A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Who Runs America and the World:

And why would they want to? 

(I am reminded of a 3 panel cartoon from Mad Magazine: Pizzeria with a sign – “Best Pizza in Town.” Further down the block: Pizzeria with a sign – “Best Pizza in the World.”  Last panel, at the end of the street: Pizzeria with a sign – “Best Pizza on the Block.”) 

I recently read an essay by Brian Cloughley entitled, ‘Who Runs America?’; I wanted to know.  The essay was about Israeli leaders having inordinate influence on US leaders, but it turned out the title was a teaser for the last lines: “Will they continue to support Israel, the country that has laid waste a land and murdered over 200 women and children? 

If they do, the question must be asked: Who runs America?” 

I was disappointed.  I thought that Mr. Cloughley might be ready to drop a dime on the real truth of who really calls the shots on the madness that serves as our governance.  So, as an aficionado of analogy, a mere minion of metaphor, I began trying to answer that so tantalizing question in my own way.  I went to my somewhat limited repertoire of experiences with the actual “running” of things 

I have worked, recently, with a small school; there are only about 20 people employed or employing in connection with the school.  Still, I really don’t know who is running the place.  I do know who wants to (the governing council, the directors, the teachers, the students, the parents – all want a say in their own interests, but really none of them “run” it). I know who is in the leader box of the organizational chart, we feel the heat coming from district and state and I know who is listened to and who is not, but when it comes right down to it things happen much of the time by the sheer momentum of events, more a series of omissions without an obvious guiding hand (and this matches my experience from other organizations).  If this is the way our tiny school microcosm of banal exercises functions, can it possibly be analogy for millions of people functioning in the multifaceted levels of national government? 

Can it be that there is really no one running America?  Is it possible that some significant percentage of the functioning of government is no more than a continuation of existing actions in motion?  If this is the case, then ‘who runs America?’ becomes ‘what runs America?’.  To some important extent a general notion of ideological correctness or even – perish the thought – popular will might be important. Can it be that leaders are like railroad engineers? I have always marveled at the ‘engineer’ being said to ‘drive’ a train: While there must be complicated things to do to make the great power of the train consistently work, still the train goes where the track is laid.  I don’t see much ‘driving’ going on.  The real power is manifest before the track is built and then often in only the most general way in response to the lay of the land. 

Then there is the ship metaphor: the Ship of State.  Here steering is possible in all directions (except up or down) and immense power.  In theory the Captain can take the ship anywhere, but then the captain can be knocked in the head and replaced by another with different aims.  So, while the leader, if given sufficient authority, can really seem to run things, it is still either the people or some select group gaining their power from a constituency of the people that finally decides direction.  It is true that the “captain” can take the ship far in the direction of his setting and thus decide how much work is required to reset the course, but such control is seldom more than a decade or so, almost never more than half a human life time. But a ship of substantial size is still an excellent metaphor in that even when everyone wishes to change direction, from captain to cook, the momentum of all systems makes slowing and turning, without tearing loose the boards of the deck and damaging the running gear, impossible.  In the political/social world is it that people just get up each day and do what they know how to do?  So it is in large measure even on “the ship:” the people who run things do so by the simple acts of running the little daily circles of their lives. 

This thinking only lights, a little, the complex garden of these processes – like a garden maze at twilight with spooky shadows confusing the senses.  At one extreme there is no plan at all; just the daily doings summing up into the billions of events bounding along from accidental order to accidental chaos.  Order has a longer run, because quite simply it is order! And chaos usually signals its coming and sets the daily motion in search of safety – which is, of course, the order of yesterday; even if it is not. 

At the other extreme we are all the unwitting puppets of the Bilderberg Group, the club of the connected that, if it does not actually do so, would rule the world: Someone has to do it!  I am sure that the Bilderbergers, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the international Jewish conspiracy and a variety of ad hoc attachments are very powerful influences on truly important processes and events in our world, but do they ‘run’ it?  That is, does someone say, “Go change the economy of Egypt,” and someone goes and changes the economy of Egypt?  Or is it more like, “I would sure be happier, and more wealthy, if the price of Egyptian cotton were to go down.  How can we do that?”  I think that running the world may be more like having the power to do a thing or two and doing it without much regard for the consequences.  

In my childhood I stirred ant nests and watched the creatures run around in disordered ant-terror, but they would, rather quickly, return to patterns of movement, restore the mound and their little lives.  I always felt ashamed, but did this perhaps 20 times in the wonder of it (for those offended by my callousness toward the ants, rest assured that the ants had their turns at me).  Could it be that some humans find themselves in such a place that, for their own reasons, they can stir the multitude?  I certainly was not “running” the ant colony, but I was making a moment happen.  Are our “leaders” just making moments happen from which we, the holders of order, must restore and recover?  If this is true, then those who “run things” only stir and the great multitude restores by actively living the order of their lives, by resurrecting daily routines out of the chaos of leadership.

The evolutionist must point out that no God is required, no special creation, no intelligent design, just doing everyday on a terribly ordinary little plan: consume sufficient calories and some version of make fertile offspring; this is enough to make 4 billion years of life, billions of species, incomprehensibly complex ecosystems and the most incredible biomechanical creations.  It could certainly “run” a country. (There is more to this story.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Who Are the People?

It is a conservative principle that the people’s rights should be protected.  It is a conservative principle that people should have the right to make choices in their own lives – and that they are responsible for the consequences of those choices whether the outcome is positive or negative.  It is a conservative principle that this is a nation of laws not of men and that the supreme law of the land is the Constitution of the United States.  The other founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the other writings of the founders, serve to clarify intention such as that this is a nation of the people, by the people and for the people. 

Those who are called humanists, progressives or ‘liberals’ have no great difference of opinion on these principles (the original meanings of the term liberal have been carved up and the pieces spread around the various political poles).  The difference comes from what is meant by “the people.”  And by the political and economic methods used to support those ‘people’ that are considered to really count [1].

‘What’ matters is always a consequence of ‘who’ matters.  We create patterns of importance to control popular attitudes, beginning with the emotionally potent as a means of arriving at the politically potent: if “the life of the unborn” matters more than the life of the breathing, then the following pattern of valuing typically underlies: human females are, foremost, vessels of procreation; there is a hierarchy of importance with God at the top, human men next, then human women and, in descending order, animals and other organisms measured in their usefulness to the status quo.  And, with a little slight of hand, wealthy people mattering more than poor people. 

This last over simplifies a rather complex set of issues, but is still useful in this form: those who have stuff matter and those who don’t don’t!  Large amounts of our cultural action and belief spin off of this simple assertion.  In the most blatant way this is not ideology, but assertion of fact.  The wealthy and powerful must be appeased since their actions have the larger consequences.  The actions of the poor only have consequences in the organized aggregate (except for rare moments of lonely violence and rarer ones of lonely brilliance).  

When family based communities fail as the primary structure of human order and relationship, we are left without a biologically sophisticated means of assessing value: our choices are ultimately raw power and undeniable fact, both of which are given especial presence by wealth and political power. 

The unforgivable action of the poor is to become organized and therefore consequential.  Gangs of various kinds are an example of one of the few ways that “the poor” can seem to retain their values and also attain power and wealth: the ‘brother’ matters and the outsider doesn’t.  But the shifting of ‘who’ matters in the flux of weakly structured relationships can be as much a danger as any benefit from the organizing principle.  And this paradigm differs in no way from the over-arching social paradigm of power; it only shifts it to a more local form. 

Unionization is another way that the poor can organize and therefore give their wishes importance in the decisions of the powerful.  Such organizing is often seen as no better than gang or criminal activity exactly because the people doing the organizing are seen as being of no importance. 

‘I matter and you do not’ can become the bottom-line formulation.  ‘The design of the natural order matters more than the perturbations of individual interest’ is the natural, though largely ungraspable, antithesis.   It is easy to see which, in a sea of self-interest, would be the most acceptable formulation! 

What all this means is simple.  “We, the people,” doesn’t actually mean ‘the People.’  It means ‘those who my people agree to include.’  The righteousness of Michele Bachmann or Lew Dobbs, the petulance of a Limbaugh and the shear stupidity of O’Reilly/Hannity/Beck, and the fact that they are listened to, has as much to do with who they are perceived as representing as acceptable people as for their mean-spirited utterings. 

The exclusiveness of inclusiveness is the ultimate guide to political identification.  If, when you say ‘the people’, you have in mind the Peruvian miner and the waitress in Dearborn as well as the corporate CEO, then you are a humanist/liberal/progressive.  If, for you, ‘the people’ refers to those who meet your list of requirements to be a full member, then you are a conservative, no matter how you might otherwise identify yourself.  

This process of classifying is, if not the oldest profession, one of the oldest of all human (and pre-human) activities.  Konrad Lorenz wrote, many years ago, of its dangers for a world of our present design.  And thoughtful people (you can see how difficult it is to be inclusive!) have long recognized that prejudice is a very blunt instrument. 

This is so well understood, even by the prejudiced, that inclusiveness is a primary rejection of those who wish for “their kind” to have the greatest say in a more homogenous world.  From such simple beginnings can come many of the ills that infect our societies. 

I suspect that the degree to which a person includes other humans as well as other living and non-alive elements of the world into their pantheon of the valued is in some part genetic.  I can find no other explanation for my personal experiences of very early and deep connection to the wonders of the world.  I have, from my earliest memories, felt an attachment of association with humans in particular and all things living in general.  I can’t say that I find very many individuals especially likeable (be they human or rodent), but those things, including people, who share the trillion to the trillionth power lottery of being alive today are all absolutely loveable.  I guess that ruins any chances I might have had to be a conservative: When I say ‘of the people, by the people and for the people,’ I also mean blue whales, fleas, paramecium and even the non-living buffering systems of carbon sequestration. 

[1] the selection of the “most important” powers of government is determined by whether one sees including or excluding others as a primary value. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Danger of Success: in the present economic perturbation

If a house is being consumed by termites and the corrective action drives them away from the places where they can be seen, but doesn’t actually remove them, then the problems will return again and worse. 

In the depression of the early 20th century the over-population of various world regions was relative rather than absolute.  Peak oil, peak water, peak food, peak environmental free services, peak oxygen and peak environmental stability were not issues, and while not divorced from environmental concerns (mid-continental dustbowl), the major fixes could be political and economic.  The situation today is different. 

Today we are hard up against the biophysical realities of a small planet with its exquisite stability challenged by its most profligate species; and it is running out of good humor.  There are thousands of metaphors: If people acquire the means to meet their needs from bailing a sinking boat, some of them will fight to stop the repair of the leaks, even punch some extra holes.  But our easily observable actions are out-metaphoring the metaphors as sources of comprehension.  One hundred and fifty pound people can’t survive without traveling in 3000 pound steel cars that use a liquid sucked from the ground 9000 miles away; the production of the car, the use of the liquid and total supporting infrastructure are destabilizing the biophysical homeostatic and chemically buffered environmental stabilities that allow the people to exist as they do in the first place. 

The economy is the process of moving, exchanging and using the materials and energies that allow, and require, the 150 pound person to use the car, and so, cannot be independent of the earth’s capacity to supply essential biological and industrial resources.  That some greedy criminals in very good suits figured out a way to steal from the Great Many using the federal tax system is actually the least of our concern.  Fixing that and ‘fixing’ them will only buy us a little time.  Our real economic crisis is that the human economy (a sort of Madness that believes that human wants, money and calculus create a reality) is in collision with the natural energy economy of the biosphere.  

It is, to some extent, co-incidence that this bit of high crime is occurring in the moment when humans have so overextended themselves ecologically.  The destruction of the economic expectations may exacerbate the ecological/economic “readjustments,” but they also offer the opportunity to recognize and act on the real crisis.  However, as Krugman wrote today (3/21/09) on his NYTimes blog, there seems to be no recognition of even short-term economic realities.  And no one is talking with any clarity about the real and lasting concerns. 

There are many levels of danger immediately before us, but one of them is that we just might luck our way out of these troubles ‘this one last time’ and set the stage for mindlessly passing all points of no return for ecological failures that will expose human economic activity for the Monopoly game it is.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Living Well in Specieshood

I ended the last essay with these words: “No, the goal of life is not to live long, but to live well in the fullness of specieshood.”  As I reread the words I realized that a root understanding is hidden in them.  For all other animals the goal of life is to live long – at least long enough to reproduce in some abundance.  The Living System of Order communicates across generations only through the DNA/protein nexus, and only in that limited and relatively unsubtle vocabulary. 

The human species has two fully functioning systems of order to please, each with its own properties and powers.  In our origin, the Consciousness System of Order received its designs from our living order relationships to the environment.  The CSO was a specialized adaptation that gave us great – unprecedented – power in the environment.  Environmental processes and events could be rendered as symbols around which stories would be woven.  The details of the stories did not matter in themselves, but the consequences on community behavior in the environment could be given a detail of control and speed of change orders of magnitude greater than any other creature.  A change in behavior or new physical device that would require a hundred or more generations in the DNA/protein nexus of biological evolution could, by the modification of “story,” spread through a community and a community of communities in a few years or months, even days. 

The only “adaptation” in earth’s history that became an independent system of order with its own information selection, storage and implementation designs was life itself.  But after four billion years, biological evolution had stumbled on to another. 

We have, of course, known that there was something special about us from our very beginnings.  I feel quite confident that Homo erectus individuals were aware that they could do things that other animals could not do – but, it was also immediately clear that other animals could do things that hominids could not do.  For a million years or more our genus was ‘special without a difference’, i.e., we used our special capacities to live in integration with our environment, albeit a rapidly changing integration driven by our very rapidly changing ‘Story.’ 50 to 70 thousand years ago the new system of order began to take on some of the functions of the living order by designing not only the fine-tuned behaviors of the moment, but by producing specialized tools, ornamentation, social behaviors, a nascent science and philosophy; these came from the Consciousness Order as designs of story manifest in action and were not based in the DNA/protein nexus as had been every other change of like magnitude forever. 

The information base of the Consciousness System of Order was, in those times, still firmly planted in biophysical reality.  Gods and rituals were the CSO’s design of story that gave force to environmental prescriptions, prescriptions that integrated increasingly complex human actions with environmental free services – that arranged for the kinds of compensations that evolution mandates of its participants.  However, as ‘Story” became more complex new elements of story began to form from previous stories.  More and more ‘Story’ was referenced from existing story and less and less from the biophysical source.  Gods and ritual remained “real” after the integrating designs for which they formed were no longer needed or even realized; and a ‘new world’ of self-referenced structure began to compete with biophysical reality.  

This process had its failures – we can see them with some clarity since recorded history begins about here – and its successes.  Self-referenced changes became so much faster than those associated with biophysical referencing, that humanity was able to, in general, stay ahead of its failures. This is what we call our History; like running ahead of the falling dominoes and building grander and grander designs as the only action we are left understanding how to do.  How often do we look back at our history in wonder: “How could they not have seen…?”  

We have reached a point were our own actions are speeding up the biophysical responses to our behaviors.  We must again respond to biophysical reality after denying it for so long.  One response must be to realize the value of our own personal life as quality and not as quantity. 

I think of a photo a Bernie Madoff next to a photo of a 7 million dollar yacht and I try to imagine the relationship that he had with it – I cannot.  A few feet from were I sit typing is a road bike; my son found the frame at a garage sale, called me asking if I could afford $300 for it – it was a very good one.  I went and talked to the seller, found several component parts in his collection, bought the frame, hunted up a wheel set, worked on it with my son, my younger son found exactly the right length and angle stem for fit and got it in first class working order – a Merlin Extralight for those in the know.  Now that is a yacht I can relate to.

Friday, March 6, 2009

What If

What if there were to be an end to lending?  What if there were to be an end to buying?  What if people could not devote themselves exclusively to activities like deciding where money will go or to driving a truck or creating advertising intended to motivate consumption of objects or services that are not needed – needed only to generate activities that generated more activities like money lending, truck driving and advertising? 

What if people had to go to the source? What if people had to grow their own food; raise, pick or kill and prepare some significant part of their daily sustenance?  What if it were considered madness and the greatest immorality to expect others to supply all of one’s primary biological needs? 

It is considered proper today, considered a personal responsibility, to accumulate as much of the abstract token of consumption as possible.  Such accumulation is widely considered to be evidence of personal quality and social worth. It is a further tenet that the closer an activity is to the manipulation of the tokens of consumption the more worthy and valuable is the action, and the person doing the action.  I can imagine few beliefs that are more mad, and yet these are some of the most powerful designs for our social, economic and political world. 

Adequate healthy food, clean water, reasonable protection from the extremes of weather and the needs of other living things, supportive social relations and trusted confidants and a deep experience of connection with the immediate biophysical world: these are the long recognized standards of successful and fulfilling human existence.  Yet, we are addressing the terrible troubles of our time with arguments about how to return to a ruinous rate of economic growth, how to lower the consumer-token compensation for the wage-classes as a means to invigorate the most acquisitive to be even more acquisitive; broadly, how to get the excess consumption going again at exponential rates. 

A devotion that makes the living state secondary to an economic or political order is incredible.  It is as though one were to value the parachute more than the person using it – “you may wear it, but if the plane begins to fall you must take it off and throw it out to keep it safe.”  This is not to say that we have not made the consumer-token a powerful force; we certainly have.  We have made the acquisition of such tokens the only means to even partially attain the list of human needs.  

And so, rather than spending all of our efforts and accumulated treasure to fortify a destructive and alienating system, now is the time to begin to recognize the faults in the economic and social order that brought us to this moment.  There is, of course, a huge “activation energy” to overcome to begin a serious change in how we do business in the world, but now is the time since there is already a lot of heat focused on the issues. 

I am, even in my deep cynicism, surprised that there is not a whisper of these thoughts in the generally disseminated and available discourse on these matters.  Will Durst did a tongue-in-check piece about being asked to consume when one has nothing to consume with – and the heroism of complying – but that is about as close as I have seen. 

Perhaps it is just too frightening, that each person might have some responsibility to grow and raise the food that he or she consumes, that such a social paradigm might be one of the only ways out of the species wide cul-de-sac that we are trying to turn into a freeway, if only in our minds. 

Perhaps it is just too dangerous to say the obvious: that the excessive accumulation of consumption-tokens is destructive of the biophysical world, destructive of human minds and communities and contrary to the natural energy economy of the living world into which human economies must ultimately be integrated; for those preferring a simple bumper-sticker explanation: ‘wealth is evil and immoral,’ the incredible technological house of cards in which we live must be reevaluated for efficacy and humans must begin to be human animals again at some effective level. 

Van Jones, president of Green for All, an organization committed to reducing especially inner-city poverty by educating and employing the great unemployed in green jobs, said in a recent C-span appearance, in what was for most listeners a throw away line: “We all began as tribal peoples and we will have to become tribal people again.”  But to say such a thing betrays the understanding I am trying to spread: the present way of organizing our economic and social world is past, already past.  The new way, if there is to be a new way and not just a deep failure of our species, will be a reconnection of humanity with our biology, guided explicitly by our consciousness order adaptation.  

These ideas must begin to spread to the ready world.  There are powerful forces that want only the designs of the present argument to have currency, but it is time to break from the truly mad framings of “economic man.”  No, it is not right that business should only seek a profit; that is actually insanity. No, wealth is not a goal in life; it is a crime against life in many ways.  No, human life is not about becoming skilled for a life long job; human life is about becoming skilled at the ‘job’ of life.  No, progress is not the key to social well-being; it has been a substitute for social well-being.  No, the goal of life is not to live long, but to live well in the fullness of specieshood.