November 1, 2014
Residing temporarily in Hardee County has set my mind to concentrating on will and intelligence more intensely than I usually do. The common notion about these two mental attributes is that they’re distinct entities which operate pretty much independently of one another. But these surroundings challenge that notion stridently.
When I stand in the checkout line at the Walmart in Wauchula I can’t help but notice the people checking out in front of me. Most of the time they appear to be slow in their mental functioning. The conventional explanation for this would be that they have difficulty carrying out even the simplest arithmetic operations in their heads. In other words, what I’m observing are merely examples of modest intelligence, inherent and fixed in each person. I’ve found lately that I can’t believe that any longer.
In America, we like to tell ourselves that we are all individuals, existing as we do because of conscious personal choice. That may be at least partially the case for a portion of the population. But if so, it’s a tiny portion. The great majority of persons are largely social constructs. They say what they say because that’s the thing to be said. They act the way they do because that’s the way to act. The differences among them are the product not of personality but of the varying social sectors they inhabit. And there is a variety of such social sectors even in a place like Hardee County which gives the impression of being manically homogeneous.
Is this an extreme view? Maybe. Still, the evidence for it deserves a look.
You can’t say for sure that the lethargic mindset exhibited here derives solely from limited abilities. Why would that be the case? It’s true that provincial settings are known for attracting less energetic minds than urban centers. Part of that judgment is mere snobbery. But even the part that may have some validity applies only to a small subset of the population. The ordinary groups you see shopping in Targets, and Walmarts, and Costcos aren’t likely to vary very much in basic mental equipment from the national intellectual norm, regardless of whether the stores are located in a large city or a small town. Might it not be that the habits in a given Walmart come from social directives more than they do from the customers’ innate capacity?
Perhaps the most serious flaw in current journalism is that although news stories focus on how things are in certain places, they seldom take up what those places demand in the way of being. Yet there’s no doubt that a locale sends signals: this is what you should say, this is how you should act, this is who you should be. Rebelling against those directives is a lot more complicated than one might imagine.
I’ve observed this particularly with respect to the directives sent to persons who are thought to be old. The main thing conveyed to people in that condition is what can be expected of them. It’s not uncommon for me now for me to be asked whether I can take a bag from a counter and either carry it out of a store or put it in a grocery cart when I could easily lift a weight five times as heavy as the bag in question. We can’t say for sure what the consequences of such attitudes are but we can say, without much doubt, that the instructional element of them is that you shouldn’t be doing such things -- at your age. And we also know that many people, and perhaps most, are amazingly suggestible. Over time, it’s easy to conclude that you should -- or can -- do only what other people expect of you, and so you come to think that has become an element of who you are. In fact, if you’re going to avoid thinking in that way, you have to rebel against it in some manner or another.
In stores, especially spread-out stores like Walmart, we now see many people riding around in little carts, who show clearly that they can walk well enough by getting out of the carts to pick something off a shelf. Who told them to employ such devices? Nobody specifically. But the suggestion was there, and they took it.
In Hardee County there is an assumption that good people, regular people, solid people, are, at least, a bit slow in mind. I’ve heard people brag that if they hand over a dollar bill for an item that costs, say, 68 cents, they can’t figure out that their change should be 32 cents, unless they employ pencil and paper. It’s hard for me to believe that’s true; it’s even harder to understand why anyone should be proud of it. But the desire to be firmly, deeply, inside the norm works profoundly on many people’s emotions. Perhaps it’s no more than an impulse of protection but it clearly exists.
Is it wrong to suspect some element of will in such self presentation? Or is it wrong to perceive that type of -- perhaps unconscious -- will merging with innate ability to create the actual, everyday, intelligence that a person possesses. If those two hypotheses have anything to them, then we need to conclude that socially induced will and basic capability are each components of intelligence, and, in truth, are so thoroughly mixed with each other that they have become different facets of the same thing.
You might go so far as to say that Hardee County -- along with tens of thousands of similar places -- is not unimaginative and flat because its people are dull, but rather that the people feel they have to wear dull masks because that’s what Hardee County expects of them. And, then, after many years, the masks achieve reality.
I should keep in mind, of course, O. Henry’s famous story about Nashville. What you see is not all there is. Still, what you see is a goodly part of what there is, and what I see, and feel, here are strong messages that one should not stick his head above the herd. You might say there’s nothing wrong with that; it makes for a placid, manageable society. And if you’re one of the managers, I guess it does. That’s why they pride themselves on being conservative. But for those who aren’t the managers and may not even want to be managers, what it makes for is stultification. A will imposed on you is not your own will, and a mind shaped by that will is not your own mind. You can live with it but I doubt you can thrive with it very well.
November 3, 2014
I got to thinking about anthropology.
I have been under the vague impression that a “field” such as anthropology has shrunk in stature over the past several decades. When I was in graduate school there was the sense that anthropology was not only a science, but a “real” science. What that meant I wasn’t sure but it clearly carried the assumption that one could become important in the field, and aspire to big professorships, and occupy spacious offices, and direct hordes of students, and be invited to address prestigious conferences. And, after all, wasn’t that what academia was about?
It has been a long time since I heard any young person say that he, or she, was going to major in anthropology. Maybe I just haven’t been in the company of the right sort of young people.
I even went so far as to say I doubted that a burgeoning institution like the University of Central Florida would have a department of anthropology. I was wrong about that. Not only does it have a department, it has one with seventeen faculty members. So something must be going on there.
If there has been the decline in anthropology’s standing I supposed, it must be related to the withdrawal of genuine scientific status. The questions put to the so-called social sciences have been difficult to answer. What might a science of humanity mean? Are there firm, defensible formulae whose application can tell us what humanity is, tell us more certainly than what history could ever hope to report? If one were to get really heretical, might he suspect that there’s no genuine distinction to be made between history and anthropology? I can hear professors of anthropology gasping, but even so, can a defensible distinction be made?
I really don’t know the answer; I’m just asking.
I have worked through quite a few volumes by anthropologists and it has never come clearly across to me how the data consulted by practitioners in this field differ from evidence used by those who take a more story-telling approach.
Here’s what I have sometimes suspected -- cynical me. Anthropology, and quite a few other academic fields, are more products of the need for professional placements than they are distinctive and needed approaches to knowledge. And this cynicism has been bolstered by observing that the best, and most revealing, authors on any subject are not those who restrict themselves to operating strictly within the guidelines laid down by a single academic calling. After all, if you want to find out about something, and you’re serious about the validity of your investigation, then you’re going to use whatever methods and data that will produce the finest results. And you’ll do it regardless of the accolades -- or lack of them -- that come your way from any given professional group.
I am often reminded of the philological scorn visited upon Friedrich Nietzsche by leading members of his profession as he issued his first books. Yet I challenge anyone reading this to name -- without visiting Google -- any of those distinguished philologists who huffed and puffed about Nietzsche’s writing.
If there is to be a chain of progression in any area of investigation, then there must be links which stand the test of time, that is links which add something useful to what was known before and that lead on to a higher level of understanding. I think it would be hard to show in quite a few areas of academic endeavor that professional approval has had a great deal to do with forging those links.
There are, of course, activities in which professionalism is essential. These are pursuits whose scientific character is undoubted. If you’re going to let someone enter your brain wielding a scalpel, then you would be well advised to make sure that person has high-level professional credentials and is well respected by others who also have them (even then it would be a dicey matter).
If you want to know about the fundamental nature of matter, then you should listen to someone who has had access to the vast and complicated machinery which can trace the behavior of tiny bits of matter when they are smacked into by other tiny bits of matter. And guess who has control over the use of that machinery?
On the other hand, if you’re curious about, say, human anxiety, and would like assistance in thinking about how it has evolved down the ages you’ll probably find more productive help in the work of a wide-ranging, imaginative investigator than in the approved canons of any particular profession. Remember that professionals work in channels which have been established. They tend to be timid about launching out into unknown areas.
In 1976, Burton J. Bledstein published his provocative study The Culture of Professionalism. The sub-titled offered a fascinating hint to what the book would tell us: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. Class status was a driving force in the evolving structure of how universities were to pursue knowledge. You could almost say that becoming a professor was more important than the knowledge the professor established. That is still true a hundred years later in many of the departments of American universities.
I wouldn’t want any of this to discourage an aspiring teenager from majoring in anthropology during his undergraduate years. It’s doubtless an opening to many energizing investigations. But I would advise him or her to begin with the notion of eventually going beyond, or above, the kind of work his profession lays out for its members. After all, if you’re actually going to study the “science of humanity,” you need to be ready to go just about anywhere your nose leads you, and to incorporate any sort of material into your personal endeavors. Humanity is a great many things, more, I suspect, than anyone has yet been able to imagine. Studying it will be boosted more by an adventurous mind than by any set of rules and regulations.
All this, by the way, got its start by my reading that Michele Foucault, in the late 1950s, felt that his studies were leading him towards the anthropology of the imagination. The phrase intrigues me but I’m not sure I have yet figured out completely what it means.
November 6, 2014
The main headline in the Lakeland Ledger this morning informed me that Obama has vowed to get the job done. “Gee!” I said to myself. “I wonder what the job is.” Digging to the heart of the story I discovered the answer. The time has come for us “to take care of business.” Why is it that the time has come now? Why didn’t it come some time earlier?
This brand of “reporting” is what the American public has come to regard as “news.” We have strings of vacant metaphors purporting to say something impressive when actually they say nothing at all.
It easier to grasp why politicians are vacuous than it is to see why the public falls for their empty talk. Politicians are generally running scared. They don’t want to say anything that can pin them to a particular stance because they know there will be some voters who oppose that stance. The current wisdom in politics is to avoid giving them anything to oppose. It is not to give them something to support.
The Democrats have adopted this strategy so completely they have become the party of virtually nothing at all. Everything the Republicans stand for is goofy, but at least it’s something, or can be presented as such. The only battle cry the Democrats can imagine is, “Retreat to the center!” You can already hear the message being drummed just two days after the election.
So the politicians are mostly poltroons, but what are the members of the public? The answer I get most often when I put that question to my friends is that the public is idiotic. That may provide some emotional satisfaction but it doesn’t actually tell us much.
Why is it that Americans think the character of their political culture doesn’t matter, so there’s little sense in paying attention to it? I wish I knew the answer to that question but I’m having as much trouble with it as anyone else. The most I can say for myself is that maybe I’m one step in front of the herd by knowing that it needs to be asked.
We might go back and take a look at Calvin Coolidge. Though he’s seen as having been one of the least effective American presidents, he may, at the same time, have been one of the most influential. After all, he did announce that “the chief business of the American people is business” and that pronouncement has pretty well been accepted as the mantra of the United States over the past ninety years. It, of course, says nothing about the need for a healthy, stable political structure to undergird the conduct of sensible economic activity. It seems that a good many Americans have swallowed it whole hog and consequently seldom bother to ask themselves whether business can furnish all of life’s needs.
Here in Hardee Country I’ve noticed that people concentrate so fully on buying and fixing their pickup trucks they give virtually no thought to how the roads that make them useful were brought into being. The roads are just there, taken for granted, as though any attention to how they got there would be a gigantic waste of time. I suppose it’s possible to spend a life thinking of little else except pickup trucks, with maybe a little beer and sex on the side. But if one takes that stance he’s depending on someone else to create a livable society whereas he, himself, is contributing fairly little to it. Actually, it doesn’t much matter whether it’s pickup trucks, or yacht sales, or Wall Street obsessions. Those who care only about business features are a form of social parasite.
Any society can stand some parasites. I guess it’s actually an inevitability. But there are limits to the percentage of parasites that can be endured before society begins to canker. I think we’re pretty close to that percentage here in the United States in the first decades of the 21st century.
When we have an election which not only can, but will, involve matters of life and death, and only about a third of the eligible electorate cast a vote, that’s a sign the parasites are swarming.
What I have difficulty understanding is why so many Americans think they can completely neglect the duties of citizenship in favor of the pure pursuit of money. Where did they get that idea? The most obvious answer is that they’re dupes of the wealthy, who want to make them into programmed worker bees so that rich guys can get even richer. But that merely pushes the question back one degree? Why are they so easily duped? Why do a majority of Americans have such a dysfunctionally simplistic notion of what it means to exist, and to live well, in a modern society?
I may as well get esoteric at this point and admit my suspicion that the fundamental issue affecting the quality of American social existence is aesthetic. Relatively few Americans view beauty as an essential element of social flourishing. They don’t conceive that beauty nourishes the soul -- or the spirit, or the psyche, or whatever inner quality there is which produces human meaning. America is, essentially, a mechanical civilization. That, at the core, is why business assumes the dominant role it does. The prime representative of American culture is a dollar store perched beside a gigantic parking lot, so that getting into it and getting out of it is easy.
I’ll admit there have been some counter-signs to this thrust over the past couple decades -- reasonably tasteful village-like layouts which afford the opportunity to sit, and converse, and think. But they are comparatively rare compared to the ever-spreading Walmart environment of cheap goods and humongous shopping buggies.
People who are convinced they can get all they need from a Walmart culture are also people who can be persuaded that promises to get the job done are what we need from politicians. The words are as flat and ugly as the huge, ever-expanding commercial caverns which are said to demonstrate our greatness as a nation. It’s a curious form of grandeur, similar to the gigantic inflated gorilla I saw today towering over the local Walmart parking lot for the purpose of leading people to buy souped-up, garish automobiles. I fear that if this sort of promotion is what our politics, our culture, and our minds actually are, they’re as sure to be punctured as the gorilla will be as soon as the car extravaganza moves along to the next site.
November 7, 2014
A pair of friends and I have been having an active conversation about the way white men voted in the mid-term elections and, by extension, how they vote generally. I think they vote foolishly. That, of course, is a matter of opinion. There’s no precise yardstick for measuring foolishness.
I recall that years ago Susan Sontag irritated quite a few people by saying that the white race is the cancer of history. At the time, I thought it was a silly assertion. Now, I’m not so sure. If she had sharpened it by saying white men are the cancer of history I might not wholly agree, but I would take it more seriously.
I’ve suggested to my friends that white men’s votes are based more on psychological impulses than they are on policy preferences. Maybe all groups vote that way, but the underlying attitudes of white men tend to be more destructive and lethal than those of other classifications. A mixture of resentment, bigotry, and fear of being thought weak drives men to vote for whatever sounds tough. They like to see themselves as “real men” and the existence of that designation as a recognized term is, by itself, evidence of a social malaise.
When a majority of men see men who differ from themselves as being less than real and when these other men’s unreality is associated with resembling women, that creates a serious social problem.
Part of the problem comes from American’s association of sensitivity with effeteness. If you care about other people’s suffering then you’re not tough enough to push America forward to wherever it is America’s supposed to be going. Real men can’t stand to be afflicted with that sort of softness. In fact, if you’re soft on anything then you’ll be hesitant to wipe out the hordes of enemies threatening the U.S. and the American way of life. You’ll be a Democrat, and if you’re both a Democrat and a man, you’re bound to be one of those other kind of men. Hence if you’re going to be a real man you’ve got to be a Republican.
Does this sound absurdly exaggerated and simplistic? Maybe. But that doesn’t guarantee it’s far off from the way most white men think. There are bundles of evidence from the recent election testifying to this kind of thinking. Consider New Hampshire. In the Senate race Scott Brown would have been thoroughly trounced had white men voted similarly to everyone else. But they didn’t. Among white men Brown ended up with a ten point advantage. That wasn’t enough for him to win, but it brought him pretty close. What possible reason was there for white men to be so far out of line with other voters? By election day Scott Brown’s campaign was viewed by most observers as a mess. He was the worst sort of carpetbagger. He hadn’t even bothered to familiarize himself with the geography of the state he sought to represent. He ran as a pure opportunist, leaving Massachusetts just because he couldn’t win there. He had virtually no ties with New Hampshire. It’s hard to grasp why anyone would have voted for him. Yet the white men of New Hampshire gave him 55% of their votes. I suppose you could say that white men are more business-oriented than all other citizens and that’s why they vote for Republicans no matter how inept they are. But even if you accept that premise, which strikes me as pretty weak, you are left with the question of why white men are so strongly devoted to commercial activity over other career pursuits. Might it be that business is viewed as a process of defeating opponents rather than cooperating with, or helping, anyone? Cooperation, you see, is a weak, Democratic motive.
In Florida, where I was treated to the final month of a very vicious, expensive gubernatorial campaign, the incumbent governor Rich Scott was very unpopular. In all my time here, talking with people in a strongly conservative region, I haven’t spoken to anyone about the election who failed say that Scott is an outright criminal and that became wealthy by defrauding the U.S. taxpayers. Yet he squeaked out a victory. How did he do it? By getting an overwhelming percentage of white male votes. Blacks voted against him eight to one. Hispanics gave his opponent Charlie Crist a more than 20 point advantage. But the white guys came through. They don’t care that Scott is widely viewed as being dishonest. He’s a Republican. He doesn’t care about the disadvantaged portions of the population. He knows how to get things done, including raking up piles of dubiously acquired money.
You don’t have to be an intense feminist, or any other kind of radical to recognize that we have a white man problem in the United States. The majority of white men support politicians who will degrade the environment, who will resist criminal justice reform, who will undermine effective public works programs, who will refuse to build a stronger health system, who will pump more resources into the security state complex, who will be ready to launch a foreign military invasion at the drop of a hat. They have no rational concept of a healthy society.
In a convenience store near here recently, we overheard a brief conversation that symbolized the difficulties we face from the white man’s perspective. A fine example of the breed walked up to the checkout counter, squared his shoulders, smirked, and asked the clerk if she would vote for a homosexual. Charlie Crist, Scott’s opponent is widely spoken of in Florida as being gay. And that’s one of the reasons the state will have the privilege of having its government directed for four more years by a white man’s white guy. You can be sure he’ll be tough if any softness should attempt to raise its head. That’s what white guys do.
Keep in mind that I’m a white guy too. But at the moment I don’t seem to be fitting in very well. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
November 18, 2014
It becomes ever more maddening to be a citizen of the United States. Maybe that’s why Americans are more ignorant about public affairs than the population of any other country that counts as a developed nation. It may be that Americans simply don’t want to know because it would be too painful to find out how their government is actually behaving.
Glenn Greenwald reminded us in his column today that it has now been more than two years since the United States started defining any man killed by an American drone strike as a “militant” regardless of whether the drone operators knew anything about him. That’s the way the government tries to avoid charges of killing civilians. It may work with U.S. citizens, the majority of whom don’t seem to care who their government kills, but it certainly doesn’t work with the inhabitants of the villages where the killings occur. They know the people who were killed and they know that many of them had nothing to do with anything that could be called militancy. They were merely victims of an American killing spree.
How do you suppose that makes the ones who managed to stay alive feel about the character of the American nation and its people?
The U.S. government employs hundreds of persons at fairly high levels, who work every day to cause the people of other countries to want to kill American citizens. That’s how these wily warriors defend us. They may have deluded themselves about what they’re doing but the results, nonetheless, are clear. You have to willfully blind yourself not to see that.
At the moment we may not yet be able to say that democracy in the United States has failed, but we can certainly say it’s in the process of failing. And if it goes, what will be left?
It’s hard to foresee anything promising for people who resolutely refuse to awaken to reality.
Les Leopold had a piece in the Huffington Post yesterday titled “We Are the Most Unequal Society in the Developed World, And We don’t Know It.” He reports on a study carried out by Sarapop Kiatpongsen and Michael Norton, in which 55,187 people from forty countries were surveyed, and the Americans came out 40th in their knowledge of the inequality of income. When they were asked what they thought the ratio was between the income of a typical CEO and an average worker, they answered 30 to 1. When they were asked what they thought it ought to be, they said 7 to 1. Almost no one came close to the actual ratio, 354:1. What can we say of a people who think a healthy ratio should be 7 to 1 and are unaware that the real ratio is 354 to 1? “Clueless” is the term the author uses. I think I might say, “Hopeless.”
What possible explanation can we find for American ignorance?
I suppose you could argue that Americans are the most heavily propagandized people on earth. It’s likely you could pull together pretty good evidence for that assessment. But that would still leave us with the question of why they allow themselves to be propagandized to the degree they do.
It seems to have been built into the American bloodline to believe that Americans and America are self-evidently great. No evidence needs to be adduced. We don’t even need a definition of greatness. It’s just something we know about ourselves and we know it makes us feel good. It’s like being seventy-five pounds overweight and feeling good when you push back from a dinner of steak and french-fries.
Where did our belief in our overweening greatness come from? I don’t know, fully, of course. But a pretty good suspect is our having been born in bombast and having embraced it avidly ever since. Americans are tellers of tall tales. And we’re proud of it. But why are we proud of it? Nobody seems to get round to answering that question.
If I could get all Americans to read a single book, I think it would be Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, in which the young hero ships out for America to make his fortune in the land of freedom and democracy and finds a country of flamboyant claims, swindlers, vicious business practices, violence and lies -- a country which comes within a hair of killing him. I suspect if Dickens could be resurrected to visit the U.S. today, he’d say, “About what I expected.”
Rationalizers might say these are merely the habits of exuberant youth, and foretell a strong, confident, steady maturity. But how long is it going to take? Can the world live long enough for this maturation to take place?
I see little that’s mature and steady in American behavior lately. Over the past fifty years the country has lurched from one absurd military adventure to another, with never a good reason for any of them. It has squandered its resources in ways that leave the basic social infrastructure crumbling. It has been the primary polluter in a world suffering from toxicity. And most notable of all, it has produced a population which lags behind all other developed nations in knowledge.
Where’s the maturity in that?
I wish all Americans would get up tomorrow, read the leading articles in the few competent newspapers we have left, and then ask themselves where these stories tell us we’re going. It’s hard to think anyone would say, “This is the great path; let’s just keep right on it.” But if we’re not going to keep on this path, then we have to choose another path. It’s difficult to imagine how another one can be chosen with the intellectual resources we have garnered at the moment.
Non-critical self-satisfaction is not an attitude productive of a bright future. Yet that’s about all a majority of Americans can exhibit now. Maybe there’s something on the way to reverse that assessment. I hope it is. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
November 20, 2014
I had a revelation in an unlikely spot yesterday.
I was sitting in the waiting room of an eye clinic in Winter Haven, Florida. My mother-in-law was having a checkup, and during the hour or so she was with the doctors, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two men in their seventies who were sitting near me. They were sorting out the problems of the country and the world, and they both had strong views about how it should be done. That their perceptions were incoherent didn’t seem to bother them in the least.
They knew all sorts of things that seemed to me unknowable. One man was convinced that all our problems began with the killing of John Kennedy, when the American people were too stupid to recognize the obvious, that Mr. Kennedy had been murdered by elements of the U.S. government who couldn’t stand the thought of the election of 1964 going forward as it would have if Kennedy were still alive. In other words, Mr. Kennedy was too popular.
How the speaker knew this wasn’t revealed. About the only thing he said in that regard was that he had watched the television reports more attentively than anyone else at the time and saw clearly what was going on.
Both men were veterans. One of them declared that if you talked to men who had served in the army, they all agreed about one thing: that all the deaths and hardships soldiers had suffered since 1945 were for nothing. I was on the verge of thinking he was about to say something sensible until he continued to point out that the people in charge wouldn’t let the soldiers “finish the job.” He noted Russia in particular. We should have taken care of Russia a long time ago, he said. Exactly how Russia should have been taken care of he didn’t say, but I got the sense it would have involved death and destruction on a scale beyond anything the world had yet experienced.
Both of them were incensed about immigration. None of those people should have been allowed into the country. All they did was bring in a lot of disease that was killing American children. They cited statistics I had never heard before about the wave of death experienced by Americans because of those damned people. They didn’t, of course, mention anything about the source of these numbers.
Conversations such as these can be brushed aside as just two old ignorant men popping off. But what if the mindset of this duo is pretty closely aligned with the thoughts of a majority of people in the country? What then?
That almost everything they said had little basis in fact was a problem, but even that wasn’t as troublesome as the driving force behind their remarks. It was pure bile. And their indignation was directed at all those “other people,” in other words, persons different from themselves. If you could credit what these men were saying, they were in a murderous state of mind.
The notion that they might modify their views after receiving additional information is extremely dubious. They have known what they think they know for decades and it’s almost inconceivable that they could be led to know anything else.
So what was my revelation? These two men in a small Florida city are the genuine representatives of most Americans and probably most humans on the face of the earth. Their brains are the default brains. They are, as they conceive themselves to be, the regular guys. The human world is, for the most part, going to be in the immediate future the world they construct. The rest of us can either live in it, or try to find niches away from it where we won’t be much noticed. But anyone is naive if he thinks he can escape its attributes altogether.
All of us who wish to know the reality of humanity need to face certain truths which are scarcely acknowledged anywhere.
- There is little evidence that humans, as they’re now constituted, can avoid cataclysms by employing facts and reason.
- The human brain is an ingenious organ but it’s also deeply flawed for achieving social well-being in the modern world.
- Technology has changed society more rapidly than the human brain can take account of.
- All social analysis so far attempted remains futile as long as the basic unit to which it is applied remains the current human thought process.
If these pessimistic conclusions are accurate, what do they mean?
First, we have to stop hoping that a golden man on a golden horse is going to ride out of the human miasma, and speak such golden words that humanity will face the error of its ways and determine to reform itself.
Those of us cursed by not being regular need to discover comparatively safe places where we can try to enjoy life and exert some minimal influence on the direction of things. But we should not completely divorce ourselves from regular people. After all, we’re likely to love some of them and want them to avoid suffering. But, on the other hand, we need to stop worrying about not fitting in completely. And if people call us snobs for this attitude, we should learn to smile at them.
And finally, to the degree we can ratchet ourselves up enough to want to do something about the fate of humanity, we should put most of our effort to affecting the brains of the future so that they will stop being driven primarily by murderous sentiments. We should try to help people put aside practices such as mass punishment, delivering justice by hurting someone or some tens of thousands, chasing happiness by means of lording over other people, demonstrating courage primarily by killing other people, and defining success as a process of piling up masses of material goods.
If we’re ever to reach a more healthy world we can’t abide any of these habits.
A new world requires new brains which can think sensibly about the inevitable transformations that will come upon us.
And for goodness sakes, we should stop popping off about human nature.
November 21, 2014
Matthew Arnold said somewhere that the principal attribute of a good mind is the ability to turn back on itself. I don’t know if I have a good mind or not, but today I’m in a mood to turn back on my yesterday’s self, at least a little bit (maybe so that tomorrow I can turn back on the self of today.
In the piece I wrote yesterday I said that the new world we are entering calls for new minds and that if we don’t find some way to bring them forth we’re going to end up in a big mess. It’s not fantastic, is it, to think that certain sorts of minds wear out and that they need to be replaced by something fresh? No, it’s not fantastic. But on the other hand we do need to take account of certain continuities in the human psyche which I don’t think is the same thing as positing an unchangeable human nature.
I mentioned a number of things we have to give up if we’re to have any hope of fashioning a healthy society in the coming world. Most of them had to do with crude notions of enmity, punitive justice, the heroism of killing, and the glories of tribalism. But now, here’s the turn-back part. What are we going to do if and when we banish these anachronisms from our minds? Isn’t some element of them necessary to give drama to our lives? If heroes can’t kill the evil guys, what in hell are they going to do? And if we can’t long for and imagine some sort of heroism, what are we going to do?
These aren’t easy questions. They remind us of William James’s “moral equivalent of war.” It made up the theme of a fascinating essay but I think most of us have to admit that James didn’t really get close to anything approaching an answer.
We have been telling ourselves tales about the bad guys for a very long time. Standing up to them is what really important people do, isn’t it? But if we come to think that the idea of evil is philosophically callow -- which I admit I do think -- then what are really important people going to do? And if boys and girls can’t dream about becoming really important people what are they going to dream about?
The concept of a new age and a new world has to be something more than fancy technology. It can’t dispense with adventure, or overcoming difficulties, or dramatic storytelling. It can’t be merely engineers marching down the gray road to practicality.
Science is the substitute that presents itself most readily. Learning more about the strange universe we inhabit clearly involves difficulties and requires what some might call a heroic concentration of mind. It promises a great deal but it can’t promise all that’s required for meaningful human existence.
A divine presence has been the answer most people turned to over the past millennia, but gradually, ever so slowly, it has begun to dawn on us that we don’t know what we mean by a divine presence. A thing that can’t be defined can’t, indefinitely, summon the power to provide humans with a convincing reason for existence. If there’s going to be a new age, it seems that there has a to be a new form of divinity. But what it might be is difficult to imagine.
An idea that has intrigued subtle thinkers for well over a century now has been a, heretofore unsuspected, power of human creation. It’s being suggested that humans should start trying to make themselves rather than submitting to the former fashioning of group attitudes and demands, bolstered by supposed theological certainties. But make themselves according to what rules?
The idea of following the rules is ancient. Might it have worn itself out? I suspect it has.
It has been often said that God has no need of abstractions. He decides everything by the needs of the particular case. But if god is fading away, as many think he is, then who’s going to decide using the needs of the current case or, in other words, by the employment of intelligence rather than by the application of rules?
Many people are terrified at the thought of genuinely independent judgment. There’s an entire lexicon of adjectives in use to denigrate it -- arbitrary, kinky, perverse, weird, bizarre, screwy and so on. Those who discern horror in those terms are ready to go to war to wipe out the betrayers of the past.
I’m turning back on myself by admitting we probably still do need an enemy in order to provide us the requisite excitement. But we don’t need the kind of enemy we have identified in the past, nor do we need to confront that enemy in the traditional manner. Rather, our need is for an opponent who must be denied the power to control the future. This foe can’t be allowed any longer to force its stultifying ways down everybody’s throat.
There is no excuse for damaging the enemy physically. Nobody’s head should get blown off. But minds do need to be transformed. They need to become genuine minds instead of emanations of a group mind. After all, a group almost never thinks; it simply reacts in accordance with the fears that have been injected into it.
The tactics in the struggle between those who worship rules and those who want to employ intelligence haven’t yet been devised. We are just at the start of a new age, if, indeed, one is struggling to be born. If it is there will be gigantic contests, and serious dangers, and a very long way to go.
We have failed to acknowledge the reality of ideational transformation over time. When Achilles and Hector met below the walls of Troy, it was a thrilling, if terrible, moment. But that was 3,200 years ago (taking into account that it didn’t really happen but probably did symbolize in the imagination of people then events that actually did occur). Now when Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas exchange taunts, the grandeur has all flown away, and their bravado descends into the tired stupidity we see in the newspapers every day.
It seems pretty clear that if we don’t want to continue living that stupidity, we’ve got to find new and healthier perceptions.
All this may sound overly grandiose. I’m sorry for that. Grandiosity is not generally an advisable way of viewing things. I didn’t mean to be grandiose here. I wanted simply to say that it may be true that certain feelings are necessary for humans to maintain the idea that what they do is significant. But those feelings don’t have to be generated by the same acts that used to bring them forth. It’s going to be very dreary, and lethal, if we keep on thinking they do.
November 25, 2014
The imbroglio in Ferguson has pushed me a step closer to a conviction I’m been approaching for some time, a position I’m sure some would see as radical. It can be stated simply: there can be little overlap between partisanship and fair-mindedness.
The human mind appears to be constructed, in the great majority of examples, to make a case for whatever group it identifies itself with. If two groups are in fierce contention, a person who sees himself as connected to one of them will find it almost impossible to view the situation from the other group’s perspective. He might tell himself he’s trying to but almost always he will fail.
The most glaring example of this in U.S. politics now is the conflict between Israel and the population commonly called the Palestinians (though some Israeli advocates don’t want to grant them that title). If someone is identified with one of those groups it doesn’t matter what his group does to the other side. It is always justified by the evil of the other. I have had hours of conversation with dear friends about this division. The discourse always turns out to be evidence-free, in the sense that evidence simply doesn’t matter. One side is right in what it does and the other is wrong and that’s all one needs to know.
I used to get frustrated in these talks but I’ve given up frustration for resignation. Brains have been wired by partisanship, and they’re going to stay wired. I suppose there are instances in which something so dramatic happens that rewiring is forced, but those occurrences are extremely rare.
There is no sense in getting angry at a permanently fixed brain. I do think, though, that sense can be directed at steering people away from that condition before it completely takes the brain over.
Vehement nationalism, is course, is the most widespread source of such brain-wiring. It also produces the most lethal consequences. It’s the case that most people are willing to inflict gigantic slaughter on the people of another nation if the loudest voices of their own nation tells them it needs to be done. Parents are even willing to surrender the lives of their children to the sentiment, and to take pride in their sacrifices. It would have to be called lunacy, were it not that another word has already taken its place: patriotism.
We are caught in a gap between two geo-political world-views. One of them evolved for a world in which boundaries between groups could be maintained because the human population was sparse enough that lives could be lived, almost entirely, within protected borders. Now that world is disintegrating. There are too many people to allow it keep going. The heroes of the past were men who could stand resolutely on the borders, even while they were shifting, and defend the people within -- that is the good people -- against the people outside, i.e., the bad people. Their brains became wired for that sort of thinking.
This was not just the case for international relations. It functioned within countries to set up boundaries between classes and ethnic groups. There were sections of towns where a person simply could not go if he were of a certain class, or had a certain complexion.
Now the boundaries are crumbling everywhere due to the press of expanding populations. What’s to be done? What might the oncoming geo-political view be?
If reality forces people to intermingle more than they did in the past, then we need modified brains from those heretofore. The brains hardwired to defend the borders and to support whatever goes on inside them need to give way to new kinds of brains. Those shopworn, boundary-focused, brains are going to lead us to disaster in a globalized world.
I can’t fully delineate the mindset suitable for a crowded, electronically linked world but I can see that the kind of identities which made a person who he was in the old system have become dysfunctional. They do far more harm than good. I happen to think we need more individualized lives and fewer that are little more than appendages of groups. The thought that anyone in a group other than one’s own is bound to be suspicious, and probably dangerous, has always been stupid. But in the world we have now, it has become colossally demented, pathologically twisted, insane. If we want to keep on living, we’ve got to wash that notion out of our brains.
The boundary-wired attitude is at its worst in America with respect to the ghettoes. Here poor and uneducated people are held by all sorts of social and economic restraints in crowded neighborhoods while the so-called respectable people peer down on them with disdain. Furthermore, in all too many of these areas the inhabitants are patrolled by police departments which have little sympathy with the inhabitants and virtually no personal connection with them. The residents are regularly insulted and bullied by the police, and when anger arises the inhabitants are denounced as irresponsible.
I’m aware that teenage boys are not the easiest people in the world to get along with. They can be truly obnoxious. But what they need is caring help rather than bullying. If policemen are not teaching, they are failing in their duty. And when they leap to deadly violence because of some macho notion of their own exalted status, they foster the very behavior they are supposedly trying to quiet. Mostly they do this because they have bought into a notion of their own group superiority over people they are trying to hold down rather than help. They identify with being tough policemen rather than serving as protective members of the communities they’re supposed to be serving. In short they are cankered by pathological identities.
It seems likely that something of that sort was happening in Ferguson preceding the disaster which has descended on the community because of over-excited behavior by a typical cop. It was a microcosm that tells us much about what’s going on around the world.
If Darren Wilson had been thinking more about being the best version of himself, and less about his privileges as a cop, it’s pretty clear we wouldn’t being seeing the kind of nasty reports which are filling our newspapers and TV screens today. I wish we could learn from what happened there rather than hunkering down into our own group defensive positions. But the movement from the worn out to the fresh is still in its early stages.
November 27, 2014
My friend Dan Noel used to say there should be a federal law requiring every citizen to write a country music song each year. I've always agreed with the spirit of that sentiment and consequently have usually complied with the yet-to-be-enacted legislation.
Driving up to Bartow last week my third, or fourth, composition of the year came almost instantaneously into my mind. I’ll share the couple stanzas with you here.
I’m living in a pickup world But I ain’t got a pickup girl. Whenever I brag ‘bout my Ford 150 She up and says that ain’t nifty. So what am I gonna do? How can I be true To a girl who makes me happy in bed And a truck that causes my heart to be fed? The Lord ought to solve this thing, you see? But so far silence greets perplexity. It seems I’m always doomed to be Ripped apart like a split-up tree. Oh, Lordy, Jesus, please set me free And I’ll seek you forever on bended knee. You can count forever on my loyalty. So how about a dose of your Grace for me?
You can supply the tune yourself; it wouldn’t be even a little bit hard.
Since I’ve been in pickup world I’ve observed subtleties I wouldn’t have anticipated. Pickup world is, of course, passionately concerned with men’s being real men. And the reality of one’s masculinity is intimately linked to the kind of vehicle he drives. Ford has captured this arena of appeal with the F-series. Status as a real man is pretty well established by the ownership of an F-150. If you want to emphasize genuine manly character you can move up to an F-250. And if you really want to go wild there’s always the F-350, especially the model that has been jacked up high above the chassis. Ride around up there and you can smile down sardonically on the remainder of humanity
Dodge has tried to challenge Ford’s suzerainty with the Ram, and the iconic phrase, “Guts, Glory, Ram!” But somehow it hasn’t worked out. Even with the battering-ram appearance of its grille, the Ram lacks the kind of pure solidity the Ford conveys. It’s as though there are limits to absurdity, even in pickup world.
If you’re willing to hang out on the edges of real man identity, you could save money by settling for something like a Chevrolet Silverado. The problem, of course, is that Chevrolet has always carried a whiff of sissification. By objective standards the Silverado is probably about as good as any other truck. But that, obviously, doesn’t matter a great deal. Image is all in pickup truck world.
The serious question, which probably couldn’t be treated adequately in a country music song, is whether there’s anything wrong with gratifying oneself with symbols of this sort. After all, some men completely outside the real-man corral engage in similar self-pleasuring by carrying Montblanc pens. Scarcely anyone makes jokes at their expense. I guess you could say that Montblanc pens, though expensive, don’t compete with an F-350 in price, and so are not equally targets for satire. It’s true that a wad of cash in your pocket is a pretty big symbol in pickup world. It shows you could take home an F-150 if you wanted to. Yet, even when you pump up the expense factor beyond pickups -- to yachts, for example -- the scorn doesn’t approach the scorn pickups attract.
Part of it, of course, comes from the traffic habits of pickup drivers. They go faster than most drivers do. When they’re trying to pass they ride right up on the bumper of the vehicle ahead, as though to say, “Get the hell out of my way!” They cut in and out of lanes with near-insane indifference to the other drivers on the road. All this of course comports with the image of a real man. They don’t put up with nonsense from anybody, and clearly driving only ten mph over the speed limit is pure nonsense.
Another feature of the harsh criticism is nasty and seldom admitted but nonetheless real: pickup truck drivers are regarded by many people as ignorant, redneck louts. How fair that is, I guess, has to be a personal opinion.
A third reason may be the most rational but is probably the least popular. Pickup trucks are natural disasters. They use up far more fuel than one needs to use to get from one place to another, and, let’s face it, at least ninety percent of driving in pickup trucks has nothing to do with the trucking feature. People like to say they get trucks to be able to haul stuff, but when you look at what pickup trucks are doing, it’s not about carrying loads. Of course, we have to remember that the American people, themselves, are environmental disasters.
In any case, the legitimacy of the gratification issue with respect to pickup trucks is complicated. I have a certain sympathy for pickup truck guys. They inhabit a social structure in which sources of personal gratification are fairly scarce. Though they may not generally recognize it, they don’t get a fair shake from the power structures of society. They are much more used than they are users. So if they get some fun from driving ridiculous vehicles, why not indulge them?
The environmental concern is legitimate, but there are many forms of wasting energy which are far more acute. I wish I had statistics about how often pickup trucks kill people, but I’m lacking them right now. I see quite a few instances here in Florida, but that’s probably more due to the nature of Floridians than to the habits of pickup driving, per se.
With respect to misspent money, who am I to tell people how not to waste their money when my own life is scarcely a model of deportment in that respect?
About the plight of my song’s protagonist, I’d advise him not to worry much about his girlfriend’s jibes. Some girlfriends just like to appear highfalutin. It gives them a weapon in the battle of the sexes. So keep on having fun with your girl, but enjoy your F-150 as much as you can.
©John R. Turner
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