fear violence and made sure the doors were locked to my booth. It goes without saying that I don’t normally fear for my life while cashiering.

Fortunately, several large muscular police (all of them white) showed up and set these people straight. It’s nice when the police have your back, as a fellow city government employee. It might help that I’m a white guy and so, even as working class, I get some amount of privilege. I’d probably be more worried if I wasn’t white, as there is a history of systemic racism in this town (one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country; not to mention the last time a well off white guy started a fight with a poor black guy, it was the poor black guy defending himself that the police shot — see below*).

This couple was yelling at me not just because of some abstract notion of privilege, as so much about our society promotes that sense of privilege with concrete results. No doubt they are used to telling people what to do and getting their way. It’s at such times that I’m glad I’m unionized because I have no doubt they will contact my boss and try to get me fired (this is why every worker should be a union member and every workplace should be unionized). What they don’t understand, in their privilege, is that I don’t back down from rich assholes. Then again, neither do I treat anyone differently no matter their socioeconomic class. If someone is nice to me, I’ll do my best to be nice to them. I didn’t care that they have privilege in our society, not in and of itself or not anymore than privilege in general bothers me, but I do care that they flaunted their privilege in trying to intimidate me into submission.

After the incident, I was thinking about why they were so angry. I hadn’t seen anyone that angry in a long time. Even most upper middle class white people are perfectly fine. I rarely have trouble with any customers. Still, why is it that when there is conflict it disproportionately involves those with privilege? What does privilege mean in a high inequality society such as the United States? People like this are among the few who are socially, economically, and politically secure in American society. They have few worries. Paying the 23 bucks for a lost ticket is nothing to them (filling the gas tank of their SUV would cost far more than that). But being treated like a normal person felt like a threat to their entire sense of reality. And indeed it was a threat because without entitlement their identity of superiority can’t be maintained. Probably at stake, in their minds, was the very social order and their place within it.

Few poor minorities would dare to escalate a situation to that level. That is because they have proper respect for the police showing up. This couple, however, had no concept that any and all authority figures wouldn’t automatically take their side no matter what. And they knew that no matter how much trouble they caused the police were unlikely to shoot them or arrest them, as they might do to a poor minority. I intellectually understand that. Yet what really is at the bottom of that fuming outrage? It’s such a strange thing to observe. And I don’t even take it personally. From my view, they really are no different than any other customer. As a unionized government employee, I take it all in stride because I’ve seen it all before. It’s just another day on the job.

I considered the possibility that they had a really bad day for a thousand different possible reasons. Or maybe they had been drinking. But that doesn’t really explain anything. Unhappy drunks and unhappy people in general are as common as they come. Most people, no matter what is going on in their life and no matter their state of mind, don’t have public tantrums that lead to altercations with the police. It was plain weird. I could sense how shocked, flabbergasted they were that they couldn’t get me to do what they told me to do. I do what my employer tells me to do, not what a rich asshole tells me to do. That is how capitalism works. Now if my employer were a rich asshole, that would be a different situation.

This reminds me of Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. He explains how high inequality stresses out everyone, including the rich. It creates a social condition of pervasive anxiety, divisiveness, conflict, aggressiveness, short-term thinking, etc. That last one applies here, since it wasn’t only anger but an inability to think of consequences. That couple was completely lost in the all-consuming moment of blind rage to the point of an apoplectic fit. I’d argue that their behavior was morally wrong, at least according to standards of basic humanity, but more than anything their behavior was supremely stupid. That is a point Payne makes, how as inequality worsens so does decision-making ability.

What stands out is that such relatively wealthy people would argue over such a small sum of money, as if they were poor people and I was trying to take away their last dollar. Payne explains this, in demonstrating how people feel poor and act poorly in a high inequality society, even when no poor person is involved in any given situation. The sense of class conflict and status insecurity is a shadow that looms over the lives of us all, rich and poor alike.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to inequality or rather not only to socioeconomic inequality, as there are many forms of disparity between individuals and groups. Any stressor will have similar consequences, but few stressors are likely to have much impact without one kind of inequality or another already being present. It is the differences and divides of inequality that transforms an individual stressor into large-scale and pervasive social stress. This among much else, as Payne explains, leads to the clinging of social identity — from race to politics, but often class. And that is how we come to see our neighbors and fellow citizens as potential threats, as enemy others to be fought and defeated or to go down trying.

In such a state of anxiety and fear, every incident can become a perceived existential threat. But the seeming point of contention focused upon, whether a ramp charge or a political argument, is rarely if ever the real issue. What matters most is how this cuts to the heart of identity and, in these reactionary times, turns the mind toward the reactionary — it not being all that relevant what is being reacted to. Lots of heat, little light.

* * *

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 2-4 (see earlier post)

As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flightSince an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.

* * *

*Let me note one thing, for sake of fairness.

Even with the proven history of racial bias around here, I have to admit that in my personal experience the Iowa City Police are quite professional. Blacks living here very well might have different experience than my own, of course. All I can say is that I’ve observed no police bias, racial or class, in my years as a city employee. Maybe the police are more careful these days about biases, as it does seem they’ve sought to increase diversity of officers.

They dealt with this white upper middle class couple with a calm but firm authority, effectively de-escalating the situation. But I’ve seen them do the exact same thing with a black guy in my cashier lane some years ago. In neither case, did they threaten the customer nor did they have to resort to arresting them. The police here don’t seem to look for trouble, even when the problematic individual is looking for trouble.

I wanted to give credit where it is due. The police handled the situation well. Of the times police have showed up when I was dealing with a customer, I can only think of one time where the officer in question was less than helpful. It’s nice to be able to expect a professional response from the police, considering that evidence implies that isn’t always the case with police departments in some other cities.

Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter

First there was revolution. And then there was counter-revolution. Therefore, reaction follows what it is reacting to.

This is a simple analysis and, I’d argue, overly simplistic. It is the narrative reactionaries have been telling about themselves for a couple of centuries. It is also the narrative that Mark Lilla repeats in his recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind, which is a useful survey, summary, and synthesis of modern ideological history but not essentially original in framing.

The problem is the reactionary mind is not a modern invention. Many arguments could be made about when it first emerged. For example, I’d place it firmly in the Axial Age or, better  yet, in that earliest of dark ages when the Bronze Age civilizations collapsed and the Jaynesian bicameral mind was lost.

By the time Plato came up with his authoritarian republicanism as a reaction to Athenian democracy, the reactionary mind had already been developing for some time. That was the era when, as Julian Jaynes points out, lament rang out across many populations of the silence, loss, or abandonment of the divine. Nostalgia in one of its most potent form was born.

As with Corey Robin, Mark Lilla is right to mark out nostalgia as an expression of the reactionary. But focusing too much on that can be a red herring. Robin is better than Lilla in pointing out that reactionaries can co-opt almost anything, even radical utopianism or revolution itself.

That is where my own thoughts come in. The modern reactionary mind initially took shape not after the early modern revolutionary period but during it — maybe before it, depending on when one defines the beginning of that period. The reactionary mind as a modern phenomenon was well on its way at least by the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution, although some consider the Peasants’ Revolt an incipient form of this societal shift through conflict and class war.

The point is that the French Revolution was late to the game. That reactionaries finally found their voice following that is not entirely relevant to understanding the reactionary mind and its historical development. What the French Revolution does help us with is in showing another example of how reaction arose within the revolution itself, co-opting it as happened with the American Revolution (related to the rarely acknowledged fact that the American Revolution was a precedent for what followed, including large-scale destruction and violence).

Thomas Paine demonstrates the connections well, but his example also serves to show the complex relationship of reaction to revolution. He was a radical in the American Revolution and his radicalism was profound in its democratic vision. When he was welcomed into the French National Assembly during the French Revolution, he actually sat on the right side with the moderate reformers. It was actually his radicalism for democracy that made him moderate or aligned with more moderate forces.

What Paine specifically advocated was a democratic constitution and leniency to the king, rather than violent despotism and violent vengeance. The Jacobins are called radicals but in reality they were reactionaries or at least the leadership was. They were using the same means that the monarchy had used in enforcing power and silencing opponents. So, the Jacobins, as is typical with reactionaries, wanted to create a new and improved version of the old order by ensuring a rigid hierarchy remained. They weren’t interested in democracy, that is for sure.

That is what Mark Lilla misses. The French reactionaries, like the American reactionaries, took over the revolution through political coup — and this happened during the revolution itself, not afterwards. In France, it happened by the Jacobins seizing power. But in the United States, the Federalists did it through an ironically unconstitutional Constitutional Convention and then afterward they crushed the ongoing revolution.

The relationship between revolution and reaction is entangled. If this isn’t understood, it is likely that the reactionary mind itself can’t be understood. This creates a trap for the mind, in not understanding history we dangerously don’t understand ourselves.

Reactionaries aren’t limited to those other people, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”. The potential for reaction exists within all of us. A surprising number of Marxists, socialists, communists, and anarchists fell under the sway of early 20th century fascism. The same pattern is seen today with left-wingers who almost unconsciously become fascinated with or drawn toward reactionary thought, often with the rationalization of studying the enemy but it is clear with some that it is more than mere curiosity. The reactionary mind is dangerous for the very reason we see it as something other.

The confusion in all of this is that the reactionary mind is chameleon-like. I’ve come to call them Faceless Men, based on Game of Thrones. Reactionaries rarely present themselves as reactionaries. That means that anyone, under the right conditions, can get pulled into the mindset without realizing it. Reaction is simply an expression of fear an anxiety, once it fully takes hold. The human mind gets weird under high levels of stress (Keith Payne examines one angle on this by way of inequality, in his book The Broken Ladder). It really is that simple.

We need to develop intellectual, ideological, and psychological defenses against the reactionary mind. None of us are born with an immunity. But before we can do that, we have to learn how to identify the pattern of thought and behavior, to discern its incipient forms and the development that follows, to recognize the conditions and causes that make it possible.

This leads to me to another thought. Philip K. Dick has the notion of God in the Gutter. Let me decontextualize it from the monotheistic tradition of deus absconditus. Any powerful ‘god’ that rules over us, over our minds our society, such a ‘god’ is always hidden. And its ability to remain hidden is what I call symbolic conflation, a method of deception, obfuscation, and most importantly misdirection. That is the source of its power. That is also what makes it hard to analyze. Someone like Mark Lilla is taking the reactionary mind at face value, how it presents itself. That is problematic for obvious reasons. Corey Robin is more effective in peeling away the mask to see what is behind.

That is what we all need to be doing in these reactionary times. Lets start rummaging around in the gutter, looking below our normal line of vision, looking through the garbage or what appears to be garbage. But let’s do so with great care.

Unlabeled Metaphors

At the blog Against the Lie, Eric Huebeck had an interesting post, How religious esotericism is really just a form of lying.

I’m not sure what I think about his views on esotericism, as Lynne Kelly argues that mnemonic practices (that could be interpreted as esotericism) were how oral cultures maintained vast stores of complex knowledge across generations, centuries, and sometimes millennia. But ignoring that, here is the passage that was most relevant to my own views on related matters:

“As an additional point, consider the way in which the communication patterns of schizophrenic persons are characterized by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, in their paper, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”: “The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors” […]

“By endorsing the use of such “unlabeled metaphors” in the Old Testament by claiming that God “speaks” through them, Paul is effectively promoting communication that appears to be schizophrenic in nature. And that in turn means that Paul—and, presumably, the other authors of the New Testament as well—would have seen no reason to avoid the use of “unlabeled metaphors” in their own writings—which means that they would have been making no effort to avoid communicating in ways that appear to be schizophrenic in nature.”

I’ve never come across that notion of “unlabeled metaphors”, in reference to schizophrenia or anything else. Yet the general idea is familiar. To a contrary position, some argue that metaphors are built into our neurocognitive structure and inevitably go unlabeled for the most part. Metaphor, after all, frames our entire sense of identity and reality. It’s not limited to religion, propaganda, or whatever. And it is more complicated when considering metonymy, as discussed by Lewis Hyde.

Maybe the issue here is whether or not these unlabeled metaphors are being used intentionally for deceptive purposes. That is an issue I cover in my numerous discussions of my own pet theory about symbolic conflation. The thing with religion that makes it somewhat unique is the degree that people mistake their beliefs for reality, often on the basis of unlabeled and unconscious metaphors. What we are actually conscious of is a complicated issue considering the human capacity for split consciousness and dissociation.

Esotericism doesn’t necessarily mean the superficial meaning is false. Sometimes, the purpose is looking at multiple kinds or levels of truth. Even if one takes this as bullshit, many hold this double vision with utter sincerity. This returns us to the territory of Harry G. Frankfurt, truth vs false as differentiated from sincerity vs bullshit. When this differentiation is confused, much confusion follows. But the confusion itself is central in one thing being taken for another. That is the trouble the schizophrenic runs into, as do we all to varying degrees.

Voices Crazy and Silenced

As has been in the news, ABC cancelled the revamped tv show Roseanne. It was essentially the firing of the lead actress, Roseanne Barr, for a racist tweet. If it were only so easy to fire the ruling elite, cretinous cronyists that they are, for things as bad and far worse. It’s a sign of the times that a mad man is the head of state who brings out the craziness in supporters and detractors alike.

Some people who know Barr have pointed out that she has dealt with severe mental illness for decades, severe in the sense of including but not limited to split personality. But that is background info. And as many would point out in response, white people are always being given that excuse whenever they do something horrible, even if in this case it is a genuine explanation for her wildly inconsistent ideological views and amazing lack of impulse control.

As far as that goes, the entire United States at present is experiencing a plague of mental illness — with rising rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide, mass violence, etc. This is the result of the highest levels of social, political, and economic inequality seen in world history. This has been proven as a major factor in societal stress and breakdown (see Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level, Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder, and Walter Scheidell’s The Great Leveller). American society itself is going insane, the entire society across the political spectrum and in both parties.

That isn’t something to be dismissed. We’ll be seeing more of this kind of thing. It will get worse and worse, until finally hitting a breaking point. That isn’t an excuse for the misbehavior of white privilege or class privilege. It’s an explanation and, more importantly, a warning. Even the rich, powerful, and famous are going off the deep end. And we are beginning to see the elite turn on each other, one of the last signs before precipitous collapse or else authoritarian takeover. Prepare yourself. It ain’t gonna be pretty.

None of that is precisely the main point I want to make. It’s been known for a long time that Roseanne Barr was mentally unstable. Besides, she has years of repeated outspoken and public bigotry. What is worrisome is that, as ABC management had to have already known this, we are forced to assume that they made an economic bet that the short term profit of exploiting a crazy bigot would win over the possibility of being held to account for long term consequences. They lost that bet and so are now trying to cut their losses. But within the dominant system, it seemed like an economically rational decision because much of Barr’s past bigotry targeted expendable scapegoats, Arabs and Palestinians, who were socially acceptable and politically correct.

Anyway, Barr’s bigotry is small time stuff, in and of itself not being of great concern to a media giant. ABC was willing to promote a bigot like Barr for the same reason the corporate (and corporatist) media gave so much free airtime to Donald Trump as presidential candidate. It was the profitable thing to do at the time and, within a plutocratic system, profit and power go hand in hand which has been exacerbated as big biz media became ever bigger with consolidation (along with the parent companies of media increasingly tied to big energy and the military-industrial complex). It is also why corporate media regularly promotes even greater evils by beating the drum for wars of aggression, pushing neo-imperialist propaganda, and giving cover for war crimes — no matter how many millions of innocent people are harmed and traumatized, dislocated and killed. Follow the money.

Now we are getting to the nub of the problem. Corporations these past years have been quick to use censorship to shut down alternative media and outside voices, both left and right, with claims of protecting Americans from fake news, Russian trolls, or whatever other rationalization they invent (not to say there aren’t real threats to democracy, but the greatest threat within capitalist realism is big biz itself). The victims of this censorship onslaught aren’t only crazy bigots, reactionary trolls, and such for also included have been major media personalities and radical critics such as Jimmy Dore. Those outside of the ruling establishment have lost access to advertising dollars on Youtube, been eliminated from Google search results, had accounts suspended on Facebook and Twitter, etc. This is combined with corporate media shutting down comments sections (and public media has become about as corporate as the rest).

As public opinion further sides with alternative media views, public opinion and alternative media are further silenced. The ruling elite are losing control of the narrative. But as they try to aggressively regain and oppressively enforce control, they will ever more lose control. It is the death spiral of a social order that has gone out of control. More people will feel more silenced, more powerless, more disenfranchised, and more frustrated. And with every person who is silenced and unheard, dismissed and ignored, we move closer to greater public unrest, social disruption, and tumultuous change. In playing this game, the capitalist class might find that they have slit their own throats. We are already so close to boiling point and it won’t take much to finally boil over. And the process will be messy.

Rich, privileged, crazy assholes like Barr and Trump are the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t seen full-on crazy yet. The descent into madness is coming. Buckle up!

As always, I should add that I’m not advocating revolution. My lifelong inclination has been toward pansy liberalism in wondering why can’t we all just get along and in hoping that democratic reform from within the system would work out in the end. But the ruling elite and cynical hacks, mindless partisans and lesser-evil voters refused to go the easy way. They refused to listen to the voices of moderation and reason. Now, along with the rest of us, they will suffer the consequences of the decades-long decline into corruption, failure, and injustice. What the American Empire did to others will be done to us. What the comfortable classes did to the poor, whites to non-whites, Christians to non-Christians will be returned in kind. The consequences can be delayed for a while, but not denied. Corporate media implementing perception and opinion management won’t save the social order from the establishment’s own self-destructively suicidal tendencies.

The crazies will get crazier, as will we all in losing our collective bearings. It is what it is. At this point, it doesn’t matter what any of us wants or hopes for. Societies change not because of ideological schemes and utopian dreams but, first and foremost, because the old order stops functioning. We are going to have to pass through dark times to see what, if anything, is on the other side of the storm.