Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

…a sense that our memories and perceptions have been misplaced or replaced, that our lives are not our lives, that our minds are not our minds and that we are all part of some collective nightmare being played our on a stage not of the world but of some simulated shadow stage of which we know nothing.
~S.C. Hickman, The Telecratic Imperative

The notion of sleep has been used by poets and Gnostics alike throughout time as the leitmotif of ignorance, bliss, and innocence. Asleep in one’s ignorance goes the saying. To be asleep is to be so immersed in the normalization process of the worlds ubiquitous systems that one no longer has that critical acumen to be able to step away, step back, step out of one’s environment and see it for what it is: an artificial construct within which one is imprisoned. All the Zombie films from Romero’s classic to the latest edition have one theme: the mindless hunger and desire of the consumer for its next meal ticket, the endless feeding frenzy of a mindless horde in search of filling the emptiness of its depleted flesh, its desiring machininc life. Like sleeping zombies we move to the puppet strings of invisible codes and algorithms that supplement, decide, and program our lives within a 24/7 dreamworld constructed to fulfill our deepest desires.
~S.C. Hickman, The Governance of the World

Those words of S.C. Hickman captured a deeper aspect of my mood. That our minds are not our minds. That we don’t know what our minds are. It is almost a haunted feeling of the mind being something separate from us. The unconscious is the nameless name of something we never experience directly. The realm of mind that is not quite human, a demonic possession or mind parasite. We can sleepwalk through our entire lives.

Are we really disconnected, dissociated? Or is this simply our ‘normal’ state? We don’t know what we are or what makes us tick. We don’t know how to resolve our unknowing, because we can’t step outside of ourselves. And if we somehow dig down into the psyche, what do we hope to find? Is there anything below our delusions and fantasies? What ground might we stand upon?

When we speak of a social construct, what exactly is that? Social constructs are the seams that hold our minds together, the buttresses of our identity, the mortar of the social order. Take away that stuff of imagination and what seemed solid would fade away. We aren’t what we believe ourselves to be, but we can’t be anything at all without those beliefs. We aren’t the stories we tell, even as telling stories is at the heart of what we are.

Our secret identity is in the disjuncture or dislocation, the slippage or elision. It is the interstitial, the liminal, the threshold. Not what we are but what we are becoming, reality being out of alignment with perception, always slightly off, a fraction of delay. The ground shifts below us and we don’t notice, for we also shift at the same time, all the world shifting around us. And no matter how quickly we turn, we’ll never see what is behind us. The person who sees is not what is seen, but nothing can be seen that is separate from the person who sees. There is no objective standpoint, no outside vantage.

This is why we are so easily manipulated and misdirected.

My thoughts have been circling around a few issues, ever returning to my theory of symbolic conflation. It has to do with a symbolic ordering of the mind, as expressed through social order and social control, social construction and social identity. There is a mystery there that resists close inspection, and yet draws one’s attention elsewhere.

One of the best ways I’ve found to describe it is like a bird fluttering away from its nest, pretending to be injured. Or think of another example from nature. A deer can outrun a human, but only over short distances. Humans are awesome long distance runners and a deer will eventually tire out, maybe one of the earliest hunting techniques. Deer have a way of avoiding this fate. One deer will make itself seen to get the attention of the predator. That deer will slip out of sight to slow down and another deer will then take that position. It requires a highly observant predator to lock in on one deer and to not get deceived by the switch.

That is how symbolic conflation works. The symbolic issue acts as a framing. It draws the focus in a particular way, making it difficult to see what is being hidden by misdirection. It’s truly brilliant. The reason it works so well is that we tend to think without full consciousness and so act on autopilot. We see without really seeing and it rarely occurs to us what we aren’t seeing by the very nature of how we are looking or rather being made to look. This can create the illusion that we are acting under our own volition, completely oblivious to how we are being deceived and manipulated. The power of it is that framing becomes enculturated into the very fabric of our being and of our society. We see what is framed rather than seeing the frame.

So much of our lives are symbolic. No aspect of our identities is free from this: nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, class, etc. We are shaped to the core of our being. Yet there is a superficial quality to this. We feel forced to conform to an ideological worldview, but in a sense some part of us remains free of this. Such identities wouldn’t be necessary, if they weren’t hiding something.

The majority of Americans are symbolic conservatives, even as they are operational liberals, which is to say on specific issues the general public tends to support liberal positions, but the rhetoric of symbolic conservatism remains immensely powerful (such that, obscured and divided and isolated by false identities, the majority doesn’t realize it is a majority). The American Dream offers symbolic aspiration that remains unfulfilled for most, in that American kids dream big and yet have lower upward mobility than kids in many other Western countries who have a more realistic assessment of their future opportunities, which never manages to undermine the symbolic narrative. The political right loves to obsess over symbolic constitutionalism, having very little to do with the actual history of the U.S. Constitution beyond some cherry-picked quotes from founders, ignoring all contrary evidence. And to pick on the other side, there is symbolic rhetoric of democracy and liberalism, too rarely resulting anything that comes close to reality, as liberalism is simply the other side of the conservative symbolic conflation.

There are also symbolic family values based on the recent invention of the nuclear family detached from the long history of extended relationships of kinship and community. Along with that, there are other symbolic culture wars that rarely if ever amount to any actual politics nor have much to do with the issues themselves, such as how so-called pro-lifers won’t support policies that have been proven to decrease abortions. Similarly, there is symbolic religiosity and symbolic happiness. Conservatives report higher rates of religiosity than what matches the actual data on church attendance. And research shows that conservatives, although reporting higher happiness than liberals, smile less often than liberals. Symbolic identities have to do with how people perceive themselves and want to be perceived by others, according to social expectations and norms, the entire social order enfolding us in its embrace.

We also can’t forget all the symbolic wars on poverty, drugs, Terror, etc; inevitably ending up distracting from the real issues and problems, the most fundamental causes and contributing factors. And of course, there is the symbolic hyper-individuality of the autonomous self, the rational actor, the self-made man, the self-interested consumer-citizen.

These symbolic conflations and frames burrow into our psyche. They are memes, mind viruses and parasites. They don’t merely use our minds for their own purposes of self-replication, so as to infect others. They restructure our minds, causing us to come to identify with them. There is often no clear distinction between the behavior of parasites and symbionts. We can only know them by their results; but the nature of the relationship is that, in coming to identify with them, we rationalize their existence as part of who we are. The sense of self becomes splintered with our lives divided into different aspects, leading to dissociation along with the strange phenomenon of knowing and not knowing all kinds of things, and in some cases even leading to varying degrees of psychosis.

The modern self is not normal, by historical and evolutionary standards. Extremely unnatural and unhealthy conditions have developed, our minds having correspondingly grown malformed like the binding of feet. Our hyper-individuality is built on disconnection and, in place of human connection, we take on various addictions, not just to drugs and alcohol but also to work, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and on and on. The more we cling to an unchanging sense of bounded self, the more burdened we become trying to hold it all together, hunched over with the load we carry on our shoulders. We are possessed by the identities we possess.

This addiction angle interests me. Our addiction is the result of our isolated selves. Yet even as our addiction attempts to fill emptiness, to reach out beyond ourselves toward something, anything, a compulsive relationship devoid of the human, we isolate ourselves further. As Johann Hari explained in Chasing the Scream (Kindle Locations 3521-3544):

There were three questions I had never understood. Why did the drug war begin when it did, in the early twentieth century? Why were people so receptive to Harry Anslinger’s message? And once it was clear that it was having the opposite effect to the one that was intended— that it was increasing addiction and supercharging crime— why was it intensified, rather than abandoned?

I think Bruce Alexander’s breakthrough may hold the answer.

“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them,” Bruce explained in a lecture in London31 in 2011. “The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”

A sense of dislocation has been spreading through our societies like a bone cancer throughout the twentieth century. We all feel it: we have become richer, but less connected to one another. Countless studies prove this is more than a hunch, but here’s just one: the average number of close friends a person has has been steadily falling. We are increasingly alone, so we are increasingly addicted. “We’re talking about learning to live with the modern age,” Bruce believes. The modern world has many incredible benefits, but it also brings with it a source of deep stress that is unique: dislocation. “Being atomized and fragmented and all on [your] own— that’s no part of human evolution and it’s no part of the evolution of any society,” he told me.

And then there is another kicker. At the same time that our bonds with one another have been withering, we are told— incessantly, all day, every day, by a vast advertising-shopping machine— to invest our hopes and dreams in a very different direction: buying and consuming objects. Gabor tells me: “The whole economy is based around appealing to and heightening every false need and desire, for the purpose of selling products. So people are always trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in products.” This is a key reason why, he says, “we live in a highly addicted society.” We have separated from one another and turned instead to things for happiness— but things can only ever offer us the thinnest of satisfactions.

This is where the drug war comes in. These processes began in the early twentieth century— and the drug war followed soon after. The drug war wasn’t just driven, then, by a race panic. It was driven by an addiction panic— and it had a real cause. But the cause wasn’t a growth in drugs. It was a growth in dislocation.

The drug war began when it did because we were afraid of our own addictive impulses, rising all around us because we were so alone. So, like an evangelical preacher who rages against gays because he is afraid of his own desire to have sex with men, are we raging against addicts because we are afraid of our own growing vulnerability to addiction?

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

Another thing happened with suppression of festivities. Local community began to break down as power became centralized in far off places and the classes became divided, which Ehrenreich details. The aristocracy used to be inseparable from their feudal roles and this meant participating in local festivities where, as part of the celebration, a king might wrestle with a blacksmith. As the divides between people grew into vast chasms, the social identities held and social roles played became hardened into place. This went along with a growing inequality of wealth and power. And as research has shown, wherever there is inequality also there is found high rates of social problems and mental health issues.

It’s maybe unsurprising that what followed from this was colonial imperialism and a racialized social order, class conflict and revolution. A society formed that was simultaneously rigid in certain ways and destabilized in others. The individuals became increasingly atomized and isolated. With the loss of kinship and community, the cheap replacement we got is identity politics. The natural human bonds are lost or constrained. Social relations are narrowed down. Correspondingly, our imaginations are hobbled and we can’t envision society being any other way. Most tragic, we forget that human society used to be far different, a collective amnesia forcing us into a collective trance. Our entire sense of reality is held in the vice grip of historical moment we find ourselves in.

We are afraid of what we don’t know. And so in fear, we huddle closer. The darkness in our own minds becomes shadows enveloping us. Anything that was able to pierce through our defenses would feel like violence and, in response, our reactions are out of proportion. We never see anything for what it is, as the narratives playing in our heads never stop. Those stories are our comfort or so we believe and therefore those stories are our fate.

But what if even only for a moment we saw the flame that casts the shadow? What then?

How do we make the strange familiar?

I’ve been simultaneously looking at two books: This is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe. And Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs. The two relate, with the latter offering a larger context for the former. The theme of both might well be summed up with the word ‘strange’. The world is strange and becoming ever stranger. We are becoming aware of how utterly bizarre the world is, both within us and all around us.

The first is not only about parasites, despite the catchy title. It goes so far beyond just that. After all, most of the genetic material we carry around with us, including within our brains, is non-human. It’s not merely that we are part of environments for we are environments. We are mobile ecosystems with boundaries that are fluid and permeable.

For a popular science book, it covers a surprising amount of territory and done so with more depth than one might expect. Much of the research discussed is preliminary and exploratory, as the various scientific fields have been slow to emerge. This might be because of how much they challenge the world as we know it and society as it is presently ordered. There are other psychological factors the author details such as the resistance humans have in dealing with topics of perceived disgust.

To summarize the book, McAuliffe explores the conclusions and implications of research involving parasitism and microbiomes in terms of neurocognitive functioning, behavioral tendencies, personality traits, political ideologies, population patterns, social structures, and culture. She offers some speculations of those involved in these fields, and what makes the speculations interesting is how they demonstrate the potential challenges of these new understandings. Whether or not we wish to take the knowledge and speculations seriously, the real world consequences will remain to be dealt with somehow.

The most obvious line of thought is the powerful influence of environments. The world around us doesn’t just effect us. It shapes who we are at a deep level and so shapes our entire society. There is no way to separate the social world from the natural world. This isn’t fatalism, since we also shape our environments. The author points to the possibility that Western societies have been liberalized at least partly because of the creation of healthier conditions that allow human flourishing. All of the West not that long ago was dominated by fairly extreme forms of social conservatism, violent ethnocentrism, authoritarian systems, etc. Yet in the generations following the creation of sewer systems, clean water, environmental regulations and improved healthcare, there was a revolution in Western social values along with vast improvements in human development.

In terms of intelligence, some call this the Moral Flynn Effect, a convergence of diverse improvements. And there is no reason to assume it will stop and won’t spread further. We know the problems we face. We basically understand what those problems are, what causes them and alleviates them, even if not entirely eliminates them. So, we know what we should do, assuming we actually wanted to create a better world. Most importantly, we have the monetary wealth, natural resources, and human capacity to implement what needs to be done. It’s not a mystery, not beyond our comprehension and ability. But the general public has so far lacked this knowledge, for it takes a while for new info and understandings to spread — e.g., Enlightenment ideas developed over centuries and it wasn’t until the movable type printing press became common that revolutions began. The ruling elite, as in the past, will join in solving these problems when fear of the masses forces them to finally act. Or else the present ruling elite will itself be eliminated, as happened with previous societies.

What is compelling about this book are the many causal links and correlations shown. It matches closely with what is seen from other fields, forming a picture that can’t be ignored. It’s probably no accident that ethnocentric populations, socially conservative societies, authoritarian governments, and strict religions all happen to be found where there are high rates of disease, parasites, toxins, malnutrition, stress, poverty, inequality, etc — all the conditions that stunt and/or alter physical, neurocognitive, and psychological development.

For anti-democratic ruling elites, there is probably an intuitive or even conscious understanding that the only way to maintain social control is through keeping the masses to some degree unhealthy and stunted. If you let people develop more of their potential, they will start demanding more. If you let intelligence increase and education improve, individuals will start thinking for themselves and the public imagining new possibilities.

Maybe its unsurprising that American conservatives have seen the greatest threat not just in public education but, more imporantly, in public health. The political right doesn’t fear the failures of the political left, the supposed wasted use of tax money. No, what they fear is that the key leftist policies have been proven to work. The healthier, smarter, and better educated people become the more they develop attitudes of social liberalism and anti-authoritarianism, which leads toward the possibility of radical imagination and radical action. Until people are free to more fully develop their potentials, freedom is a meaningless and empty abstraction. The last thing the political right wants, and sadly this includes many mainstream ‘liberals’, is a genuinely free population.

This creates a problem. The trajectory of Western civilization for centuries has been the improvement of all these conditions that seems to near inevitably create a progressive society. That isn’t to say the West is perfect. Far from it. But imagine what kind of world it would be if universal healthcare and education was provided to every person on the planet. This is within the realm of possibility at this very moment, if we so chose to invest our resources in this way. It’s nothing special about the West and even in the West there are still large parts of the population living in severe deprivation and oppression. In a single generation, we could transform civilization and solve (or at least shrink to manageable size) the worst social problems. There is absolutely nothing stopping us but ourselves. Instead, Western governments have been using their vast wealth and power to dominate other countries, making the world a worst place in the process, helping to create the very conditions that further undermine any hope for freedom and democracy. Blowing up hospitals, destroying infrastructure, and banning trade won’t lead to healthier and more peaceful populations; if anything, the complete opposite.

A thought occurred to me. If environmental conditions are so important to how individuals and societies form, then maybe political ideologies are less key than we think or else not as important in the way we normally think about them. Our beliefs about our society might be more result than cause (maybe the limited healthcare availability in the American South being a central factor in maintaining its historical conservatism and authoritarianism). We have a hard time thinking outside of the conditions that have shaped our very minds.

That isn’t to say there is no feedback loop where ideology can reinforce the conditions that made it possible. The point is that free individuals aren’t fully possible in an unfree society where individuals aren’t free on a practical level to develop toward optimal health and ability. As such, fights over ideology miss an important point. The actual fight needs to be over the conditions that precede any particular ideological framing and conflict. On a practical level, we would be better off investing money and resources where it is needed most and in ways that practically improve lives, rather than simply imprisoning populations into submission and bombing entire societies into oblivion, either of which worsens the problems for those people and for everyone else as well. The best way to fight crime and terrorism would be by improving the lives for all people. Imagine that!

The only reason we can have a public debate now is because we have finally come to the point in society where conditions have improved just enough where these issues are finally comprehensible, as we have begun to see their real world impact in improving society. It would have been fruitless trying to have a public debate about public goods such as public healthcare and public education in centuries past when even the notion of a ‘public’ still seemed radical. The conditions for a public with a voice to be heard had to first be created. Once that was in place, it is unsurprising that it required radicals like socialists to take it to the next level in suggesting the creation of public sanitation and public bakeries, based on the idea that health was a priority, if not an individual right then a social responsibility. Now, these kinds of socialist policies have become the norm in Western societies, the most basic level of a social safety net.

As I began reading McAuliffe’s book, I came across Higgs’ book. It wasn’t immediately apparent that there was a connection between the two. Reading some reviews and interviews showed the importance Higgs placed on the role (hyper-)individualism has played this past century. And upon perusing the book, it became clear that he understood how this went beyond philosophy and politics, touching upon every aspect of our society, most certainly including science.

It was useful thinking about the issue of micro-organisms in a larger historical context. McAuliffe doesn’t shy away from the greater implications, but her writing was focused on a single area of study. To both of these books, we could also add such things as the research on epigentics which might further help transform our entire understanding of humanity. Taken together, it is clear that we are teetering on the edge of a paradigm shift, of the extent only seen a few times before. We live in a transitional era, but it isn’t a smooth transition. As Higgs argues, the 20th century has been a rupture, what having developed not being fully explicable according to what came before.

We are barely beginning to scratch the surface of our own ignorance, which is to say our potential new knowledge. We know just enough to realize how wrong mainstream views have been in the past. Our society was built upon and has been operating according to beliefs that have been proven partial, inaccurate, and false. The world is more complex and fascinating than we previously acknowledged.

Realizing we have been so wrong, how do we make it right going forward? What will it take for us to finally confront what we’ve ignored for so long? How do we make the strange familiar?

* * *

Donald Trump: Stranger Than We Can Imagine?
by David McConkey

Why Jeremy Corbyn makes sense in the age of the selfie
By John Higgs

Stranger Than We Can Imagine:
Making Sense of the Twentieth Century
by John Higgs
pp. 308-310

In the words of the American social physicist Alex Pentland, “It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognised that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric. Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining the public good.” Pentland and his team distributed smartphones loaded with tracking software to a number of communities in order to study the vast amount of data the daily interactions of large groups generated. They found that the overriding factor in a whole range of issues, from income to weight gain and voting intentions, was not individual free will but the influence of others. The most significant factor deciding whether you would eat a doughnut was not willpower or good intentions, but whether everyone else in the office took one. As Pentland discovered, “The single biggest factor driving adoption of new behaviours was the behaviour of peers. Put another way, the effects of this implicit social learning were roughly the same size as the influence of your genes on your behaviour, or your IQ on your academic performance.”

A similar story is told by the research into child development and neuroscience. An infant is not born with language, logic and an understanding of how to behave in society. They are instead primed to acquire these skills from others. Studies of children who have been isolated from the age of about six months, such as those abandoned in the Romanian orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, show that they can never recover from the lost social interaction at that crucial age. We need others, it turns out, in order to develop to the point where we’re able to convince ourselves that we don’t need others.

Many aspects of our behaviour only make sense when we understand their social role. Laughter, for example, creates social bonding and strengthens ties within a group. Evolution did not make us make those strange noises for our own benefit. In light of this, it is interesting that there is so much humour on the internet.

Neuroscientists have come to view our sense of “self,” the idea that we are a single entity making rational decisions, as no more than a quirk of the mind. Brain-scanning experiments have shown that the mental processes that lead to an action, such as deciding to press a button, occur a significant period before the conscious brain believes it makes the decision to press the button. This does not indicate a rational individual exercising free will. It portrays the conscious mind as more of a spin doctor than a decision maker, rationalising the actions of the unconscious mind after the fact. As the Canadian-British psychologist Bruce Hood writes, “Our brain creates the experience of our self as a model – a cohesive, integrated character – to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout our lifetime.”

In biology an “individual” is an increasingly complicated word to define. A human body, for example, contains ten times more non-human bacteria than it does human cells. Understanding the interaction between the two, from the immune system to the digestive organs, is necessary to understand how we work. This means that the only way to study a human is to study something more than that human.

Individualism trains us to think of ourselves as isolated, self-willed units. That description is not sufficient, either biologically, socially, psychologically, emotionally or culturally. This can be difficult to accept if you were raised in the twentieth century, particularly if your politics use the idea of a free individual as your primary touchstone. The promotion of individualism can become a core part of a person’s identity, and something that must be defended. This is ironic, because where did that idea come from? Was it created by the person who defends their individualism? Does it belong to them? In truth, that idea was, like most ideas, just passing through.

* * *

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder

The Desperate Acting Desperately

Homelessness and Mental Illness

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Morality-Punishment Link

Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

Moral Flynn Effect?

Racists Losing Ground: Moral Flynn Effect?

Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?

Of Mice and Men and Environments

What do we inherit? And from whom?

Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

No One Knows

Cynicism and Trust

Cynicism and trust are competing forces.

These are mutually exclusive factors where the increase of one causes or contributes to the decrease of the other. With a cynical attitude, people withdraw from social relationships based on a larger sense of trust. As people withdraw their sense of trust, they lessen their commitment to acting trustworthy toward others and are less willing to put themselves on the line to help promote an environment of trust. Thus, cynicism replacing trust, society becomes atomized leading to the dominance of Social Darwinism and hyper-individualism.

Social trust exists in concentric circles: family, church, community, region, country, ethnicity/race, etc. Some societies have high trust cultures and others low trust cultures. All things remaining stable, high trust cultures are concomitant with and sustaining of high trust social organization. The same with low trust cultures and social organization. It’s a reciprocal relation. However, not all things remain unchanging.

The United States has a relatively high trust culture, although not as high as Japan and many Northern European countries. On the other hand, the US has some clear dysfunctions related to low trust. I think this conflict has to do with it being a large and diverse society, but fortunately with many citizens of ancestries from countries that are high trust (such as Germany). Certain US regions (such as those with low rates of German ancestry) have cultures of low trust, the Deep South being the prime example. This regionalism has created clear dysfunction on the federal level of government, but at the same time a high trust form of democracy continues to operate within certain local communities and governments.

The conditions in the US have changed greatly. This has shifted the level and extension of trust. These changes involve various balances of power – between: South and North, federal and states, elites and non-elites, left and right, etc.

Many Americans have lost a wider sense of trust. Partly, it’s just the inevitable atomizing destruction of community that results from globalized capitalism. But there is more to it. Modernity, in general, is about societal change: secularization, multiculturalism, urbanization, suburbanization, and many other factors. Humans have evolved to adapt to change, but this is more change than humans can collectively deal with in a healthy way.

This hits certain groups harder than others. The lower classes, of course, get the brunt of it and they also have the least resources to soften the impact. For reasons of psychological traits, conservatives deal with it the worse or maybe it’s that conservatives become the worst in dealing with it. There is nothing in the world that even comes close to the cynicism of a conservative turned reactionary.

We moderns so often take trust for granted, except when there is societal tumult or breakdown. Human nature is built on group cohesion which necessitates trust. Civilization magnifies this requirement of social capital. At the same time, the development of civilization has undermined what makes trust possible as an expression of human nature and human communities. Humans didn’t evolve in large, concentrated societies and so human nature isn’t adapted well to these conditions.

Some societies apparently have maintained their cultures of trust over the centuries, but modernization has made this increasingly difficult. The exceptional countries are those that have maintained some basic level of cultural (often ethnic) isolation, economic independence, and societal autonomy. This has mostly applied to Northern societies such as Germany and Scandinavia.

The US is somewhere in the middle on the scale of trust. We have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of high trust cultures, but we also have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of low trust cultures. This is one of the divisions underlying the regionalism of North/South. Germans and Scandinavians mostly settled the North. Scots-Irish, Barbadoans, etc mostly settled the South.

It’s interesting that early capitalism favored the high trust culture of the North and more recent capitalism has shifted increasingly to the low trust culture of the South. Capitalism is an odd system in that it needs a high trust culture to develop into large-scale international corporations, but capitalism seeks out low trust cultures to exploit for profits. So, capitalism uses high trust cultures for its own ends which ultimately undermines those very high trust cultures. The only exceptions to this seems to be extremely well developed cultures of trust that enforce massive regulation and social/moral control over the economic sector. The US mixed culture of trust/mistrust makes a perfect location for modern exploitative capitalism.

Of course, this is problematic for democracy in the US and many other countries.

Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

I was visiting my brother and his family up in Minnesota. My sister-in-law at one point brought up the topic of pacifiers. She had taken the pacifier away from her daughter a while back because there can be problems if pacifiers are used for too long. I commented that pacifiers aren’t even necessary since babies have been fine without them for millennia.

My sister-in-law gave a response that got me thinking. She said that it helps babies to learn self-soothing. It instantly hit me that the pacifier is a tool of enculturation. It is used to create self-independence and thus create the sense of individualism that is so highly prized here in the West, especially the US.

I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.

We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.

All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.

America’s Hyper-Individualism: a tale of deception & immorality

American Exceptionalism Subsides
The American-Western European Values Gap

In America, religion is considered important.

However, this religiosity is more about individual salvation than helping those in need.

From this individualistic worldview, Americans believe individuals control their own lives.

This individualism is extended to national isolationism where we believe in only helping our own country.

This individualism goes beyond moral principles and touches on a sense of selfish entitlement to interfere with others, even though we show little desire to actually help them.

American’s love individualism in all forms and have faith that individuals can solve their own problems (a convenient rationalization for a country that causes so much misery around the world and allows so much misery to continue in its own borders). Despite this individualism, actual data shows individual Americans have one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world.

Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 3)

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

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

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

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

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

– – – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

  – – – 

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

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

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

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

 – – – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 – – – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 – – – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless violence. Endless stupidity.

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

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

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