John Stuart Mill said it is better to be an unhappy human than a happy pig; but I would ask you: Is it better to be a happy human, or to possess an unhappy yet vastly more intelligent super-awareness? --Rexus Tarotte
Friday, September 15, 2017
Monday, August 21, 2017
As I reflect on this year, since my last birthday, it is far too easy to focus on what is heavy or dark. I could, instead, focus on the positive. There is danger in that, however, of utter retreat. I've been a poet since age sixteen, and in that sense an artist. I've made pacts with passion and truth, both costly. A focus on exposing injustice and deception has long been my calling. And I've seen the damage that denial and quiescence can reap, especially when unchallenged..
I will, then, start with something hard, and that is the rise of Trump. More to the point, it is about white nationalism. People on both sides have apologized for him since he first started. He's naive. He'll learn. He respects our founding values. Ages ago, so it seems, he was considered a mere clown. Inconsistent. Boorish. Foolish. Misogynist. Racist. Unelectable.
Many refused to see what was happening. I consider this to be a matter of psychology, not rationality. For Trump has always been consistent. The white nationalism has always been there, bold even, for those who dared to see. What I've learned from his rise, sadly, is that human nature (or maybe I should say the human condition in our time) is worse than I thought. I knew fascism could rise in countries where things were dismal, such as Germany after WWI. Massive inflation, great poverty, no escape. But the USA was ranked a great place to live when Trump rose. He climbed with no military or government experience, and with the blatant pedigree of a charlatan, to become president.
Hate does not need material desperation to grow. Or to win. In my own plodding way, I've learned this in the past year.
Have you heard of Fermi's Paradox? Trillions of planets in our beyond-gigantic universe; and yet no sign of sentient life anywhere. Why?
Fermi's answer: sentient life destroys itself. Everywhere. Surely he meant it destroys itself with technology it cannot properly handle or control. Warfare would be one obvious vehicle of utter demise, once nuclear weapons are present. Fermi saw a pattern in xeno-development across the entire span of the cosmos
In my novel, the characters bring up what I call the "Fermian Veil." What must a civilization do, anywhere in the universe, to pass through it, not destroy itself, and survive? The answer, surely, must be the opposite of hate. The opposite of a worldview whose lens is a fear that lays the kindling of war.
So, yes, love is the answer. It is the greatest answer. This is also something I've learned.
As a philosopher, with a PhD, here is where I am at now:
I've studied everything from quarks to cosmos. Natural selection to morality. Sentient life, anywhere in this universe, given the basic parameters of physics--the laws, the particle/waves, how it all sets up after the Big Bang--is going to get led into war. This is assuming it makes it past the hunter/gatherer stage and spreads. Homo sapiens, in fact, almost didn't make it. That is why we all have a common ancestor, an original Eve. But that is a different tale.
Life from bacteria to humans involves struggle against death. Hunger, for example, is a terrible pain and progressive cruelty. Nature made us this way. We suffer if we don't act to survive. At a minimum, eat and protect ourselves. But the sex drive is also vastly strong. On the other side, nature gave us the ability to feel incredible pleasure from all kinds of sensations, food, and sex. The carrot and stick are built into us. You can take various perspectives. We are prisoners of our own bodies. We are blessed. The right view, I think, in general, is that life is a miracle and we should ride the wonderment of it all. Live balanced, but enjoy as much as possible within that balance.
In any case, we live in a fragile state of equilibrium and struggle.
Through evolution, species adapt to adversity. That is how life creates, changes, grows. In early phases of human--or sentient--civilization, the fight for food leads to war, and war is waged most effectively through an 'us versus them' mentality. A fanatic mentality seems optimal (not so rigid, though, as to reject invention). Soldiers must be willing to sacrifice their lives for their god. This makes them better fighters. So it is, even today.
It is easy to stop here, and say we are all doomed. That life is nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes does. But that would be very wrong. That is the most tragic of all mistakes--
because it is possible to pass beyond war. I'm utterly convinced of this. War is just stage in sentient progression. It may be very hard to make the leap to the next stage; but it is doable. The sentient mind is keenly adaptive. Adaptive to hot or cold environments, to crowds or isolation. Humans feel comfortable around combustion vehicles, those bizarre new additions to the Earth. The malleability is extreme--as long as the dendrites don't harden into denial. As I've written before, ignorance is very smart. Ignorance can use intelligence to reinforce itself, batten the hatches and lock all the doors.
Adaptability, then, can even counteract adaptability. But this great power, this vast flexibility, is also what makes it possible for a sentient species to break through the Fermian Veil.
The scientific method, and the discipline of critical thinking, a subfield of philosophy, can help our adaptability to keep in touch with reality. They are like sextant and compass. With their guidance, we steer wisely.
I believe this is what the universe is 'searching' for: a species that can break through the Fermian Veil, accept Love not Hate. All the universe needs is one species. Just one, among the billions of attempts.
This whole universe could be seen as a grand experiment. A chance for Love to blossom beyond our wildest thoughts and hopes. Such Love must motivate beings capable of managing vast technologies. It is a necessary condition.
Here is my basic point:
Intelligence evolves, in an individual, yes; but just as importantly, it evolves in a civilization over stretches of time. At a crucial turning point, the intelligence evolves the civilization.
Evolution, in other words, can go beyond evolution. At some point, the collective consciousness steers society, instead of being steered by it.
Imagine making a wish and having it come true. What becomes critical, then, is what you wish for. And why. How your wish plays out. Technology in the hands of sociopaths and narcissists, who were raised in a violent culture and who expect life to be cruel and merciless, will manifest one way. That same technology in the hands of psychologically honest people who embrace compassion, not hate, will produce a very different path.
Frankly, at this point, I don't think humanity is going to break through the Fermian Veil. We are going to destroy ourselves. Trump was my tipping point. It's too late in the game for the leader of the mightiest army on the planet to be a hate-filled fascist (and I might also add, someone ill-prepared to deal with the real possibility of environmental collapse).
But--in a big way--that doesn't matter. I can keep hoping. And something in me just wants to chase after Love. After the moral Good. Meditation helped me to find this state. I can shout out to this universe: "I feel what you are trying to do. You want some sentient species to break through the Fermin Veil with Love."
It is such a beautiful, noble task that the universe has given us, albeit tremendously hard. My view, ultimately, is optimistic: if we, as individuals, seek Love and strive for Good, however flawed our attempts (and they will be flawed, for we are mere mortals), the universe smiles on us for trying. Maybe spirits and angels do as well. Maybe our ancestors. I really don't know.
Thursday, August 17, 2017
Monday, July 17, 2017
The GOP president questioned America’s constitutional system of checks and balances. Republican leaders said nothing. He echoed Stalin and Mao by calling the free press “the enemy of the people.” Republican leaders were silent. And as the commander in chief insulted allies while embracing autocratic thugs, Republicans who spent a decade supporting wars of choice remained quiet.Joe Scarborough, "Trump Is Killing The Republican Party"
Monday, July 10, 2017
If Trump succeeds in destroying the mainstream media, he will get his wish: to be like Putin, to be president in name and dictator in deed, immune from the restriction of terms. Our media embodies free speech, however flawed. To pull out that cornerstone is to topple our democracy. And then we get to live in dysfunction at its finest, where truth or falsity hinge on a sick thug's whims. It's like an abusive family. The abuser sets up the conditions of reality. He (usually a man) gaslights the victims. It is both a loyalty test and a way to break another's spirit and harness their soul. When rationality is rendered useless, what do you have left? Corruption, tyranny, ignorance.
Saddest of all--saddest, saddest, saddest--is that plenty of Americans are ready to accept Trump as their king. They wouldn't say that. But actions speak louder than words and yield clues to the subconscious. One can surmise the goals of those ready to coronate Trump by their behavior. They hope that white nationalism will reign; and that they will be rewarded for their radical loyalty. They even accept that Trump has nothing but contempt for their fawning readiness, their pleas for the yoke. Freedom is scary. Order, boundaries, hierarchies. Everything in black and white. They get to be white.
It's deplorable. Despicable. Evil. It is to snuff your own candleflame. Debasing oneself before such a contemptible man, for such reviling purpose, requires self-contempt and--most important of all--hiding from what you've done, at all costs. In the abuser-abused dynamic, everyone's self-esteem is brutally wretched. It's hard to find worth in anything when life is about fear, pain, hate and their focus: repression through deceit, and deceit through violence. Base instinct keeps you going, or the survival of your children.
On this view, the world is carnal and bad. Food and resources are limited. It's a constant battle, dog-eat-dog, to win. Immigrants and minorities threaten. Danger is ambient. Temptation to stray from 'tradition' lurks. Step out of line and you become one of 'them'.
In a nutshell, the mind goes into cult mode.
This might seem unbelievable. But despotism and the divine right of kings are historical norms. North Korea is a glaring contemporaneous example. Humanity is very susceptible to acculturation by force and threat. We fall en masse into the role of worshipping our leader-gods.
An unhindered Trump would push nakedly to be worshipped and adulated. He is a textbook narcissist. He is tyranny in gold letters: gluttonous, reckless, callous, cruel.
In their grand, bold experiment, our Founders underscored the threat of the tyrant. Theirs was a new way. An enlightened path. An ethical step forward. It is now on the verge of failing. Why? Because many Americans want racism. It is a curse that has been transmitted for hundreds of years, generation by generation. As Michale Moore says, America was founded on genocide and built on the backs of slaves.
There is a higher way. Many people embrace--even feel--a spiritual, universal Love. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of Christian agape. Buddhists seek true compassion through mental quests. The political analog of such an ideal is human rights. Such rights are based on what Adam Smith called "fellow-feeling" or empathy. It is very hard to abuse or mistreat those for whom you have empathy.
For cult mode to operate, empathy must be curtailed. Consumerism has been great for this purpose. Few of us have empathy for the sweatshop workers who make our clothes; or the animals who suffer in factory farms so we can eat bacon. We have been primed to enjoy the wonderful taste of that chocolate bar, or that wonderful vacation, or some other envy-arousing acquisition. In many cases, all that we purchase is status: that little embroidered alligator on a $50 polo shirt.
We are in a state of global emergency. It has been brought on by (a) nuclear weapons and bellicose tensions, (b) the rapid disfiguration of the Earth through reckless consumption and expansion. In this state of emergency, there are two possible paths. Empathy will either expand or contract. The stresses pulling on us are so great that these are the only two options.
The contraction of empathy is Trump's way. It is also Russia's. Police state fascism with a charismatic leader. The population is denied certain types of education, and is mind-controlled through fear and hate. If Trump succeeds in becoming a fascist leader with a white nationalist base, the United States will become the weight that tips the geopolitical scales of government toward the anti-free side.
The other response involves the expansion of human rights into a full, legitimate application. It also fosters an Earth-consciousness, and a respect for the sentience of animals, and, indeed, the reverence of all life (in doing so, it cannot promote any religious orientation over others, and must completely reject fanaticism).
A lot of people want this path, the path of Love and empathic awareness. Maybe hundreds of millions, or even billions. Love is awesome.
But hate, in counterpoint, is tremendous. The allure of authoritarianism.
Human nature is malleable enough for Love to overcome. But we aren't starting out with a level playing field. Racism and sexism are entrenched. Panic has already started to set in as we witness (and anticipate) environmental collapse.
This is our greatest, most defining moment as a civilization. Love or hate. Both sides are strong. Trump embraces panic. He tries to startle and disorient. The concept of 'crisis capitalism', elaborated by Naomi Klein, works for him.
Education and edification lead toward Love. But right wing policies gut education and deny time for edification (toil away at a soulless job instead).
For many of our leaders, especially Republicans, ignorance is a kind of capital (see my blog entry). For many of the rest of us, education and the torch of empathy are the way forward.
So, we stand at the edge.
Friday, May 26, 2017
I once wrote a blog entry about the song, "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." In the song, a boy named Johnny bets his soul for the chance to win a golden fiddle. My point was that once Johnny enters the bargain, he loses no matter what. Either his soul is immediately gone, or it gets corrupted by his cynical act. The Devil himself cannot lose. It seems almost optimal for him to send the shiny fiddle out into the world with the boy, a catalyst of envy and pride centered on acquisition and ostentation.
What does this have to do with Donald Trump? Although Trump is not literally the Devil, there is something Screwtape-Letter-ish about him. To engage with him is to face the possibility of great corruption and descent. It is to encounter a critical moment of choice. To bow to Trump, hoping for power or money, to praise or normalize him, is to suffer a taint. This includes defending him even when you know he is wrong, or should know.
Trump, on the other hand, can't lose. He is devilishly impervious. His infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" remarks to Billy Bush on the Hollywood Access tape cost the latter his job. Bush wasn't the one saying offensive things. He chuckled and affirmed, which was bad enough for damnation. Trump defended himself by claiming it was "locker room talk." Athletes everywhere took offense. Nevertheless, Trump went on to win the Presidency, thereby gaining a perverse reinforcement of public approval, and showcasing how deep the rabbit hole of sexism goes.
Bush recently said, "I'm in a lot of locker rooms, I am an athlete, and no, that is not the type of conversation that goes on or that I've participated in." He added that he regretted his response to Trump's comments. After listening to the tape replayed just once, he said he was "shocked and alarmed and totally and completely gutted."
Donald Trump 1, Billy Bush 0.
Consider Trump in relation to women, money and prestige. In all cases, he accumulates 'victories,' measured by crass standards, while spreading harm, pain and anti-virtues, which is to say, sinful attitudes and acts. His so-called victories are ethical tragedies, bringing out the worst in people, groups, towns, and now even a nation. It is not an exaggeration to say that Trump will maim the world order. The USA, his bully pulpit, sets an imperious standard.
Regarding females, Trump habitually focuses on physical appearance and sex. He has bragged coarsely about his exploits and dropped insults of the most vulgar sort. A large number of women have come out and claimed he has assaulted them. Over years of visits on the Howard Stern show, he amused a large audience with the crudest of objectifications. Miss America entrants report abuse and voyeurism, including participants in Miss Teenage America.
Concerning money, Trump swims in a golden lifestyle. His aureate towers surely remind well-read Christians of Baal, the false god in the Bible whose symbol was the golden calf. He has gone bankrupt a number of times, leaving a wake of ruined investors and crumbled enterprises, including casinos. Many have claimed he cheated or swindled them. He settled one recent lawsuit concerning Trump University for an undisclosed amount.
In terms of prestige, Trump has been a mogul, a media star, and now the most powerful man in the world. A large portion of Americans support him ardently. Wherever he goes there are fawning admirers and servile workers. And yet he lies continuously. These lies are of such flagrant magnitude that for almost anyone else they would bring backlash and downfall. Trump hurtles onward. He throws juvenile insults at anyone he wants, it seems. A war hero. The parents of a slain soldier. A disabled journalist. Fellow Republicans. Women. Blacks. Immigrants. It doesn't stop.
In a Devil-worthy sense, you could say that Trump has it all. He revels in carnal obscenity and filthy lucre, infecting as he goes. To be clear, making money is not necessarily a bad thing. The female/male interaction can be complementary and beautiful. And fame offers a platform for healthy role-modeling. But Trump redefines achievement as narcissistic excess. He renders it ugly. He rides a zeitgeist of anger that festers in a bigoted demographic. He is, in essence, an ambassador of bullying. Verbal violence has been his way to reach conclusions and win arguments. Physical violence will also be his tool, now that he has control of military and police forces.
David Letterman recently remarked that Trump has no soul. Letterman hosted Trump many times on his show ("He was just a big, wealthy dope who’d come on and we would make fun of his hair"). But now, "He’s demonstrated himself to be a man without a core, a man without a soul ... Is there a guy in there?”
One of the scariest commentaries comes from the person who ghost-wrote "The Art of the Deal." Tony Schwartz now has massive regret. In the New Yorker he says, "I put lipstick on a pig." It wasn't sufficient for his contrition. In a Washington Post article a few days ago, he wrote:
Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong. Trump simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others. The life he lived was all transactional, all the time ... When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down — even when what he has just said is demonstrably false. I saw that countless times, whether it was as trivial as exaggerating the number of floors at Trump Tower or as consequential as telling me that his casinos were performing well when they were actually going bankrupt.
At Halloween, many of us roleplay the Darth Vader, the monster, the vampire. We might fantasize about being a dictator. Wouldn't it be nice to be rich, surrounded by servants, to insult and command who we want? But Trump makes it obvious that he is in his own personal hell. The fantasy of power is not the reality.
Maybe Trump's most devilish quality is that he seems like somebody who has already lost their soul. It's not that the soul will be lost later as part of some Faustian bargain.
From the very first time I interviewed him in his office in Trump Tower in 1985, the image I had of Trump was that of a black hole. Whatever goes in quickly disappears without a trace. Nothing sustains. It’s forever uncertain when someone or something will throw Trump off his precarious perch — when his sense of equilibrium will be threatened and he’ll feel an overwhelming compulsion to restore it.
Bottomless addiction. Permanent shallowness. Incessant pain. It's a sad tale. It makes me think of a person who has been 'taken', a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
A lot of Trumpian traits are common. Domestic abusers contradict reality. Pathological criminals claim innocence, show no compunction, manipulate with ease. Addicts accuse others. The general tactic of ranting to subvert critical thought is ubiquitous.
If Trump is like the Devil then the Devil is impotent. Small and diminished of capacity and sense. Closing the mind and refusing to budge is cowardice next to a journey of self-reflection, education, and all the wonderful, painful, joyous freedoms that arise. The ability to appreciate in humility at the miraculous level, attaining a fundamental compassion, is humanity at its best.
I said above that Billy Bush lost. But he didn't. He won. Bush is now trying to make a comeback. He says that his experience with Trump has made him more aware of the issues women face. He has connected more with his three daughters.
We romanticize dark gambles. Johnny betting his soul for a golden fiddle. The real way to win is not to play, to eschew the bargain. Trump shows us that sexism, racism, and many other psychological sicknesses are prevalent. He shows us what we need to change, if civilization is to survive. We should resist Trumpian dysfunctions, not just as standards for our leaders but as social norms as well. On one side sits a conformist intransigence whose mortar is hate. On the other, a fascinating frontier of mind and passion awaits us.