The World Is Ending Again!

“Whether the response is lashing out, turning inward, tuning out, or giving up, Americans are becoming increasingly paralyzed by disagreement, disillusionment, and despair. Indeed, many Americans seem to agree these days on only one thing: This is the worst of times.”

R. Putnam & S.R. Garett, The Upswing (excerpt)

Along with a revised edition of the classic Bowling Alone, a new book has come out by Robert Putnam. With his new work, Shaylyn Romney Garrett joins him as co-author. The title is The Upswing with the accompanying subtitle of “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” The basic premise appears to be that the mood at present resonates with the complaints and fears of an earlier era when the mood soured in the decades following the Civil War. As Americans headed into the next century, many voices lamented the end of an age, as if a new age would not follow (John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine).

Based on their generations theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe would give a simple response. This pattern has repeated many times over. But living memory is so short. In fact, it’s the loss of living memory of the last cycle that drives it to swing back around again. The old is made new again, as if a foreign land never seen before. That is why it requires an historical awareness to realize we’ve been here before and what to expect as we move into the next phase. Even as we are in the Crisis that turns the wheel of the Fourth Turning, something else is emerging upon which different social institutions and collective identities will be built. 

This cyclical view of humanity and society is the most ancient of understandings. But in modernity we have falsely come to believe that there is endless linear progress into the unknown and unpredictable. That is the empty pride of modern Western civilization, that we are unique, that we have broken the chains of the past. Maybe not. Jeremiads of moral panic about decadence and decline usually presage moral revivals and rebirth (Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920). That has been the pattern, so some argue, for centuries now. Is there a reason to think this time will be different?

In every generation that reaches this point in the cycle, there are those who confidently declare this time will be different, that this time it will be permanent, that further change is now impossible, that further innovation has ended, that the vitalizing force of society has been lost, that the younger generations aren’t up to the task, maybe even that we’ve entered the end times. Yet, so far, these predictions have been disproven over and over again. We act out what we suppress from awareness. So the more we deny the reality of cycles the more we become trapped in them. Our historical amnesia dooms us to falling back into patterns we don’t see.

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‘The Upswing’ Review: Bowling Alone No More?
by Yuval Levin

“Drawing ingeniously on a vast array of data—economic, political, cultural, social and more—Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett persuasively demonstrate that Gilded Age America suffered from civic and social strains remarkably similar to our own. Then they explore how, from the final years of the 19th century until the end of the 1950s, an extraordinary range of forces in our national life, in their words, “shaped an America that was more equal, less contentious, more connected, and more conscious of shared values.” Finally they consider why, all of a sudden and without clear warning, “the diverse streams simultaneously reversed direction, and since the 1960s America has become steadily less equal, more polarized, more fragmented, and more individualistic.” 

“They chart this path from “I” to “we” and back again to “I” across essentially every facet of the American experience. Drawing some lessons from the Progressive Era, broadly understood, they suggest that a return toward a culture of “we” would need to involve a restoration of civic ambition directed toward pragmatic, concrete, incremental changes. That means building new institutions to address new problems, and it means paving paths from shared frustrations toward accommodations and reforms that could endure. It means devoting time to local service organizations and religious and professional groups, and talking less about how things got so bad and more about how to make them better where we are. It means fighting corruption and combating despair. And it means helping a rising generation think about its future, rather than drowning in debates about past feuds and divisions. 

“But the key, for Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett, is to move from broad categories of action like these to specific instances of practical organization and engagement. This is why the example of America in the first half of the 20th century can be so powerful. It is a positive answer to the question that threatens to debilitate anyone looking to turn things around in contemporary America: Is revival even possible? The authors make a strong case that a recovery of solidarity is achievable.”

Rate of Moral Panic
Technological Fears and Media Panics
The Crisis of Identity
The Disease of Nostalgia
Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration
Old Debates Forgotten

Disunited States of Outrage

Liberalism, by historical definition, has meant generosity — not only generosity of money and charity, of public welfare and the public good but more importantly the generosity of spirit. This has expressed an attitude of openness and inclusion, an equal treatment of all, including perceived others and outsiders along with those perceived as different or not fitting in: minorities, immigrants, and the poor; the underprivileged, outcasts, and the sick; the differently abled, neurotypical, and gender nonconforming; etc. That is the noble ideal that makes liberals feel all warm and fuzzy. On this basis, I’ve been sharply critical of the liberal class, aligned as it is with the DNC elite, for lack of understanding, empathy, and compassion toward those they perceive as their ideological enemies and their social inferiors. It’s an us-versus-them groupthink with a patina of liberalish rhetoric. Ideals, when betrayed, lead to cynicism and that is what we now have.

Then again, the liberal class is an odd term in reference to the academics, professionals, investors, business owners, and politicians who are economically comfortable or even wealthy. Many in the upper classes are not necessarily liberal. Meanwhile, the vast majority of self-identified liberals and those holding liberal views are lower class with many of them being downright poor. The liberal class, as an identity, not only excludes conservatives but also most liberals. This is maybe how liberalism has gotten a bad name and become a slur. Of course, there is an equivalent conservative class that silences, ignores, and dismisses most conservatives (and liberals) perceived as below them. The fact of the matter is class war has its own ideology that is independent of stereotypes of left versus right. Still, for a left-liberal, it’s the bad behavior of supposed ‘liberals’ that hits one in the gut, in how it undermines the entire moral vision of liberalism.

There are liberals who are offended when someone uses the same kind of criticism against vegans, feminists, etc that they themselves so carelessly lob against those on the right. They find it easy to identity with the members of their in-group while not taking seriously the suffering and grievances of those perceived as outsiders, as if everyone else deserves what they get. Sadly, many respectable Democratic partisans blame poor whites for the Donald Trump presidency and then portray them as a caricature of white trash, although interestingly the political right often goes along with this same rhetorical framing conflating class and ideology. The truth is most of Trump voters are middle class, not even working class and certainly not poor. Most poor Americans, white or otherwise, simply don’t vote or participate in politics and activism. The ignorance about the poor and indifference toward them is sad, sometimes downright infuriating.

There are those of us on the principled political left — Jimmy Dore, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader, etc — who are used to being the punching bags of liberals (or what goes for liberal within corporatist politics), just as we are intimately familiar with the ire of the political right. We take our bruises and punch back. I’m one of the first to defend the poor of all races, by looking at the demographic data and pointing to the history of class war, as there is a lot more going on here that has brought us to this point. Then again, I’m one of those crazy left-wingers who gets why some otherwise good people would vote for a less-than-good demagogue and charlatan like Donald Trump, similar to why some otherwise good people would vote for corrupt elites like Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden. I know the attraction of lesser evil voting. To an even greater extent, I grasp the gut-level frustration that led to some to vote for Trump as an act of pure desperation, even as they admitted he was a corrupt swamp creature, for they saw him as a bully who would fight the other bullies or else blow the whole thig up. Then there are those on the other side who throw their lot in with the Clinton Democrats as what they think of as a last stand against authoritarianism — I get that as well.

I understand and empathize. Everyone has their reasons. I don’t want to hate upon anyone, to condemn them for making imperfect choices in an oppressive system that ensures all options allowed are bad and worse still. I’m not in a position to stand in judgment. I’ve felt the same frustration and anger, sometimes a naked sense of threat as authoritarianism digs its claws deeper into American society. Yet my offering of fellow feeling is not always returned. Such is the way of compassion in a world darkened by fear and anxiety, hatred and outrage. People are quick to see enemies even in potential friends and allies. Even familial bond is no guarantee of mutal understanding, much less kindness and forgiveness.

One person in my family is a poor white guy on disability who takes care of his sick father. He is libertarian-minded, lives in a conservative state, and probably supports Trump. He unfriended me on Facebook because I said something positive about the Black Lives Matters protests. It’s not as if I advocated violence, destruction, or anarchy; and I made clear that my position was as a proponent of free speech in the face of authoritarian force that wishes to take that right away. Another family member is similar except in being middle class. He has been even more vocally libertarian in the past, and yet recently he advocated a violent police state response to ending the same protests, in arguing he’d rather have authoritarianism than anarchy. What goes for libertarianism is about as uninspiring as what often gets portrayed as liberalism. Oppressed Americans like me, according to other oppressed Americans, have become the enemy to be defeated at all costs in order to fight oppression — I’m not sure how that is supposed to work exactly. As family, I know these two people fairly well and we share many interests. They are good people who care about their loved ones and communities. But their minds have been shut down and their hearts grown cold. It is the saddest thing I’ve experienced in a long time, as it is personal.

This civil conflict is taken as total war where one side must win and the other side eliminated. Yet if the police treated them and their loved ones in a similar oppressive fashion, they’d likely be advocating terrorism, revolution, and overthrowing the government while proclaiming ‘liberty’. But as long as those other people (minorities, immigrants, poor urbanites, etc) elsewhere are being oppressed, not them and their own, it is perfectly fine as those other people had it coming. Apparently, to their fearful mindset, it is as if there is a limited supply of moral concern with any compassion and kindness offered to blacks or leftists being a direct attack on whites and right-wingers. Equality, fairness, and justice is assumed as an impossibility. But to my mind, this self-enforced division of the citizenry is how oppressive rule is maintained. These right-wing family members, both living in a rural conservative state, don’t understand that they share the same basic problems of oppressive class war as do urban blacks, working class liberals, etc. Along with Democratic voters I know who are also family members, if my Trump-supporting family could get past the media narratives and propagandistic rhetoric, they would discover they have common grievances with most other Americans across various perceived divides. They’d come to realize they aren’t alone and isolated. If this can’t happen among family, what hope is there to be found in the greater society?

This same outrage has pulled other individuals in my family toward supporting Trump, including some who didn’t vote for him last time in cleaving to their identity as old school Republicans. The Cold War rhetoric of commie fear-mongering has worked them up into a state of terror, as if a Biden presidency will unleash a Stalinist takeover, not to mention the postmodern neo-Marxism and cultural Bolshevism. Some of these otherwise moderate conservatives are rightfully feeling mad about the corporate media shut down of the Hunter Biden scandal, although no more pissed off than us left-wingers who have received similar or worse treatment over the years and decades. A total lockdown of corporate media has kept left-wingers silenced for generations. But these right-wingers take this silence as a sign that we freedom-loving leftists don’t exist or don’t matter, instead taking the corporate whores among the Clinton Democrats as representative of the political left — a truly sad state of affairs.

Sure, the DNC has its tentacles in the corporate media, as does the GOP. Yet as Fox News might tell part of the truth about Hunter Biden, they are just as quick to lie to their viewers about the same kind of corruption and legalized bribery in the Trump family. The propaganda model of media is not a new phenomenon, as many left-wingers have been protesting it for a very long time. But to many right-wingers, particularly among the white middle class, it’s as if they are only now discovering that the corporate media serves a corporatist power structure that doesn’t give a fuck about truth or about the average American. They are being red-pilled but lack any historical context to realize this is an ongoing pattern of censorship that, in many ways, was far worse during the Cold War. My God! Just look at the Operation Mockingbird in the 1970s and Otto Reich’s white propaganda in the 1980s.

But to the outraged mind, whatever is the most recent outrage is the worst outrage that has ever happened. Outrage eclipses any greater awareness in enclosing the mind a mystifying fog of historical amnesia, which is the entire reason the ruling elite use the corporate media to incite outrage in the first place. Republicans and Trump supporters, mostly white and middle class, are shocked to realize that they are treated with the same propaganda and censorship as everyone else, that are treated as equal to poor minorities — God forbid! It is disturbing to find out that one’s racial and class privilege doesn’t guarantee special treatment, after all. They have no sense of the historical oppression so many other Americans have suffered for generations and centuries. The censorship in the corporate media pales in comparison to the censorship they’ve internalized in their own minds. Instead of it being a point of solidarity among the oppressed, competing victim identities are played against each other, as is the purpose of divide and conquer. Outrage shuts down empathy and disempowers the public.

Despite what they’ve been told by the right-wing corporate media, these right-wingers aren’t the first to feel frustration toward oppressive injustice and censorship. Nice to meet you, comrade! Welcome to the reality many of us have been living in for our entire lives! I felt that frustration about bipartisan attacks on Ralph Nader in 2000. The corporate media shut him out back then and, ever since, has continued to silence candidates that are third party and independent. If you think right-libertarians have a tough time competing in the duopoly of a one-party state, try being a left-winger like a Green supporter. Right-libertarians at least have powerful plutocrats like the Koch family funding them. To return to the 2000 election, consider how bizarre and disheartening it is that both parties and all of the corpoate media, from Fox News to MSNBC, refused to report on the stolen election, even though the data shows that Democrats won both the popular vote and the electoral college. The Supreme Court defied all pretenses of democracy and simply appointed George W. Bush as the supreme leader. The Democrats submitted to this power play, since the transpartisan ruling elite doesn’t care all that much about which party wins as long as the system itself maintains an illusion of legitimacy, thus allowing bipartisan backroom deals to continue in defense of coporatocracy and plutocracy. The only unforgivable sin of Donald Trump is his having destroyed that legitimacy and shown it to be the fraud it always was.

About protests, look back to the anti-war movement under the Bush regime. It was the single largest protest movement in the history of the United States and the world, having united multiple ideological groups on the right and left, not to mention including the citizens of numerous countries joining in their own protests against American imperialism. Unlike the Vietnam War that required many years of failure before public opposition formed, protests against the Iraq War were organized at a large-scale before the war even began. Most Americans opposed the war right from the start, but that didn’t stop the corporate media from being unified in their attack o peace activists while beating the war drums in service to the military-industrial complex. Many of the people now acting so outraged were perfectly fine with the workings of that propaganda machine. Likewise, there was more recent bipartisan support from the corporate media in spinning state propaganda by falsely reporting on Syrian gas attacks that blamed the government, despite the evidence pointing to other actors. None of the corporate media has ever admitted to this propaganda, much less apologized for being willfully wrong, and so most Americans remain ignorant.

Do you want to feel outrage? There is no lack of reasons. Let’s not be selective in our outrage by only getting worked up when we are personally harmed and our own views suppressed. This country was built on outrage and has been continuously fueled by outrage. There is a reason or rather many reasons Americans have been in a near continuous state of protest and revolt for centuries. There is plenty to be outraged about and there always has been. But we shouldn’t let outrage darken our minds in lashing out against fellow Americans, against even our own neighbors and family. Outrage without compassion will rot the soul and destroy the public good. We need to deal with our own damage, not continually projecting it out onto the world with trauma leading to ever more trauma, with each generation of victims becoming victimizers. Arrogance, haughtiness, and righteousness, makes us vulnerable to manipulation. We aren’t right-wingers and left-wingers, Democrats and Republicans. We are all Americans. We are all human. Our fate is shared but so is, if we choose, our sense of hope and promise.

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Whiteness is Absence, is Loss and Death

Whiteness is an odd thing. It is one of those social constructs that falls apart under any significant degree of scrutiny. Yet few of us pale-skinned descendants of Europeans know how to not think of ourselves as white, as the enculturation of white identity is so deeply embedded within our collective psyche and throughout all of society around us. Such racial ideology frames and shapes everything else, ever lurking in the background even when not acknowledged.

It’s become a symbolic proxy for so much else. Racial differences and divides have become our way of talking about class, economic oppression, housing segregation, capitalist realism, the prison state, and on and on. It’s related to how talk of inequality of wealth so often hides the deeper inequalities of power, privilege, resources, and opportunities; of pollution, lead toxicity, underfunded schools, and loss of green spaces; et cetera.

The thing is white politics of identity and victimhood doesn’t really even benefit most whites. It is a cheap salve and band-aid placed over a wound that cut to the bone and left nerves raw. Whiteness is a sad compensation for all that was lost: ethnic culture, regional identity, close communities, extended kinship, rooted sense of place, the commons, and so much else. No wonder so many whites are on edge, a sense of free-floating anxiety about their place in the world.

The takeover of whiteness has happened slow enough for most people not to notice while being rapid enough to cause a radical transformation of society and civilization. Prior to the world war era, most people didn’t identify with a race or even with a nationality. The sense of self was defined by local experience, relationships, and commitments. That previous world barely lingers in living memory, but is quickly fading.

Most American whites became urbanized a little over a century ago. Even then, much of the rural experience held on in small towns and ethnic enclaves. The Boomer and Silent generations were the last to have a significant number of people to experience those disappearing traces of traditional culture, however faint they were already becoming. With the generations following, the loss is becoming so complete as to become collective amnesia.

My father is a young Silent and, even though his parents came from different parts of the country, he spent most of his early life in a single small town. He wasn’t surrounded by kin beyond his immediate family, but he did have the comfort of being surrounded by a community of people who themselves were surrounded by a web of extended families. That small town has since been decimated and no longer functions as a healthy community, instead having fallen into poverty and decay.

My mother, a first wave Boomer, had a much stronger experience of those old ties. She was born and raised a short distance from where generations of her family had lived. She spent her entire childhood and youth in a single house, in never having moved until college, with extended family all around her, a grandmother and uncle next door along with other uncles, aunts, and cousins in the neighborhood. Her siblings and cousins were her main playmates.

Her ancestors began coming to this sub-region of Kentuckiana (Central-Eastern Kentucky and Southern Indiana) shortly after the American Revolution. The first line of the family came in 1790 to fight Indians. Soon after, other lines of her family showed up in the area. As a young girl, she regularly visited a village where her family lived in the 1800s and where her grandfather had been born, a village that had been turned into a state park with historical re-enactors. Her childhood was filled with elders telling stories about her Kentuckiana ancestral homeland.

This older identity was beginning to erode with industrialization, but some of her family still remains in that area. Some of my father’s family also remains in the small town he left. So, both have hometowns to return to where family will greet and welcome them, including family reunions, but this inheritance isn’t likely to last much longer. My parents never gave my brothers and I the same chance to experience such deep-rooted belonging of family, community, and place.

By the time I graduated from high school, we had lived in four different states in multiple regions of the country. And after graduation, I wandered around between various states before finally settling down. Now the next generation is on the scene. I have two nieces and a nephew living somewhat nearby, if not as close as with my mother’s extended family. This new generation of young kids are all Generation Z or whatever one wants to call them.

If asked, I’m not sure most in the younger generations would have a strong sense of identity with either family or place. In my upbringing, I gained some vague semblance of being ‘Midwestern’, but with mass media so ruling the modern mind now I’m not sure that even such amorphous regional identities retain much hold over the public imagination. What’s replaced the local and trans-local are even more broadly generalized identities of being white, along with being American or Westerner, but such identities don’t speak to the concrete details of lived experience.

Then that brings us to what it means to not be white. That is how we often think of it, since white is the dominant and hence the supposedly defining racial identity. But maybe that is the wrong way around. Instead, it makes more sense that whiteness is defined as not being black, as it is always the other that defines us (the reason we should be careful about the people we choose to ‘other’ as minority or untouchable, as foreigner or outsider, as opposition or enemy). Germans and Italians, Catholics and Jews assimilated into general whiteness. Even Hispanics and Asians are being assimilated. Everyone can assimilate into whiteness, everyone that is except blacks.

Unlike whiteness, being black is a much more specific and localized identity. In America, it is defined by descending from West African ancestors who were enslaved as part of the colonial project of the British Empire with a population that was concentrated in the Deep South where a particular ethno-regional culture was formed and to some degree maintained as a segregated sub-culture among blacks that moved north and west but with most of the black population remaining in or returning to the Deep South.

Another difference is that the majority of American blacks were urbanized rather late, not until the 1960s to 1970s as compared to the ubanization of the white majority several generations earlier. The black population, even in being segregated in inner cities, maintained larger social connections than have most whites. That segregation had many downsides in being built on racist practices of sundown towns, redlining, and exclusion from government benefits that gave so many whites an advantage in moving into the suburban middle class. Yet it had the side benefit of maintaining black communities and black culture as something distinct from the rest of society, and this allowed a certain way of social relating that had been lost to the average white person. As Stephen Steinberg wrote:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Blacks weren’t allowed to assimilate to the larger society and so had to stick to their own communities, opposite of many other ethnic populations that were encouraged and sometimes forced to assimilate (e.g., German-Americans during world war era). To be black is always to have the stigma of the Deep South and all it stands for. Most whites had their past erased, but blacks aren’t ever allowed to escape the past. And for whites the erasure happened twice over — once before in Europe and once again in the post-colonial order.

The indigenous cultures and religions of Europe were genocidally wiped out over the past two millennia and replaced with foreign systems of rule and worship, primarily of the Roman Empire and the Christianity with the Catholic Church playing a key role, although in England it was the Romanized Normans that created the monarchy and aristocracy that replaced traditional British society. American blacks can look back to West Africa where traditional cultures remain to a large degree, but American whites can’t look back to Europe for traditional cultures are missing. The erasure and amnesia of whiteness is nearly absolute.

This is the reason whites are forced to define themselves against what they are not — they aren’t black, as they aren’t ‘savages’ or ‘primitives’. They inherited the Roman ‘civilization’ as an overlay of all that was destroyed and lost which means they aren’t even ‘indigenous’. So, they’ve become part of some amorphous and monolithic Westernization, upon which WEIRD bias is founded. This WEIRD, this Wetiko disease as victimization cycle is a scar of trauma upon trauma, so many layers thick that the contours of what came before is obliterated. All that is left is whiteness as an empty signifier, an absence and a void, but that throbbing wound reminds us who are called white that we too once had our own traditional and indigenous cultures, that we too were once people of a particular land, of ancient languages and lifeways long since forgotten.

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“What have you given up?” – Zen priest Greg Snyder on growing up Pennsylvanian Dutch, assimilation, intimacy, and power
interview by Eleanor Hancock

The main thing that was different about growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch (PD) community, in central Pennsylvania, is that my default identity wasn’t white. I didn’t know people without Germanic surnames – Snyder or Rehmeyer or Schroeder. That area of Pennsylvania was said to be, at the time, the least ethnically diverse place in the U.S.; virtually everyone was Pennsylvania Dutch. We were in the social position of being treated as white — but as a kid that wasn’t our first way of talking about ourselves. […]

In Pennsylvania I was a shy boy; I was afraid. We moved around a lot, to new places, and felt alone. But I also had a sense of “we.” So much of that “we” had to do with the land. It wasn’t an abstract we, like “we’re all American.” I am suspicious of that identity and wonder how many folks really walk around with a deep, gratifying visceral identity as an American. Maybe they do. I guess I am just suspicious of identities that seem to have more to do with power than connection. […]

When I go back to central Pennsylvania and I see that particular landscape, it feels like me. I am that land. I am the people who till the earth on that land. I know that shale; shale is right on top of slate. I used to make chalkboards with my brother, cutting into that ground. It’s sad: in one or two more generations, I think the people I am of will be gone, as an identifiable ethnicity in the U.S. Maybe the Amish will survive, but already assimilated Pennsylvania Dutch are shifting from calling themselves Pennsylvania Dutch to referring to themselves as being descended from Pennsylvania Dutch. Capitalism and whiteness are really good at wiping out ethnic support systems for poor white people.

In Undoing Racism workshops [for white folks], at Brooklyn Zen Center, we have participants state their ethnicity. How connected they are to their ethnicity depends on how far back it got included in the white camp. Italians and Greeks are clear: “I’m Italian; I’m Greek.” They know who they are. While those of English or Welsh background don’t really have any idea who they are; it’s hazy. So they say “I’m just white suburban.” As someone with a Germanic heritage (which has also been wiped away in the U.S.), what I cherish is that I grew up with a sense of a people. The saddest thing for white people, and something they need to look closely into, is what’s missing. What’s missing when you let whiteness characterize you? What have you given up? […]

There were lots of things like this, that were experienced as an ethnic community. Having a sense of a people, where you live together and do things together — an identity — I think that’s a loss. Of course food is the last thing to go with eroding ethnicity, so fastnachts and Pennsylvania Dutch food are still popular. But I remember having a sense of the year’s progression in relationship to the cycles of the harvest and community religious celebration. When I left Pennsylvania, that was lost.

When an ethnicity falls away for the sake of whiteness, we trade intimacy of connection for positions of power. If you understand yourself as an individual without a people, the only thing protecting you is your social location. We have to interrogate that deeply. What would it be like to be a people that is not rooted in power? […]

As a kid in farm country, when you ran out of something you went to your neighbor and asked for it. If you started working in your yard, your neighbor showed up to help you. When my aunt Henrietta got cancer, pies and other food just kept showing up. Here in New York City, I’d never ask my neighbor for anything. In middle-class white circles, asking your neighbor for something can be seen as a sign of shame or weakness: “Why haven’t you figured this out?”

Roots Deeper than Whiteness
by David Dean

In order to weaken their resistance to enclosure and prepare them for a forced exodus to towns and cities as the exploited labor force that this new economy required, the communal, earth-based, and celebratory cultural identity of the English peasantry was attacked. In The World Turned Upside Down, English historian Christopher Hill describes the attempted brainwashing of this population to believe in the primacy of work and the devilish nature of rest and festivity.

“Protestant preachers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century undertook a cultural revolution, an exercise in indoctrination, on a hitherto unprecedented scale… to create the social conditions which discouraged idleness. This meant opposing observance of saints’ days, and the traditional village festivals and sports, and sexual irresponsibility… it took generations for those attitudes to be internalized. ‘It is the violent only that are successful,’ wrote the gentle Richard Sibbes: ‘they take it [salvation] by force’.”

Notions of the isolated nuclear family and women’s inherent inferiority were also emphasized. If a wife could be subjected to life as the sole sustainer of her family in the home then her husband could be expended of all his energy in the factory. Women, too, were associated with the devil. Federici names the witch-hunts as a tool of this cultural revolution and the movement to take away the commons. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women were tortured and killed throughout Europe. The century between 1550 and 1650 was both the height of the enclosures and of this genocide in England. Particularly autonomous women were in the greatest danger of persecution. Herbalists and traditional healers, widows and the unmarried, and outspoken community leaders were regularly targeted. Mass government-run propaganda campaigns led peasants to fear one another, effectively dividing and weakening them against the threat of enclosure.

Relentless protest and insurrection, most notably the Midlands Revolt of 1607, was not enough to prevent the eventual outcome. Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker illustrate the “colossal dimensions of the expropriation of the peasantry” in The Many-Headed Hydra:

“By the end of the sixteenth century there were twelve times as many propertyless people as there had been a hundred years earlier. In the seventeenth century alone almost a quarter of the land in England was enclosed. Aerial photography and excavations have located more than a thousand deserted villages and hamlets…”

Communities were traumatized and splintered. The fortunate worked in urban textile mills under grueling conditions, weaving into fabric wool shorn from sheep that grazed their ancestral lands. Most were not so lucky and lived on city streets as beggars at a time when loitering and petty theft were punished with physical mutilation, years of incarceration, or death.

Even with this mixture of urban poverty, hyper-criminalization, and merchant campaigns to encourage the poor to go to overseas colonies as indentured servants, only some willingly left their home country. The Virginia Company, a corporation with investors and executives intent on profiting from the theft of labor and foreign land, began collaborating with the English government to develop a solution to the problems of unemployment and vagrancy. Homeless and incarcerated women, men, and even children, began to be rounded up and put on ships headed to the plantation colony of Virginia to be bought and traded by wealthy British royalists. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, of the nearly 75,000 English indentured servants brought to British colonies in the seventeenth century most were taken against their will. In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter commented that in this era these captive voyagers would be “lucky to outlive their terms of service.” However at this point in history, they still did not call themselves “white.”

They crossed the ocean with their traditional way of life shattered, clinging to meaningful communal identity only in memory. They arrived to the colony of Virginia through the early and mid-1600s where, according to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, fifty wealthy families held almost all of the land. They worked on tobacco plantations for periods of seven to fourteen years with indentured and enslaved Africans and some indigenous people, two other populations recently torn from their cultures and communities.

At this time forms of racism did exist. Scholar Cedric Robinson tells about the existence of various forms of race-like hierarchy within European societies for centuries. In early colonial Virginia the presence of racism was evidenced by the initial genocidal attacks on indigenous nations, some disproportionately harsh sentencing toward people of color in colonial courts, and the fact that even though chattel slavery had not yet been fully institutionalized, some African and Native people were already spending their entire lives in bondage.

However historians Jacqueline Battalora and Edmund Morgan note that the historical evidence still is clear that all three of these laboring groups in Virginia shared a more similar position in society and stronger relationships with each other than they soon would. It was common for them to socialize and inhabit in the same quarters. They often intermarried and built families together. They toiled in fields side by side and were degraded and beaten by the same wealthy masters.

Many had lived on some form of “commons” earlier in their own lives and some sought to live in this way again. The Many-Headed Hydra includes the following striking examples. In the early years of the Jamestown settlement one in seven Englishmen fled to live within the more egalitarian Tsenacomoco or Powhatan Confederacy, inspiring the Virginia Company to enact a decree called Laws Divine, Moral, and Marshall threatening execution for desertion in order “to keep English settlers and Native Americans apart.”

The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe
by Lyla June Johnston

I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.

They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.

The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.

Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault. The only difference between the Red Story and the White Story is we are in different stages of the process of spiritual warfare. Native Americans are only recently becoming something they are not. They are only recently starting to succumb to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, gambling, self-destruction and the destruction of others. Just as some Native American people have been contorted and twisted by so many centuries of abuse, so too were those survivors of the European genocide. Both are completely forgivable in my eyes.

The Lost People
by Thom Hartmann

Imagine if this — the dream and best effort of the White conquerors from Europe — was fulfilled. Imagine if there was not even one single Native American alive in the entire world who could speak a single sentence in Cree or Ojibwa or Apache or Lakota. Imagine if every Native American alive today, when thinking back to his or her ancestors and past, could only imagine a black-and-white world where people were mute and their ceremonies were mysterious and probably useless and primitive, having no meaning…and if they did have meaning, it didn’t matter anyway because it was now lost. A total forgetting of the past — all the ways and languages and memories and stories — destroyed by the people who had conquered your people. Every bit of your culture was burned in the fire of this conquest, and all was lost. All of your people knew the history of Greece and Rome and England, but nothing of the Cherokee or Dene or Iroquois people.

Can you imagine what a disaster that would be? How empty and alone and frightened you and your people would feel? How easily they could be turned into slaves and robots by the dominators? How disconnected they would feel from the Earth and from each other? And how this disconnection could lead them to accept obscene behavior like wars and personal violence and the fouling of waters and air and soil as “normal”? Perhaps they would even celebrate this fouling in the name of “progress,” because they would have no memory of the Old Ways, no realization of the meaning or consequences of these actions.

Imagine if your people were no longer a people, no longer nations and tribes and clans, but only frightened individuals of a different race than their conquerors, speaking only the language of their conquerors, sharing only the memories of their conquerors, and living only to serve the richest of those conquerors.

This is an almost unimaginable picture. The worse fate that could befall any people. The most horrific crime humans can commit against other humans.

And this is what happened a few thousand years ago to my people, to the Whites of Europe, who for 70,000 years prior to that had lived tribally just as your elders did.

It was done first by the Celts, who conquered and consolidated most of the tribal people of Europe 3000 years ago. It was then done more thoroughly by Julius Caesar of the pre-Christian Romans 2000 years ago. And it was absolutely finished by the iron-fisted “Christian” Romans 1000 years ago as their new Church sought out and destroyed all the ancient places, banned the old rituals, and tortured and murdered people who practiced the ancient European tribal religions. They even converted all alphabets to the Roman alphabet, and forced European people to change their holy days, calendars, and even the date (the year 1 or “beginning of time”) to one that marked the beginning of the Roman Christian Empire’s history.

This massive and thorough stripping of their identity and ancient ways — this “great forgetting,” as the Australian Aborigines refer to it — is why my people often behave as if they are “insane.” It is why they are disrespectful of our Mother the Earth and the life on Her. It is why so many of my people want to be like you and your people, to the point of dressing in buckskin and carrying medicine pouches and building sweat lodges from California to Maine to Germany. It is why we have hundreds of “odd” religions and paths, and why so many of my people flit from Hinduism to Buddhism to Paganism like a butterfly going from flower to flower: they have no roots, no tribe, no elders, no path of their own. All were systematically destroyed by the Celts, the Romans, and then the Roman Catholics. Whites in America and Europe — and Blacks who were brought to America as slaves and have since lost their ancient ways and languages — are a people bereft. They are alone and isolated from their ancient clans and tribes. Broken apart from the Earth, they are unable to reclaim their ancient languages, practices, and medicine…because these are gone, totally destroyed, even to the last traces. […]

For over a thousand years, the soldiers and inquisitors of the Holy Roman Catholic Church spread across Europe and destroyed the native people’s sacred sites, forbade them to practice their religions, and hunted down and killed those who spoke the Old Languages or practiced the healing or ancient arts.

Stones with written histories on them were smashed to dust.

Ancient temples and libraries were torn down or set afire, and Roman churches were built atop them.

The few elders who tried to preserve the Old Ways were called “witches” and “pagans” and “heathens,” and imprisoned, tortured, hung, beheaded, impaled, or burned alive. Their sacred groves of trees were burned, and if their children went into the forest to pray they were arrested and executed. God was taken from the natural world and put into the box of a church, and Nature was no longer regarded as sacred but, instead, as evil and dangerous, something to be subdued and dominated.

For a thousand years — continuously — the conquerors of the Roman Official (Catholic) Church did this to the tribal people of Europe.

As a result, today not a single European remembers the Old Ways or can speak the Ancient Languages. Not a single elder is left who knows of sacred sites, healing plants, or how to pronounce the names of his ancestors’ gods. None remember the time — which the archeological record indicates was probably at least twenty thousand years long, and perhaps as much as seventy thousand years long — when tribes lived peacefully and harmoniously in much of what we now call Europe. None remember the ways of the tribes, their ceremonies, their rituals of courtship, marriage, birth, death, healing, bringing rain, speaking to the plants and animals and stones of our Mother the Earth.

Not one single person alive still carries this knowledge. All is lost but a few words, the dates and names of some holidays, and a few simple concepts that have been stripped of their original context.

For example, my father’s parents came here from Norway during World War I. They spoke Norwegian, but it was not the true language of their ancestors. That language was written with a different alphabet, which is referred to today as Runic; nobody alive remembers how to pronounce the runes, or their original meanings. Adolf Hitler adopted one of the ancient Norwegian runes — what is believed to be the symbol of lightning and the god of lightning — for his most elite troops. The double lightning-bolts looked like an SS, so they were called the SS, but it was really a rune. So lost are the old ways of my grandmother’s people that even the Nazis felt free to steal and reinvent them in any way they pleased.

When we track it back, it seems likely that it all began — the entire worldwide 5000-year-long orgy of genocide and cultural destruction — in a part of the Middle East known then as Ur and now called Iraq. It started with a man named Gilgamesh, or one of his ancestors, in an area now called Baghdad.

The first conquers — the first people to rise up and discard the Great Law — were not the “White men” of Europe. They were, instead, the people of the region where the Middle East meets northern Africa. (Which is why this area is referred to as the “Cradle of [our] Civilization.”) Their direct descendant is not the Pope or the Queen of England or King of Spain, but a man named Saddam Hussein.

The Great Weirding of New Media

Our society has become dominated by new kinds of media. One one level, we have a return to the image, in replacing or subverting or altering the written word, by way of cable tv, 24/7 news, Youtube, numerous streaming services, etc. But that isn’t quite correct. Even as the image has retaken territory within the psyche and the media world, the 21st century has seen a simultaneous rise in the consumption of text. More books are being published now than ever before in history. That is on top of the endless and overwhelming stream of news articles, long-form essays, the blogosphere, social media, email, and texting. There are comment threads on Reddit that are so long that, if printed out, would fill an entire multi-volume encyclopedia.

All media has increased, as unmediated experience has gone on a rapid decline. Even when people are together physically and in person, there are quite likely to be multiple devices that are offering diversion and distraction. In the middle of a conversation or debate while sitting with friends at home or chatting with a coworker over lunch, someone is likely to settle an issue or answer a question or throw in a factoid by turning to their smartphone. All the world is at your fingertip; well, all the world that conforms to the constraints of new media. Our minds are constantly aflutter with both word and image, if not so much the direct human relating that defined humanity for so long. If media is the message, what does it mean to have all of this addictive, compulsive, and obsessive, immersive, and always accessible media?

There have been a number of scholars who have explored how changes in media are closely tied into changes in culture and mentality — there is Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, Julian Jaynes, and Jean Gebser, to name a few. All of them agreed that media has the power to destabilize and transform societies, but none of them had formed their theories in analyzing media in the 21st century. They were prescient in many ways, that is true. Still, I’m not sure any of them was able to come close in predicting the full extent and impact of what media would become in the not too distant future that we are now living in. How could they?

There is something strange about the internet, in particular. There is such an ease of access to other humans, in being able to talk with people anywhere in the world. Even for those who only speak one language like English, much of the world’s population can communicate with them. But this means most interactions online have an arbitrary or random quality about them, in that the price of admission is low. It can feel like there is little at stake. The connections made are usually fleeting with the people interacting likely never meeting again. The quality of sitting alone and silently with text on a screen has similarities to talking to oneself or being lost in one’s own thoughts — it creates shallow intimacy, a sense of sharing that is only words deep. Besides, such sharing is rarely reciprocated, as there is this constant reticence and pulling away from these shadowy others lurking at the periphery of one’s mind (personal space is amorphous, shifting, and porous when online; this can be unsettling).

The human desire to connect draws one in, but typically leaves one dissatisfied or worse. It creates social conditions that are extremely unnatural, distorting, and anxiety-inducing. So much of the normal context of interactions are removed, not only the sensory experience of lived perception and behavioral observations of being in the embodied presence of others but also the shared environmental and cultural context that offers cues, norms, roles, expectations, and such. Even videos, be it Youtube or Zoom, create an odd situation in the hyper-focus on the face; and seeing one’s own image while talking lends an agitating self-consciousness, as if one is performing on a stage.

Text without video isn’t better as it can lead to an insular unawareness of others, as if one is talking to oneself while the people on the other side of the screen aren’t quite present or, at best, that they are a mere audience to one’s monologue (this is magnified by the tendency of text to induce abstract thought, whether in how people get caught up in ideologies or in how they reify their ideas, in either case making it harder to differentiate between thought and reality). Along with anonymity, this is a probable contributing factor to disinhibition in people acting in ways and saying things they otherwise would not. If one expresses online that one’s feelings were hurt as one might do in normal life with a friend who said something unkind or careless, one is unlikely to receive sympathy or even acknowledgement, much less an apology and contrition — to expect any human warmth from other humans online is treated as naive, pathetic, and laughable. That is how low our standards have become.

The human quality that exists in almost any other situation is missing when people pull on the masks of their online identities. That latter issue is most apparent in a blog such as this. The blogger is an unknown entity, as is each new commenter. There is often a heavy guardedness to such interactions where everyone is ready to retreat, attack, or evade — sometimes a near total lack of the basic goodwill and casual trustfulness that is more common in person, the lack occasionally verging on paranoia about the intentions of the other. The internet can be a harsh and unforgiving social environment, a playground where our worst impulses are unleashed.

More often than one would prefer, people online say what they otherwise would not and in ways they would not if they were talking to a living, breathing, feeling person right in front of them. Such ways of treating others can come across as quite unfriendly, often passively indifferent and apathetically unsympathetic, but sometimes downright cruel or trollish, aggressive and confrontational. Yet at other times, one leaves a comment and gets no response at all, even when attempting to be friendly in inviting connection. And because of the practice of drive-by commenting, even responding to a comment won’t necessarily elicit dialogue. This kind of behavior of one-way talking would never happen in most other situations in life (Would you drive around your town yelling at strangers? Would you knock at people’s doors, blurt out your political opinions or pet theory, and then run away? Would you harangue and criticize random people at a store and then act shocked or outraged by their negative response? Would you stand on a street corner giving a monologue to a passing crowd about your relationship problems or the movie you just saw?). One-way behavior in general is indicative of power inequality where one has no social obligation or moral responsibility to the other who is perceived as inferior in value or of lesser position. This othering effect can be quite profound and disconcerting.

It’s not only strangers that are pulled into this great weirding of new media (the “great weirding” is related to what some refer to as the “global weirding”). Similar interactions or rather non-interactions happen with people one personally knows, including family. You text, email, or Facebook chat someone as a friendly gesture of conversation. Under normal conditions in talking face-to-face, this person you know would immediately acknowledge you said something and respond. But the social norms of relating well don’t translate outside of the directly interpersonal sphere. One loses count of how often no response is ever given, even when it shows the person viewed what you sent them. Could you imagine meeting your brother or a neighbor you’ve known for years, casually saying something to them as an easygoing conversation-starter, have them stand their silently as if you said nothing at all, and then watching them walk away as if you weren’t there? Yet that is the equivalent of what happens with new media on a regular basis. Most people don’t seem to recognize how utterly bizarre this is.

This lack of basic recognition of another’s humanity, of course, is far worse with those met online without any prior personal contact. Most of the internet is not people fighting but ignoring each other, as if people of different identities, views, and ways of speaking don’t matter or don’t exist. A large part of online commentary occurs with little or any response — it’s echos in the void, a vast seething swarm of humanity mostly talking to themselves or else to those who already agree with them, which is the same difference. That is how it can feel at times. Maybe this is why so many seek out conflict, simply to be acknowledged at all. This is how people can become trollish without consciously intending to do so. Trolling is often more of a mentality one falls into than an identity one embraces. Any attention can be good attention, to all those isolated individuals hidden behind their keyboards amidst the lonely masses in their not-always-quiet desperation.

We humans are social creatures — we need the social as we need air and water; we long for human contact and relationship. Here is the rub: Social conditions determine our social behavior. But millions of years of hominid evolution happened in a far different kind of environment than we’ve created in recent generations. Social behavior requires social input. Mindreading others (i.e., social cognition) requires the development of a mental map of others. This is called theory of mind, but there is an interesting and informed speculation. It appears that, as children, we develop a theory of mind of others before we develop a theory of mind for ourselves. That is to say our self-concept is a model that mirrors and internalizes our developing perception and understanding that comes through relationship. The other becomes the self. And so the others we are surrounded by are powerfully influential — as your mother told you, pick carefully who you associate with, including the strangers you interact with. “Let me explain,” writes Augustin Fuentes (Are We Really as Awful as We Act Online?).

“We’ve all heard the diet-conscious axiom “You are what you eat.” But when it comes to our behavior, a more apt variation is “You are whom you meet.” How we perceive, experience, and act in the world is intensely shaped by who and what surround us on a daily basis—our families, communities, institutions, beliefs, and role models. These sources of influence find their way even into our neurobiology. Our brains and bodies constantly undergo subtle changes so that how we perceive the world plays off of, and maps to, the patterns of those people and places we see as most connected to us. This process has deep evolutionary roots and gives humans what we call a shared reality. The connection between minds and experiences enables us to share space and work together effectively, more so than most other beings. It’s in part how we’ve become such a successful species.

“But the “who” that constitutes “whom we meet” in this system has been changing. Today the who can include more virtual, social media friends than physical ones; more information absorbed via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram than in physical social experiences; and more pronouncements from ad-sponsored 24-hour news outlets than from conversations with other human beings. We live in complicated societies structured around political and economic processes that generate massive inequality and disconnection between us. This division alone leads to a plethora of prejudices and blind spots that segregate people. The ways we socially interact, especially via social media, are multiplying exactly at a time when we are increasingly divided. What may be the consequences?

This is where new media short-circuits our normal cognitive and affective functioning. If we can’t fully experience the other with all of our senses, our ability to read them is crippled. Pushed to the extreme, our ability to read ourselves can also go offline as we go online. The signalling we depend on disappears and so might much of our self-awareness. The person on Twitter or wherever might not be an intentional asshole or troll. Rather, in a sense, they might be lashing out in social blindness. And the same goes for us. That is the thing about the internet. It creates the social conditions of social unawareness for people who likely have little ability to handle this well. Someone who spent their whole life blind can walk down a city street and not get run over. But put blindfolds on crowds of sighted people and they’ll be running into each other and they won’t be happy about it. Then imagine what happens when you also put blindfolds onto those driving the cars. Well, that is what the internet is like.

By the way, some studies indicate that internet trolls may not be as socially blind as some but they are psychologically deaf, in not emotionally hearing their targets and victims except in the most exaggerated forms of emotional response. Interestingly, though lacking affective empathy, trolls actually measured high on cognitive empathy, which is to say they understand human behavior well enough for purposes of manipulation while being emotionally numb to the consequences — to put it simply, they know where to jab the knife for greatest hurt (Evita March, Psychology of internet trolls). On the other hand, “trolls displayed low levels of emotional and social intelligence” (Neil Graney, Is internet trolling simply replacing the violence we used to see on the football terraces?). Trolls are both stupid and smart in relating to others — call them stupid-smart. The other person remains psychologically unreal to them and so they just don’t get what all the fuss is about (it’s all about the lulz). Keep in mind, though, that anyone can be prone to trolling, particularly when a precedent of trolling has been set in a particular situation (Justin Cheng et al, Anyone Can Become a Troll) — this is maybe why trolls seem to proliferate and take over comment threads. It’s a virulent mind virus.

Outright trolling behavior (Dark Tetrad: psychopathic, sadistic, narcissism, Machiavellian) aside, what we perceive as anti-social behavior may often be better understood as non-social behavior, that is to say normal responses to abnormal conditions. It’s a reality-warping effect. We become disconnected to a radically extreme degree because most of the key markers of reality perception are missing; and so we relate without fully relating, something we’ve all experienced in the regular irritations, conflicts, and miscommunications of the internet. What one sees on a screen might not feel psychologically and viscerally real, even as intellectually we know there are real people involved living real lives in the real world. This effect can be subtle in unconsciously creeping up on us after spending long periods on the computer or scrolling our smartphone, as is common these days between work and home. It can take immense effort of reality monitoring (combining self-awareness and social awareness) to counter this sense of derealization. About why this psychological slippage happens, Alan Martin wrote (Online disinhibition and the psychology of trolling):

“Psychologist John Suller wrote a paper on this in 2004, entitled “The Online Disinhibition Effect”, where he explored six factors that could combine to change people’s behaviour online. These are dissociative anonymity (“my actions can’t be attributed to my person”); invisibility (“nobody can tell what I look like, or judge my tone”); asynchronicity (“my actions do not occur in real-time”); solipsistic Introjection (“I can’t see these people, I have to guess at who they are and their intent”); dissociative imagination (“this is not the real world, these are not real people”); and minimising authority (“there are no authority figures here, I can act freely”). The combination of any number of these leads to people behaving in ways they wouldn’t when away from the screen, often positively — being more open, or honest — but sometimes negatively, abusing their fellow internet users in ways they wouldn’t dream of offline.

“Internet psychologist Graham Jones believes that to a certain extent the kind of aggressive behaviour often seen online happens in the real world. “Having said that, there is a feature of the online world that makes such negative behaviour more likely than in the real world,” he says. “In the real world people subconsciously monitor the behaviour of others around them and adapt their own behaviour accordingly… Online we do not have such feedback mechanisms. These feedback mechanisms can be body language, facial expressions or more obvious cues, but a recent study at the Univeristy of Haifa revealed that those who had to maintain eye contact were half as likely to be hostile as those who had the eyes hidden. The lead author of the study, Noam Lapidot-Lefler, believes this is because eye contact “helps you understand the other person’s feelings, the signals that the person is trying to send you.”

Some people are more skillful in handling this psychological crippling of online environments. They might have learned greater social intuition about personality and behavior from some kind of atypical life experience or professional training. Or because of some lucky combo of nature and nurture, they might’ve always been extraordinarily calm, accepting, gracious, and forgiving toward others. But for most of us, we continually bump into one another and then immediately blame the other, likely even giving them a good whack to teach them a lesson and complain mightily when they whack us back, that is if we manage to even slightly recognize and appreciate their humanity and existence. One might like to think that one is above average in interpersonal skills and moral character, unlike all those other social morons and lowly reprobates, but the fact of the matter is most people are not above average. And in the social blindness of the online world, the standard social ability of the average is already quite low.

It’s actually worse than described since, as the deficient social signaling can make us socially blind, we can be socially blind to the fact that we’re socially blind, not recognizing ourselves in the mirror of our own projections — a self-enclosed obliviousness and self-reinforcing obtuseness. Imagine all those normally sighted people with blindfolds on and not realizing they are blinded, going about their lives as if they could see. That causes much psychological confusion and interpersonal havoc, further exacerbating the sense of the great weirding and at times magnified to the level of the political and even geopolitical (President Donald Trump being the great example). Welcome to the new media world! Think of it as an opportunity for a steep learning curve. Keep all of this in mind. If you can recognize you’re in a situation of social blindness and surrounded by the socially blind, you are already ahead in the game. Maybe don’t react so quickly, withhold that initial impulse to judge, pause and take a breath. Maybe give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume the best, as you’d like them to do for you. People sometimes just have bad days, even when the antagonism of new media weirding isn’t involved. Simply put, be kind and forgiving.

We are going to need all the compassion we can muster, as we move forward in this new media society of heavily mediated reality. The changes in media are going to happen faster and faster with impacts and consequences we won’t be able to imagine or predict. It’s guaranteed we won’t handle it well. The stress of society will fracture society even further. It’s possible that our society will survive the threats of collapse and eventually gain a new stability within this media paradigm, although social norms and functional ways of relating well will be slow to develop and take hold. It is highly doubtful that we will see the end of this transition in our lifetime, much less benefit from what might eventually be a positive change. We are in the middle of the storm — tighten the straps and hunker down.

Let’s end on a personal note. In this crazy online world, for those we’ve attacked, irritated, or unfairly judged, for those times we failed to treat others as we’d want to be treated, we apologize for our shortcomings as normal humans stuck in abnormal times. But we know we’re likely to continue to get stressed, anxious, and emotionally pulled into conflict; and so we also apologize in advance for our future wrongdoings and lack of needed understanding. We’ll try to do better, if that helps. In such difficult times, though, one’s best might not be good enough. So, we should be forgiving toward ourselves as well.

* * *

Here are a few things I came across while writing this post:

Here’s Why Internet Trolls Are So Good at Upsetting You, According to Science
by Minda Zetlin

Internet Trolls Really Are Horrible People
by Chris Mooney

Psychopaths, Sadists, and the Lure of Internet Aggression
by Traci Stein

Loneliness moderates the relationship between Dark Tetrad personality traits and internet trolling
by KeitaMasui

Autonomic stress reactivity and craving in individuals with problematic Internet use
by Tania Moretta & Giulia Buodo

Internet “addiction” may fuel teen aggression
by Amy Norton

To end internet trolling, send everyone to a nice park
by WHIMN

Over a quarter of Americans have made malicious online comments
by Jake Gammon

Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?
by Natalie Wolchover

We’re the reason we can’t have nice things on the internet
by Whitney Phillips

The Internet Is a Toxic Hellscape—but We Can Fix It
by Whitney Phillips

Weirding Diary
by Venkatesh Rao

The Internet of Beefs
by Venkatesh Rao

Crowds and Technology
by Renee DiResta

Status as a Service (StaaS)
by Eugene Wei

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
~Sally Kempton, from Ben Price’s None Dare Call It Propaganda

“Power is the ability to rule the imagination.”
~Jacques Necker, from Guillaume de Sardes’ Against the hegemony of American art

Divide and conquer begins in the psyche, the soul. Before authoritarianism is a system of power, it is a memetic virus that slips into the public mind where it grows and spreads. That is how we have come to find ourselves in this moment of a conflict we don’t understand because the first divide is within awareness. Such is our schizoid identity. As with any protest movement, there are criticisms and complaints, often unfair and dismissive. Those people are destroying their own communities, burning down their own neighborhoods. These are nothing but violent and destructive riots. They are bringing police violence down on themselves; they’re asking for trouble and get what they deserve. The protests are infiltrated or taken over by ‘antifa’ who are a terrorist group. On and on goes the idiocy, quite demoralizing but also quite effective.

First off, most of the protesters and protests are nonviolent. Few Americans, protesters and police alike, want to commit violence against their fellow Americans, against their own neighbors. Amidst the violence and destruction, there are many involved, including some police attacking those peaceful crowds often times for no apparent reason. There is sad irony when some authoritarian-minded police use brutality to punish supposedly free citizens in a democracy who dare to protest police brutality. But it’s the nature of the narratives we get caught up in that tell us conflict and confrontation can only end in violence. And for anyone drawn to that narrative, it’s easy to find someone on the other side who will join you in playing it out to its inevitable conclusion. This narrative pull of conflict and division overpowers any natural empathy that might otherwise inspire the better angels of our nature.

That isn’t to say there aren’t people committing crimes that the police are well within the the purview of their official mandate and public duty to pursue in enforcing the law. But the police can arrest those few people without wantonly attacking large crowds of innocent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets and batons, sometimes with real bullets as well, including innocent bystanders such as a businessman who was shot to death by police while standing in front of his business (Aída Chávez, Louisville Police Left the Body of David McAtee on the Street for 12 Hours) and the medical staff beat up by roving gangs of police (Olivia Messer, Medical Workers Fighting COVID Say Cops Are Attacking Them). The police showing up to peaceful protests in riot gear ready to rumble, now that is asking for trouble. The police, in being drawn into a narrative of fighting mob violence, end up acting like a violent mob and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are other ways of dealing with crowd control in maintaining peace and by directing police force only against serious lawbreakers, not the general public who are practicing their democratic rights. Some of the government officials have stated that most of the lawbreakers arrested were from outside the cities and states in which they were protesting. No doubt there are plenty of outsiders of one kind or another. Protests attract a diversity of individuals and groups and no one knows who they all are. Of course, there are the opportunistic looters, arsonists, criminals, gangsters, and troublemakers who join in and cause havoc without any greater purpose. Also, throw in some people who simply have serious psychiatric disorders, including some of the police as far as that goes.

Then there are the agitators and provocateurs of various sorts, specifically those who oppose the ideals and message of the protest movement, from white nationalists to undercover cops and maybe some FBI agents. This latter set of people, in some cases, would even be seeking to incite violence and destruction, looting and rioting, while hoping for police backlash and authoritarian measures. This is a much more difficult problem to deal with in our society. In some of the cities, the police have welcomed and cooperated with white thugs walking around with bats and other weapons to take care of the protesters which has led to violent altercations. This same kind of police-thug alliance has happened in past protest movements as well.

Some of these dangerous individuals and groups have clear agendas, often an attempt to alter the media narrative and public perception in order to undermine support for the protest movement and to isolate protesters. Think of COINTELPRO agent provocateurs of the past and the more recent entrapment practices during the War On Terror. Protesters have noticed older white guys dressed all in black with faces covered who were working alone or in teams to cause damage, such as the now infamous umbrella man. Most of these covert actors and malcontented troublemakers remain unidentified.

There are many games going on. Even outside of the protests themselves, social media has been a hotbed of influences. One Twitter account was portrayed as ‘antifa’ and was promoting violence, until those behind it were outed as white nationalists and the account was shut down. Imagine all of the state and non-state actors, including foreign actors, who might want to not only influence the protest movement but meddle in American society and politics, maybe simply to promote strife and conflict before the election. I could imagine fake accounts and trolls even infiltrating and targeting police in online groups to further rile them up.

There are many competing narratives out there. And those pushing those narratives in many cases aren’t doing so for ideological reasons. One doesn’t have to believe a narrative to want to use it to promote whatever one does believe in, from authoritarianism to chaos. The sad truth is that the average person never gives much thought to the narratives that are fed to them and that infect their minds. Many of these narratives are carefully crafted to get past our defenses, to tell us what we want to hear, confirm our biases and prejudices, fit into our stereotyped interpretations of others.

One of these narratives has fallen into the category of white identity politics. Many otherwise libertarian-minded whites who would criticize abusive authority find themselves pulled into a racialized narrative promoting the rationalization of authoritarian oppression toward those ‘others’. They are allowing themselves to be cynically manipulated because these narratives make them feel good about themselves while so many others suffer. But the reality is poor whites also suffer police abuse and so, even if only for selfish reasons of believing all lives matter, they should be joining these protesters demanding police reform and justice.

Even though blacks are disproportionately harmed, the fact of the matter is most police brutality as with most imprisonment falls upon whites, mostly poor whites, for the simple reason that whites remain the majority on both sides of the authoritarian equation. The racialized narrative of oppressive authoritarianism gives these poor whites a sense of pride in that, no matter how bad their lives are, at least they can think of themselves as being better than those poor blacks. Why do whites so mindlessly accept this false narrative that harms themselves personally, harms their families and neighbors, harms their entire communities? Why can’t they see they are being used as tools of authoritarian power? Why can’t they muster basic human empathy for others who are oppressed in this same system of injustice?

How would conservative and right-wing whites respond if during Barack Obama’s administration black police officers were wantonly killing poor whites, typically without legal repercussion or sometimes even losing their jobs, and then when Tea Party activists formed a mostly peaceful protest movement, they met with further police violence intended to silence them? Now imagine that this followed centuries of continued personal, systemic, and institutionalized racism against whites that kept them trapped in impoverished neighborhoods where there children were literally being poisoned from urban pollution and heavy metal toxins and targeted by a school-to-prison pipeline.

The response by most on the political right to this radical thought experiment would be typical. The narrative of white identity politics says this would never happen to whites because somehow whites, even the poorest whites, aren’t of lowly character like blacks. But this is total bullshit, if we are to define character by the conditions of oppression. Some of the most desperately impoverished and criminal-ridden places in the United State are these poor white communities such as in Appalachia where such racist rhetoric most strongly takes hold (Are White Appalachians A Special Case?). This racialized story comforts the traumatized, rather than resolving the trauma that continues generation after generation.

None of this is necessary. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in the middle of organizing a poor people’s movement. He was hoping to join poor whites and poor blacks in a fight against the oppression of a caste system of a permanent underclass. It was understood even long before MLK that class war was used to oppress not only blacks but also poor whites. This argument was made by Peter H. Clark (1829-1925), the first black socialist in the United States. There was also the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, that in the early 1900s organized across racial and ethnic lines in reaching out to minorities and immigrants; and, as always, they too were persecuted. Even many racist whites prior to the Civil War understood that the emerging industrial capitalism was being built on class war that kept lower class whites in a state of desperation and disenfranchisement. One doesn’t even have to be an anti-racist supporting black freedom and civil rights to understand this basic truth of capitalist class oppression and disenfranchisement.

Following MLK’s assassination, others tried to carry forward a multiracial (and multicultural) fight against class oppression, including the popular Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton who united with diverse other groups in a Rainbow Coalition, including the Young Patriots consisting of Southern whites living in poor Chicago neighborhoods (Poverty In Black And White; Michael McCanne, The Panthers and the Patriots). Guess what happened to Fred Hampton? He also was assassinated. And who was behind the assassination? The FBI and police. This was the era of COINTELPRO where the government sought to infiltrate, co-opt, and manipulate groups considered to be a threat to statist power and interests. For example, earlier on, the FBI sent MLK a letter threatening to expose his extramarital affairs in order to blackmail him to commit suicide. Please understand, these were some truly evil people in our government and evil people like them are still in positions of power and influence.

The point is that this was never only about blacks and other minorities. Poor and working class whites were also harmed and disempowered when those black civil rights leaders, MLK and Hampton, were assassinated. I’d go so far as to argue that even middle class whites were worse off for having lost these voices that, if they had lived longer, might have alerted them to the forces that were also attacking the middle class. Now there is a narrative for you. It’s not only a story for it is actual history, much of it based on government documents that were released or leaked along with some great investigative news reporting from the past. But how many Americans, particularly poor whites and conservatives, know their own American history? Very few. The propaganda of corporate media, corporatist education, and corporatocratic politics has suppressed and silenced these facts that are inconvenient to the capitalist class and ruling elite. More importantly, it isn’t only a class war being hidden behind racist agendas of social control. As the likes of MLK and Hampton understood, all of this is inseparable from violent and oppressive imperialism, a class war against the entire world’s population of the poor.

Some relatively comfortable and privileged Americans get upset because a few people died in the recent protests, along with some property damage. They take this as indicating the protest movement has gone too far. Yet many of these same people supported the Iraq War based on a lie, a war of aggression and invasion that ended up destroying an entire country while dislocating, injuring, killing, and orphaning millions upon millions of innocent people. For what purpose? So that the United States could set an example for what happens to anyone who doesn’t bow down to American hegemony. And so that American corporations could maintain control of Middle Eastern trade routes and access to Middle Eastern oil and other natural resources. Talk about looting and on mass scale, not to mention the vast wealth and resources that corporations steal from the American public every year (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars).

It’s far from limited to Iraq. American imperialism has led to aggressive wars, overthrowing of democracies, support of terrorist/paramilitary groups, and much else all over the world. Of course, those are mostly poor black and brown people suffering and being killed and they are far away in other places. American policing around the world is far more brutal than the policing at home, but the two are simply expressions of the same fundamental brutality. This is made more apparent with the overt militarization of the American police, not to mention the deployment of military in U.S. cities. The counterinsurgency tactics used to suppress populist movements in other countries are brought home to be used on the American people, of all races and ethnicities.

This protest movement is not only about blacks and other minorities, is not only about police brutality. Most importantly, it is a fight over narrative, a fight to speak truth to power. If whites don’t stand up with blacks now, then later on upper working class whites won’t stand with poor whites, middle class whites won’t stand with any of them, and eventually the ruling class will turn on us all. We are divided up into groups and each group is isolated and attacked and neutralized, until there is not enough people left to stand up against the authoritarianism that began creeping into power over many generations. Authoritarian oppression against any of us, in the end, is authoritarian oppression against all of us. Violence is violence.

All of this was made possible through narratized propaganda that too many of us blindly or cynically accepted because it was easier to do so. Maybe it’s time to change that, time to wake up to reality, time to unite in solidarity. There are more of us than of them. As was understood when America was founded, supposedly in the words of Benjamin Franklin to the Continental Congress in signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” But at the same time, we have to take responsibility for being complicit in a society where we’ve projected our authoritarian impulses onto an ‘other’, the police and military, instead of healing this disease within. If we hang separately, it may very well be on a scaffolding we helped build with the thought that we were building it to deal with another set of ‘others’, the poor and minorities.

We need new narratives and so do those authority figures who stand in as representatives of our social order. The police are in an impossible position. They are being commanded to serve too many masters, serve too many purposes. With increasing militarized power and aggressive methods, they are supposed to, implicitly or overtly, represent the enforcement of authoritarian statism, capitalist interests, systemic racism, and class war while somehow also “basically being tasked with addressing every social problem that we have”, far beyond mere enforcement of basic laws (NPR CODE SW!TCH interview with Alex S. Vitale, How Much Do We Need The Police?). While being the ultimate symbol and representative of hierarchical power and privilege, they are supposed to monitor traffic infractions, protect communities, uphold individual rights, deal with troubled teens, handle disorderly conduct, help the mentally ill, provide services to the homeless, mediate spousal conflicts, stop child abuse, intervene in alcoholism and addiction, monitor sex workers, act as guards in schools, enforce order in classrooms, and on and on.

The main tool we give the police to deal with this overwhelming and ever growing set of tasks is violence and threat of violence with a gun always at hand — stop the bad guys by any means necessary, in a narrative where all social problems are turned into black-and-white morality judgments. The police are often both the first to be called and the last resort to enact punishment when all else fails. The police are put into an impossible situation. They are asked to carry the entire load of our schizoid society, simultaneously serving authoritarianism and (hyper-)individualism, two sides of the same dysfunctional society of ideological extremism and dogmatic absolutism. It makes no sense. It defies all possibility of sense. So, we end up scapegoating the police when they fail to do the impossible, no different than we also scapegoat the poor and minorities in being victims of the same moral rot that grows like a cancer within our collective humanity.

Such vast areas of modern life have been criminalized. This has placed a large part of the population under the control of militarized policing that must enforce law and order. As communities have disintegrated and culture of trust has weakened, the police are suppose to replace what has been hollowed out, what once made society functional. It’s fucking insane! This is how we end up with more police than social workers, more police than teachers, more police than librarians and coaches and ministers. The police have become the sole pillar that must hold up the entire social order or it will collapse into total chaos and that will be the end of civilization as we know it; or so the story is told in a tone of the fear-mongering. Well, that is asking a lot of police. No wonder they feel stressed out and so often break under the pressure in turning to brutal violence and abuse, not only of citizens but also as seen in the high rates of spousal abuse among police officers.

The police are incapable of even policing themselves, much less reforming themselves. That is because they are forced to try to do what is beyond their capacity. They are violence workers with the mandated power to stop and arrest criminals with the protected right to kill whenever they deem it necessary. “And while we’re not using police to manage slavery or colonialism today,” Alex S. Vitale spoke, “we are using police to manage the problems that our very unequal system has produced. We’re invested in this kind of austerity politics that says the government can’t afford to really do anything to lift people up. We have to put all our resources into subsidizing the already most successful parts of the economy. But those parts of the economy are producing this huge group of people who are homeless, unemployed, have untreated mental health and substance abuse problems. And then we ask the police to put a lid on those problems — to manage them so they don’t interfere with the “order” that we’re supposedly all benefiting from.”

It’s not surprising that the police act dysfunctionally and oppressively in acting on behalf of a dysfunctional and oppressive system. It could not be otherwise. And so we should not be surprised that, when turning police against protesters who are protesting police abuse, it will not turn out well — as Vitale explained: “What we’re seeing is really an immediate escalation to very high levels of force, a high degree of confrontation. And I think part of it is driven by deep frustration within policing, which is that police feel under assault, and they have no answer. They trotted out all the possible solutions: police-community dialogue sessions, implicit bias training, community policing, body cameras. And it just didn’t work. It didn’t make any difference. And so they ran out of excuses. So the protests today are a much more kind of existential threat to the police. And the police are overreacting as a result.”

Policing has not only become our answer to everything but, worse still, our explanatory narrative of everything. And to try to resolve this conflict, we’ve made our problems worse by militarizing the police which ends up conflating military and police, as our society further takes on the characteristics of a fascist police state and hence a banana republic. With each new wave of policing failure, we throw even more policing measures to deal with it. But this is not a problem for the police to take care of. Turning to the police in the first place is the problem. The police are an extreme measure and should only be called upon when all other measures have been tried and failed. Only in immediate situations of violence should the police be the initial course of action. Militarizing the police in treating them as the solution to everything is not only anti-democratic and anti-libertarian but also simply unfair to the police officers themselves who shouldn’t be forced into that position of authoritarian oppressors. All of us as citizens and community members need to take responsibility for having apathetically succumbed to authoritarian realism, of having failed to radically imagine another way.

It shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine non-violent methods and services to replace present violent policing. Even within the limits of the present legal system, if given a choice, most Americans would rather have rehabilitation than harsh punishments and mass imprisonment (Reckoning With Violence; & The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2). We Americans aren’t a punitive people. Rather our imaginations have been intentionally constrained by a punitive ideology enmeshed in social Darwinism and capitalist realism, a system maintained through the narratives pushed on us by polticians funded and MSM owned by big money interests, largely transnational corporations seeking to uphold the fascist police state and military empire.

It could be added that neither are we a divided people, not fundamentally, certainly not in terms of what we support according to diverse public polling over decades (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism; American People Keep Going Further Left; Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism; Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public; Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric); Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life; Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich; Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data); Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals; Environmentalist Majority; Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party; Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies; Who Supported the Vietnam War?; & Most Americans Know What is True), although the ruling elite have gone to great efforts to divide us but in reality it’s the ruling elite who are disconnected from the silenced majority (Political Elites Disconnected From General Public; Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism; Sacrifice of Liberal Pawns; Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization; Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward; Racial Polarization of Partisans; Poll Answers, Stated Beliefs, Ideological Labels; & Get on board or get out of the way!).

In imagining another way, consider some possibilities from Ktown for All. These aren’t necessarily perfect suggestions, but they give us the basic sense of how other solutions could operate, specifically at the community level. This is how we need to start thinking. After we get past the idea phase, it will take years and decades of local experimentation, if centralized government will get out of our way. In some ways, this is simply a return to local community systems that used to operate in the United States — consider the non-criminal courts in the mid-20th century that offered community solutions for juvenile problems which is a far better system than our present school-to-prison pipeline. When naysayers tell us that change is impossible, there are precedents we can look to. Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, to take one inspiring example, was a nonviolent removal of a police state that allowed democratic reform, specifically to how policing was done. The Portuguese demilitarized the police, eliminated mass incarceration, ended their war on drugs that was a war on the people, decriminalized drug use, turned funding to programs for intervention and rehabilitation, and as a result saw a decline of drug addiction.

Maybe reforms are unlikely to be successful anytime soon, as the forces resisting them are powerful. Maybe or maybe not. Either way, it’s always nice to dream. We have to start somewhere and there is nowhere better to start than with radical imagination. If an era of ever worsening crises is heading our way, that is all the more reason to get our minds in the right space. We need to have new ideas and narratives in place ready for when we finally get to the point where change is inevitable. Let us prepare for a better tomorrow so that the next generations will have a fighting chance to build a free society, the dream that has inspired Americans for centuries.

“We continue to make this about the police — the how of it. How can they police? Is it about sensitivity and de-escalation training and community policing? All that can make for a less-egregious relationship between the police and people of color. But the how isn’t as important as the why, which we never address. The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don’t address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ‘‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.

“Police brutality is an organic offshoot of the dehumanization of those power structures. There are always going to be consequences of authority. When you give someone a badge and a gun, that’s going to create its own issues, and there’s no question that those issues can be addressed with greater accountability. It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer or an emergency medical worker in this country and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true. But I still believe that the root of this problem is the society that we’ve created that contains this schism, and we don’t deal with it, because we’ve outsourced our accountability to the police.”

~ Jon Stewart, NYT interview by David Marchese (June 15, 2020)

“Our democracy hangs in the balance. This is not an overstatement.

“As protests, riots, and police violence roiled the nation last week, the president vowed to send the military to quell persistent rebellions and looting, whether governors wanted a military occupation or not. John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, wrote that we may be witnessing the “beginning of the end of the American experiment” because of President Trump’s catastrophic failures.

“Trump’s leadership has been disastrous. But it would be a mistake to place the blame on him alone. In part, we find ourselves here for the same reasons a civil war tore our nation apart more than 100 years ago: Too many citizens prefer to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system. If we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy.

“The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Today, the same can be said of our criminal injustice system, which is a mirror reflecting back to us who we really are, as opposed to what we tell ourselves.”

~ Michelle Alexander, America, This Is Your Chance

“If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it. But, more importantly, the quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone. It must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.

“We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.”

~ Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How Do We Change America?

What will we choose?

Donald Trump, in declaring anti-fascists are his enemy, is helping to remind and clarify to Americans what is fascism, who are the fascists, the great enemy an earlier generation of Americans fought and defeated. He has stated it in no uncertain terms.

If you’re opposed to anti-fascists, there is only one other choice. There is no third option. Are you for or against fascism? That is now the main dividing line in American society. It’s a stark contrast with centuries of unresolved conflict being forced to the surface.

If we allow it, the police will become increasingly violent and draconian. Lockdowns and curfews could become the norm. More and more innocent people will be attacked, killed and imprisoned. Eventually, if it continues, ghettos and camps will be created. Maybe we’ll even get to the point where people are simply disappeared.

Humanity is at this crossroads again. In a state of public crisis and moral panic, demagogues are offering the certainty of authoritarianism, the promise of law and order. But it’s also an opportunity to seek a just and fair society, to finally fulfill the dream of a free society, maybe a second American Revolution to complete what the first began.

What will we choose?

* * *

Donald Trump’s “Antifa” Hysteria Is Absurd. But It’s Also Very Dangerous.
by Chip Gibbons

Balance of Egalitarianism and Hierarchy

David Graeber, an anthropologist, and David Wengrow, an archaeologist, have a theory about hunter-gatherer societies having cycled between egalitarianism and hierarchy. That is to say hierarchies were temporary and often seasonal. There was no permanent leadership or ruling caste, as seen in the fluid social order of still surviving hunter. This carried over into the early settlements that were initially transitory meeting places, likely for feasts and festivals.

There are two questions that need to be answered. First, why did humans permanently settle down? Second, why did civilization get stuck in hierarchy? These questions have to be answered separately. For millennia into civilization, the egalitarian impulse persisted within many permanent settlements. There was no linear development from egalitarianism to hierarchy, no fall from the Garden of Eden.

Julian Jaynes, in his theorizing about the bicameral mind, offered a possible explanation. A contributing factor for permanent settlements would be because the speaking idols had to be kept in a single location with agriculture developing as a later result. Then as societies became more populous, complex and expansive, hierarchies (as with moralizing gods) became more important to compensate for the communal limits of a voice-hearing social order.

That kind of hierarchy, though, was a much later development, especially in its extreme forms not seen until the Axial Age empires. The earlier bicameral societies had a more communal identity. That would’ve been true on the level of experience, as even the voices people heard were shared. There wasn’t an internal self separate from the communal identity and so no conflict between the individual member and larger society. One either fully belonged to and was immersed in that culture or not.

Large, complex hierarchies weren’t needed. Bicameralism began in small settlements that lacked police, court systems, standing armies, etc — all the traits of an oppressively authoritarian hierarchy that would later be seen, such as the simultaneous appearance of sexual moralizing and pornographic art. It wasn’t the threat of violent force by centralized authority and concentrated power that created and maintained the bicameral order but, as still seen with isolated indigenous tribes, shared identity and experience.

An example of this is that of early Egyptians. They were capable of impressive technological feats and yet they didn’t even have basic infrastructure like bridges. It appears they initially were a loose association of farmers organized around the bicameral culture of archaic authorization and, in the off-season, they built pyramids without coercion. Slavery was not required for this, as there is no evidence of forced labor.

In so many ways, this is alien to the conventional understanding of civilization. It is so radically strange that to many it seems impossible, especially when it gets described as ‘egalitarian’ in placing it in a framework of modern ideas. Mention primitive ‘communism’ or ‘anarchism’ and you’ll really lose most people. Nonetheless, however one wants to describe and label it, this is what the evidence points toward.

Here is another related thought. How societies went from bicameral mind to consciousness is well-trodden territory. But what about how bicameralism emerged from animism? They share enough similarities that I’ve referred to them as the animistic-bicameral complex. The bicameral mind seems like a variant or extension of the voice-hearing in animism.

Among hunter-gatherers, it was often costume and masks through which gods, spirits, and ancestors spoke. Any individual potentially could become the vessel of possession because, in the animistic view, all the world is alive with voices. So, how did this animistic voice-hearing become narrowed down to idol worship of corpses and statues?

I ask this because this is central to the question of why humans created permanent settlements. A god-king’s voice of authorization was so powerful that it persisted beyond his death. The corpse was turned into a mummy, as his voice was a living memory that kept speaking, and so god-houses were built. But how did the fluid practice of voice-hearing in animism become centralized in a god-king?

Did this begin with the rise of shamanism? Some hunter-gatherers don’t have shamans. But once the role of shaman becomes a permanent authority figure mediating with other realms, it’s not a large leap from a shaman-king to a god-king who could be fully deified in death. In that case, how did shamanism act as a transitional proto-bicameralism? In this, we might begin to discern the hitch upon which permanent hierarchy eventually got stuck.

I might point out that there is much disagreement in this area of scholarship, as expected. The position of Graeber and Wengrow is highly contested, even among those offering alternative interpretations of the evidence see Peter Turchin (An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution & A Feminist Perspective on Human Social Evolution) and Camilla Power (Gender egalitarianism made us human: patriarchy was too little, too late & Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’).

But I don’t see the disagreements as being significant for the purposes here. Here is a basic point that Turchin explains: “The reason we say that foragers were fiercely egalitarian is because they practiced reverse dominance hierarchy” (from first link directly above). That seems to go straight to the original argument. Many other primates have social hierarchy, although not all. Some of the difference appears to be cultural, in that humans early in evolution appear to have developed cultural methods of enforcing egalitarianism. This cultural pattern has existed long enough to have fundamentally altered human nature.

According to Graeber and Wengrow, these egalitarian habits weren’t lost easily, even as society became larger and more complex. Modern authoritarian hierarchies represent a late development, a fraction of a percentage of human existence. They are far outside the human norm. In social science experiments, we see how the egalitarian impulse persists. Consider two examples. Children will naturally help those in need, until someone pays them money to do so, shifting from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic. The other study showed how most people, both children an adults, will choose to punish wrongdoers even at personal cost.

This in-built egalitarianism is an old habit that doesn’t die easily no matter how it is suppressed or perverted by systems of authoritarian power. It is the psychological basis of a culture of trust that permanent hierarchies take advantage of through manipulation of human nature. The egalitarian impulse gets redirected in undermining egalitarianism. This is why modern societies are so unstable, as compared to the ancient societies that lasted for millennia.

That said, there is nothing wrong with genuine authority, expertise, and leadership — as seen even in the most radically egalitarian societies like the Piraha. Hierarchies are also part of our natural repertoire and only problematic when they fall out of balance with egalitarianism and so become entrenched. One way or another, human societies cycle between hierarchy and egalitarianism, whether it cycles on a regular basis or necessitates collapse. That is the point Walter Scheidel makes in his book, The Great Leveler. High inequality destabilizes society and always brings its own downfall.

We need to relearn that balance, if we hope to avoid mass disaster. Egalitarianism is not a utopian ideal. It’s simply the other side of human nature that gets forgotten.

* * *

Archaeology, anarchy, hierarchy, and the growth of inequality
by Andre Costopoulos

In some ways, I agree with both Graeber and Wengrow, and with Turchin. Models of the growth of social inequality have indeed emphasized a one dimensional march, sometimes inevitable, from virtual equality and autonomy to strong inequality and centralization. I agree with Graeber and Wengrow that this is a mistaken view. Except I think humans have moved from strong inequality, to somewhat managed inequality, to strong inequality again.

The rise and fall of equality

Hierarchy, dominance, power, influence, politics, and violence are hallmarks not only of human social organization, but of that of our primate cousins. They are widespread among mammals. Inequality runs deep in our lineage, and our earliest identifiable human ancestors must have inherited it. But an amazing thing happened among Pleistocene humans. They developed strong social leveling mechanisms, which actively reduced inequality. Some of those mechanisms are still at work in our societies today: Ridicule at the expense of self-aggrandizers, carnival inversion as a reminder of the vulnerability of the powerful, ostracism of the controlling, or just walking away from conflict, for example.

Understanding the growth of equality in Pleistocene human communities is the big untackled project of Paleolithic archaeology, mostly because we assume they started from a state of egalitarianism and either degenerated or progressed from there, depending on your lens. Our broader evolutionary context argues they didn’t.

During the Holocene, under increasing sedentism and dependence on spatially bounded resources such as agricultural fields that represent significant energy investments, these mechanisms gradually failed to dampen the pressures for increasing centralization of power. However, even at the height of the Pleistocene egalitarian adaptation, there were elites if, using Turchin’s figure of the top one or two percent, we consider that the one or two most influential members in a network of a hundred are its elite. All the social leveling in the world could not contain influence. Influence, in the end, if wielded effectively, is power.

Ancient ‘megasites’ may reshape the history of the first cities
by Bruce Bower

No signs of a centralized government, a ruling dynasty, or wealth or social class disparities appear in the ancient settlement, the researchers say. Houses were largely alike in size and design. Excavations yielded few prestige goods, such as copper items and shell ornaments. Many examples of painted pottery and clay figurines typical of Trypillia culture turned up, and more than 6,300 animal bones unearthed at the site suggest residents ate a lot of beef and lamb. Those clues suggest daily life was much the same across Nebelivka’s various neighborhoods and quarters. […]

Though some of these sprawling sites had social inequality, egalitarian cities like Nebelivka were probably more widespread several thousand years ago than has typically been assumed, says archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London. Ancient ceremonial centers in China and Peru, for instance, were cities with sophisticated infrastructures that existed before any hints of bureaucratic control, he argues. Wengrow and anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics and Political Science also made that argument in a 2018 essay in Eurozine, an online cultural magazine.

Councils of social equals governed many of the world’s earliest cities, including Trypillia megasites, Wengrow contends. Egalitarian rule may even have characterized Mesopotamian cities for their first few hundred years, a period that lacks archaeological evidence of royal burials, armies or large bureaucracies typical of early states, he suggests.

How to change the course of human history
by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Simply framing the question this way means making a series of assumptions, that 1. there is a thing called ‘inequality,’ 2. that it is a problem, and 3. that there was a time it did not exist. Since the financial crash of 2008, of course, and the upheavals that followed, the ‘problem of social inequality’ has been at the centre of political debate. There seems to be a consensus, among the intellectual and political classes, that levels of social inequality have spiralled out of control, and that most of the world’s problems result from this, in one way or another. Pointing this out is seen as a challenge to global power structures, but compare this to the way similar issues might have been discussed a generation earlier. Unlike terms such as ‘capital’ or ‘class power’, the word ‘equality’ is practically designed to lead to half-measures and compromise. One can imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s very difficult to imagine eliminating ‘inequality’. In fact, it’s not obvious what doing so would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.

Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness.

Rethinking cities, from the ground up
by David Wengrow

Settlements inhabited by tens of thousands of people make their first appearance in human history around 6,000 years ago. In the earliest examples on each continent, we find the seedbed of our modern cities; but as those examples multiply, and our understanding grows, the possibility of fitting them all into some neat evolutionary scheme diminishes. It is not just that some early cities lack the expected features of class divisions, wealth monopolies, and hierarchies of administration. The emerging picture suggests not just variability, but conscious experimentation in urban form, from the very point of inception. Intriguingly, much of this evidence runs counter to the idea that cities marked a ‘great divide’ between rich and poor, shaped by the interests of governing elites.

In fact, surprisingly few early cities show signs of authoritarian rule. There is no evidence for the existence of monarchy in the first urban centres of the Middle East or South Asia, which date back to the fourth and early third millennia BCE; and even after the inception of kingship in Mesopotamia, written sources tell us that power in cities remained in the hands of self-governing councils and popular assemblies. In other parts of Eurasia we find persuasive evidence for collective strategies, which promoted egalitarian relations in key aspects of urban life, right from the beginning. At Mohenjo-daro, a city of perhaps 40,000 residents, founded on the banks of the Indus around 2600 BCE, material wealth was decoupled from religious and political authority, and much of the population lived in high quality housing. In Ukraine, a thousand years earlier, prehistoric settlements already existed on a similar scale, but with no associated evidence of monumental buildings, central administration, or marked differences of wealth. Instead we find circular arrangements of houses, each with its attached garden, forming neighbourhoods around assembly halls; an urban pattern of life, built and maintained from the bottom-up, which lasted in this form for over eight centuries.⁶

A similar picture of experimentation is emerging from the archaeology of the Americas. In the Valley of Mexico, despite decades of active searching, no evidence for monarchy has been found among the remains of Teotihuacan, which had its magnificent heyday around 400 CE. After an early phase of monumental construction, which raised up the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, most of the city’s resources were channelled into a prodigious programme of public housing, providing multi-family apartments for its residents. Laid out on a uniform grid, these stone-built villas — with their finely plastered floors and walls, integral drainage facilities, and central courtyards — were available to citizens regardless of wealth, status, or ethnicity. Archaeologists at first considered them to be palaces, until they realised virtually the entire population of the city (all 100,000 of them) were living in such ‘palatial’ conditions.⁷

A millennium later, when Europeans first came to Mesoamerica, they found an urban civilisation of striking diversity. Kingship was ubiquitous in cities, but moderated by the power of urban wards known as calpolli, which took turns to fulfil the obligations of municipal government, distributing the highest offices among a broad sector of the altepetl (or city-state). Some cities veered towards absolutism, but others experimented with collective governance. Tlaxcalan, in the Valley of Puebla, went impressively far in the latter direction. On arrival, Cortés described a commercial arcadia, where the ‘order of government so far observed among the people resembles very much the republics of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa for there is no supreme overlord.’ Archaeology confirms the existence here of an indigenous republic, where the most imposing structures were not palaces or pyramid-temples, but the residences of ordinary citizens, constructed around district plazas to uniformly high standards, and raised up on grand earthen terraces.⁸

Contemporary archaeology shows that the ecology of early cities was also far more diverse, and less centralised than once believed. Small-scale gardening and animal keeping were often central to their economies, as were the resources of rivers and seas, and indeed the ongoing hunting and collecting of wild seasonal foods in forests or in marshes, depending on where in the world we happen to be.⁹ What we are gradually learning about history’s first city-dwellers is that they did not always leave a harsh footprint on the environment, or on each other; and there is a contemporary message here too. When today’s urbanites take to the streets, calling for the establishment of citizens’ assemblies to tackle issues of climate change, they are not going against the grain of history or social evolution, but with its flow. They are asking us to reclaim something of the spark of political creativity that first gave life to cities, in the hope of discerning a sustainable future for the planet we all share.

Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’
by Gyrus

[Robert] Lowie made similar arguments to [Pierre] Clastres, about conscious knowledge of hierarchies among hunter-gatherers. However, for reasons related to his concentration on Amazonian Indians, Clastres missed a crucial point in Lowie’s work. Lowie highlighted the fact that among many foragers, such as the Eskimos in the Arctic, egalitarianism and hierarchy exist within the same society at once, cycling from one to another through seasonal social gatherings and dispersals. Based on social responses to seasonal variations in the weather, and patterns in the migration of hunted animals, not to mention the very human urge to sometimes hang out with a lot of people and sometimes to get the hell away from them, foraging societies often create and then dismantle hierarchical arrangements on a year-by-year basis.

There seems to have been some confusion about exactly what the pattern was. Does hierarchy arise during gatherings? This would tally with sociologist Émile Durkheim’s famous idea that ‘the gods’ were a kind of primitive hypothesis personifying the emergent forces that social complexity brought about. People sensed the dynamics changing as they lived more closely in greater numbers, and attributed these new ‘transcendent’ dynamics to organised supernatural forces that bound society together. Religion and cosmology thus function as naive mystifications of social forces. Graeber detailed ethnographic examples where some kind of ‘police force’ arises during tribal gatherings, enforcing the etiquette and social expectations of the event, but returning to being everyday people when it’s all over.

But sometimes, the gatherings are occasions for the subversion of social order — as is well known in civilised festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia. Thus, the evidence seemed to be confusing, and the idea of seasonal variations in social order was neglected. After the ’60s, the dominant view became that ‘simple’ egalitarian hunter-gatherers were superseded by ‘complex’ hierarchical hunter-gatherers as a prelude to farming and civilisation.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that the evidence isn’t confusing: it’s simply that hunter-gatherers are far more politically sophisticated and experimental than we’ve realised. Many different variations, and variations on variations, have been tried over the vast spans of time that hunter-gatherers have existed (over 200,000 years, compared to the 12,000 or so years we know agriculture has been around). Clastres was right: people were never naive, and resistance to the formation of hierarchies is a significant part of our heritage. However, seasonal variations in social structures mean that hierarchies may never have been a ghostly object of resistance. They have probably been at least a temporary factor throughout our long history.1 Sometimes they functioned, in this temporary guise, to facilitate socially positive events — though experience of their oppressive possibilities usually encouraged societies to keep them in check, and prevent them from becoming fixed.

How does this analysis change our sense of the human story? In its simplest form, it moves the debate from ‘how and when did hierarchy arise?’ to ‘how and when did we get stuck in the hierarchical mode?’. But this is merely the first stage in what Graeber and Wengrow promise is a larger project, which will include analysis of the persistence of egalitarianism among early civilisations, usually considered to be ‘after the fall’ into hierarchy.

 

The Death and Resurrection of the Public

What is the public? It relates to the idea of the People as démos and the body politic. The basic notion is that shared experience and identity is in some sense real, that we aren’t merely a collection of individuals. But a public sensibility has been on the decline. We’ll avoid a thorough analysis here. Instead, let’s look at a couple of areas.

Common identity most obviously is expressed through common appearance, in what people wear, how they cut their hair, and bodily modifications such as tattoos and earrings. In tribal societies and other small communities, this naturally happens through a common culture. The rise of the modern nation-state undermined this organic expression of communal bond. To satisfy the same need, the popularity of uniforms took hold. This has been done formally as symbols of public service such as the military, although uniforms have also been used in the private sector. Even the business suits common among men have become a kind of uniform that disallows much personal expression. The uniform became popular during the world war era and remained popular through much of the Cold War.

A uniform expressed not only a sense of common identity but solidarity and pride. This was true outside of the military, from postal workers and park rangers to gas station attendants and hotel porters. To be in a uniform signified belonging and meant a basic level of respectability, even for the most lowly worker. Besides police and firefighters, uniforms have receded from the public sphere and remain primarily as a symbol of the military — it might be unsurprising, if depressing, that the military is the only part of the government in the United States that retains public trust.

This shift has accelerated over the past few decades. As late as the 1990s, uniforms were still seen more often, although having had become uncommon. For example, some parking ramp cashiers were still wearing uniforms until the early Aughts, but they had already lost their cultural cache as meaningful symbols. These days, postal workers aren’t always immediately recognizable when walking around, as there is barely any semblance of a uniform remaining, and the symbolic value of postal workers has accordingly declined as private delivery services have increasingly taken over this once public service.

We’ve now reached the point where one might go weeks without seeing anyone in a uniform. That isn’t to say that conformity of appearance has disappeared, but we’ve come to embrace the illusion of individual expression through the conformity of consumerist fashion and corporate branding. This is said without any clear judgment in favor of uniforms, simply a social observation and a rather interesting one at that. It represents a deeper and broader change in society.

We can see how fuzzy has become the category of ‘public’, even in ‘public’ debate. It’s extremely unusual to hear a politician invoke the rhetorical force of the People, much less directly refer to the démos and body politic, almost entirely alien concepts at this point. This muddled state of a non-society society was intentionally created as ideological realism — it was Margaret Thatcher who famously declared, “there is no such thing as society.” Until the rise of Donald Trump, that is possibly the single most bizarre statement by a modern leader of one of the global superpowers.

The sad fact is that President Donald Trump as the main public leader in the United States does bizarre on a daily basis, often while attacking public authority, public expertise, and public institutions. It has become nearly impossible to speak of the public good, as a hypocognition has taken hold. This is how Trump supporters are able to hold up signs that say “Keep government out of my Medicare” and to argue that it’s better that this pandemic happened under Trump than President Barack Obama because Trump is wealthy enough to write everyone a $1200 check, in both cases not grasping that these are government responses designed to promote the public good.

For most of human existence, the concept and experience of ‘private’ was rare to non-existent. From tribal bands to feudalism, people typically lived cheek-to-jowl. Look at the growing urbanization of the early empires such as in Rome where everything was a social event — going to the bathroom, gymnasium, doctor, work, etc. So, in speaking of the communal experience that dominated for so long, we aren’t only talking about tribes but even for most of the history of advanced civilization, into the modern era.

It was only in colonial times that the Quakers introduced the practice of maintaining privacy with nuclear families and by having separate rooms or at least separate beds for each family member (Barry Levy, Quakers and the American Family), sometimes with spare rooms for visitors (Arthur W. Calhoun, The American Family in the Colonial Period), but at the time they were far outside the norm (Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were). In early America, to live in a village meant that your business was everyone’s business and there were no locks on the door.

The notion of privacy and the private sector was slow to take hold. Well into the 1800s, many feudal practices remained in place. There was a lingering belief in the commons and, in some cases, it was enforced by law for generations after the founding of the United States. This was seen in land use where ownership didn’t mean what it means today. A landowner couldn’t deny anyone else use of his land, if he wasn’t using it as defined by what land he specifically had fenced off. So, any open land, owned or not, was free to anyone for camping, hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering. This only changed with the abolition of slaves when these laws were eliminated in order to force blacks back into labor.

On a related note, consider corporations. Likewise in early America, they had a very different meaning, as an organization with corporate charter is by definition a public institution. The founding generation made sure that corporate charter were only given in relation to an organized activity that served the public good such as building a bridge and so the charter ended when that public good was achieved. Now the relationship has reversed where corporations have so much power that governments serve them and their private interests. This is also seen in land use, such as how governments subsidize corporations by selling natural resources off public lands at below market prices which basically means giving public wealth away for private gain.

Corporations and governments have become so enmeshed that they are inseparable. The idea of what is public has become conflated with government, and government has increasingly become identified with big biz. When the government is controlled or influenced by private interests in declaring that a company or bank is too big to fail, it is essentially declaring that something private is to be treated as part of government, which further erodes the sense of the public. If the last bastion of the public is government, and if government serves the private sector of a plutocracy, then what meaning does public have left remaining?

Instead of the public as a people determining their own self-governance, we have a private ruling elite who by owning the government control the people, that is to say inverted totalitarianism. Whatever remains of pubic rhetoric becomes a mask to hide authoritarian power, as seen in how the U.S. has become a banana republic. One study has shown U.S. federal politicians rarely do what their supposed constituents want, instead doing the bidding of the wealthiest (Martin Gilens & Benjamin I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens), and it can’t be rationalized by a ludicrous claim that the poor want to be ruled over by a plutocracy (Nicholas Carnes & Noam Lupu, Do Voters Dislike Working-Class Candidates? Voter Biases and the Descriptive Underrepresentation of the Working Class).

Growing concentration and inequality of wealth inevitably coincides with growing concentration and inequality of not only political representation but of power and influence, resources and opportunities. Even the most basic necessities for survival like clean air and water are not evenly distributed, something that would be a human right if we lived in a functioning democracy. When clean air and water don’t fall under the guaranteed protection of the public good, the ideal of a society built on a public has lost all meaning.

It’s unsurprising, under these conditions, that the overt symbols of public good have been particularly under attack. With this comes talk of privatizing Social Security, eliminating welfare, and much else. At one point, the public good was understood to be integral to national security. This is why the U.S. federal government in the past invested so heavily to ensure cheap education, housing, travel, etc — even if we might question some of these investments such as the creation of car culture and suburbia through government funding. My parents’ generation essentially got free college and great jobs in an economy boosted by big gov simply for being born in the post-war period.

The point is that, in an earlier time, the understanding and support of the public good was strongly held across American society and within both of the main political parties. After all, it was President Richard Nixon who, as a Republican passed the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed universal healthcare and universal basic income, the latter policies being now considered as communist by conservatives and too far left-wing by mainstream liberals. How far we’ve fallen.

Right-wing Republicans complain about high taxes while corporatist Democrats seem to agree, but not that long ago both parties supported immensely higher tax rates than we have now, specifically for the upper brackets. When looking at public opinion, Americans do still support taxing the rich far more. The problem is the plutocracy owning our government don’t agree with the public on this issue. Hence, so-called public policy has become disconnected from the reality on the ground of public opinion.

Loss of taxes hasn’t stopped the government from going into permanent debt by pumping immense public wealth and resources into the highly profitable military-industrial complex. This is seen with how Amazon, by way of the Pentagon cronyism Jeff Bezos inherited from his grandfather, has made huge profits from its government contracts while operating its private sector business at a loss for decades (Plutocratic Mirage of Self-Made Billionaires). Then when corporatism crashed the economy in 2008, government bailed out failing banks and corporations because they were too big to fail, which is an argument that they were so essential that they no longer should be allowed to operate according to market forces in a free market. It was another step further into fascism. Now, in this COVID-19 pandemic, most of the relief money once again is going to big biz in conflating private interest with public good.

The role that government used to play was in promoting areas of society that genuinely were for the public good. This included fundamental things like massive investments into education, housing, and infrastructure; but it also went into equally necessary things like basic research. This created immense knowledge that helped with technological invention and innovation. It funded the kind of research that benefits the public but doesn’t directly benefit corporate profit, although it is highly useful for private research companies in using it to build upon in their own research. In the slashing of government funding for research, it’s forced companies to do more of it, even though never to the degree as ween before. For-profit businesses are too conservative to take the risks that lead to new scientific discoveries. It’s a public good that can’t be re-created on the private market. The loss of that funding was also a loss of a mentality of public service, as demonstrated by Jonas Salk’s refusal to patent the polio vaccine.

Strangely, even ‘public’ media no longer gets most of its funding from government. NPR, for example, is now primarily supported by corporations and other private organizations. When sponsors of public media are listed, it essentially comes down to another form of advertisement. And anyone with a lick of sense realizes this influences what gets reported and not, along with how it gets reported. Some analysis has shown that a disproportionate number of guests on NPR come from right-wing think tanks (NPR: Liberal Bias?) that often advocate corporatist ideology or else simply presume capitalist realism.

Also, consider how HBO as a private company has bought the rights to the PBS show Sesame Street, one of the greatest shows ever produced by any public media in the world. HBO has also gained exclusive rights in the United States to streaming BBC’s Doctor Who. Or look at how the BBC has partnered with for-profit media: Netflix, AMC, FX Networks, etc; one example is the Hulu-BBC show Normal People. This is a growing trend.

So, despite accusations to the contrary, not only is public media not always clearly public but not even particularly liberal in a meaningful sense, except maybe in the historical sense. I’m thinking of how American liberals were some of the strongest Cold Warriors during the McCarthy oppression with red-baiting and blacklisting, not to mention the liberal fear of the likes of Martin Luther King jr. It’s similar to how German liberals supported the Nazis in their opposition to left-wingers. Liberalism, in practice, too often becomes yet another variety of reactionary.

The casualty in this has been the public — the public as the people and as the common good; the public as a guiding concept, principle and vision. This allowed public rhetoric to be usurped by authoritarians who use it to great effect, maybe for the simple reason that the public is so hungry for someone, anyone to powerfully invoke a public message, however distorted. That could be taken as a positive sign. This moment of national and global crisis is ripe for a re-awakening of the public sensibility as a genuine force of inspiration and political will toward reform. This might be a new age of rebuilding public institutions and shoring up public authority. The public might begin to remember they are a public, that they are the majority (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). Government as self-governance is an important part of what defines the public, but the two should never be conflated. It is we the people who are the public.

 

Generations and the Post-Pandemic World

In less than three decades, the first wave of Millennials will reach their seventies and the first wave of Gen Z will reach their fifties. That will mean the surviving GenXers will be the wise elders — a scary thought. Time moves on quickly.

Millennials have been part of the adult world for a long time at this point. And Zoomers are heading into adulthood with some of those born after the 9/11 terrorist attack now in college or already out in the workforce. Most of them don’t have any memory of the 2008 recession and those that do only vaguely. This pandemic is the first major event in GenZ life experience.

We are entering the era of the younger generations that are quickly becoming not so young. Millennials and even some older Zoomers are a significant part of young parents right now, beginning to raise the next young generation that will begin to reach teenagehood before long. And the former young generations are quickly becoming a force in politics. The age of rule by Silents and Boomers is coming to an end, if slowly.

It’s still uncertain what role GenXers will play in this transition: X = unknown quantity*. People we know in our generational cohort, GenX, have GenZ kids. One of our nieces is about to enter college and the other is still in young childhood. GenX is well into middle age and more than a few have reached the lower edge of senior citizen status, such as AARP eligibility.

As for Millennials, the first wave has already reached their early forties and will soon follow GenX into middle age. Our culture has been obsessed with Millennials, but GenZ as with their Silent forebears will probably pass into the adult world with little fanfare. It will be a gradual change, until finally the entirety of GenZ is out of high school and then out of college.

All of a sudden, there will be the newest young generation on the scene of youth culture, what a researcher for a marketing firm has called Generation Alpha** — you got to start marketing to them before most of the generation is even born. To these kids, all of the events of these past decades, even this pandemic, will be history as seen in future documentaries and movies.

In the decades to come, the aging GenXers, Millennials and Zoomers will talk about what they were doing during the Great Pandemic of 2020. And they’ll wax nostalgic about the time before it all. Donald Trump could be the last Boomer to be elected president (or is he he first and last Silent to be president?). The tragedy of the Trump administration will forever be conflated with the tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic, the last moment of failure that will forever taint the legacy of the older generations.

This moment we are now living through will be remembered as a turning point, after which nothing was ever the same again. To all the generations following, post-pandemic existence will be the only world they shall know.*** We are entering the new normal.

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* We GenXers are such an unknown quantity that some might question if we exist at all. It’s kind of Taoist to not exist, to not be noticed as significant enough for public acknowledgment. GenX is like an old gnarly tree that is useless and so isn’t worth cutting down.

The Disappearing of Generation X
by Ted Rall (text below from linked article)

Now, the internet is talking about a CBS News infographic that says zero Americans were apparently born between baby boomers and millennials. CBS listed four generations:

— The Silent Generation: Born 1928-1945 (73-90 years old)

— Baby Boomers: Born 1946-1964 (54-72 years old)

— Millennials: Born 1981-1996 (23-37 years old)

— Post-Millennials: Born 1997-present (0-21 years old)

(The so-called cusp kids born between 1961 and 1964 are demographically boomers because of high birth years. But culturally, they’re Gen X, as they share cultural touchstones with younger Americans.)

That’s right, Gen Xers: To CBS News, you’re less real and alive and important than someone who is 0 years old. So much for Gen X culture — “Reality Bites,” “Slacker,” “Singles,” “Clerks,” anything by Quentin Tarantino or Richard Linklater, pretty much all indie rock ever, alternative cartooning — oh, and the Douglas Coupland book called, um, “Generation X.” To CBS, that stuff matters less than the pee and poo and puke and drool emanating from a 0 year old.

The disappearing of Gen X is a genuine widespread trend. A New York Times op-ed by David Leonhardt discusses “The Fleecing of Millennials” by Boomers. Leonhardt attributes not only declining living standards but also the “burnout” slur as being brand-new to millennials while, in fact, both of these characterized Gen X first, decades earlier.

When you read it, it’s downright bizarre that the phrase “Generation X” never appears anywhere. Online commenters were baffled.

These days, all the conversation in the media is about the supposed stylistic differences and economic clashes between the baby-boom and millennial generations. Generation X is ignored; we don’t even get caught in the crossfire. In a recent SNL skit called “Millennial Millions,” millennials are offered prizes like free health care if they manage to shut up for 30 seconds while a boomer talks trash about them. The game show host says: “I’m Gen X. I just sit on the sidelines and watch the world burn.” I’m Gen X, so I laughed.

Being deemed irrelevant is bad enough. What will it do to our already close-to-nonexistent self-esteem to realize that everyone else in the country doesn’t even know we’re alive? […]

Anyway, Anna Sofia Martin writes, “a whopping 55 percent of startup founders are part of Gen X.” So much for slacking. Anyway, who can afford to? We Gen Xers, not millennials, were the first generation to get crushed by student loan debt. Even so, we have “31 percent of U.S. income, but just 25 percent of the population.” So latchkey kids really are having a sort of revenge.

“Masters of self-deprecation,” Martin calls us. She’s right. So, when millennials and Baby Boomers insist us on pretending that 66 million people simply don’t exist, we’re like …

What-ever.

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** Generational identities, in a natural sense rather than imposed by marketers, aren’t defined by outwardly observed features and polled opinions. Rather, a generation in a given society is defined by some shared experience, an experience that shaped an entire cohort early in life, that predisposes them to a mindset and pattern of behavior for the rest of their lives.

In this time of rising right-wing authoritarianism, disease pandemic, and worsening climate change, the common experience for the youngest demographic will be crisis and catastrophe. All of the problems will be exacerbated by worsening inequality of wealth, power, and resources leading to corruption and conflict.

We are entering an era of tumultuous and sometimes devastating change, likely resulting in another great depression or world war or both. The disease pandemic is particularly relevant since it is the first truly and fully global event. The youngest generation will grow up in a post-pandemic world.

Maybe they will simply be called ‘Survivors’. Hopefully, they won’t be known as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

—–

*** How will this affect the youngest?

Generation C Has Nowhere to Turn
by Amanda Mull

Islamic Voice-Hearing

Islam, what kind of religion is it? Islam is the worship of a missing god, that is how we earlier described it. Some might consider that as unfair and dismissive to one of the world’s largest religions, but this is true to some extent for all post-bicameral religions. The difference is that Islam is among the most post-bicameral of the world religions. This is true simply in temporal terms.

The bicameral societies, according to Julian Jaynes, ended with the widespread collapse of the late Bronze Age empires and their trade networks. That happened around 1177 BCE, as the result of natural disasters and attacks by the mysterious Sea People, the latter maybe having formed out the refugees from the former. The Bronze Age continued for many centuries in various places: 700 BCE in Great Britain, Central Europe and China; 600 BCE in Northern Europe; 500 BCE in Korea and Ireland; and centuries beyond that in places like Japan.

But the Bronze Age Empires never returned. In that late lingering Bronze Age, a dark age took hold and put all of civilization onto a new footing. This was the era when, across numerous cultures, there were the endless laments about the gods, spirits, and ancestors having gone silent, having abandoned humanity. Entire cultural worldviews and psychological ways of being were utterly demolished or else irreparably diminished. This created an intense sense of loss, longing, and nostalgia that has never left humanity since.

Out of the ashes, while the Bronze Age was still holding on, the Axial Age arose around 900 BCE and continued until 200 BCE. New cultures were formed and new empires built. The result is what Jaynes described as ‘consciousness’ or what one can think of as introspective mental space, an inner world of egoic identity where the individual is separate from community and world. Consciousness and the formalized religions that accompanied it were a replacement for the loss of a world alive with voices.

By the time Rabbinic Judaism, Gnosticism, and Christianity came around, the Axial Age was already being looked back upon as a Golden Age and, other than through a few surviving myths, the Bronze Age before that was barely remembered at all. It would be nearly another 600 years after that first century monotheistic revival when Muhammad would have his visions of the angel Gabriel visiting him to speak on behalf of God. Islam is both post-bicameral and post-axial, to a far greater degree.

Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet and even he didn’t get to hear God directly for it had to come through an angel. The voice of God had long ago grown so faint that people had come to rely on oracles, channelings, and such. These rather late revelations by way of Gabriel were but a barely audible echo of the archaic bicameral voices. It is may be understandable that, as with some oracles before him, Muhammad would declare God would never speak again. So, Islam, unlike the other monothesitic religions, fully embraces God’s absence from the world.

Actually, that is not quite right. Based on the Koran, God will never speak again until the Final Judgment. Then all will hear God again when he weighs your sins and decides the fate of your immortal soul. Here is the interesting part. The witnesses God shall call upon in each person’s case will be all the bicameral voices brought back out of silence. The animals and plants will witness for or against you, as will the earth and rocks and wind. Even your own resurrected body parts will come alive again with voices to speak of what you did. Body parts speaking is something familiar to those who read Jaynesian scholarship.

Until then, God and all the voices of the world will remain mute witnesses, watching your every move and taking notes. They see all, hear all, notice all — every time you masturbate or pick your nose, every time you have a cruel or impure thought, every time you don’t follow one of the large number of divine commandments, laws, and rules spelled out in the Koran. The entire world is spying upon you and will report back to God, at the end of time. The silent world only appears to be dumb and unconscious. God is biding his time, gathering a file on you like a cosmic FBI.

This could feel paralyzing, but in another way it offers total freedom from self, total freedom through complete submission. Jaynesian consciousness is a heavy load and that was becoming increasingly apparent over time, especially in the centuries following the Axial Age. The zealous idealism of the Axial Age prophets was growing dull and tiresome. By the time that Muhammad showed up, almost two millennia had passed since the bicameral mind descended into darkness. The new consciousness was sold as something amazing, but it hadn’t fully lived up to its promises. Instead, ever more brutal regimes came into power and a sense of anxiety was overtaking society.

Muhammad had an answer and the people of that region were obviously hungry for someone to provide an answer. After forming his large army, his military campaign barely experienced any resistance. And in a short period of time while he was still alive, most of the Arabian peninsula was converted to Islam. The silence of the gods had weakened society, but Muhammad offered an explanation for why the divine could no longer be experienced. He helped normalize what had once felt like a tragedy. He told them that they didn’t need to hear God because God had already revealed all knowledge to the prophets, including himself of course. No one had to worry, just follow orders and comply with commands.

All the tiresome complications of thought were unnecessary. God had already thought out everything for humans. The Koran as the final and complete holy text would entirely and permanently replace the bicameral voices, ever receding into the shadows of the psyche. But don’t worry, all those voices are still there, waiting to speak. But the only voice that the individual needed to listen to was that of the person directly above them in the religious hierarchy, be it one’s father or an imam or whoever else with greater official authority with a line of command that goes back to the prophets and through the angels to God Himself. Everything is in the Koran and the learned priestly class would explain it all and translate it into proper theocratic governance.

Muhammad came with a different message than anyone before. The Jewish prophets and Jesus, as with many Pagans, would speak of God as Father and humanity as His children. Early Christians took this as a challenge to a slave-based society, in borrowing from the Stoics that even a slave was free in his soul. Muhammad, instead, was offering another variety of freedom. We humans, rather than children of God, are slaves of God. The entire Islamic religion is predicated upon divine slavery, absolute submission. This is freedom from the harsh taskmaster of egoic individuality, a wannabe demiurge. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad formulated a totalitarian theocracy, a totalizing system. Nothing is left to question or interpretation, that is in theory or rather in belief.

This goes back to how, with the loss of the bicameral mind and social order, something took its place. It was a different kind of authoritarianism — rigid and hierarchical, centralized and concentrated, despotic and violent. Authoritarianism of this variety didn’t emerge until the late Bronze Age when the bicameral societies were becoming too large and complex, overstrained and unstable. Suddenly, as if to presage the coming collapse, there was the appearance of written laws, harsh punishment, and cruel torture — none of which ever existed before, according to historical records and archaeological finds. As the world shifted into post-bicameralism, this authoritarianism became ever more extreme (e.g., Roman Empire).

This was always the other side of the rise of individuality, of Jaynesian consciousness. The greater potential freedom the individual possesses the more that oppressive social control is required, as the communal bonds and social norms of the bicameral mind increasingly lost their hold to organically maintain order. Muhammad must have showed up at the precise moment of crisis in this change. After the Roman Empire’s system of slavery, Europe came up with feudalism to re-create some of what had disappeared. But apparently a different kind of solution was required in the Arab world.

Maybe this offsets the draining of psychic energy that comes with consciousness. Jaynes speculated that, like the schizophrenic, bicameral humans had immense energy and stamina which allowed them to accomplish near-miraculous feats such as building the pyramids with small populations and very little technology or infrastructure. Suppression of the extremes of individualism through emphasizing absolute subordination is maybe a way of keeping in check the energy loss of maintaining egoic consciousness. In the West, we eventually overcame this weakness by using massive doses of stimulants to overpower the otherwise debilitating anxiety and to help shore up the egoic boundaries, but this has come at the cost of destroying our physical health and mental health.

Time will tell which strategy is the most effective for long-term survival of specific societies. But I’m not sure I’d bet on the Western system, considering how unsustainable it appears to be and how easily it has become crippled by a minor disease epidemic like covid-19. Muhammad might simply have been trying to cobble together some semblance of a bicameral mind, in the face of divine silence. There is a good reason for trying to do that. Those bicameral societies lasted many millennia longer than has our post-bicameral civilization. It’s not clear that modern civilization or at least Western civilization will last beyond the end of this century. We underestimate the bicameral mind and the importance it played during the single longest period of advancement of civilization.

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Let us leave a small note of a more personal nature. In the previous post (linked above), we mentioned that our line of inquiry began with a conversation we had with a friend of ours who is a Muslim. He also happens to be schizophrenic, i.e., a voice-hearer. The last post was about how voice=hearing is understood within Islam. Since supposedly God no longer speaks to humans nor do his angelic intermediaries, any voice a Muslim hears is automatically interpreted as not being of divine origins. It doesn’t necessarily make the voice evil, as it could be a jinn which is a neutral entity in Islamic theology, although jinn can be dangerous. Then again, voice-hearing might also be caused by an evil magician, what I think is called a sihir.

Anyway, we had the opportunity to speak to this friend once again, as we are both in jobs that require us to continue working downtown amidst everything otherwise being locked down because of the covid-19 epidemic. In being isolated from family and other friends, we’ve been meeting with this Islamic guy on a daily basis. Just this morning, we went for a long walk together and chatted about life and religion. He had previously talked about his schizophrenia in passing, apparently unworried by the stigma of it. He is an easy person to talk to, quite direct and open about his thoughts and experiences. I asked him about voice-hearing and he explained that, prior to being medicated, he would continue to hear people speak to him after they no longer were present. And unsurprisingly, the voices were often negative.

Both his imam and his therapist told him to ignore the voices. Maybe that is a standard approach in traditionally monotheistic cultures. As we mentioned in the other post, he is from North Africa where Arabs are common. But another friend of ours lives in Ghana, in West Africa. Voice-hearing experience among people in Ghana was compared to those in the United States, in the research of Tanya M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist inspired by Julian Jaynes. She found that Ghanans, with a tradition of voice-hearing (closer to bicameralism?), had a much more positive experience of the voices they heard. Americans, like our Islamic friend, did not tend to hear voices that were kind and helpful. This is probably the expectancy effect.

If you are raised to believe that voices are demonic or their Islamic equivalent of jinn or are from witches and evil magicians, or if you simply have been told voice-hearing means your insane, well, it’s not likely to lead to happy results when you do hear voices. I doubt it decreases the rate of voice-hearing, though. In spite of Islamic theology denying God and angels speak to humans any longer, that isn’t likely to have any affect on voice-hearing itself. So, the repressed bicameral mind keeps throwing out these odd experiences, but in our post-bicameral age we have fewer resources in dealing constructively with those voices. Simply denying and ignoring them probably is less helpful.

That is the ultimate snag. The same voices that once were identified as godly or something similar are now taken as false, unreal, or dangerous. In a sense, God never stopped speaking. One could argue that we all are voice-hearers, but some of us now call the voice of God as ‘conscience’ or whatever. Others, like Muslims, put great emphasis on this voice-hearing but have tried to gag God who goes on talking. Imagine how many potential new prophets have been locked away in psychiatric wards or, much worse, killed or imprisoned as heretics. If God can’t be silenced, the prophets who hear him can. The Old Testament even describes how the authorities forbid voice-hearing and demanded that voice-hearers be killed, even by their own parents.

The bicameral mind didn’t disappear naturally because it was inferior but because, in its potency, it was deemed dangerous to those who wanted to use brute power to enforce their own voices of authorization. The bicameral mind, once central to the social order, had become enemy number one. If people could talk to God directly, religion and its claims of authority would become irrelevant. That is how our Islamic friend, a devout religious practitioner, ended up being drugged up to get the voices to stop speaking.