Just Smile.

“Pain in the conscious human is thus very different from that in any other species. Sensory pain never exists alone except in infancy or perhaps under the influence of morphine when a patient says he has pain but does not mind it. Later, in those periods after healing in which the phenomena usually called chronic pain occur, we have perhaps a predominance of conscious pain.”
~Julian Jaynes, Sensory Pain and Conscious Pain

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a child react to a cut or stumble only after their parent(s) freaked out. Children are highly responsive to adults. If others think something bad has happened, they internalize this and act accordingly. Kids will do anything to conform to expectations. But most kids seem impervious to pain, assuming they don’t get the message that they are expected to put on an emotional display.

This difference can be seen when comparing how a child acts by themselves and how they act around a parent or other authority figure. You’ll sometimes see a kid looking around to see if their is an audience paying attention before crying or having a tantrum. We humans are social creatures and our behavior is always social. This is naturally understood even by infants who have an instinct for social cues and social response.

Pain is a physical sensation, an experience that passes, whereas suffering is in the mind, a story we tell ourselves. This is why trauma can last for decades after a bad experience. The sensory pain is gone but the conscious pain continues. We keep repeating a story.

It’s interesting that some cultures like the Piraha don’t appear to experience trauma from the exact same events that would traumatize a modern Westerner. Neither is depression and anxiety common among them. Nor an obsessive fear about death. Not only are the Piraha physically tougher but psychologically tougher as well. Apparently, they tell different stories that embody other expectations.

So, what kind of society is it that we’ve created with our Jaynesian consciousness of traumatized hyper-sensitivity and psychological melodrama? Why are we so attached to our suffering and victimization? What does this story offer us in return? What power does it hold over us? What would happen if we changed the master narrative of our society in replacing the competing claims of victimhood with an entirely different way of relating? What if outward performances of suffering were no longer expected or rewarded?

For one, we wouldn’t have a man-baby like Donald Trump as our national leader. He is the perfect personification of this conscious pain crying out for attention. And we wouldn’t have had the white victimhood that put him into power. But neither would we have any of the other victimhoods that these particular whites were reacting to. The whole culture of victimization would lose its power.

The social dynamic would be something else entirely. It’s hard to imagine what that might be. We’re addicted to the melodrama and we carefully enculturate and indoctrinate each generation to follow our example. To shake us loose from our socially constructed reality would require a challenge to our social order. The extremes of conscious pain isn’t only about our way of behaving. It is inseparable from how we maintain the world we are so desperately attached to.

We need the equivalent, in the cartoon below, of how this father relates to his son. But we need it on the collective level. Or at least we need this in the United States. What if the rest of the world simply stopped reacting to American leaders and American society? Just smile.

Image may contain: text

Credit: The basic observation and the cartoon was originally shared by Mateus Barboza on the Facebook group “Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.

Stress and Shittiness

What causes heart disease – Part 63
by Malcolm Kendrick

To keep this simple, and stripping terminology down things down to basics, the concept I am trying to capture, and the word that I am going to use, here to describe the factor that can affect entire populations is ‘psychosocial stress’. By which I mean an environment where there is breakdown of community and support structures, often poverty, with physical threats and suchlike. A place where you would not really want to walk down the road unaccompanied.

This can be a zip code in the US, known as postcode in the UK. It can be a bigger physical area than that, such as a county, a town, or whole community – which could be split across different parts of a country. Such as native Americans living in areas that are called reservations.

On the largest scale it is fully possible for many countries to suffer from major psychosocial stress at the same time. […] Wherever you look, you can see that populations that have been exposed to significant social dislocation, and major psychosocial stressors, have extremely high rate of coronary heart disease/cardiovascular disease.

The bad news is we’re dying early in Britain – and it’s all down to ‘shit-life syndrome’
by Will Hutton

Britain and America are in the midst of a barely reported public health crisis. They are experiencing not merely a slowdown in life expectancy, which in many other rich countries is continuing to lengthen, but the start of an alarming increase in death rates across all our populations, men and women alike. We are needlessly allowing our people to die early.

In Britain, life expectancy, which increased steadily for a century, slowed dramatically between 2010 and 2016. The rate of increase dropped by 90% for women and 76% for men, to 82.8 years and 79.1 years respectively. Now, death rates among older people have so much increased over the last two years – with expectations that this will continue – that two major insurance companies, Aviva and Legal and General, are releasing hundreds of millions of pounds they had been holding as reserves to pay annuities to pay to shareholders instead. Society, once again, affecting the citadels of high finance.

Trends in the US are more serious and foretell what is likely to happen in Britain without an urgent change in course. Death rates of people in midlife(between 25 and 64) are increasing across the racial and ethnic divide. It has long been known that the mortality rates of midlife American black and Hispanic people have been worse than the non-Hispanic white population, but last week the British Medical Journal published an important study re-examining the trends for all racial groups between 1999 and 2016 .

The malaises that have plagued the black population are extending to the non-Hispanic, midlife white population. As the report states: “All cause mortality increased… among non-Hispanic whites.” Why? “Drug overdoses were the leading cause of increased mortality in midlife, but mortality also increased for alcohol-related conditions, suicides and organ diseases involving multiple body systems” (notably liver, heart diseases and cancers).

US doctors coined a phrase for this condition: “shit-life syndrome”. Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighbourhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.

The UK is not just suffering shit-life syndrome. We’re also suffering shit-politician syndrome.
by Richard Murphy

Will Hutton has an article in the Guardian in which he argues that the recent decline in the growth of life expectancy in the UK (and its decline in some parts) is down to what he describes as ‘shit-life syndrome’. This is the state where life is reduced to an exercise in mere survival as a result of the economic and social oppression lined up against those suffering the condition. And, as he points out, those suffering are not just those on the economic and social margins of society. In the UK, as in the US, the syndrome is spreading.

The reasons for this can be debated. I engaged in such argument in my book The Courageous State. In that book I argued that we live in a world where those with power do now, when they identify a problem, run as far as they might from it and say the market will find a solution. The market won’t do that. It is designed not to do so. Those suffering shit-life syndrome have, by default, little impact on the market. That’s one of the reasons why they are suffering the syndrome in the first place. That is why so much of current politics has turned a blind eye to this issue.

And they get away with it. That’s because the world of make belief advertising which drives the myths that underpin the media, and in turn out politics, simply pretends such a syndrome does not exist whilst at the same time perpetually reinforcing the sense of dissatisfaction that is at its core.

With Brexit, It’s the Geography, Stupid
by Dawn Foster

One of the major irritations of public discourse after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote has been the complete poverty of analysis on the reasons behind different demographics’ voting preferences. Endless time, energy, and media attention has been afforded to squabbling over the spending of each campaign for and against continued European Union membership — and now more on the role social media played in influencing the vote — mirroring the arguments in the United States that those who voted to Leave were, like Trump voters, unduly influenced by shady political actors, with little transparency behind political ads and social media tactics.

It’s a handy distraction from the root causes in the UK: widening inequality, but also an increasingly entrenched economic system that is geographically specific, meaning your place of birth and rearing has far more influence over how limited your life is than anything within your control: work, education and life choices.

Across Britain, territorial injustice is growing: for decades, London has boomed in comparison to the rest of the country, with more and more wealth being sucked towards the southeast and other regions being starved of resources, jobs and infrastructure as a result. A lack of secure and well-remunerated work doesn’t just determine whether you can get by each month without relying on social security to make ends meet, but also all aspects of your health, and the health of your children. A recent report by researchers at Cambridge University examined the disproportionate effect of central government cuts on local authorities and services: inner city areas with high rates of poverty, and former industrial areas were hardest hit. Mia Gray, one of the authors of the Cambridge report said: “Ever since vast sums of public money were used to bail out the banks a decade ago, the British people have been told that there is no other choice but austerity imposed at a fierce and relentless rate. We are now seeing austerity policies turn into a downward spiral of disinvestment in certain people and places. This could affect the life chances of entire generations born in the wrong part of the country.”

Life expectancy is perhaps the starkest example. In many other rich countries, life expectancy continues to grow. In the United Kingdom it is not only stalling, but in certain regions falling. The gap between the north and south of England reveals the starkest gap in deaths among young people: in 2015, 29.3 percent more 25-34-year-olds died in the north of England than the south. For those aged 35-44, the number of deaths in the north was 50 percent higher than the south.

In areas left behind economically, such as the ex-mining towns in the Welsh valleys, the post-industrial north of England, and former seaside holiday destinations that have been abandoned as people plump for cheap European breaks, doctors informally describe the myriad tangle of health, social and economic problems besieging people as “Shit Life Syndrome”. The term, brought to public attention by the Financial Times, sounds flippant, but it attempts to tease out the cumulative impact of strict and diminished life chances, poor health worsened by economic circumstances, and the effects of low paid work and unemployment on mental health, and lifestyle issues such as smoking, heavy drinking, and lack of exercise, factors worsened by a lack of agency in the lives of people in the most deprived areas. Similar to “deaths of despair” in the United States, Shit Life Syndrome leads to stark upticks in avoidable deaths due to suicide, accidents, and overdoses: several former classmates who remained in the depressed Welsh city I grew up in have taken their own lives, overdosed, or died as a result of accidents caused by alcohol or drugs. Their lives prior to death were predictably unhappy, but the opportunity to turn things around simply didn’t exist. To move away, you need money and therefore a job. The only vacancies that appear pay minimum wage, and usually you’re turned away without interview.

Simply put, it’s a waste of lives on an industrial scale, but few people notice or care. One of the effects of austerity is the death of public spaces people can gather without being forced to spend money. Youth clubs no longer exist, and public health officials blame their demise on the rise in teenagers becoming involved in gangs and drug dealing in inner cities. Libraries are closing at a rate of knots, despite the government requiring all benefits claims to be submitted via computers. More and more public spaces and playgrounds are being sold off to land-hungry developers, forcing more and more people to shoulder their misery alone, depriving them of spaces and opportunities to meet people and socialise. Shame is key in perpetuating the sense that poverty is deserved, but isolation and loneliness help exacerbate the self-hatred that stops you fighting back against your circumstances.

“Shit-Life Syndrome” (Oxycontin Blues)
by Curtis Price

In narrowing drug use to a legal or public health problem, as many genuinely concerned about the legal and social consequences of addiction will argue, I believe a larger politics and political critique gets lost (This myopia is not confined to drug issues. From what I’ve seen, much of the “social justice” perspective in the professional care industry is deeply conservative; what gets argued for amounts to little more than increased funding for their own services and endless expansion of non-profits). Drug use, broadly speaking, doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It is a thermometer for social misery and the more social misery, the greater the use. In other words, it’s not just a matter of the properties of the drug or the psychological states of the individual user, but also of the social context in which such actions play out.

If we accept this as a yardstick, then it’s no accident then that the loss of the 1984-1985 U.K. Miners’ Strike, with the follow-on closure of the pits and destruction of pit communities’ tight-knit ways of life, triggered widespread heroin use (2). What followed the defeat of the Miners’ Strike only telescoped into a few years the same social processes that in much of the U.S. were drawn out, more prolonged, insidious, and harder to detect. Until, that is, the mortality rates – that canary in the epidemiological coalmine -sharply rose to everyone’s shock.

US doctors have coined a phrase for the underlying condition of which drug use and alcoholism is just part: “shit-life syndrome.” As Will Hutton in the Guardian describes it,

“Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighborhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer”(3).

This accurately sums up “shit-life syndrome.” So, by all means, end locking up non-violent drug offenders and increase drug treatment options. But as worthwhile as these steps may be, they will do nothing to alter “shit-life syndrome.” “Shit-life syndrome” is just one more expression of the never-ending cruelty of capitalism, an underlying cruelty inherent in the way the system operates, that can’t be reformed out, and won’t disappear until new ways of living and social organization come into place.

The Human Kind, A Doctor’s Stories From The Heart Of Medicine
Peter Dorward
p. 155-157

It’s not like this for all kinds of illness, of course. Illness, by and large, is as solid and real as the chair I’m sitting on: and nothing I say or believe about it will change its nature. That’s what people mean when they describe an illness as ‘real’. You can see it and touch it, and if you can’t do that, then at least you can measure it. You can weigh a tumour; you can see on the screen the ragged outline of the plaque of atheroma in your coronary artery which is occluded and crushing the life out of you, and you would be mad to question the legitimacy of this condition that prompts the wiry cardiologist to feed the catheter down the long forks and bends of your clogged arterial tree in order to feed an expanding metal stent into the blocked artery and save you.

No one questions the reality and medical legitimacy of those things in the world that can be seen, felt, weighed, touched. That creates a deep bias in the patient; it creates a profound preference among us, the healers.

But a person is interactive . Minds can’t exist independently of other minds: that’s the nature of our kind. The names we have for things in the world and the way that we choose to talk about them affect how we experience them. Our minds are made of language, and grammar, intentions, emotions, perceptions and memory. We can only experience the world through the agency of our minds, and how our minds interact with others. Science is a great tool for talking about the external world: the world that is indifferent to what we think. Science doesn’t begin to touch the other, inner, social stuff. And that’s a challenge in medicine. You need other tools for that.

‘Shit-life syndrome,’ offers Becky, whose skin is so pale it looks translucent, who wears white blouses with little ruffs buttoned to the top and her blonde hair in plaits, whose voice is vicarage English and in whose mouth shit life sounds anomalous. Medicine can have this coarsening effect. ‘Shit-life syndrome provides the raw material. We doctors do all the rest.’

‘Go on…’

‘That’s all I ever seem to see in GP. People whose lives are non-specifically crap. Women single parenting too many children, doing three jobs which they hate, with kids on Ritalin, heads wrecked by smartphone and tablet parenting. Women who hate their bodies and have a new diagnosis of diabetes because they’re too fat. No wonder they want a better diagnosis! What am I meant to do?’

I like to keep this tutorial upbeat. I don’t like it to become a moan-fest, which is pointless and damaging. Yet, I don’t want to censor.

‘… Sometimes I feel like a big stone, dropped into a river of pain. I create a few eddies around me, the odd wave or ripple, but the torrent just goes on…’

‘… I see it different. It’s worse! I think half the time we actually cause the problems. Or at least we create our own little side channels in the torrent. Build dams. Deep pools of misery of our own creation!’

That’s Nadja. She’s my trainee. And I recognise something familiar in what she is saying – the echo of something that I have said to her. It’s flattering, and depressing.

‘For example, take the issuing of sick notes. They’re the worst. We have all of these people who say they’re depressed, or addicted, or stressed, who stay awake all night because they can’t sleep for worry, and sleep all day so they can’t work, and they say they’re depressed or anxious, or have backache or work-related stress, and we drug them up and sign them off, but what they’re really suffering from are the symptoms of chronic unemployment and the misery of poverty, which are the worst illnesses that there are! And every time I sign one of these sick notes, I feel another little flake chipped off my integrity. You’re asking about vectors for social illness? Sick notes! It’s like we’re … shitting in the river, and worrying about the cholera!’

Strong words. I need to speak to Nadja about her intemperate opinions…

‘At least, that’s what he keeps saying,’ says Nadja, nodding at me.

Nadja’s father was a Croatian doctor, who fled the war there. Brought up as she was, at her father’s knee, on his stories of war and torture, of driving his motorbike between Kiseljac and Sarajevo and all the villages in between with his medical bag perched on the back to do his house calls, she can never quite believe the sorts of things that pass for ‘suffering’ here. It doesn’t make Nadja a more compassionate doctor. She sips her coffee, with a smile.

Aly, the one training to be an anaesthetist-traumatologist, says, ‘We shouldn’t do it. Simple as that. It’s just not medicine. We should confine ourselves to the physical, and send the rest to a social worker, or a counsellor or a priest. No more sick notes, no more doing the dirty work of governments. If society has a problem with unemployment, that’s society’s problem, not mine. No more convincing people that they’re sick. No more prescriptions for crap drugs that don’t work. If you can’t see it or measure it, it isn’t real. We’re encouraging all this pseudo-­illness with our sick notes and our crap drugs. What’s our first duty? Do no harm! End of.’

She’ll be a great trauma doctor, no doubt about it.

* * *

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
Rate And Duration of Despair
Trauma, Embodied and Extended
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
Society and Dysfunction
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
To Grow Up Fast
Individualism and Isolation
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms
On Conflict and Stupidity
Connecting the Dots of Violence
Inequality in the Anthropocene
Morality-Punishment Link

Percentages of Suffering and Death

Steven Pinker’s theory of decreasing violence is worth taking seriously. There is an element of truth to what he says. And I do find compelling what he calls the Moral Flynn Effect. But I’ve long suspected violent death rates are highly skewed. Depending on what is being measured and how, it can be argued that there has been a decrease in the rate of homicides and war fatalities. But there are others that argue these numbers are inaccurate or deceiving.

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

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

It’s similar to how one looks at all kinds of data. In the US, blacks now have freedom as they didn’t in the past. Yet there are more blacks in US prisons right now than there once were blacks in slavery. And in the world, slavery is officially abolished which is a great moral victory. Yet there are more people in slavery right now than there were during the height of slavery prior to the American Civil War. Sure, the imprisoned and enslaved at present are a smaller percentage of the total population. But for those imprisoned and enslaved, that is no comfort. For each person harmed, that harm is 100% in their personal experience.

It’s hard to argue that an increasing number of the oppressed is a sign of the moral arc of history bending toward justice. Even assuming violence rates are decreasing, a highly questionable assumption, morality is not and cannot be measured in percentages. Suffering is a total experience.

* * *

Sex at Dawn
by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
p. 185 (from A Fistful of Science)

Only one of the seven societies cited by Pinker (the Murngin) even approaches being an immediate-return foraging society … The Murngin had been living with missionaries, guns, and aluminum powerboats for decades by the time the data Pinker cites were collected in 1975 — not exactly prehistoric conditions.

None of the other societies cited by Pinker are immediate-return hunter-gatherers, like our ancestors were. They cultivate yams, bananas, or sugarcane in village gardens, while raising domesticated pigs, llamas, or chickens. Even beyond the fact that these societies are not remotely representative of our nomadic, immediate-return hunter-gatherer ancestors, there are still further problems with the data Pinker cites. Among the Yanomami, true levels of warfare are subject to passionate debate among anthropologists… The Murngin are not typical even of Australian native cultures, representing a bloody exception to the typical Australian Aborigine pattern of little to no intergroup conflict. Nor does Pinker get the Gebusi right. Bruce Knauft, the anthropologist whose research Pinker cites on his chart, says the Gebusi’s elevated death rates had nothing to do with warfare. In fact, Knauft reports that warfare is “rare” among the Gebusi, writing, “Disputes over territory or resources are extremely infrequent and tend to be easily resolved.”

Steven Pinker: This Is History’s Most Peaceful Time–New Study: “Not So Fast”
by Bret Stetka, Scientific American

Still, there are many ways to look at the data—and quantifying the definition of a violent society. A study in Current Anthropology published online October 13 acknowledges the percentage of a population suffering violent war-related deaths—fatalities due to intentional conflict between differing communities—does decrease as a population grows. At the same time, though, the absolute numbers increase more than would be expected from just population growth. In fact, it appears, the data suggest, the overall battle-death toll in modern organized societies is exponentially higher than in hunter–gatherer societies surveyed during the past 200 years.

The study—led by anthropologists Dean Falk at The Florida State University and Charles Hildebolt at Washington University in Saint Louis—cut across cultures and species and compared annual war deaths for 11 chimpanzee communities, 24 hunter–gatherer or other nonstate groups and 19 and 22 countries that fought in World Wars I and II, respectively. Overall, the authors’ analysis shows the larger the population of a group of chimps, the lower their rate of annual deaths due to conflict. This, according to the authors, was not the case in human populations. People, their data show, have evolved to be more violent than chimps. And, despite high rates of violent death in comparison with population size, nonstate groups are on average no more or less violent than those living in organized societies.

Falk and Hildebolt point out Pinker’s claims are based on data looking at violent death rates per 100,000 people. They contend such ratios don’t take into account how overall population size alters war death tallies—in other words how those ratios change as a population grows, which their findings do. There is a strong trend for larger societies to lose smaller percentages of their members to war, Falk says, but the actual number of war deaths increases with growing population sizes.

Slow Violence
by Rob Nixon, The Chronicle

We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities. […]

The long dyings—the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological—are often not just incremental but exponential, operating as major threat multipliers. They can spur long-term, proliferating conflicts that arise from desperation as the conditions for sustaining life are degraded in ways that the corporate media seldom discuss. One hundred million unexploded land mines lie inches beneath our planet’s skin, from wars officially concluded decades ago. Whether in Cambodia, Laos, Somalia, or Angola, those still-active mines have made vast tracts of precious agricultural land and pastures no-go zones, further stressing oversubscribed resources and compounding malnutrition.

To confront slow violence is to take up, in all its temporal complexity, the politics of the visible and the invisible. That requires that we think through the ways that environmental-justice movements strategize to shift the balance of visibility, pushing back against the forces of temporal inattention that exacerbate injustices of class, gender, race, and region. For if slow violence is typically underrepresented in the media, such underrepresentation is exacerbated whenever (as typically happens) it is the poor who become its frontline victims, above all the poor in the Southern Hemisphere. Impoverished societies located mainly in the global South often have lax or unenforced environmental regulations, allowing transnational corporations (often in partnership with autocratic regimes) the liberty to exploit resources without redress. […]

Our temporal bias toward spectacular violence exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems treated as disposable by capitalism, while simultaneously intensifying the vulnerability of those whom the human-rights activist Kevin Bales has called “disposable people.”

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
by Timothy Morton
Kindle Locations 2154-2174

When we can see that far into the future and that far around Earth, a curious blindness afflicts us, a blindness far more mysterious than simple lack of sight, since we can precisely see so much more than ever. This blindness is a symptom of an already-existing intimacy with all lifeforms, knowledge of which is now thrust on us whether we like it or not.

Parfit’s assault on utilitarian self-interest takes us to the point at which we realize that we are not separate from our world. Humans must learn to care for fatal substances that will outlast them and their descendants beyond any meaningful limit of self-interest. What we need is an ethics of the other, an ethics based on the proximity of the stranger. The decision in the 1990s, rapidly overturned, to squirrel plutonium away into knives and forks and other domestic objects appears monstrous, and so would any attempt to “work” it into something convenient. Hyperobjects insist that we care for them in the open. “Out of sight, out of mind” is strictly untenable. There is no “away” to throw plutonium in. We are stuck with it, in the same way as we are stuck with our biological bodies. Plutonium finds itself in the position of the “neighbor” in Abrahamic religions— that awkward condition of being alien and intimate at the very same time.

The enormity of very large finitude hollows out my decisions from the inside. Now every time I so much as change a confounded light bulb, I have to think about global warming. It is the end of the world, because I can see past the lip of the horizon of human worlding. Global warming reaches into “my world” and forces me to use LEDs instead of bulbs with filaments. This aspect of the Heideggerian legacy begins to teeter under the weight of the hyperobject. The normative defense of worlds looks wrongheaded. 39 The ethical and political choices become much clearer and less divisive if we begin to think of pollution and global warming and radiation as effects of hyperobjects rather than as flows or processes that can be managed. These flows are often eventually shunted into some less powerful group’s backyard. The Native American tribe must deal with the radioactive waste. The African American family must deal with the toxic chemical runoff. The Nigerian village must deal with the oil slick. Rob Nixon calls this the slow violence of ecological oppression. 40 It is helpful to think of global warming as something like an ultra slow motion nuclear bomb. The incremental effects are almost invisible, until an island disappears underwater. Poor people— who include most of us on Earth at this point— perceive the ecological emergency not as degrading an aesthetic picture such as world but as an accumulation of violence that nibbles at them directly.

The Desperate Acting Desperately

There was a shooting of a police officer a little over a week ago. Both men involved died, a murder-suicide. It happened in Flagstaff, AZ. I lived there for a time and so it caught my attention. Also, what stood out to me was the story behind the shooting.

I saw it reported by Michelle McManimon in the Arizona Daily Sun. It was a surprisingly thoughtful and respectful piece. I particularly liked that an explanation is given for what was going on that led up to the altercation. Most mainstream reporting rarely ever explains much of anything at all, just leaving the reader with the impression that sometimes people do scary things for no reason other than being crazy or bad.

McManimon begins her report by stating about the shooter, Robert W. Smith, that, “It was the intense pain and four nights without sleep, not the police officer or any psychosis, that drove him to pull the trigger.” The shooter didn’t have a long, sordid history of crime, violence, abusive behavior, drug addiction, or psychiatric issues. Besides having gone without sleep, he “had not been able to eat for at least two days… because of the pain from his tooth infection”

There was no evidence that he had planned the shooting. His friend thinks he had the gun in his pocket because he was contemplating suicide. That friend suspects that, when the officer went to search him, Smith panicked. He probably wasn’t in a normal, rational state of mind at that point. The infection was severe and the pain was pushing him to the edge. As his friend explained, “I know he felt completely backed into a corner with no way out.”

It wasn’t just a toothache. It had gotten extremely bad, way beyond what most people have ever experienced or could imagine.

“His teeth were falling out,” his friend said. “It had gotten to the point where he had a severe jaw infection and he had nothing he could do about it. He didn’t have insurance. He was in severe pain. He didn’t have any pain meds for it except maybe Tylenol.”

Smith put it in simpler terms when he texted to a friend that, “My tooth is killing me.” That wasn’t even necessarily an exaggeration as infections that enter the jaw can easily kill someone.

This is the type of situation we don’t think about happening in the modern developed world. It is hard for most of us to imagine how desperate he must have felt. The reason the police officer was talking to Smith was because of a fight he had with his girlfriend. In his texting to his friend, he said that, “My tooth hurt so bad I lost control.”

He visited a dentist who told him that it would cost $20,000 out of pocket since he had no insurance, money he did not have. The fear and shame of going in debt or going bankrupt apparently kept him from getting treatment.

Plus, he just wasn’t in a state of mind to think straight about his options. He needed someone to represent him and look out for his interests. Simply put, he needed help, but didn’t know where to turn.

Yet it wasn’t for a lack of asking for help. He told his problem to anyone who would listen. He stated it in no uncertain terms, and he pleaded for help:

“I’m too scared to go anywhere,” Smith said. “I (expletive) need help.”

He turned everywhere he could. From what I can tell, his friends offered him no practical help. He had just spent several days with his family because of Christmas and obviously didn’t get any assistance there either. Also, neither the dentist nor the officer gave him guidance about how to get his tooth treated. There had to have been a free medical clinic he could have turned to or maybe some kind of government assistance, but he didn’t know how to find it and no one was making it easy for him to find it.

He was left to deal with his own suffering and desperation, as best he could, which basically meant doing nothing at all.

This case is important because of what it says about our society. There are a lot of suffering and desperate people in communities all across this country. The police shooting part is less usual, but homicide and suicide are far from unusual. If not that, others turn to drugs to numb the pain or escape from a dark reality and an uncaring world, which might end up with death by overdose or else incarceration. Still others might turn to crime (drug-dealing, prostitution, theft, etc). in order to get money or simply out of a sense of hopelessness, which also often leads to bad ends.

Desperate people do desperate things. Then we act surprised when that sometimes leads to violence. Yet most of this could easily be prevented, if we cared as a society. Many developed countries take better care of their citizens. It would cost a lot less to pay for basic needs (healthcare, housing, etc) than to deal with the costs of not dealing with social problems.

However, it isn’t about rational cost analysis. That misses the more fundamental point.

I don’t think it as an issue of people not understanding and so getting them to understand. At some basic level, I suspect most Americans already know about all of this.

It isn’t an accident that our society is structured this way. Such misery and despair isn’t just a side effect, an unintended consequence. No, it serves a direct purpose in maintaining the social order. In a Social Darwinian meritocracy, the losers of society must be made to suffer as a ‘natural’ consequence of their failure. The poor person with the excruciating toothache is being punished for being a lazy worthless degenerate. If he dies from lack of healthcare, that just takes him out of the Darwinian gene pool, as the Invisible Hand of God intended it in this great Christian nation.

The rate and duration of despair shift depending on various factors, but nothing really ever changes. We Americans have a hard time imagining it any other way. We know so much and yet we don’t know, because we refuse to know. It would be too scary to fully acknowledge reality and admit how fucked up is our society. We live in a world of stories… but I can’t help wondering what other stories we could tell ourselves.

Systemic Suckitude

I just wrote about my views on what I called a fucked up world. I was ranting about the failure of politics, specifically partisan and identity politics, to deal with real world suffering. It all comes down to rationalizing the problems of my group and scapegoating some other group.

It irritates me, to say the least.

I’ve never felt like I had a group. I don’t strongly identify with any social identity. It feels rather incidental and random that I was born a particular gender, race, nationality, class, etc. I can’t take credit or blame for these conditions of my fate.

Anyway, suffering doesn’t care all that much about your social identity. Anyone can suffer, although suffering is far worse for some. I mean, if you have a car accident or get some crippling disease, the animal reality of suffering is basically the same. Maybe you can get better pain drugs and a little bit more comfort, but no amount of wealth or privilege can solve the mystery of suffering.

I have a clear sense of this because of my personal experience. I’ve suffered severe depression for I guess more than a couple of decades now. I’ve had severe depression for most of my life now. I can hardly remember what life was like before it.

Depression is a unique category of suffering. Unlike the PTSD of a veteran or the physical disability of a parapalegic, depression typically has no obvious cause or reason, no obvious effect even. It pissed me off, when I first began struggling, because there was nothing I could point to and blame. It was some internal failure inside me that couldn’t even be pinpointed. There was no dramatic story to be shared about being abused or growing up poor, no political oppression or horrific racism.

Depression is just pure unadulterated suffering. My experience of it has allowed me to better grasp suffering on its own terms, and not get stuck on the proxies of suffering. Race is a proxy for class in our society, but then class is proxy of other things. Everything is a proxy of something else, except for our most intimate and direct experiences. Depression needs to be proxy for nothing. It just is.

This is what few understand about the essence of suffering. It ultimately doesn’t matter what causes your suffering because in reality there never is a single cause. Suffering is irreducible, humanity at its most fundamental. To understand suffering, we must understand the human condition.

Yes, this involves all those other factors that contribute and exacerbate suffering. I don’t mean to dismiss the objective realities of victims. But in a world of suffering, the struggle of individuals is never really individual nor even demographic. Your social identity will offer you little comfort or protection from this shared human condition enmeshed in a shared society. It is the entire world that is fucked up. It is systemic suckitude.

Social labels only separate us from this harsh reality.

Moral Accounting Versus Shared Suffering

There is a game humans play. It is about counting wrongdoings and measuring suffering. Whoever has had the worst experience, whoever has suffered the most wins. You get extra points for being a victim.

This is something all people do, left and right, women and men, young and old. Everyone has something that has hurt them or something they fear will hurt them. Some of these ’causes’ seem more objectively valid than others, but they all are real within the person’s experience.

This is the game of moral accounting. I don’t mean to judge this game as wrong. I’m one to do moral accounting when it comes to social problems. And I’ve been known to do it on a personal level. My long-term severe depression is the cross I bear. Through it, my understanding of the world feels justified. I have suffered. I know suffering. But so have almost everyone, one way or another. We all need to remind ourselves that we aren’t special, that our suffering isn’t unique.

How can I say my suffering is greater or less? There is no way to compare suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering, the great equalizer. Obviously, in this life, suffering hits some people far worse than others. Yet we are incapable of being objective about it. Our own suffering is always worse, in our own experience.

Too easily, suffering can shut us down, close us off, isolate us from the world and from other people. Suffering, sadly, often divides us from the larger experience of shared human suffering, an experience that would lead us to compassion, even when we can never truly understand the suffering of another.

Why is this embracing of compassion so difficult? Why do we nurse our wounds as if from them we could shape weapons and armor to defend ourselves with? What do we fear would happen if others discovered our secret pain, if we just let our suffering be?

 

Racism Without Racists: Victimization & Silence

Violence, what does it mean? Whose violence against whom? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t violence? The victor? The imprisoner? The ruling powers, whomever they may be?

Who is the real victim and who is the real victimizer in this contest for power, this fight for freedom and justice? In what sense does might make right? Why do we so willingly accept the history written by the victors?

The world is full of violence, the United States most of all. This country, my country, our country (for my fellow Americans) has a long history of ethnic cleansing, slavery, oppression, war, conquest, punishment, exploitation, and imperialism. Violence in all of its forms. The U.S. is the most violent country among affluent nations. We spend more money on our military and we imprison more of our citizens than any country in history. There has never been a more powerful empire.

Living in a society of violence, how do we talk about violence? It isn’t just data like homicide rates. Such data is a small percentage of total violence.

I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin:

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

An earlier version is even more apt, from the Watertown Daily Times citing a “crazy statesman” (1939):

“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”

Violence, at its most basic, is about suffering. It is a matter of who does and doesn’t feel suffering, who inflicts the suffering and who is inflicted. This brings us to the issue of compassion and lack thereof. These are more complex issues than the simplistic data collected by bureaucrats and academics, data-collecting that can at times verge closer to sociopathy than to compassion. The demands of objectivity, as a recent study has shown, often have a deadening effect on our ability to empathize. People are living beings with hopes and fears, not numbers, not statistics. When looking at data as we are wont to do, we must never forget what that data represents, the human reality.

I’ve struggled with understanding the suffering and violence that I see all around me, understanding it on the human level. It can feel overwhelming and senseless. How does one find humanity within inhumanity? How does one find meaning in it all?

I’m not sure about meaning, but I have come across one particular articulation and portrayal that offers a larger context to begin considering it more deeply. I speak of the work of Derrick Jensen, specifically two of his earliest books: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. For many years, I searched and searched for even a glimpse of understanding. Jensen’s work was the first voice to give voice to my own sense of suffering. It felt like an acknowledgement, a validation of what I knew in my own experience, a breaking through the isolation of silence like a glimmer of light in the dark.

“If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be. When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic — I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’ So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this eternal and internal propaganda system. At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”
~ Derrick Jensen quoting David Edwards, The Culture of Make Believe, pp 141-142

Jensen offers two main explanations: the victimization cycle and dissociation.

The victimization cycle is a framework to make sense of how violence perpetuates itself. The line between victim and victimizer is very thin. This is demonstrated by how victimizers often have histories of victimization, typically in childhood. Jensen makes a good case for putting this into the terms of our collective history, violence endlessly leading to more violence.

Dissociation, however, is the key that unlocks the mechanism of victimization. This is how we are silenced, blinded, numbed.

Jensen uses many examples, but one stands out. In Nazi Germany, there were many doctors who did horrific experiments on children in the concentration camps. Each night, these doctors would go home and many of them had children of their own. They were good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. The two sides of their lives never crossed. It was as if these doctors had two separate selves with an absolute cognitive disconnection between them.

Nazi doctors is an extreme example, but the behavior is completely normal human psychology. Less extreme examples are commonplace. We all do it to varying degrees for our lives are divided in so many ways. It is easy to not feel and understand the connection between our personal lives and our work lives, between the Sunday sermon and the rest of the week, between what we see on the news and the world immediately around us, between what we buy at the store and what is happening in another country, between what we learn in school and in books and how we think about our everyday experience. We know many things in many aspects of our lives, but we don’t quite make the connections. In this way, we know and we don’t know many things.

We know and don’t know about about mass incarceration and racial injustice:

“The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.

“Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.

“Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

“Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know— that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 181-182

We know and don’t know about sundown towns:

“White Americans encounter sundown towns every day but rarely think about them or even realize that they’re in one. They look like other towns, especially to most non-black people, who often don’t notice the difference between 95% white and 100% white. Motorists driving through Anna, Illinois, might stop to see its famous library, designed in 1913 by Walter Burley Griffith, the Prairie School architect who went on to design Canberra, Australia. Or they might be visiting a mentally ill relative in the Illinois State Hospital. They don’t notice that Anna is a sundown town unless they know to ask. Most sundown towns and suburbs are like that: invisible, until a black wayfarer appears and the townspeople do something about it.

“At the same time, whites have nicknames for many overwhelmingly white towns: “Colonial Whites” for Colonial Heights, near Richmond, Virginia; “the White Shore” across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, instead of the West Shore; “Caucasian Falls” for Cuyahoga Falls near Akron, Ohio; “Whiteface Bay” for Whitefish Bay, north of Milwaukee; and so forth across the country to “Lily White Lynwood” outside Los Angeles. Whites make up jokes about the consequences of an African American being found after dark in many sundown towns and suburbs. “Even the squirrels are white in Olney” is a quip about a sundown town in southeastern Illinois known also for its albino squirrels. Such nicknames and jokes show that the whiteness of these towns has registered; whites do understand that the absence of blacks is no accident. Residents of a metropolitan area also know which suburbs are said to be the whitest and which police departments have a reputation for racial profiling. The practice of stopping and questioning African Americans in Darien, Connecticut, for example, was “an open secret in town,” according to Gregory Dorr, who grew up there. Nevertheless, when told that many American towns and suburbs kept out African Americans for decades and some still do, often these same individuals claim to be shocked.

“Perhaps it is more accurate to say that white Americans know and don’t know about sundown towns. This curious combination of knowing and not knowing seems eerily reminiscent of Europe, 1938–45: surely Germans (and Poles, French, Dutch, etc.) knew that Jewish and Romany people were being done away with—their houses and apartments were becoming vacant and available before their very eyes, after all. Yet many professed shock when told about it afterward. I do not claim that America’s rash of sundown towns is a Holocaust. The murdered probably total fewer than 2,000 and the refugees fewer than 100,000, nothing like the fury the Nazis unleashed upon Jewish and Rom people. Yet there is a parallel question: why have so few white Americans ever heard of sundown towns, even when they live in one?

‘“Yvonne Dorset,” for example, grew up in Buffalo, Illinois, near Springfield. In 2002 she replied to a discussion at Classmates.com: “I graduated from Tri-City [the high school in Buffalo] in 1963. There weren’t any African Americans in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence. We were brought up to respect all races.” As best I can tell, Dorset has lived in Buffalo from 1945 to now. What would we make of a long-term resident of, say, Heidelberg, Germany, who wrote in 2002, “There weren’t any Jews in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence”? Buffalo drove out its African Americans on August 17, 1908. The absence of African Americans from Buffalo today is no more a “coincidence” than the near-absence of Jewish Germans from Heidelberg.”
~ James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns, Kindle Locations 3829-3856

There seemingly is no end to the things we know and don’t know.

Dissociation protects against suffering that is simply too great to comprehend, protects us against uncomfortable truths. This is a psychological form of plausible deniability that usually goes hand in hand with collective forms of plausible deniability. Like structural racism, there is structural dissociation that can be found in government, in the media, in schools, in churches; it can be found everywhere.

Dissociation is how reality tunnels form, and while in them we see nothing else, know nothing else. It is simply our reality. It is our attempt to make sense of the senseless, our dysfunctional response to a dysfunctional world. It is adaptive behavior to a bad situation and no one can doubt that we humans excel at being adaptable.

Dissociation is how victims become victimizers, how good people do bad things. We judge others as immoral or even evil: Nazis, rapists, child abusers, etc. They are different than the rest of us, we assure ourselves. We are good people. We aren’t racists, we aren’t murderers. It isn’t our fault that racism and violence exists in our society. Yes, there are bad people. But that has nothing to do with us. We are innocent. We aren’t perfect, but we have good intentions.

Ah yes, good intentions. *sigh* The road to hell is well paved.

We are all culpable, all responsible for we are all part of this same society, this same history. The past is never past. We can’t pretend that the world we live in has nothing to do with what came before. The past, as it has been said, is prologue.

Indentured servitude led to slavery. After Reconstruction came the Redeemers with the worst forms of sharecropping, debt peonage, chain gangs and forced labor camps. Then came Jim Crow and now mass incarceration. It never ends. It morphs and each time it becomes more resilient to scrutiny. But at a basic level it remains the same. It is just more injustice and oppression, just more violence and suffering. It is the same old story of justice delayed.

The horror of this has become clear to me as I’ve read more and more about American history. I keep being shocked by the arguments people made in the past. I recognize them as arguments I hear today. It is eery how little changes. Most people who made rationalizations and excuses in the past were good people, whether slaveholders or Nazis. Most people today who make rationalizations and excuses are also good people. The world is full of good people and yet not-so-good things continue on.

There is no evil master plan. It isn’t necessary.

“The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society. Academics have developed complicated theories and obscure jargon in an effort to describe what is now referred to as Structural racism, yet the concept is fairly straightforward. One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage , it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape.”
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 184

This makes it all the more frustrating. It is racism without any need for racists, a cognitive prison of our own making.

How does one discuss racial bias with those who don’t see it? When something is unconscious, it simply and seamlessly is part of a person’s sense of reality and a part of the reality shared by nearly everyone around them. There is no conscious intention to be racially prejudiced, but there is an instinctive fear or resistance toward the status quo being challenged. Or else it is simply indifference, a lack of understanding and so a lack of knowing why they should care. It isn’t real at a gut-level in the way it is real to someone who has been the victim of it.

In trying to discuss this, my frustration in part comes from how it too often gets misdirected to side issues, slipping away from the core truth that needs to be spoken and heard. The apparent explanation is that some people literally can’t see the main issue or can’t see it on its own terms, can’t see it for what it is. This is a cultural blindspot. It is as if it doesn’t exist for, in their reality tunnel, it doesn’t exist to them. So, they latch onto side issues that are the only things they can see as relevant. Discussion, such as it is, just goes around and around never getting to the heart of the matter.

This frustration eventually gets to me and gets the better of me, thus bringing out the worse in me. There is this immense injustice in our society, injustice that is cruel beyond belief. It is hard to resist responding with mean-spiritedness, resist falling into bitterness and anger. The excuses and rationalizations for this collective ‘evil’ are soul-crushing, and there is no other word besides ‘evil’ that can capture the depth of moral failure and in some cases outright moral depravity. It is ‘evil’ because it is so much greater than any individual, greater than any generation of individuals, greater even than a single nation. The roots of this shared human sin go back into the distant past. Our entire society is built on it. Simply by being born into this society, we all bear some responsibility, first and foremost the responsibility to become aware and then responsibility to give voice.

It has been with us so long that it is immense. Most people don’t have the time and energy, much less the interest, to study the long and detailed history of oppression and injustice that has continued up to the present. Most people simply don’t comprehend it and, because of the collective shame about it (along with fear and anger), there is little to compel understanding. When confronted with this knowledge, many people complain that you’re trying to make them feel guilty. This seems to be an unconscious acknowledgment that there is something to be guilty about, an acknowledgment that can only be stated through projection for that is always how the unconscious first emerges. The budding awareness of mass suffering isn’t a comfortable experience, to feel it like a raw wound.

The systemic oppression and prejudice truly is immense, beyond any individual. It is actively enforced on the societal level of politics and law. It is pervasive throughout our culture. It is the air we breathe, the ground we walk upon, the world we know. It is just there. As such, on the individual level, it is largely passive and mindless. Most people just go along to get along (I know that I usually do exactly this). Most people don’t ever give much thought to other people’s problems and sufferings, even when or especially when their own continued benefit and comfort is dependent upon it. It is motivated reasoning which is why it must operate to some degree subconsciously.

“Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans— of all colors— oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet […] racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 14

It is obvious for anyone who has fully looked at and seriously considered the data that racism is rampant in all aspects and at all levels of American society. But the typical stumbling block is that few have much, if any, familiarity with such data. There is always a reason to deny it and dismiss it, to rationalize it away before even considering it. There is always a reason for those who want a reason to not face what is in front of them. Humans are extremely talented at rationaization.

“There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious” —Albert Memmi, Racism

“Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organizations, few whites in the United States claim to be “racist.” Most whites assert they “don’t see any color, just people”; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances; and, finally, that, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they aspire to live in a society where “people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” More poignantly, most whites insist that minorities (especially blacks) are the ones responsible for whatever “race problem” we have in this country . They publicly denounce blacks for “playing the race card,” for demanding the maintenance of unnecessary and divisive race -based programs, such as affirmative action, and for crying “racism” whenever they are criticized by whites. Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could “all get along.”

“But regardless of whites’ “sincere fictions,” racial considerations shade almost everything in America. Blacks and dark-skinned racial minorities lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life; they are about three times more likely to be poor than whites, earn about 40 percent less than whites, and have about an eighth of the net worth that whites have. They also receive an inferior education compared to whites, even when they attend integrated institutions. In terms of housing, black-owned units comparable to white-owned ones are valued at 35 percent less. Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods. Blacks receive impolite treatment in stores, in restaurants, and in a host of other commercial transactions. Researchers have also documented that blacks pay more for goods such as cars and houses than do whites. Finally, blacks and dark-skinned Latinos are the targets of racial profiling by the police, which, combined with the highly racialized criminal court system, guarantees their overrepresentation among those arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated , and if charged for a capital crime, executed. Racial profiling on the highways has become such a prevalent phenomenon that a term has emerged to describe it: driving while black. In short, blacks and most minorities are “at the bottom of the well.”

“How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant? More important, how do whites explain the apparent contradiction between their professed color blindness and the United States’ color-coded inequality?”
 ~ Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Kindle Locations 168-195

I don’t want to get into the details right now, the statistics and research results, the endless examples and anecdotes. There are a lot of details. I’m not exaggerating. The research demonstrating racial prejudice has been discussed in hundreds of books and it really does take a book to do it justice, although it is the type of book that the most racially biased are unlikely to read (yes, that was meant as a challenge; I can offer a list of books for anyone wanting to be challenged). I hope that maybe there are some fence-sitters who can be convinced that sitting on fences is a less-than-comfortable position.

I recognize this is a difficult issue. It isn’t about blame for there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Who here is without sin? I’m certainly not in a position to cast the first stone. My personal life is a mess. I’m no hero or saint. I’m nobody important. I’m just trying to understand. I still don’t know what to make of it all, much less what should be done about it. My only purpose is to be yet another voice. My only hope is that if enough voices are joined maybe we will be heard. And in being heard that the silence will be broken.

God: Suffering and Longing

Posted on Dec 30th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Explorer Marmalade
God’s Goodness is man’s suffering by which I’m not implying the good and bad as theological beliefs.  Its the ideal of Goodness (via our longing for it) that creates dissatisfaction of this world.  Even so, this tendency to idealize and to long is natural to the human psyche.  God or our experience of God isn’t in opposition to this earthly existence.

The reason that such immense ideals have an “otheworldly” feel to them is because God is the ultimate Other… which isn’t the same as saying God is separate.  This Other can also be experienced inwardly (if such a word applies), but this doesn’t change the esential Otherness.  God’s Goodness isn’t human goodness meaning it isn’t comprehensible in everyday terms nor can it be conformed to our purposes.  God undermines our entire sense of self and reality which isn’t a bad thing per se, but  its hard to interpret such an experience according to our normal beliefs and expectations of goodness. 

This world of suffering is Hell and our complicity with suffering is Evil.  I use these strong words because only they can convey the power of suffering when felt deeply.  But, by this, I don’t mean to assume any particular theological claims.  And, yet, I do mean to say that essentially both the Christians and Gnostics are right about God.  Thusly, without logical consistency and without psychological reconciliation, I accept my inability to separate my experience of suffering from my experience of that which is other than suffering… whatever one may wish to call it.

Or, anyways, this is what makes sense to me at the moment.  Unlike a pessimist of a materialist bent, I don’t deny any metaphysical possibility.  I have experienced something that felt like an Other.  Was it God?  Was it even good in the ultimate sense?  I don’t know.  It felt real… and, in this world of confusion, a glimpse of reality may be the closest one gets to the Good.

Access_public Access: Public 3 Comments Print Post this!views (62)  

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 2 hours later

Marmalade said

There is only one essential statement in this whole blog:The Good of God is not the good of man. Its just my experience and that is all.

The only other choice is to go entirely with the Gnostics and call God Evil… which Icould agree with in the sense that they speak of the god of this world. The problem with the latter interpretation is such dualism doesn’t make sense of my experience, but maybe the Gnostics didn’t believe it as a fact… instead as something like a useful means.

What I do know is that this world is filled with immeasurable suffering. Yet, when I explore this suffering, I discover something other than any normal sense of this world.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 17 hours later

Nicole said

I think too often we ignore or gloss over this Otherness and its implications.

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

about 20 hours later

Marmalade said

Part of me would say that I’m exaggerating too much, but there is a purpose for my doing so. Suffering, strangely enough, can be one of the easiest things to ignore or distract ourselves from. This is as true for me as for anyone else.

There is something freeing about simply stating that this world is hell. I spent years struggling against suffering, but I feel that struggle has become less. Whatam I freed from? I’m not entirely sure. An element of it has to do with imagination. For me, to imagine what might be is founded upon seeing things as they are. So, in allowing hell to be real, I can imagine heaven. Or something like that.

In case you were wondering, this blog actually wasn’t intended as a direct response to the guilt thread in the God pod. This is just an extension of my recent thinking. I wrote this down in my journalaround a week agoand finally got around to writing it up.

The direct inspiration of this post is the essential statement I mentioned. I’ve had that thought for a long time. The realization that the Good of God isn’t the good of man came to me during a time (which we’ve talked about before)when I had fully relented to my own experience of suffering and longing, but I also feared losing myself in this experience of Other. I didn’t feel capable (or willing) to stay with this experience. Nonetheless, the memory of it is very clear and an everpresent reality of sorts… even if I haven’t yet come to terms with it.

“What is Real?” asked the Rabbit one day…

I just finished the book The Melancholy Android by Eric G. Wilson.  I really enjoyed it.  It covers much of the same material as another book I’ve read: The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson.  I want to blog about those books later on, but thinking about some of the ideas from those books reminds me of the story of The Velveteen Rabbit.  I never read that story as a child, but its become a favorite of mine since I read it a few years ago.

What does it mean to be real, to be alive, to be human?

The Velveteen Rabbit
by Margery Williams Bianco

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by
side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does
it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that
happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just
to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When
you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit
by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It
takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who
break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved
off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very
shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are
Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

This resonates with what I was saying in my comments in my blog post Personal Public Problems.  I was speaking about Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly.  Philip K. Dick was interested in what is reality, but this relates to what it means to be real.  Maybe Arctor is like the Velveteen Rabbit.  Isn’t there a hope in suffering?  Isn’t that what the Christian tradition teaches?  To be real is in some sense to be saved.  What we’re saved from isn’t suffering per se, but the illusions and lies that keep us from seeing suffering clearly.  Our suffering can’t be avoided… it must be faced.  We must let ourselves be transformed by fire.

“I am the nursery magic Fairy,” she said. “I take care of all the
playthings that the children have loved. When they are old and worn
out and the children don’t need them any more, then I come and take
them away with me and turn them into Real.”

“Wasn’t I Real before?” asked the little Rabbit.

“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now
you shall be Real to every one.”

Human love may be where it starts, but that only awakens in us the awareness of a greater possibility, a greater Love.  To be Real in the deepest sense is to find that sense of Realness within ourselves… not dependent on specific relationships.  And this brings up the question of what does it mean to be autonomous, to be free?  The Velveteen Rabbit is saved by the fairy and goes to live with the wild rabbits.  He is no longer dependent on the boy.  What the rabbit does now is up to him.  His Real life is only beginning.

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Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 1 hour later

Nicole said

I love the Velveteen Rabbit and the Little Prince. There are so many profound truths.

Thank you for your beautiful blogs, dear friend.

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

about 10 hours later

Marmalade said

I appreciate your appreciation.  I don’t know the Little Prince story very well, but I did see a nice adaptation of it a while back.  Its a strange story.

I was thinking of various stories that are related.  The Velveteen Rabbit has a similar motif to Pinocchio, and both ot those stories seemed to be direct influences of the movie A.I. – Artificial Intelligence.  All three of these involve non-human beings desiring to be made real and also each of them has its fairy.  The fairy in Pinocchio and in AI is blue.  And, interestingly, the flowers are blue in A Scanner Darkly, but I have no idea if Philip K. Dick meant that connection.  Some info about PKD’s blue flowers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Scanner_Darkly
“Philip K. Dick also gives the name of the species of the flower, which helps to show the relevant meaning of the story and the nature of both the drug and the character’s struggle. The name is Mors ontologica, which translates as “ontological death”, that is “death of being”, or more loosely “the being of death itself”.”

So, the blue flowers are a symbol of death which would seem to make them opposite to the blue fairy.  But what kind of death are the blue flowers symbolic of?  

Are the blue flowers symbolic of “the being of death itself”… the demiurge?  That could make sense… what seems like life in this world would be death from the Gnositc perspective.  The blue fairy and the demiurge are both demi-god creators of life. 

Or, instead, are the blue flowers symbolic of “death of being”?  Bob Arctor loses himself, a death of self.  This is the transformation that Gnostics sought.  Even in Christianity, Jesus death is the precursor to life redeemed.  Also, the Velveteen Rabbit had to face the potential of death before he gains living form.

http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/06/41/scanner-darkly.html
“Time becomes our chance for action, though action is no guard against regret or failure. Twice a person in authority tells Bob Arctor about blue flowers in the spring. First the psychologist, then Donna, both in the context of romance, both specific to size and time of year. Spring, romance, action. Love buries him.”

We must die to the limits of human love.  This what the Velveteen Rabbit did.  Plus, this aspect of romance fits into what I said earlier about betrayal.  For certain, Donna’s betrayal couldn’t be more deeply cutting.  Donna invites Arctor to someday go with her to the mountains.  And he does make it to the mountains, but without her.  While there, he discovers the blue flowers in bloom.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

1 day later

Nicole said

living is always about dying. we are always dying to parts, being born, and ultimately dying for the last time in this life, perhaps to repeat the whole cycle again (i remain agnostic about reincarnation as i have not “been there” so don’t feel i can really know 🙂 )

the little prince also died at the end of the book, because it is the only way he can return to his home planet. he invites a snake to bite him, again very archetypal, eh?

yes, i agree that the blue flowers are about death, in fact at every level, which is why they are ontological.

death of the self, death of the ability to maintain a healthy connection to reality, death of relationships with other people, death of being able to work or do anything but stay addicted, death of the mind, and finally, death, leaving the world in a sigh of relief.

one of the things we haven’t talked about which is most intriguing about this movie is the “scramble suits”, which make it easy for Donna to deceive Arctor. What are our “scramble suits” but our personae, behind which we look at the world to see how it is responding to the rapidly changing masks we are flashing in front of our true selves to distract it from who we really are.

Marmalade : Gaia Explorer

7 days later

Marmalade said

I’ve been meaning to respond to this last comment of yours.  The scramble suits are intriguing.  The plot of the movie wouldn’t have been possible without them.  I’ve never thought too much about this aspect of the story, but what you say makes sense to me.

We hide behind our personae and its through this that we deceive others.  But its also how we deceive ourselves, pretending to be something we’re not.  The scramble suits scramble how the characters are perceived by others, and in combination with the drug it scrambles Bob’s perception of himself.  He puts on the suit and he becomes ‘Fred’.  The vague blur that he is when wearing the scramble suit is a symbol for what he becomes.

Part of him knows that he is sacrificing himself.  Here is some of a monologue of Bob as he is going down the hall to take off his scramble suit:

“Crazy job they gave me.  But if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be.  And they might get it wrong.” … “Better it be me, despite the disadvantages.”

This scene starts with his being Fred and follows him as he transitions into Bob  The whole end of the movie is about these two sides of him merging back together.  As he walks home, the monologue shifts into a commentary about perception and what the scanner sees.  The closer he comes to discovering the truth, the further away the truth seems.  And when Donna in her scramble suit finally tells him that he is Bob,  his world utterly collapses.

There are several themes that are similar in A Scanner Darkly and The Velveteen Rabbit: remembering and forgetting; being seen, known and being forgotten; seeing clearly and knowing reality; love and betrayal; loss, suffering, and becoming real. 

I’m reminded of how the Rabbit thought the mechanical toys were more real because he didn’t know that there was such a thing as real rabbits.  His life with the boy in the house is like Plato’s cave.  Even when he goes outside and sees real rabbits, he didn’t see them as anything other than toys because that is all he had known.  It was only when he had been abandoned by the boy, put out to be burned, that he became really real and understood what reality was. 

In becoming real, he was seen and aknowledged by the real rabbits.  This is something that Bob Arctor never received from anyone.  He couldn’t rely on anyone else, but had to see and aknowledge his own reality.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

8 days later

Nicole said

thanks for responding, Ben, i did want to talk about scramble suits with you, and i really agree with your answer. you have helped me understand and have deep compassion for Bob (and PKD and all his friends).

your last paragraph is sad, it makes me think of people i know who are broken and fragmented like Bob. even when i try to give them the “yes” for their lives, they cannot receive it. as you say, they have to see and acknowledge their own reality. and instead they beat themselves up…

4 months later

Enlightened.thinker said

What a great blog…thanks for linking me to it and writing about it! What a wonder! I did not see it in April, but we may not have been friends then…not sure…thanks so much fr allowing me the chance to read it!

Aley

Marmalade : Gaia Child

4 months later

Marmalade said

Of all my blogs, this is one of my favorites.  The discussion in the comments is connected with the discussion in a few other blogs around the same time.  Nicole and I were having an in-depth conversation about Philip K. Dick.

I don’t remember when we became friends, but it seems like it might’ve been after this blog.

I was just speaking with Nicole about a movie I like immensely: The Fountain.  I think that movie relates to the subject being discussed here.  The Fountain is about suffering, death, and transformation.  But its a bit different in that it has a heavier focus on the value of relationship.  And The Fountain reminds me of another movie about an obsessed scientist and his wife: Altered States.

I just was thinking of how all the narratives that I mentioned are from a male point of view.  The Velveteen Rabbit was written by a woman, but the rabbit itself was male.  Do you know of any other good stories about deep transformation from a woman’s perspective?

The author of The Velveteen Rabbit reminds me of an interview I heard recently with Ursula K. Le Guin that was on the extras of the dvd of The Lathe of Heaven.  She was saying how for most of her career she had written from the perspective of male characters, and she had never thought about it.  She eventually started writing from a female perspective and was then considered a feminist.  Isn’t that funny?  🙂  Another related element is that I’ve read that Le Guin and Philip K. Dick were friends and that The Lathe of Heaven was intended as an homage.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

4 months later

Nicole said

funny, seems like we have been friends much longer eh? but it was about then, indeed.

I really enjoyed our talks about PKD. I learned a lot.

Altered States…. that sounds familiar. Do you recommend it too?

Other good stories about deep transformation from a woman’s perspective? Hmmm…. that’s a very good question. Nothing jumps to mind, so I’d have to do a little looking around.

But you did mention K Le Guin, and that’s funny, what you say about her… she has a great sense of humour… She is a good example of what you were asking. I found her books about Ged and EarthSea to be very much about personal transformation, sometimes literally 🙂 as Ged would use his powers to shape change, but much more importantly on an inner level..And one of them is even about a girl…

Marmalade : Gaia Child

4 months later

Marmalade said

Altered States is a good movie, but a bit strange.  Like what you said about Ged and Earthsea, its partly about literal transformation.  Its loosely based on the life of John C. Lilly who was a very interesting scientist and thinker who wrote several nonfiction books.  Lilly did scientific research about the intelligence and communication of dolphins and he was the inventor of the isolation/flotation tank.  He was a scientist who believed in firsthand experience and did quite a bit of drug experimentation.

I’ve never read much of Le Guin.  I read a collection of her short stories, but I don’t remember ever having read one of her novels.  There was one story in that collection that I found particularly amusing.  It was titled “Schrodinger’s Cat”.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

4 months later

Nicole said

haven’t read that one but i’m sure it’s delightful!

Lilly, yes, I have heard a little about him but don’t know much.

i’m fascinated by dolphins, in fact, my only ring is two dolphins diving… 🙂