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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thoughts From The Road

It occurs to me as I ride across the country – moving along the back roads from camping spot to camping spot – that what we humans are experiencing in the largest frame is the (absolute?) incompatibility of the system of order that is our sine qua non and the Living System of Order that brought us into existence. Like aerobic bacteria were spawned by anaerobic bacteria, all those billions of years ago (or so goes the theory), these two methods of approaching the energizing of life are incompatible. The living structures that formed in the ‘simpler’ world of sulfur and other relatively milder oxidizing agents created the base physiology from which the heady, dangerous world of photosynthesis and oxygen metabolism would form. The free oxygen was a deadly poison for those living things of earlier vintage and sent them into perpetual hiding from the oxygen that the rest of life has come to depend upon. It must be noted, however, that beyond that simple observation, the analogy fails. These are two solutions to essentially the same problem rather than a meeting of fully developed systems for handling information. The living order was established with all of its essential qualities in either case.

The correct analogy would be if the Living System of Order, in its increasingly full expression, began to disrupt the electron configuration of atoms or change the rates of primary forces like gravity or electromagnetism, thus damaging the very basis upon which it was formed.

Nothing requires that the Living System of Order be like the Physical System of Order accept in the most general ways of having system rules of order: selecting, storing and implementing of information – in fact, the living order is quite creative in how it manages these things while staying, as it must, within physical laws. The Consciousness System of Order selects, stores and implements information in ways utterly impossible in the physical and living orders, and as a result creates patterns of probabilities that can only exist in the consciousness order. It, like the living order, functions with its own agency and has its own rules of order, but unlike the living order, it can decouple in various ways from direct relationships with the other systems of order, primarily by acting in a different time space [1].

As I ride across the back roads two observations press on me. One is that we are everywhere, especially as roads wind easterly. Mile after mile of house, field and pasture. Little towns dot the landscape. Tiny towns like Binger, OK – the boyhood home of Johnny Bench – with just a few houses tucked in next to the two lanes of asphalt. Towns like Booneville, AR with a main drag lined with basic brick store fronts and side streets of frame houses; sad towns with more empty commercial spaces than occupied ones; towns with ‘working people’ in pickups with lettering on their doors.

The second is not so much an observation as an impression; that our product – which is ourselves – is laid over the land with remarkably little regard for what our works are being laid over. Roads, houses, towns big and small, bridges and dams, fields and pastures, strip mines, ditches and canals and all the rest – like a giant net – thrown over the land. As I say, more impression than observation.

It is from this impression that the horrifying thought of real and absolute incompatibility first hit me. It took this initial form: what if the way that humans are manifesting the consciousness order really is fundamentally incompatible with the living order, what if the present iteration of this new system of order can only move toward disrupting the essential properties of the foundational system of order from which it has sprung?

This is the ultimate serious matter. I am inclined to answer that the incompatibility is situational, not just on the grounds of wishful thinking, but based on the fluidity and adaptability of both living and consciousness systems. But, I keep remembering those aerobic bacteria.

More on this from the road as I get the chance.

[1] This is discussed in more detail here and here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nuclear Chemistry, A Primer

Pete Rose’s birthday. Lindsey Lohan’s arrest record. The half-life of an isotope. It is all just stuff! But the last one gives you a tool to know when you are being lied to about matters of life and death; that is, if you want to know when you are being lied to.

The world, as our senses perceive it, is made of the naturally occurring elements – roughly 92 elements with a couple of them in a sort of grey area because of that half-life thing [1]. An element has two distinctly different sets of properties depending on what parts of the atom of the element are being considered: chemical properties and nuclear properties. Chemical properties have to do with how the element interacts with other elements. Two or more elements may combine to make a compound, and so, the many elements can combine to make the millions of different substances that make up the stuff of our world [2].

But at the center of each atom of each element is the core or nucleus where the greatest mass of the element is contained. The number of protons in the nucleus determines what kind of element it is: oxygen has 8 protons, iron has 26 protons, uranium has 92 protons. Also in the nucleus are neutrons; it is the architecture of the proton/neutron structure that determines whether the nucleus will be strong like a well-made and mortared brick wall or easily disturbed like a pile of poorly stacked bricks. This structure of the nucleus has basically nothing to do with the chemical properties of the element.

Imagine a large parking lot with a thousand piles of bricks, poorly stacked. The first day you look at the lot, all the piles are intact. After several days (weeks) you notice that some bricks have fallen from some of the piles. After several years many of the piles have lost their original structure. It is easy to imagine that in a few hundred years, the piles would be bumps in a field of bricks. If, rather than piles, the bricks had been made into solid walls they would be unchanged in that length of time. This is the difference between an unstable atomic nucleus and a stable one.

Radioactive isotopes are the result of an unstable nucleus, but rather than a brick dropping to the ground when the pile is disturbed, the nucleus breaks up explosively – like a tightly wound spring – and pieces fly off at great speed. It is these little pieces that make radioactive isotopes both useful and dangerous [3].

This is the first basic understanding needed to grasp the situation facing specifically Japan, and any other place that has atoms. The second basic understanding involves numbers – really big numbers of really tiny things.

Put about 2 drops of water on your hand – really do it. See how that little bit of water is not even enough to puddle. Rub your hands together and in a moment the water is gone and you hands are dry. Do you know how many molecules of water there were on your hand? More than the number of stars in the entire total universe – and three times that many atoms – more than 10 billion trillion molecules of water.

Now imagine that 1% of the molecules in those 2 drops were radioactive (contained isotopes that might decay explosively): that would mean that there were 100 million trillion radioactively unstable atoms. Let’s say that you didn’t put two drops, but that only 100th of that amount of 1% radioactive water misted on your hand: that would mean that there were (only) a million trillion radioactively unstable atoms on your hand.

A dust particle containing radioactive iodine or cesium can be millions of trillions of atoms. Lodged in lungs, the isotopes decay over time and some of the little pieces flying off explosively strike the structures of nearby living cells sometimes killing the cells, sometimes hitting the DNA; and sometimes striking the DNA in such a way that the cell is not killed but loses its bearings, goes rogue and reproduces outside of the body’s control.

Our human intuition is useless in the domain of the Big (and Tiny) Numbers. Certainty and uncertainty are turned on their head. A particle of dust that you would only see with the greatest attention can contain a trillion million radioactive nuclei with a half-life that result in 100 nuclei decaying (exploding) on average every second (8,644,000 a day and thousands of millions in 25 years). These are monkeys’ typing Shakespeare numbers. The impossible becomes certainty. A lung with only one particle too small to see has a good chance of one or more its cells eventually being damaged in such a way that it will become cancerous. Perhaps the immune system will find it, perhaps not. Imagine a 100 pieces of dust, a thousand. Look at the light streaming in a window; watch the dust dance on the air.

With these understandings it is possible to make some sense from the ‘radioactive cloud’ of bull-shit spreading from Fukushima nuclear plants and Tepco corporate offices. First and immediately heart-rending is that the men (I assume that they are only men) working in the plant facilities are dead men; only weeks or months of life left for some or even most them. Second, many millions of people will be effected, especially in the region, but also all over the world. When the epidemiological studies are done, specific long-term cancer rate patterns will follow the emission and weather patterns occurring over the next weeks and months.

And perhaps the saddest of all; it is possible to know these things. A competent understanding of chemistry would prevent the lies being told – in the beginning before the plants were built. A little general knowledge of geology would make the locations at Fukushima, Diablo canyon and San Onofre (last two on the San Andres fault system in California) unlikely locations even if a knowledgeable public could be convinced that nuclear generation of electricity was a good idea.

The situational sociopaths and actual psychopaths that are willing to endanger all living things for a little power (both political and material) will always be with us and unaddressable with normal human concerns – that is what the pathology part means. Public awareness is perhaps the only guiding and governing force.

I had a student once who “couldn’t” learn math or science, but who could tell the exact familial relation of 300 people to her and to each other in her extended family; that is what mattered to her. I in no way diminish the importance of being the teenage ‘grandmother’ to her family, but she could have learned anything. There isn’t 50 pounds of learning and 30 pounds used up on the relatives.

What she taught me is that we must believe in the importance of what there is to learn. We are at the mercy of the situational sociopaths unless we know enough to recognize their half-truths and lies. The only way I can see to bring these two statements together is for everyone who sees the third element of the syllogism (that we must come to see as important the learning that will protect our human and living interests in the face of economic and political interests) to go out of their way to inform the public mind of the importance of knowing enough not to be lied to.

The reactors are burning: the uranium and plutonium are on their own now that we have concentrated them, stuffed them into tight quarters and then lost control. The nuclear material will not be brought to heel; that is another lie. That we were ever actually in control of the process is another one. But We let it happen. Our willing ignorance and greed for ease let it happen. We need to learn enough about the world that we actually live in to actually live in it.

[1] Half-life is not a difficult idea. It is the measure of the length of time it takes for one form of an element to “go bad”, that is, for it to breakdown. One form (isotope) of an element may take 20 minutes for ½ of the amount that is there to turn into something else (breakdown). Another might take 1000 years for ½ of the amount that is there to breakdown, while a third form of an element might take a billion years for ½ of the amount there to breakdown. The first has a half-life of 20 minutes, the second has a half-life of a 1000 years and the third has a half-life of a billion years. The first will be almost completely gone (turned into other stuff) in a few hours, the second gone in a few tens of thousands of years and the third will take “forever” to go away. The first is considered very unstable, the second is unstable and the third is a stable isotope (but radioactive).

[2] Atom – the unit of an element; made of a nucleus (protons and neutrons) in the middle surrounded by electrons equal in number to the number of protons.

Isotope – a form of an atom with a specific number of neutrons. The same element can be represented by several different isotopes: atoms, all with the same number of protons and electrons, but with different numbers of neutrons. Because of the differing numbers of neutrons, the nucleus of different isotopes of the same element have different structures and are therefore often more or less stable than the other isotopes of the same element.

[3] Three different pieces can be ejected explosively from a decaying atomic nucleus. Some isotopes produce all three and some predominantly only one or two; depends on the architecture of the nucleus. They are: gamma rays (high energy electromagnetic radiation), alpha particles (high energy helium nucleus, made of 2 protons and 2 neutrons) and beta particles (high energy electrons or positrons).

Friday, March 18, 2011

Truth Is Like Rattlesnakes

Photo [1]

Truth is like rattlesnakes; if you have one in the house and ignore it, it will eventually bite you. Truth is like a rattlesnake in other ways. It can hide in places that seem impossible to get into. It can hide in plain sight. When you get bitten you won’t know when, where or the details of the consequences of its happening.

And even more: truth can be really ugly and frightening, and it often gives warnings [2]. Truth usually can’t be dealt with by half measures; putting a high visibility yellow flag on the in-house rattler, like on a recumbent bicycle, won’t do.

Imagine a group of people sitting around a snake trying to decide if it’s really there; might be a shadow, a stick or a surprising pattern in the rug. But no matter how the discussion goes, it is either a snake or it’s not – no Erwin Schrödinger required, unless of course he happens to be right.

But, clearly I have left out something very important. What sort of people would put rattlesnakes loose in their houses? Without that happening, then this is just some crazy writing by a crazy guy (see footnote 2). The whole analogy stands or falls on people having incredibly mad relationships with very dangerous things:

Here are some things that we might find lying in or around peoples' houses: Guns, cars, overpopulation, insecticides, herbicides, antibiotic resistant bacteria, armies, dams, fungicides, nuclear bombs, lead, mercury, misuse and distortion of credit, genetically engineered foods, EMFs, fossil fuels, cosmetics, ecological collapse, antibiotic soaps, nuclear generation of electricity, mine tailings, corporate media, industrial waste, medical malpractice and incompetence, economic growth, formaldehyde, wrong headed belief systems, reduced biodiversity, slavery, MSG, wealth, ignorance, UV radiation, the economic elite, TV, pharmaceutical malpractice, water quality, food insecurity (both quality and quantity), plutocracy, oligarchy, fascism,… oh yeah, and rattlesnakes!

[1] This a 4 ½ foot western diamondback that almost bit one of my daughters when we were berry picking; now there is some truth for you parents out there.

[2] In defense of rattlesnakes, many are actually very beautiful if you can get passed the biting, injecting poison, terrible pain, damage and death part. I do not kill them any more, but I once had a rattler head in my fridge, right up in the front – you know where you keep the milk – and would jump whenever I opened the door; I enjoyed that right up to the moment when I didn’t like it anymore. This is a lot like how we deal with hard truth.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Understanding, But Not Understanding, Obama:

There are many issues this spring leafing out on that tree! They have to do with ambition – something that his peers fully understand and others might have hints of. They have to do with raw talent and capacity – something beyond most of his peers, supporters and detractors. They have to do with the gauss count of his moral compass – a very difficult quantity to measure. And they have to do with his worldview – since this is the most difficult and ambiguous, it is one that I will write about.

Understanding of such complexities begins at home. A simple man will find it impossible to understand a complicated one (without help); a computer is not repaired with a hammer and chisel. A good bit of the difficulty in understanding Obama arises from this fact.

In part because I grew up in a clash of cultures, in a house of secrets, in a town of secrets, in a land of secrets I became what might be called socially hypervigilant. And it is hypervigilance [1] that I see in Obama as one of the main principles that serves up his experiences. It becomes so natural, so ordinary, that one forgets that everyone doesn’t experience in the same way.

As I understand Obama’s history he grew up as the outsider. An American black kid in Indonesia, a black child in a white family and a ‘regular’ black guy in American society. While much of that history is not in my experience, I have watched, with my own version of hypervigilance, blacks in American society; paying vigilant attention at remarkably high levels is required. As a metaphor, think of most people only needing and being able to see and respond to four colors, and most minority people being required to see a million colors and to make importantly difference responses to those colors and their various combinations. They also learn quickly not to try to explain that world to the color blind and color challenged.

In my experience of the American south, blacks must not only be acutely aware of what is happening around them, they most also seem unaware and disinterested in exactly the right amounts. The perceptual acuity and concentration required are enormous. The dominant society has its 4 color prescription for the acceptable behaviors of minorities which is mindlessly and ruthlessly enforced.

Obama has to be a master of these skills. He has always been, I would guess from his first real sentience, a seeker of the way; building a body of skills and habits within which he was safe, or safer than without them, and with which he quickly discovered he could control his world. One price is that not one person in a thousand (or more) can see the world as he sees it.

This makes him dangerous as the most important man in the world. No matter what he tells us, it is not the truth; we can’t possibly see his real truth, and, possibly we “can’t handle the truth” should we see it through his eyes. But is he more dangerous than the 4 color seers who defile him or those who would replace him? Almost certainly not. When Obama is not ‘telling the truth,’ it is often because what he has to say is so difficult to translate into communicable form; the others are just lying [2].

I believe that there are lots of black folks in the US who understand this, but they won’t tell – the unaware and disinterested rule, remember.

Up to this point I have been operating on the assumption that Obama is an honest man; here is where it gets dicey. Knowing how to read and understand him would be difficult enough were he completely honest, but if he is dishonest like (almost) all the rest of the political world, then where are we? Then we have a president who is a master at seeing the subtle hues of all the colors, understands their nuance and is willing to lie about their meaning for his own advantage.

People like McCain, Huckabee, Barbour, Bachman, Gingrich, Palin and Romney tell such transparent lies that all but their sycophantic followers are embarrassed for them. Just a little learning and their 4 color world begins to look colorless and empty of useful solutions. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they can’t get into positions of power and cause a lot of trouble by applying simplistic, self-serving notions to complex problems, but it does mean that we can watch in informed horror as they do it.

Obama is another story. What seems a lie may be the truth. What seems distance and disinterest may hide the closest attention. What seems concern and engagement may be pro forma sidestepping. If I am right, Rooseveltian resolve is as foreign to Obama’s deepest comprehensions of how to think and act as the rainforest is to the desert. And yet, I think that Obama might be trying to be the more honest man. He farms out his administration’s dishonesty to his staff and cabinet. Roosevelt did the opposite; he could lie easily and so keep around him some number of people with moral wisdom exceeding his own. If this is so, then we might understand the meaning of Obama’s choices for retainers in a new light.

Some people seem to disclose themselves completely in their public selves. Others have a public persona that is accepted as fully adequate, though not exhaustive of the person. Some seem understandable, but not especially transparent. And yet others present a public exterior that not only hides, but is intended to hide the machinations of the person beneath. There is a fifth category much more complex, people who deflect personal evaluation and press their designs for action onto the ‘natural’ behaviors of others. The socially hypervigilant person often finds this a comfortable way to function; and they can, if they are smart enough, stay in control of the vast amounts of information needed – up to a point.

I have been befuddled and outraged at many of Obama’s choices of people to serve among his minions, not the least by Emanuel, Summers, Geithner and Gates. These men are self serving functionaries devoid of human feeling compared to a Frances Perkins or Eleanor Roosevelt, devoid of the capacity to inform a president of the order of magnitude difference between operating the levelers of power and the humanity that must be vested in a leader of living, breathing men, women and children. And I continue to be deeply troubled by adding Daily and Sperling to the mix.

But these are people that can be read like a children’s book. They have a one dimensional presented nature; like tools: a hammer for this, a saw for that. They are the people a hypervigilant would select. Hilary Clinton is the most complex person in the upper reaches of the administration, though she knows how to deal with people like Obama and Bill Clinton; she was a safe choice.

There has been a great deal of confusion about Obama among the people who are his natural supporters; is he a liberal? Is he a good man playing with bad people? Is he a bad man playing with good people? Is he playing chess with conservative checker players? Or my question, is he playing chess with progressive checker players? It just might be that he is playing chess with everyone – all the time.

Ultimately, I don’t think that we can know. I don’t think that we will ever know for sure, will not even be able to finally measure the man against the actual results of his administration. It is almost impossible for it to have been otherwise. The first black man elected president would almost have to be a question wrapped in an enigma.

Obama is probably the most dangerous president we have had since FDR – dangerous in the since of being president at a time when great damage can be done to democratic governance – and is, like FDR, among the presidents most unlikely to seek to do the nation ill; his capacity to protect the nation is another matter. But the nation will be changed dramatically and forever by the events that occur during his presidency. And it is almost a certainty that Obama, the man, will never be clearly seen with his hand on the guiding controls of national power. And no, this is not a good thing, but it may well be in the nature of the man to watch us all very closely and try to stay a step ahead of our actually understanding him [3].

[1] I am using the term hypervigilance in a somewhat, though not completely, different way than it is used in psychological diagnosis as part of PTSD. I am surmising a social, systemic form of vigilance that is extreme and integrated into a complete behavioral system appropriate to circumstances; it is generally explained in the text of the essay. Here is another example: where I grew up there were more rattlesnakes and water moccasins than almost any other place in the country. Children learned to look very closely when walking or even opening a door to the outside since there were often rattlers on the cement porches warming in the morning sun or gathering warmth in the evening – the stories I could tell! To this day I do not step over a log or a rock or otherwise put my foot down without checking around it. I even notice a little twinge stepping around a blind corner inside buildings. To some extent my minor obsession with visual pattern recognition might be related to the adaptive ‘hypervigilance’ appropriate to walking around on the central Florida Gulf coast palmetto fields and mangrove swamps.

[2] 4 color seers, of course, cannot recognize the difference. Complexity for them is always a lie and the inherent dishonesty of simplicity is their truth. This is a deep problem for the species as we find ourselves confronting a complex reality and needing understanding beyond our present habits of adequacy.

[3] Check my essay Obama Is No Country Song written right after he was elected.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Apology Part 2: The Tao of Life

Fortunetellers learn to avoid specifics, to skirt tantalizingly in the near edges of the abstract, pulling unconscious ‘tells’ and comments from their subjects with which to build their ‘knowledge’ of past events and their ‘predictions’ of the future. Writers of political commentary do, in large measure, a similar thing. But it is time, to use a strangely appropriate crudity, to “shit or get off the pot.”

It is naïve to think that one person can have an influence on 7 billion people or even a tiny percentage of that number, or give pause or guidance to the politically powerful who are driven by the iron and steel mechanisms of power greed. It is even more naïve to think that doing nothing will make the world a better place to live.

What are things that can be done? It is first essential to understand that the odds are long that any one person’s efforts will be effective on their own. Some people might, by virtue of place and occasion, directly influence a number of others, but most will have to accept being part of building that most nebulous of structures: human expectation and habit of thought. There are rewards, however, and they will not have to be waited on for delivery in heaven.

But first a look at the options: Derrick Jensen argues for revolution and a compelling argument it is. Humans are killing off life from the only place in the universe where we know for sure that it exists; they (we) are killing in a very special form called extinction, the termination of continuous lines of DNA replication going back to the beginning of life, the extinguishing of species. It is the greatest crime that there can be and any and every living thing has the absolute right and responsibility to fight the destroyers. I say fine, let’s fight, but I also want to win.

Thom Hartmann says to join the Democratic Party and take it over. He also says that getting rich is just fine so long as you are a ‘good’ rich guy. His suggestions miss the mark in so many ways that I’ll just go on.

The environmentalists I know are devoted, dedicated people fighting for a desert acre here and a riparian acre there as hundreds of acres are leveled and built over during the months of court hearings, private arguments and land swap deals required for their successes.

All of these actions are important and they should continue, but I don’t see a recognizable body of people showing the way to live in support of a recovering earth. Preparing for a revolution, becoming an activist in a political party, creating court challenges to corporate and political environmental malfeasance, all laudable and valuable, but of themselves don’t model the daily life that would bring about balanced ecological relationships.

People that use little of the earth’s resources are seen to do so because they have no other choice. They are in the popular mind poor, dirty, disheartened and failed. This image has to be changed. Many of us, enough of us, who know what is coming must live openly and proudly with less. We must be a demonstration that less can be more, that having and using less is not a loss but a gain. It is the only way and therefore worth the try.

As much as I respect the righteous anger of those who see the extinction of species by the foolish, mindless economic actions of a corporate world as murder times a thousand, direct revolution in any form will only exacerbate the problems of the environment and support the military/security establishment. Such action would give credence to the propaganda of environmental terrorism, confusing and frightening the pubic. I don’t see how it could win without destroying the world it is trying to save.

Working in the system is pissing in the ocean (not actually useless as is intended by the metaphor, but adds in a tiny way to the volume of the ocean). Politics and wealth have the whole show rigged like a Las Vegas magic act. As long as the actions fit the script it is possible to play at giving the magician a hard time, but go too far – that is, far enough to begin to make a difference – and you are made to disappear. The audience is amazed and chastened. However, some people must piss in the ocean and some people must disappear.

All great changes begin with the people. This time the changes will have to come without much in the way of armed conflict, but rather in the Gandhian style of direct and passive resistance. Its ‘leaders’ must be sprinkled among the people like flowers in a field; and the leaders must be leading themselves first to successful ways of living and ‘leading’ others second.

The people don’t have to be berated with the details of our dangers [1]. They know them but refuse to recognize them as long as there is no way to effectively respond. They must be shown how to live in ways that will improve our chances; shown not told. Shown that change is possible. Shown that change can be positive in their lives. And shown that change can be successful in mitigating the dangers. Then and only then can the dangers be seen clearly for what they are.

A couple of years ago I was teaching in a small charter school [2]. The students were mostly poor, most were Hispanic and many were from Mexico. I am an old man – especially so in the eyes of high school students. I also often rode a bicycle to school. As my relationship with the students became more open and personal, one day a student asked me with humor, but also with a real air of question, if I was homeless. Later on, as they learned more about me, they discovered that I lived in the heart of the immigrant community, lived very simply. I was informed that I am known to my neighbors as the old Anglo man who rides his bike in the middle of the road. Adding to the cognitive dissidence that was an important element of my teaching style, the students also came to think of me as a genius and as someone who loved them. I make no claim to the former, but I did love them.

I tell this only as a demonstration of the power of personal actions that violate expectations, in a good way, to create questions about how we should live. The students who rode bikes to school were not picked on so much. Students who were ashamed of living in such a poor part of town (but not poor in community) could say, “But ‘he’ lives like I do, and he is smart and loves us. That crazy old man!” It was a beginning.

Some people must see that they have to live in the ways that will allow all life to continue in ecological harmony and proudly model that ‘way of life’ for others. That is leading the way; that is the Tao of Life. The few fireflies don’t light the night, but they make the evening more delightful. If all I do is ease the mind of a poor child about the conditions of her or his life, that would be enough, but if enough people come to the understanding of both the need and the benefits of living in economic equanimity, there is the potential to make a great difference.

[1] This is tricky. Too much and people go comatose; too little and people are uninformed. In the 1950s and 1960s PSA type films about proper oral care were shown in mid and high schools. Some were very explicit with terrible pictures and stories of tooth decay, septicemia, oral surgery, etc. The punch line was, brush your teeth and get check ups. Some films with the same punch line were cartoon like, only lightly threatening. The easy-going films were much more effective in getting the students to pay attention to their oral health. If brushing your teeth caused you think about heart failure from the bacteria going into your blood stream or the images of a tortured face distorted by a metal frame prepped for surgery, then…

[2] Where I live charters are public schools with open enrollment (by lot when applications exceed the space). They follow the same rules as other schools, but are allowed a number of options to their offerings and procedures established in their state approved chartering application. They are not publicly funded private schools.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Apology

The basic human cognitive structure is overwhelmed by the breadth, depth and speed of events in the present world. For thousands of years parents could pass their tools and their skill sets on to their children. This is emblematic of a continuing relevancy of the larger collection of attitudes, beliefs, social connections and subtle habits from one generation to the next and the efficacy of ‘a way of life’ throughout a lifetime.

There are few tools from my youth that I can, today, pass on to the new generation. Most are, by my children, respected and happily collected as quaint memorabilia, but they are not useful and the skills that gave the tools ‘life’ have paled with time. Attitudes and habits are often adapted from the tools and the skills that inform our daily activities: the patience demanded by a wood burning stove, the caution and due diligence of a woodcutter, the necessary curiosity and observant attention of a berry picker.

I grew up in a world where the second richest man in town changed his own oil in his car. When his son and I were driving home from playing pool in the nearest city, my car stopped running. My friend, in a completely natural and unremarkable evaluation of the symptoms of the stopping, cleaned the battery posts and we were on our way. This was the nature of my world.

As a metaphor for the our times, this same young man, a fellow truth seeker in our shared youth, became a vicious ‘born again Christian’ as his midlife moved to fuel injected cars run by computers; though I’m sure there were other influences.

And those other influences! I have an admission and apology to make. Very early on, it is difficult to say when, I began to develop a sense of distance from the workings of my fellowman – actually at the time, my fellowchildren. Somehow the great expanse of time and space within which we are embedded was as, or more, real to me than the daily detail of events, and it has been forever so. It has always seemed to me that I am, and all the rest of us are, putting on the costumes and taking the attitudes of the moment; that at another moment the costumes and attitudes will be different.

I am realizing at least one great failing of that otherwise, to me, laudatory and useful stance: I have been and generally remain insensitive to many of the immediate and powerful assaults and changes that have multiplied exponentially over the years; not unaware of them, actually super-aware of them, but insensitive to the confusion and fear that such changes might have when people believe that the costumes and the attitudes are real and essential to their well-being.

I need to apologize to my former dear and good friend for thinking ill of him, he always believed the costumes were real and fought back in the only ways that were available to him, and to those millions of others who I have only been able to see as somehow inadequate, unintelligent or broken – even though it was clear that these assigned qualities were wrong.

This time is pushing me into my fears and doubts so completely that recognizing the power of the loss of “certainty” is coming easier. When in freefall, one “holds on” to the strongest impression that the mind can generate or, and this is truly terrifying, the strongest impression that is delivered from what appears to be an interested and attending world. If this sounds familiar, it is one of the basic principles of torture formulated out of the McGill research and instituted in the current paradigm.

It is absolutely the default position that the life lived is the life to be lived. It is where all the effort, tools, skills, experience and status have been invested; it is the correct costume to put on – and, this is common if not necessary, those who put on other costumes are, at least a little, suspect.

The changes of the last half-century have been bending the branch of our certainties. It is a natural reaction to reject the messages that challenge “our way of life” in an attempt to avoid the fear – and this is what I was unprepared to understand – that the fear was absolutely real in the moment and unavoidable.

An example: 5 years ago, in the US, 70% of those surveyed reported that they believed that global climate change was real and caused by human activity. Today that reported number is closer to 40%. The reason often given for the change is the propaganda efforts of oil companies and other polluters, but I have another explanation. I think that, in fact, more than 70% fundamentally understand that anthropogenic climate change is real and are so terrified (rightly so) by the incomprehensible changes coming that they must deny, must go mad.

Add to this the assaults of economic uncertainty, fear of crime and terrorists, increasing dangers from industrial ‘accidents’ and the social disruptions from increasing population pressure; the level of irrational behavior in this light is actually less than might be expected.

The institutional right wing, not conservatives so much as sociopathic ideologues, have been stoking these fears and then delivering their answers to them in the numbingly repetitious droning required for pacification. But let us not forget that they too are afraid of the loss of their “way of life.” It is the degree of their fear that gives them such irrational power, like the little old lady who lifts the car off the child, and supports an intuitive understanding of how to stoke the fear in the first place. Progressives are loosing at this game because they are insufficiently afraid.

But ultimately fear is a bad motivator – good at motivating and terrible at producing good results. Fear must eventually be focused on a cause and that cause neutralized; only in the simplest situations does this work. And the sources of our fears (both those based in reality and those manufactured for a purpose) have complex sources that cannot be corrected by acting on a single cause. Someone said once that fear was the thing that we had the most to fear.

America today is, I think, best understood as large numbers of fear-filled people behaving badly being preyed upon by fear-filled sociopaths who understand the use of fear for short-term gain. Now that is something to be afraid of.

The progressive community must not try to challenge the right wing sociopaths by increasing their own pantheon of fearful things – even though there is much to fear that must be addressed by progressive ideas and solutions. Rather the ideas and solutions must be presented widely, directly and confidently.

We must understand that real solutions require that people change how they live and that this is frightening, but people can’t be frightened into doing new things, they can only be frightened into fighting to stay with what they know (how the right wing has used this fact to get people to act to their disadvantage is another topic). People can’t be frightened into accepting climate change as a reason to change, but they can be frightened into denying climate change even as they are actually acting in its reality.

But, to continue with this example, it can’t be sugarcoated either. It is foolish to talk about increased growing seasons for Montana and Siberia or the delight of the beaches on the coast of Arizona. The consequences of climate change will be altogether very bad for life of the earth; the ‘way of life’ of almost everything will change and seldom for ‘the better.’ That humans would have to make large and serious changes in how they live, right now and quickly if the major consequences are to be avoided, is a very difficult argument to make in non-fearful terms. But it must be done. However, when the argument creates significant fear it becomes the property of the right wing to use as an ad hoc device for their projects de jour.

The nation needs a leader like Roosevelt who individually and personally looked the fear in the eye and sneered at it with his cigarette holder pointed skyward in a minor but clear act of defiance. He said, “Yes, its really bad, but I am not afraid and neither do you have to be afraid.” But, he was also asking for a return to what people knew or thought they knew; it was, for all the horror attending it, an easier task. And Roosevelt was speaking to people who changed their own oil, who cleaned the battery posts when their cars quit running and taught their children to do the same.

So while competent leadership would be a vast improvement to the current squalor at the highest levels of governance, it was not then and would not now be enough – necessary, but insufficient. There are three quite basic attributes of any change that must be believed in: that the change is possible, that it will be effective and that the ultimate consequence for ‘our way of life’ will be understandable and positive. It is here that we must focus our attention, not with the real, but terrible, consequences of failing to act. The result of failure is all the same whether it comes from inaction or a full effort rendered insufficient by circumstances, so doing all that is possible and necessary only makes sense.

We must begin with showing that the needed changes are both possible and positive by committing more than lip service to reducing our personal ecological footprints. This is not a matter of showing off the new Prius or solar panels, but actually having and doing with less, really living at or near the levels that would be required for the earth to begin recovery from the assaults of the last 2 or 3 hundred years. Soon a more detailed essay about how people can model the necessary changes in ways that are accessible to the real others, not just the moderately wealthy who can buy a few environmentally correct toys. And about how the quality of life is improved even in this confused and crazy time.

My full apology: I have been writing very scary pieces about the dangers confronting us without adequate concern for real suggestions about how we might meaningfully confront those dangers. For that I am sorry and will try to correct that error. I was inspired to this recognition by the unremitting fearfulness of the last Chris Hedges’ piece. He writes so beautifully – reading him can be like looking at a Francis Bacon painting of meat.