If I had to do it over again, I would be less obedient, less trusting and less credulous. I would keep up my piano lessons for the duration, do a lot more photography throughout, and travel more while still young – for my own interests, not for work. I would have worked on my passions much harder, even with abandon; I would not have wasted time on many inconsequential distractions; and I would have paid much less attention to many people. A very few people I would have paid more and better attention to. I would be much less afraid of dying, though I did come pretty close. I would have read Balzac and Flaubert in my teens, and then I would have had a much clearer idea of what men want from women, and what women want from men. I would have read Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene in 1976 when it was first published, and then I would have understood what family is really about. Balzac, Flaubert and Dawkins are the best preparation a young man can have before engaging in the battle of the sexes. C. G. Jung, though his ideas are rather elaborate, was very helpful for understanding the failures of human nature. While Jungian thought is too cumbersome to be absorbed in your teens, it is wise to do so in your twenties so you can understand the psychological catastrophes others will try to suck you into, as well as your own mid-life crisis in your thirties, or forties or fifties. I don’t have too many regrets about the many compromises I made in order to support my family, because I am happy my children are who they are today. I made my mistakes as a parent, but overall I am happy with how I performed as a father. Even so, had I to do it over again I would be much more adventuresome about my career in my younger half of life.
My end-or-the-year thoughts about our world have been similar for some years now, and are summarized as follows.
It seems the major themes of my year were: the political yin-yang of popular equality versus privileged freedom in the U.S., climate change, and philosophies of eternity.
The United States today is a society in which power is allocated on the basis of accumulated and organized wealth, which imposes a social structure of inequitable freedom against the popular desire for a compassionate and just equalization of benefits and responsibilities. This situation will continue because neither the power and selfishness of accumulation nor the distractibility and ignorance of the masses show any signs of diminishing.
Climate change will proceed unhindered, as will the uninterrupted rush by humanity to exploit all sources of fossil fuels. The moral choice between restraint for the good of all life versus gaining an immediate boost to private power will always be won by the latter.
Can the nearly 200 nation-states of the world each develop into a multi-cultural democracy? That is the portal to the next level of social evolution. One significant barrier here is the obsession to rule theocratically or with major ethnic, racial, sexist, and religion-based prejudices, and with archaic and stunting restrictions on the scope of human thought and on benign natural behaviors. To achieve the kinds of peaceful modern states many can envision and few have experienced, it is necessary to have religions of all types fade from public affairs and become exclusively matters of the private thinking of individuals. Peace will come in proportion of the secularity and inclusivity of governance.
The dream of would-be benevolent monarchs, theocrats, and authoritarian ideologues, of peaceful rule under their supervision, stifles the full potential of the humanity trapped underneath it. The ultimate solution to the thorny political problems in many parts of the world is to nurture the human potential there by liberating it from the restrictions heaped upon it by factions seeking to control the lives of others through religion and mental coercion, physical force, economic enslavement, and political exclusion.
I think the eight major problems facing humanity in regard to experiencing a fulfilling standard of living everywhere, as measured by the Human Development Index, are as follows (listed from most urgent to relatively less urgent).
1. Corruption and Authoritarianism
Corruption is ubiquitous around the world, being a massive aggregate of individual failures of moral character, which is aptly named since its collective effect is the hollowing out of governance, the delegitimizing of governments. Authoritarianism and corruption naturally accompany one another, with authoritarianism being the structure of corruption at the apex of the political hierarchy.
2. Political Violence
Military occupations, repressions, insurrections, terrorism, and coup attempts all disrupt, destabilize, and dispirit civil society. Political violence is the ultimate expression of selfishness by the factional perpetrators intent to gain political power at the expense of the entire society. Politics at every level from that of the village to the international scene will never be perfect, but until our political processes are universally seen to admit all concerns and produce timely, just, and reasonable resolutions, or at a minimum move along that direction, we will not curb the excess of political violence we suffer today.
3. Food Production
Reducing the toil of food production and increasing the environmental sustainability of the production methods are essential tasks for the improvement of the health and security of all life. For many populations, the toil of producing food is being made worse by climate change, environmental degradation, predatory financing, and political strife.
4. Healthcare and Education
Two fundamental steps to boosting the standard of living of presently impoverished, disadvantaged, or under-developed societies are: to ensure people have sound bodies through extensive public health programs and a sufficiency of adequate doctoring, and to ensure that these sound bodies house sound minds, strengthened and enlightened by widely available basic and honest education. Programs of public hygiene disinfect the physical body of a society from the germs and parasites that can cause bodily disease, and programs of public education disinfect the intellects of the people from the most damaging parasites to critical thinking: ignorance, prejudice, and superstition including archaic religious restrictions.
5. Environmental Attitudes
Every man and woman is something nature is doing (paraphrasing Alan Watts). While it is convenient to many human endeavors aimed at gaining profits or advantages of temporal power to imagine that humans are separate from and even opposed to nature, in fact our lives are entwined with the many cycles and processes that we see in aggregate as “the environment.” We are like fish in a bowl, moving within an environment that we alternately imagine as approaching food to be swallowed, and receding wastes we have ejected. What we do to the environment returns to us as the karma of pollution, environmental degradation, and climate change. In today’s world, exploitative attitudes toward nature and the environment can no longer be ascribed to ignorance; they are sometimes excused as desperation and are often a matter of simple greed. Social stability requires an enduring healthy environment, and thus an attitude of environmental stewardship with sustainable uses of energy and natural resources.
6. Financial Aggression
The exploitation of the poor by the wealthy through financial methods is a hemorrhage to the effort of elevating and equalizing the standard of living of a targeted society. Such parasitism includes the predatory financing by a wealthy elite exploiting the lower economic classes within one nation, as well as the financial aggression by capitalists in wealthy nations against nations with less economic development, and perhaps with inviting potential wealth in the form of natural resources. Such exploitation can include “free trade” agreements, loans by foreign extractors that gain them significant economic control over indebted nations, and the exploitation of domestic labor by foreign corporations producing for export.
7. Political Freedom
Political freedom is a human right. Exclusion of “the poor” from effective political participation is a fundamental barrier to their efforts to improve their standard of living. Ethnic groups and economic classes with greater wealth and political power can gain control of the government, the military, commerce, and financial systems, and use these to maintain an unrepresentative governance, one which politically excludes a large part of the society they rule over and extract labor and wealth from. While problems 1 and 7 are not identical, they can often be closely related.
8. Energy for Human Development
Every human on earth deserves access to sufficient energy from sustainable sources for a just and decent standard of living. We each need energy to cook food and purify water, preserve food and drugs (refrigeration), heat homes, provide light after sundown to enable reading and study, power communications devices, power essential tools like well pumps, and power public transportation networks.
Problems 1, 2, 6 and 7 are political and economic, while problems 3, 4, 5 and 8 are social and environmental (of course we realize that politics and economics influence society and the environment, and vice versa).
Family and the arts are refuges to the spirit in times of political exclusion and economic exhaustion.
Happy New Year, World, best wishes for the NEW YEAR.
Originally published at Swans.com on December 17, 2012. The three changes to this article are: after the first two words of the title, a different first sentence, everything after “the” in the last sentence.
Winter Reflections, 2012
0. I am out of synch with Americans today, old and young, and it is better for me to keep it that way even if it seems isolating. I would do best living happily as a quiet, invisible loner.
I am unable to engage with society without puncturing other people’s idea bubbles, because I am unable to keep my analytical mind from seeking the foundations of those ideas and the limits of those bubbles. I usually find the foundations weak, the limits narrow, and the bubbles flimsy – but held to be sacred. Trying to expand those bubbles (to “be helpful” and “inform them”) or pop them (to be critical and “wake them up”) just creates hostility, and that produces disturbances (when I lose my patience), which then suck the oxygen out of my good spirits, and poisons some of the time I could otherwise be spending enjoying my own thoughts and actions.
What I have now been taught, in these modern times, is that I would do best to “respect others” by simply saying nothing to them as they babble on without interruption, even as they fall off their own delusional cliffs and ensnare themselves in their own chosen sufferings. I get it: It’s your life and you’ll choose how to live it and fantasize about it.
For my part, it’s best I do my thing alone without seeking an audience, which seeking is just a waste of time that yields no appreciation, nor has social benefit. People only have an interest in me to sell me something (get money), or for me to play a supporting role in one of their self-focused social dramas (women are big on this), or to be a momentary entertainment fill-in.
Since there is such a wide variety of human types, the above analysis is not true for everyone.
1. You never help anyone by calling them stupid, even if it’s true. Stupidity is like gravity, it’s constant and impervious, and you can’t do anything about it – unless it’s your own. I must be patient about the reality of stupidity, for my own good.
2. Everybody is racist.
3. Attention deficiency is the norm. Most people do not have an attention span greater than 20 seconds. I think this is why hand-held electronics are so popular, and reading paperbacks in public is so rare.
4. I’m on my own (and it’s best). Nobody cares about what I think, say or write. And, I feel the same way about most other people.
5. Conversation is dead. Most people prefer to talk than to listen, where “talk” is either actual audible verbalized output, or broadcast written speeches, or internal mental self-talk.
6. Thinking is dead. Most people do not think reflectively and use logic, they react emotionally selecting instantaneous judgments from a list of pre-programmed prejudices. They only “think” mechanically and procedurally (like robots) to implement the task at hand, whether that task is a chore (something they “have to” do), or a step in self-focused activity (something they “want to” do).
7. Americans have been trained to vote on the basis of avoiding their fears (i.e., emotionally). Where fear is lacking, voting decisions can be based on personal biases (more emotions) and personal pecuniary impact (the beginnings of thought). The character of political candidates, and the public good (or damage) of the policies they would champion, are not thoughtfully considered by the majority of American voters.
“The most frightening feature of the civic melancholia in present-day America is the relative collapse of integrity, honesty, and decency — an undeniable spiritual blackout of grand proportions. The sad spectacle of the presidential election is no surprise. Rather, the neofascist catastrophe called Donald Trump and the neoliberal disaster named Hillary Clinton are predictable symbols of our spiritual blackout.” – Cornell West (3 November 2016)
8. Political amnesia and personal denial are the psychological anesthetics of choice. Voters never notice and never remember the damages their winning candidates cause, so they can remain willfully ignorant of their own responsibilities in helping to create those damages. For example: Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” and butchery in Central America, Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” and deregulation of the banks, George W. Bush’s Iraq War, tax cut for the rich and US financial collapse for the not-rich, Barack Obama’s generous giveaways to and protection of Wall Street, whistleblower persecutions and drone massacres. Have Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama voters ever taken ownership of the disasters, catastrophes and persecutions they backed?
American identity-politics voting on the basis of vanity (latest version: “first woman president”) subsequently requires many foreign brown-skinned dead bodies in tribute to “the cause,” and the camping out on sidewalks in the homeland of more and more “deplorables” and “welfare cheats,” and every other kind of out-of-scratch nonperson. I pity America’s exploited and discarded Red Necks, now raging with neofascist ignorance, as mirrored by their hero Donald Trump; and I am disgusted by the smug narcissistic vanity of America’s comfortable parasites, emoting or conniving and colluding, as mirrored by their heroine Hillary Clinton.
9. Predictions: Hillary Clinton will win the election on November 8th. The Electoral College vote will be decisive, but the popular vote will be close. Hillary Clinton will follow through on her promises to Goldman Sachs (Big Money), Saudi Arabia (Big Oil) and Israel (War Inc.), but will entirely ignore the Democratic Party platform (dumping the Bernie Sanders Democrats the morning after getting their votes), except as a useful repository of progressive rhetoric she can cherry-pick for use as political camouflage when needed. The mainline Republicans (finally able to ditch Trump and his Tea Party excludeds) will stonewall President Hillary in the same way they stonewalled President Obama, as a careerists versus careerist battle for political power, except at those times and in those areas where Big Money, Big Oil and War, Inc. tell them to cooperate to meet the owners’ needs and wants, just as they did during the Obama Administration. Hillary is closer (more pliant) to the Big Owners than Barack was, but she’s unlikely to be as adept as he was at managing the public. So, the Big Game will go on as before, but it may not look as pretty at the retail level of infotainment. The treacly celebrations of “breaking the glass ceiling” and “first woman president” will be overlong and overplayed despite quickly wearing out for all but Hillary’s sentimental cultists.
10. It’s time for me to renew my Zen.
Useless Words of Sorrow, Early July 2016
Very sad about the world today. Two innocent American Black men killed by White police officers the last two days, and videos of the killings posted on the internet and seen by many millions. Great rage and sadness, and fear. People try to vent their rage in mass protests, just milling in the streets and screaming out their agony, anything to deal with the pain, ages of pain fresh again. And it’s frustrating because it seems so pointless, we cycle and cycle endlessly in the same inhuman and idiotic pattern, wasting more innocent lives, damaging more fragile psyches of loved ones and children.
It’s so heartbreakingly obvious and so incredibly overdue for fixing that even our elegant president, Obama, feels compelled to address the nation at length: words of sympathy, even empathy, but so carefully crafted to soothe rather than incite, or call out explicitly for resolute action. Sometimes the best salve for a raw wound are words of raw truth. The political people always have their agendas, their legacies, and their prospects foremost in mind, and words from the heart must be filtered and second-guessed. But this is not the time for equivocation from a leader. It is time for a revolution.
And today, our collective societal dysfunction unravelled further into urban warfare, the toxic mix of belligerent ignorance, racial bias, assault rifles, and lost hope among the powerless for the liberating and protective implementation of justice. In Dallas, two snipers perched in elevated parking structures opened triangulated fire on police officers assembled at street level to manage the crowd scene of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, after the march ended as the people were dispersing. The reports at this moment list 11 police officers shot with 5 fatalities; one sniper is cornered and police are negotiating a surrender, the second sniper is unaccounted for.
To me this is all pure tragedy, pure waste, pure injustice. Whoever you are, whatever your afflictions and excuses, the only positive response to unjust deaths is the prevention of more unjust deaths. Just stop, people: new pain does not erase old pain. I could accept that America is just unable to do any better than to be a country of stupidity, guns, impatience and selfishness, if it could at least keep its brutish insensitivity within the bounds of un-bigoted non-violence. I would so much rather the knuckleheads of this country would wake up to the essential goodness of a just society as Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein envision and champion it. But, I’m a dreamer, and I’ve been that way since I listened to John Kennedy’s inaugural address (he, too, was shot in Dallas).
The events of these last three days have given me just the tiniest bit of a visceral twinge of what life and sorrow are like in places like Syria and Iraq. On July 3rd, 292 (latest count) people were killed by an ISIS truck bombing attack at a shopping center in a Shiite area of Baghdad. In subsequent days Shia, Sunni and Christian Iraqis gathered at the site to protest the outrage, and the attempt to incite civil war.
It all just goes on and on. Today’s cruelties will do nothing to assuage the legacies of yesterday’s cruelties, just as past cruelties have never had any tangible effect beyond creating more enduring sorrows, and quickly evaporate as justifiable excuses for inflicting future cruelties. It’s all so hideously wrong. Whoever you are and whatever your excuse, just stop whatever you are doing that even remotely feeds this beast. Forget about winning, forget about getting, forget about compelling, just remember to be human, that means to be part of humanity. It’s so obvious every child understands it. It’s about keeping your soul. What is your soul beyond how you relate to other people? Our individual sadnesses over the tragedies of these days is an upwelling of humanity’s soul reaching out seeking comforting reassurance of being whole, of being interconnected with itself in its multitude of human individuals.
The only real message here is: stay human. Stay human.
Yes, I know I am embarrassing. I make no apology.
I used to feel that way about my father, sometimes, when I was a teenager. But, that was more my own awkwardness and insecurity, cringing when papa was playfully extroverted in mixed company. He was never crude nor boorish, to require such embarrassment on my part, but knowing him so well and, as it were, seeing through his public affability, I reacted to his mild put-ons as if I had a more sophisticated understanding into social engagement than he did. Now that I am older than he was then, I know better, and I am shamelessly embarrassing. I’ll tell you why.
From my earliest days, I realized that people, generally, are very inattentive; in a word: unaware. They amble blithely in their personal little bubbles oblivious to all that lies outside them. They babble loudly in their little groups in cafés without any thought to disturbing the people around them. They drive their cars with minimal notice of traffic, bicyclists and pedestrians. They have an unfailing ability to not-notice you if they are waiting tables or behind a counter you are in line in front of. There are just an uncountable number of ways that people can not-see, not-hear, not-notice and not-know. Of course, sometimes this not-noticing is intentional, arising from laziness, envy, fear or hostility. But, most of the time is it just simple mindlessness.
Because of the commonness of human narrow-view, short-focus bubble-vision, coupled with perceptual insensitivity, communications are often garbled, incomplete, misdirected, mistimed and ineffective. Who is without complaint on this score, whether at work, at school, among family and friends, and out and about in public?
So, I have learned that it is necessary to be quite redundant in my verbal and written communications. This was especially true in all my attempts to teach in schools. To assume that people will listen and read carefully is sheer folly. By the way, the adults in schools: teachers and administrators, are equally deficient in this regard as are their students. Just ask students how many of their homework assignments have been lost by their teachers, and how often their grading reports have been late, erroneous or missing. So much for teaching by example. But, I digress.
In brief, repetition is the essence of pedagogy. Repetition is the unavoidable necessity of successful communication. So, when I want to ensure that my message is received by another consciousness, I repeat myself: in the speaking of the message, in the writing of the message, and in the repeated sending of the message.
Those who notice this repetition easily form the impression that I am “old,” and even “dumb.” Family and friends who observe all this can then feel embarrassed by old, unsophisticated papa. But, I have made the calculation that it is acceptable to be taken for a bit of a clown if that ensures that the messages I care about have been effectively transmitted.
The messages I care about are those that will make for better lives for my children, and also all children; even though I think most American kids (and adults) are spoiled brats. But, “man is a social animal” (as Aristotle said), and the second best way to ensure a good future for my children is to advocate for a just and peaceful society, of benefit to everyone. This motivation has led me to advocate for social democratic (left wing!) political causes and candidates for public office. My advocacy is quite limited, since I have no talent for politics, no talent for persuasiveness, nor affinity for civic affairs, do-gooderism, joining groups, or just getting on with people generally. I prefer working on my own projects, reading my books, doing my music, playing with my equations, and enjoying wandering through my own daydreams and ideas.
So, my advocacy boils down to writing essays and rants that I throw onto the Internet so they drift into the personal bubbles of a few scattered unknowns, entertaining some, enraging others (who deserve it), and encouraging a few. Beyond that, I speak with the people I commonly see (and who tolerate me) about the causes of the day, if they want to. I am a committed supporter of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign (in 2016), and I advertise for that cause by wearing two highly visible “Bernie 2016” badges every day. Sometimes people smile at me, sometimes their assholes pucker, but usually I glide through a human sea of not-noticing — both conscious and unconscious. I have plowed up a mountain of embarrassment before me, and I trail a wake of relief behind me. And, I don’t care. Transmission gets through.
I have high hopes for the Bernie Sanders campaign, and for the new generation resplendently buoying it up. But, I also have no confidence in the character of the American people who see themselves as part of the establishment, or who fool themselves into believing they are entitled to its privileges by dint of their heritage and attitudes. It is a disheartening realization that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can each claim millions of Americans as devoted fans.
Former president Jimmy Carter is correct to say that the United States “no longer has a functional democracy,” because incorporated Big Money can and has bought politicians and elections, so that the vast bulk of the public has little impact on government policy, which they are paying for in money, blood and impoverished futures for their children. And, all that sacrifice subsidizes the obscene corporate looting of the public commons, and the subversion of government to the service of very selfish and destructive special interests. Even so, the remnant of democracy that we still have seems able to produce political figureheads for the oligarchy, whose dismal characters do reflect the embarrassing reality of the dominant traits of the American electorate: morally weak intellectual mediocrities who are tolerant of corruption, sloppy to the point of incompetence, and cravenly selfish. Not everybody, and for most not all the time, but in aggregate just too much.
If this were not so, Bernie Sanders’ vision would have been implemented long ago. The opposition, in 2016, to Bernie Sanders’ campaign and its vision is really of the same type as that before 1865 to the vision encapsulated in the 13th Amendment. I like to believe that the vision of the Sanders Revolution will eventually prevail in the United States, when the evolution of the aggregate character of the American people finally arrives at the requisite “higher level.” But, it’s so damn slow!
My children are all essentially adults at this point, and I think I am ready to go back to being fully un-embarrassingly selfish, to drop all efforts to “communicate” with what George Sanders called (in his suicide note) “the sweet cesspool” of human society, and to wander playfully in my own logic bubble producing my “art” (whatever that may be) for my own satisfaction, since really nobody else cares and why should they? I would very much enjoy the calm and serenity of not caring about anybody beyond those close to me. We’ll see.
Those of you who would prefer to read a much better reflection of satisfaction with life in its later years should read W. Somerset Maugham’s entry for 1944 in his book A Writer’s Notebook. A short excerpt:
“There is a nobility which does not proceed from thought. It is more elemental. It depends neither on culture nor breeding. It has its roots among the most primitive instincts of the human being. Faced with it, God, if he had created man, might hide his head in shame. It may be that in the knowledge that man for all his weakness and sin is capable on occasion of such splendour of spirit, one may find some refuge from despair.”
One thing I’m sure of: once I stop embarrassing you all, my piano playing will improve.