Oct 18

Neanderthal sex

just like the homos sapiens, neanderthals were non too bright

We still picture neanderthals as non too bright and non too happy

Though we have more power than ever to change our environment, we seem as confused as ever about who we are, what makes us tick, where we came from, how we fit into our world, exactly, all questions which have immense importance for how we choose to wield our power. More worryingly, we seem to have adopted a mode of thought (science) which disregards these exact questions as “unfalsifiable,” outside the scope of scientific inquiry, and hence, of no consequence. Science as we currently practice it carries the implicit assumption that we need not worry ourselves with such questions: science is always there, working on our behalf; everything scientists discover will be used for good; and if somehow something causes a problem, science will automatically remedy the situation. Clearly, this is wishful thinking, not to mention deluded, dangerous, and terrifying, and we need to address the old questions now more than ever.

The extent of our ignorance about ourselves is staggering. The way scientific inquiry works has given us the false impression that we are much more knowledgeable and much more in control than we actually are. In reality, tradition and convention mean that scientists tend to work in established fields, and build on existing ideas. Yes, the framework is in place to replace a faulty theory with one which better describes reality, but many factors work against this in practice, not least of which is the fact that we are disinclined to consider theories which seem to go against our current understanding of how things work. Or a lack of imagination. What this means in practice is that a vast amount of work in the sciences goes on in support of theories which are wrong. This gives the impression that the totality of scientific knowledge is rapidly increasing, while in reality we are often merely adding to a faulty foundation which will one day be discarded wholesale.

Where do we come from? The main reason we get it wrong when trying to imagine what early humans were like, how they lived, how they settled the world, etc., is because of our fallacious belief that we are an infinite distance removed from any other critter, a different level altogether. We maintain a condescending attitude towards them, and waste time fashioning scenarios which fit our notions of development from inept apes to Mount Olympian homo sapiens. We are primed to resist thinking of human and animal consciousness as being made of the same stuff, so to speak, in part by centuries of religious thought. Christians believe that only humans have souls, and that only souls get to go to heaven. To the extent that Christianity influences the debate, we will have a hard time understanding the nature of our consciousness and that of other animals.

We’ve always believed that we’re different from and superior to apes in specific ways, but it’s not completely clear what those ways are. Humans seem to be better at learning socially than other great apes– maybe, and better at abstract reasoning– perhaps… The only thing that’s undeniable is that we have a bug up our ass that’s gotten us to do all this stuff above and beyond the needs of bare survival, and that, having done stuff and made stuff, we’re convinced that an unbridgeable gulf separates us from “lower” animals. It seems to me that the “bug up our asses” is consciousness, and more specifically, what’s referred to as meta-consciousness, the consciousness of being conscious. This is the factor which pushed us, alone out of the animals, toward ever more abstract and complicated activities. But this isn’t as simple as having a quality that another being lacks. This kind of consciousness is rare, even among humans, and then, only at work some small portion of the time, while the rest of the time we react more or less automatically to the things life throws at us. Rather, it is more accurately conceived of as a motivator, the restless and unfulfilled state of mind which, in combination with superb analytical capabilities, could push one towards interesting new things. But this isn’t the only way in which we differ from other animals.

For a thought experiment, imagine stripping a human of not only clothes, tools and weapons, etc., but also of the 10,000 years of civilization and 3,000,000 years of chipping at stones, and leave them in the rainforest with empty hands. How much better than apes would we do? How effective is our cognitive apparatus without the knowledge our culture has gathered over the millenia? Has a human child ever been raised by apes, but grew up into a human? And if we did eventually figure out how to thrive without any culturally transmitted knowledge, what would that look like? Similar to other great apes or not? Would we have language? What kind of language?

Conversely, scientists are finding that many animals, and great apes in particular, do most everything we once thought of as unique to man. They have emotions, hold grudges for months, solve complex problems, learn language and abstract thought, and are capable of deceit, meaning they have the ability to think from the point of view of another being. The criteria for what are considered uniquely human qualities are getting increasingly complicated.

A July 2012 conference at Cambridge titled “Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” concluded: “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” It’s great that scientists in the field of animal cognition are recognizing that many animals have the makings of human-style consciousness, but this doesn’t mean that the work of scientists in other disciplines is going to take this into account, or that laboratory animals will cease being tortured in their colleagues’ labs. Nor that our laws will be changed to reflect this.

So, if apes are capable of accomplishing most everything we can, but usually don’t care (or need) to, we are forced to view early hominins as people, if somewhat scatterbrained and unambitious ones, and their activities, motivations, and ways of life become intelligible.

Did homo sapiens breed with neanderthals? Has a frat boy ever refused sex? No amount of cultural prohibitions have ever thwarted our sex drives. Our closest relatives, the bonobos, fuck to relieve tension, boredom, hunger, and just to say hello. As do we. It is a safe bet that early humans also bred with anything that walked, and that at least some of the time, some of the matings produced fertile offspring.

That being the case, the mystery of what happened to all the early hominins seems a lot less mysterious. Just like in America’s fabled melting pot, human groups disappear to interbreeding all the time. If a group is similar enough to mate with, it’s a good bet it could eventually be absorbed through interbreeding, and if it was too different to mate with, it was probably killed off. It’s worth remembering that times of crisis are the most likely times for interbreeding and absorption to happen, just as the survivors of decimated groups of Native Americans came together to form new tribes after contact with Europeans and their diseases.

Did humans migrate out of Africa once 55,000 years ago, to colonize most of the known world in one wave? Or did we leave Africa a number of times? This is, to me, a strange question. Once humans settled Europe and Asia, any additional immigrants would simply join the colonists already there. Furthermore, there is no reason for the emigrants not to visit the relatives they left back home in Africa, or even to immigrate back. That’s what people do. I’m not sure what kind of signs this would leave on our genomes for scientists to decipher. Both apes and humans can be far-ranging, and the homo sapiens who ventured out of Africa around 125,000 years ago may already have had watercraft, expediting travel. Certainly the later “waves” of migrants had boats, since they colonized Australia by 40,000 ybp at the latest. It seems to me that the only way this debate can exist is if we assume that these were animals less than capable of making decisions and executing them. Otherwise, the question seems a little academic: people just fill open niches and seek opportunities where they exist, and there were probably very few times when a group of people entered a large expanse of new land and found it yet uninhabited by hominoids.

If neanderthals disappeared as a distinct race by 24,000 bp at the latest, while humans from Africa with fewer neanderthal genes kept migrating into Europe and Asia after that, we would expect to find the proportion of neanderthal genes carried by Europeans and Asians to be ever smaller as we get closer to the present day. This seems to be the case, as Europeans carry 2% neanderthal genes today on average, but apparently had a greater proportion in the past, as archaeological finds such as the Lapedo Child in Portugal, buried 24,500 years, seem to show. Neanderthals, too, seemed to carry some proportion of sapiens genes.

Anatomically modern humans existed by 150,000 bp, but most scientist carry around a checklist of “modern” behaviors, and deny our ancestors the status of behavioral modernity until about 50,000 bp, when enough behaviors on that list appear together. Yet, at least 80,000 bp, sapiens used ochre for decoration and fished at Blombos Cave in South Africa, while neanderthals apparently did everything sapiens did, but weren’t even of our species. “Some researchers describe how anatomically modern humans could have been cognitively the same (as modern humans) and what we define as behavioral modernity is just the result of thousands of years of cultural adaptation and learning.” That makes sense. We are beneficiaries of the knowledge of our ancestors, and wouldn’t be so smart or successful if we had to figure it all out from scratch. Early sapiens brains, too, were larger than modern humans, just as wild animals’ brains are larger than their domesticated kin. Neanderthals had brains on average 20% larger than ours.

Bicameralism is a theory which says, among other things, that the development of meta-consciousness (consciousness of consciousness) as we understand it today may have happened as recently as 3000 ago. Julian Jaynes, the author of this theory, believes that prior to the rise of meta-consciousness, volition (the minds’ commands) were perceived as coming from outside of oneself, and perhaps attributed to gods. Texts composed prior to this time give no indication of self-awareness, introspection, or other cognitive meta-processes, whereas after this time, the full range of meta-cognition is present. The change falls in the middle of the old testament; unfortunately, there aren’t all that many texts written before this.

This seems on the right track: a great range exists among people today in self-awareness, as well as, probably, between different groups of people. It makes sense that consciousness wouldn’t be an absolute, possessed by humans but no other being. We all have varying amounts of it. Some people seem to entirely lack the capacity for self-awareness, self-doubt, etc., and even those of us who do have it go through life largely without using it, being stricken by it only on certain occasions. Yet other people seem to be absolutely paralyzed by a constant over-abundance of it. (Too much self-awareness can make daily life impossible. The only way I can get through work is by shutting off my conscious mind as much as possible, just dealing with what’s happening on an automatic level.)

Wikipedia page on behavioral modernity says:

…bicameral mind theory argues for an additional, and cultural rather than genetic, shift from selfless to self-perceiving forms of human cognition and behavior very late in human history, in the Bronze Age. This is based on a literary analysis of Bronze Age texts which claims to show the first appearances of the concept of self around this time, replacing the voices of gods as the primary form of recorded human cognition.

But, this is not “very late in human history,” human history is, by definition, recorded history, which first arose shortly prior to this time. Anyway, it doesn’t seem important when, exactly, people added meta-consciousness into their arsenal for dealing with the world. The main thing is that it is something we in the West today have a lot of, relatively speaking, and that in the recent past it was scarce to non-existent. One could say that meta-consciousness is significantly correlated with civilization, and may be either the cause or the effect of it, if not both. The other main thing is that meta-consciousness is something which arises culturally, rather than biologically or genetically, as everyone has always assumed it did.

Oct 13

Society ended and no one noticed

freedom from empathy.  and sense.

Through Siberia by Accident
Dervla Murphy
John Murray (Publishers), London 2005
ISBN 978-0-7195-6664-6

Humans are very good at following and processing sudden shifts in their environments, but very bad at being aware of gradual changes. No one noticed that life in America has little by little turned into “just holding on,” that the fun we have, when we have it, is too little too late, that we’re never completely convinced we should keep trying at any given moment rather than watch TV or drink ourselves into a stupefied calm. These changes happened slowly, over decades and generations. To complicate things, the better conditions some time ago weren’t all good for all people, and were downright awful for many: the deterioration in the quality of life over time has been a complex process. Most people have traditionally focused on improvements in material well-being to claim that life is better now than before and getting better all the time, a dubious claim itself considering how much misery there is out there today. Perhaps it isn’t all that much more, as a proportion of the total, than at the height of the abuses of the industrial revolution, but no one with any access to accurate information should claim that we today enjoy better lifestyles than cavemen or hunting/ gathering groups. (Not only did hunter/ gatherers enjoy a more varied and nutritious diet than almost anyone who came after them, their brains were bigger than ours, paralleling the decrease in brain size which happens to domesticated animals.)

We’re not merely less happy than we’ve been at perhaps any other time in our history, and we’re not just stupider, meaner, more selfish, less interesting and interested, less empathetic, less fun, and more confused. We in the west, certainly those of us in the U.S., are no longer members of human society as its always been understood and conceived of. Society has come to an end, and no one noticed. But, how would one notice the end of society? When society peters out, people go on living, its just that they no longer live as a social species, but as something else. What “else” may be for the pundits or the sci-fi writers to figure out. Whatever we ever meant by “society,” we in the West no longer practice anything of the sort.

The words “society,” “socialized,” and “social” are problematic for what I’m trying to bring to your attention, because most people understand them as referring to things people do together, without differentiating between, for example, sharing an elevator in a tall building and singing together with a group of people, and in the latter example, between singing with others in a high school music class, or around a campfire, or at a demonstration. Social, to most people, simply means things we do together, as opposed to individual. But a collection of individuals in a place and time (and sometimes neither, i.e. social media), can be simply a collection of separate beings, or it can be something more: an experience which leaves all involved transformed for the better. Consider a group of people gathered inside a mass transit bus, and a group of people gathered around a volleyball net. Both are social events, but one makes everyone involved feel like garbage and resent the people around them, whereas the other makes everyone involved feel invigorated and connected to everyone else. For what I’m trying to describe here, the two kinds of group activity have to be carefully differentiated: there is no separate word for the kind of “social” that I am concerned with here, the kind that strengthens bonds between the participants, but this is the one we need to pay attention to. I am proposing that “society,” “culture,” and such words, describe the transformative experience of people coming together in a place and a time for a common purpose, and not the results and the record of such comings together, which may be better termed “material culture” and its accoutrements.

I realize this definition leaves much to be desired, but I am hoping I can be understood anyway, and maybe helped in this project, for which I am surely woefully inadequately equipped. If I’d seen it tackled by anyone else, I would, I promise you, have the sense to bark up the right trees only. But, the ongoing end of human society seems to be well off everyone’s radar, even though everyone senses that something is very wrong. I attribute it, mostly, to a lack of a vantage point from which the whole trajectory of society can be observed.

I wouldn’t have become aware of this alarming development if I hadn’t had the experience of being born in the Soviet Union, and the privileged position being an immigrant affords to someone observing people and their ways. Obviously, the subject of differences between ethnic groups has remained a favorite from the day the first Neanderthal met the first Homo Sapiens, but I’ve recently begun to think that I may be observing something more profound than variations in ethnic color, namely, the struggle of some people to hold on to a socialized existence, and of others to deal with an existence lacking in socialization altogether.

Everyone knows that people in other parts of the world are profoundly different from Americans. When describing the difference we see in these others, we use words like, “hospitable,” “quaint,” “warm,” etc. We lack the words to describe these differences because we mostly lack the concepts for them. What we see as local color, that quaint hospitality some people in remote places across the world show us, is what people living in properly socialized environments are like. I think it’s funny that we see such people as dupes or quaint at best, and fail to see all the things which allow them to be generous, hospitable, and warm, things we lack: extended families to teach us when young, support and help us when we need it, and learn from us in turn when we’re old; a stable home rooted in a specific place to discover, love, and protect; a simple life free of the anxiety of media phantoms parading all the things we supposedly lack before us all day; a simple life dedicated to real pleasures and real goals, where you can actually be whatever you want to be, certain of the support of your loved ones, instead of having unattainable, sociopathic goals. These things comprise the social dimension of life. When we think of society, we usually think instead of the infrastructure our civilization has built to keep itself going, the different classes of people, the professions, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, etc. All those things are relevant, to be sure, but they aren’t what makes humans properly socialized, and in fact, often serve to distract us from the fact that we’re alone, miserable and confused.

Elsewhere, people still live lives socialized to various degrees. Though tearing at the seams and strained to the max almost everywhere, society is still a part of many people’s lives outside of the West. Russian people’s lives are in many cases still highly socialized. I was reminded of what Russians are like by Dervla Murphy’s Through Siberia by Accident, a great book by a great author. Murphy took her trip through Siberia in 2002, when the Russian people were finally far enough removed from the “market reforms,” which dispossessed them in the mid-1990s, to observe the effects western culture was having on their lives with some clarity.

Throughout Siberia, Murphy met plenty of people who viewed Russia as only getting better with increasing western influence, and plenty of others who saw western culture as intrinsically at odds with indigenous culture, and ultimately displacing it to everyone’s detriment. Opinions split, unsurprisingly, along economic lines: those who were making money hand over fist in the “New Russia” were inclined to see it as improved by westernization, while many of those approaching the changes with more caution came from the public sector–teachers, architects, and the like. According to Murphy, many Russians are worried about the dissolution of their society as the result of the free flow of western values. Murphy quotes a Siberian acquaintance: “For ten years we have democracy and all are free, no one telling children what to do and when, no one organizing anything for them. And what are they doing with their freedom? How can they be expected to organize themselves? The intelligentsia can use freedom but not the rest.” (p.57) Western values consider freedom unequivocally good, for anyone, in any circumstance. I know young American parents who wouldn’t think to thwart the freedom and development of their child in any way– before they can talk, they are allowed to pursue anything that catches their fancy in any way. That’s fine, but kids have no concept of freedom, and need, above all, a stable, loving environment, adult role-models, a good home in a good community. These aren’t things that the parents can provide their children on their own, but without them, kids will grow up improperly socialized to various degrees, and eventually, unhappy.

Russians are different from Americans in specific ways. Traits having to do with strengthening social bonds such as thoughtfulness, politeness, accommodation, are held up for praise in Russian society. Dervla Murphy, in her 60s when visiting Siberia, could always count on a seat when riding crowded mass transit: young men or women invariably stand up and offers their seat to an older person should there be nowhere to sit. These qualities are, by contrast, very rare in America, where instead traits focusing on the individual are held in esteem. It is a rare home I’ve visited in Milwaukee, WI– a quaint city by many standards– where the host offered their guests so much as a glass of water. This is, for many people the world over, treatment one wouldn’t give to one’s enemies. Yet, these aren’t bad people, they are just clueless that another way of living exists because they weren’t raised with any other way. They see their crappy, lonely lives as normal, and stoically blow their brains out, as well as, increasingly, the brains of others’ who may happen to be in the way, when their ludicrous dreams prove unattainable and no deus ex machina is at hand. These are two different breeds of men, but only one is capable of replicating human society– the other can only recreate the pyramid scheme which got them where they are.

What would a society that’s dissolved look and feel like to the people forced to inhabit its’ ruins? I think the most important benchmark of a functioning society is the empathy its members experience towards one another. Empathy is both a prerequisite and a consequence of human society. Ours is perhaps the first civilization in human history to have a serious enough problem with individuals lacking in empathy to create a word and a concept for it, “sociopath.” But the breakdown in empathy between members of a group is not always due to an individual pathology. Some people are unable to experience empathy, some don’t experience it because they haven’t been taught to experience it to the appropriate extent in childhood, and some might simply not want to, for any number of reasons. It seems to me that when the levels of empathy fall below a certain threshold, you may no longer be dealing with a society deserving of the name. Again, empathy is not so much a metaphysical way of getting inside other people’s heads, and more about the way people who live together, spend time together, share values, habits, dreams, and so on, just know what the other members of their group experience. Naturally, this faculty is diminished when you live a life largely removed from others, or in a belief that everyone is so “individual” the things we have in common don’t matter, or both.

But it is important to remember that a bunch of people will keep on going about their things, buying, selling, fighting, fucking, and the sort, long after any meaningful social component has been taken out of their way of life. Instead of the common good, they will serve laws written by people they chose to represent them far away. Mostly, they’ll have no clue why they value the things they value, because people they’ve never seen will dictate their tastes to them, common taste for conformists and rare tastes for the rebels. Civilization doesn’t end because everyone becomes a petty Napoleon, convinced that their expansion is limitless until checked by another in a never-ending war of all against all. It doesn’t even slow down. It just becomes unbearable for everyone involved.

Can it be fixed? I think there’s nothing simpler. Empathy isn’t a complicated, hard to understand quality– it’s simply the way people who share in a human society interact. All that needs to happen for empathy to be restored is for people to go back to living in a more mutually-dependent, mutually-assisted, way. Anyone incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of their fellow man will probably not be able to live closely with others. Empathy is simply that adaptation to close-quartered life, which carries the additional benefit of keeping us sane. That is to say, we can’t be fulfilled and probably not even retain our sanity without having the benefit of others’ empathy and being empathetic ourselves: our nature as human beings is to live with others of our own kind.

So, I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of what’s been occupying my mind for a long while. Society, obviously, didn’t end in so far as most people think of society as the machinery and ideology of our system of life, in all its glorious, inhuman complexity. But something did end– namely, that component of our lives which allows us to be happy, the social component. No one’s ever paid much attention to it because no one’s ever had any reason to imagine a life without it. No matter how bad things have previously gotten for men, slavery, Auschwitz, famine, we always had each other to make it through the bad times. For the first time, this is no longer the case. We’re finding that not only are we unable to get through the bad times alone, but we can’t make it through the good times, either– we can’t accomplish anything alone at all. Any task one might pursue requires an army of supporting characters, from the day you’re born to the present moment, and all the way back to the dawn of history if you want to be really thorough.

It’s fascinating that all these years, the conventional wisdom has insisted that if you’re unhappy, you’re not pursuing your dreams– the answer is, more freedom, more individualism. The conventional social roles we are forced to act out against our will are stifling us and making us miserable. Our goal is to “find ourselves” and tap into our individual-ness. Was it really the opposite the entire time? How could so many get things so wrong for so long? This isn’t the first time human nature has been completely misunderstood, and yet… Perhaps no one should be surprised that the idea that what’s making us all miserable is a lack of individual freedom has been as influential for as long as it has: it fits all too neatly into the longer-term project to destroy local human communities in order to advance the goals of international capitalism.

Aug 08

Walking Dead, depressed

night will fall on the common slave

Walking Dead

Walking Dead speaks to the malaise contemporary Americans experience: the suspicion that each one of us is completely alone in this most modern of nightmares, fighting against hordes of human-seeming but inhuman creatures intent on devouring us, and unable to fully trust even those we know to be human because they are our own kind.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve broken into uncontrollable tears when watching any play, whether the Milwaukee Highschool of the Arts production of Guys and Dolls, or Brecht, or any play at all. I was more likely to cry when already lonely, which should have pointed me to the explanation, but it was only after seeing an episode of the Walking Dead that I realized what the deal is. Almost as soon as I flipped the channel and saw the group of Walking Dead characters doing their Walking Dead thing, looking serious and talking in terse, loaded phrases, and acting selflessly and committed to each other, I was in tears. It doesn’t matter what the context, the thing that busts me up is seeing people act selflessly and support each other. It’s interesting that I’ve been vulnerable to this feeling long before I knew what caused it or what it meant.

I don’t have any evidence for this, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone experiencing this kind of reaction. The popularity of the Walking Dead show seems to bear this out: there are many good shows on TV, but Walking Dead is somewhat unique in presenting characters who are by definition an ensemble, a group of survivors forced to act in concert and rely on each other for literally everything. We see our own lives in the predicament of the show’s characters as they struggle to survive in a world populated by inhumanity. Equally importantly, we wish we had the kind of mutual support and close-knit community they do. We are attracted to the story because we wish we were them, which is saying a lot– the citizens of “the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth” would trade places in a flash with a band of survivors hanging on for life in a post-apocalyptic zombie infested world, if only for a couple hours each week. We are that damaged, and that starved for community.

Personally, I had a fine childhood as these things go, surely a better one than most people have these days. In the Soviet Union, most families lived in multi-generational households, and I had the benefit of grandparents and great-grandparents spending at least as much time with me as my parents as a young child. This is all that’s meant by having a good childhood: that a child is loved and attended to, that he/she has role-models to look up to, that he/she knows that though it might do something undesirable, he/she is good and only the inappropriate action is under censure. I had more problems once my parents, baby sister, and I emigrated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A. in 1989. I was 9 years old. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a supportive family available much of the time as my parents threw themselves into the getting ahead in life, and to add to it, I had to deal with being an outcast at school, learning English and what all. I don’t want to overstate things or leave the impression that I blame anyone for anything, or view myself as exceptional in any way, good or bad. It seems that my experiences are roughly par for the course, at least for western families, and a huge step up from being born into effective slavery, being kidnapped to become a child soldier, or having to pick tomatoes for pennies until your back permanently gives out at age 26 and cancer from the pesticides becomes terminal at age 29.

There are more people living in an earthly hell today than ever before, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total humanity, but that doesn’t mean we should be glad we got off with merely psychological trauma. Psychological trauma can leave people unable to live satisfying or meaningful lives, just like any other kind of trauma, and because it is frequently unseen and its victims stigmatized, even, it can be as disruptive as any other curse to befall a person. Again, just to be clear, I am not suggesting that westerners with depression are as urgent a priority as landmine-maimed children. But we are making landmines and assault weapons faster than ever, and churning out emotionally scarred babies and children at equally frantic speeds, so let’s cut the bullshit out. This essay focuses on emotional trauma because it seems to me it is highly misunderstood and ignored, while victims of wars we sponsor elsewhere in the world will always receive hysterical attention from certain people, followed by airdrops of “aid”: one box of food for the victims, one box of guns for the killers. One box of medical supplies for the victims, one box of mortars for the killers. Very symmetrical, our “aid.” So glad we’ve become so impartial and scientific in the west, bias is such a dangerous thing.

We don’t have any way to compare the rate at which we suffer psychological disorders today to that of a pre-industrial, pre-urban, or pre-civilized age, but there are many clues that seem to suggest that we are much crazier than our “uncivilized” forebears. It should probably be mentioned that we are much more violent and homicidal than our uncivilized ancestors, propaganda like War Before Civilization notwithstanding. As for our mental health, depression, an epidemic affecting 17% of Americans over their lifetime, seems to be a side effect of civilized, western-style life. In North America, the probability of having a major depressive episode within any year-long period is 3-5% for males and 8-10% for females. If you believe depression is a chemical imbalance, this statistic is baffling. Why would evolution, or Jeebus, make women twice as likely to become seriously depressed? What possible advantage could there be in becoming morose and ineffectual, and how could a loving god curse his creations in such a way? If you consider depression as the result of living in conditions unsuited to the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of a living being, the mystery solves itself: a misogynistic society is bound to depress women more than men.

A few thoughts on mental illness:

1. Mental illness is mostly a response of an animal to a traumatic situation it can’t escape except by rearranging its relationship to (or perception of) its environment.

2. Medicine now says that depression is the result of faulty wiring in the brain, or bad genes. If there was profit in it, the same people would be looking for the bad genes and the faulty neurons which cause people to fall in love, grieve, or experience joy. Depression is an emotion, and most often an appropriate reaction to unacceptable external experience.

3. Under capitalism, medicine will always develop and promote short term treatments which address symptoms only, rather than targeting the causes of the problem. Long-term solutions, involving deep soul-searching and examination of the environment as thoroughly as the patient, are by nature not profitable.

4. Most therapists offer their patients self-delusion as the sole remedy for their problems. I am yet to meet a therapist who will say, “what you are describing is a situation which doesn’t meet the standards and expectations of a living being. Find a way to change or escape this situation as quickly as possible, or you will continue to be depressed.” That’s bad enough, but their job is frequently to convince you that you’re dead sick and need therapy or drugs, when you are actually experiencing the appropriate response to your situation– your body and mind saying, “This is unacceptable, get me out of here.”

5. AA would appear to be a different kind of a solution to the same problem, as the methods used there appear drastically different from therapy or psychiatry. Yet, AA insists that the problems a person experiences are entirely of their own making. This is an interesting and complicated problem. On the one hand, AA works by giving people what they actually need to get better: friends, a community, an extended family. On the other hand, it insists that there is nothing wrong with the world, and anyway we’re not going to discuss it, which is so patently untrue many people can’t take AA seriously. The consequence of this doctrine is the need to repent, admit one’s guilt, and in addition, wear blinders going forward. This is why AA drives so many people away and looks like a cult to others.

6. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Niebuhr’s original version: “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Quite a difference there. I like the original better.

7. When you’re told that you need to quit smoking or lose weight or whatever to be happy, you’re saying that you’re not good enough to be loved as you are, which everyone is. You’re also putting the cart before the horse, because achieving anything like quitting smoking or losing weight requires being to some extent loved and supported, which is what you’re trying to achieve by becoming more lovable and less smelling of smoke. Besides, many people smoke or overeat precisely because these things offer some comfort, however counter-productive, for the loveless conditions of their lives.

I spent my teenage years “depressed,” was pretty good through college, and became “depressed” again after graduating. I’m still frequently depressed today, but not like I used to get. The incidents of “depression” in my life correspond in every case to unsatisfactory conditions in my life, and the perception that there’s nothing I can do to improve things. I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as serious depression which requires being treated with drugs, but in my life, the life of someone who was mostly raised in a loving atmosphere, serious depression has always been associated with bad things going on outside of my head, that is, my depression has always been situational. Most people are either unaware of the trauma they may have suffered, or don’t recognize unacceptable conditions in their present environment as such. When afflicted with depression, such people would have to conclude that the problem originates inside of themselves and needs to be treated with drugs, when the real culprit is the life they find themselves leading, and can at least theoretically be fixed by returning these conditions to a state more in agreement with the expectations of living beings.

We are living today in a society based on organized lovelessness, in Aldous Huxley’s incisive words. Humans, like all other animals, have certain expectations built into their development, expectations which, when not met, cause various disruptions to our development as human beings. These expectations are simple: for example, we’ve needed no instructions on what babies and children need to grow up into healthy adults for 99% of our species’ existence on this planet. Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept is a profound look at what these simple expectations are, as practiced by tribes of hunters and gatherers in the Amazon when she lived among them in the 1960s. Liedloff calls children raised according to the species- appropriate expectations Continuum children, and explains much about the differences between such well-adjusted children and the ones deprived various continuum experiences so common in our society. There’s more to it than just love, but love seems to be such a huge part of the continuum childhood experience that that will be the part I will focus on.

Children who receive the appropriate amounts and kinds of love at the appropriate stage of their development grow up into the kinds of adults their culture expects them to become. As hard as this is to believe for modern-day Americans, children who are raised by loving adults in a functioning community don’t go through rebellious stages, don’t experience “generation gaps”, don’t have to go looking for themselves. They know who they are at each stage of their life, and possess the confidence that who they are is right and good. From a helpless babe in arms, to a toddler tagging after older kids, to an older child learning about their world, to teenagers trying out their growing skills and talents, all the way to adults ready to take up the tasks of full members of society, they have the confidence that they are loved and wanted for who they are, and know that when they are scolded, it is for something they do, not who they are– and are just as eager to correct the offending behavior as their guardians. Although love is the crucial component of this process, their need for role-models can’t be overstated: we learn through observation and emulation, and being a part of a group whose members themselves know and like who they are is essential.

Many things can go wrong in a child’s life, and sometimes it seems as though we’ve set up a cruel laboratory to find out all the terrible ways a person’s life can be disrupted by withholding the appropriate continuum experiences from them as they develop. If denied the love and support they need and expect from those around them at some point of their upbringing, they will sustain trauma, a hole inside of them that they will seek to fill for the rest of their life. The many ways in which such trauma will play out in a persons life can also be somewhat reduced and simplified: they will seek to fill this void with love, or substitutions for love, for as long as the basic issue is unaddressed, if not their whole life. They will enter into relationships they will sabotage, engage in self-destructive behaviors, try to replace the missing love with food, drugs, money, sex, etc., and so on. They will be manipulable by anyone willing to offer them love or some substitute as bait. They will respond well to advertising and be very good consumers, but will make poor neighbors, parents, lovers, or friends. Unless the pattern is addressed or interrupted, they will raise their children exactly as they themselves were raised, holding out love as a reward or punishment in order to control them and extract love from them.

“Our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organized lovelessness.” In fact, our civilization not only creates unloved and loveless people, but would be impossible without such people. Modern civilization can be said to be fueled by lovelessness. Someone, at some point, figured out that people who live in large close-knit groups don’t make for very good workers or consumers, and without making their discovery public, little by little transformed the world into a cruel emotional torture chamber, graduating people into the shopping mall/ labor camp world beyond. People who live among their kin are just not depressed enough to consider spending their free time in mind and soul-numbing wage-labor so they can buy objects and experiences. As far as they are concerned, their lives are fine as is. This is something early capitalists were well aware of, and much ink was spilt trying to solve this “problem.” The history of this process is described in detail in E.P. Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class. The would-be “working class” fought the new order every step of the way, from the medieval enclosure laws to Taylorism in the early 20th century and on. You really have to isolate a person from others before the pleasure they can derive from consuming products and services is appealing to them. People had good lives, the supposed brutishness, nastiness, and shortness notwithstanding, in the days before capitalism, and in their relatively contented state couldn’t be convinced to work and consume. Their lives had to be impoverished before they would join the ranks of the workers, and the primary impoverishment was in the social realm: love, a universal condition of life for 99% of our species existence, had to be diminished and made scarce. In a world peopled by healthy, undamaged human beings, no one would work at anything other than tasks they enjoy for a minute longer than it took them to fill their belly. No one would wear their weapons and armor once the two sides have clashed, some young people got to show off their prowess and coordination, and some booty has been acquired to show the folks back home. What sane person kills other living beings for fun?

When you break up human communities that grow naturally, and make everyone starved for love all the time, you are well on your way to ruling the world. This may well be a paradox built in to human history, making civilization all but inevitable, and healthy human communities all but doomed. As Fredy Perlman describes in Against His-Story, Against Leviathan, when a group of people adopts agriculture and implements of war, their neighbors are faced with the choice of being conquered and made into slaves, or resisting and soon discovering that to resist successfully, they must become like the aggressors. Getting as far away as possible from the civilized madmen hasn’t been an option for some time, as people have occupied every habitable place on earth.

By contrast, healthy human beings have no need to prove themselves the best in the world at anything. They are not prone to obsessive-compulsive behaviors or perfectionism, and needless to say, have no unaddressed anger issues or the kinds of insecurities which make members of our society such easy pray for advertisers and cult leaders. They tend to consider any idea on the basis of whether it will be fun, work only until they are sated and have no concept of accumulating wealth except to get through winter in cold climes. They identify themselves with their group, and think in terms of group welfare when making decisions. This doesn’t mean they are less uniquely individual than we are, in fact, there is greater possibility for creativity and individual expression in the framework of a healthy community. As Wendell Berry said in Life is a Miracle, “Individualism, in present practice, refers to the supposed “right” of an individual to act alone, in disregard of other individuals. (p.42) For members of functional communities, individualism is the freedom to be who you want, sure that your choices will be accepted by the rest of the members. Raised to respect others and be confident of their respect, you would never want something that would damage the people you love, and they would never think to tell you your unique take on life is unacceptable.

Walking Dead makes me cry because I, like so many others in our broken society, see myself in the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, while at the same time desperately wanting to be a part of a community like the one shared in by the characters in the show. I think that the show’s creators understand this. The characters’ survival is always a common project, and to be cast out of the group is usually as good as receiving a death sentence. That’s what it means to survive as a human being: humans don’t function one at a time. We are social animals, and in seclusion, we die. In the few episodes I’ve seen, the fact that to cast a person out of the group is as good as killing them has been repeatedly stressed. This is a basic truth of our species’ existence on this planet: an exile is as good as dead even if they survive physically, because we are not made to live apart from others of our kind. It’s striking that this basic condition of being human has been all but forgotten today. Rick continues, “But I won’t have to, because you’re going to change. Starting now.” He’s optimistic, but talking to a small group of people, he can afford to be: his opinion will be heard, considered, and perhaps heeded. I’m in no position to be optimistic, but maybe someday I will be. At the very least I have some idea of what I’m looking for, and what I’m not looking for. It’d be interesting to find out whether the Walking Dead people have had much response from viewers seeing what I see in the show: a community determined to survive together in a world where a lone person has no chance.

Jul 06

Life is a Miracle

family over tuscanyWendell Berry
Life is a Miracle, an Essay against Modern Superstition
Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2000

“We are not getting something for nothing. We are getting nothing for everything,” the epigraph with which Berry opens Life is a Miracle, is apt and concise. Modern society appears miraculous, the product of man’s industry and ingenuity.  It looks (and is advertised largely as) a kind of perpetual motion machine, powered by little other than human inventiveness. Attentive observers have noticed that appearances are, as usual, deceptive: we are living on fossil fuels, energy created over eons by geological processes, and in a matter of decades, we’ve used up more than half of what’s available. But there are problems even greater than the depletion of our main energy sources, destroying our ability to perpetuate our society and culture without much notice from anyone. We (and many other animals) have been passing our knowledge and ways of life the old fashioned way (and the only way) from parent to child as long as we’ve been on this planet without giving it a thought, but it appears that this simple and irreducible aspect of our species existence can be interrupted. When this happens locally, tribes and cultures die. It’s not clear whether it is possible for this to happen globally, but it seems that this is the direction we are heading. Globalization and the “market economy” have been at work disrupting and destroying local cultures and replacing them with a universal mono-culture known to its practitioners and captives variously as “capitalism,” “market economy,” or “democracy” in the west, “communism” or “socialism” elsewhere. Whatever name it goes by, its effects on the living beings and the environments they inhabit is the same.

Life is a Miracle is about this process, the loss of the ability to perpetuate the culture we’ve built over millenia. Wendell Berry looks to science for a culprit, because science is our culture’s founding myth, governing paradigm, and much more, and he picks E. O. Wilson’s Consilience as the book through which to analyze the subject. The choice is appropriate for a number of reasons: Wilson is a mainstream scientist, and in Consilience, he tackles questions like ethics, religion, art, and culture in general- necessarily, since his stated goal is to bring the different disciplines together into a working whole. He is also a conservationist, as is Berry.

Science approaches all questions as problems to be solved, and all unanswered questions as questions yet to be answered. “(Consilience) reads as though it was written to confirm the popular belief that science is entirely good, that it leads to unlimited progress, and that it has (or will have) all the answers.” (p. 24) This means that mystery, an essential and critical part of human culture, is an impossibility: Wilson attributes it entirely to human ignorance. Without mystery, reverence and propriety are impossible, leading to a society governed by profit and raw power as we’ve arrived at today, whether the power is cloaked in the accoutrements of “democracy,” “socialism,” or more transparent forms. What Wilson calls “consilience” turns out to be an invitation (or an ultimatum, taken more broadly) for religion and the arts to take on the goals and methodology of science, an impossibility if the words mean what we all think they mean. “Like a naïve politician, Mr. Wilson thinks he has found a way to reconcile two sides without realizing that his way is one of the sides… One cannot, in honesty, propose to reconcile Heaven and Earth by denying the existence of Heaven.” (p.99)

The crisis we face can’t be solved with more science or technology, since these are part of the cause. We have to address the way we think and talk about the world and ourselves.

The language we use to speak of the world and its creatures, including ourselves, has gained a certain analytical power (along with a lot of expertish pomp) but has lost much of its power to designate what is being analyzed or to convey any respect or care or affection or devotion toward it. As a result, we have a lot of genuinely concerned people calling upon us to “save” a world which their language simultaneously reduces to an assemblage of perfectly featureless and dispirited “ecosystems,” “organisms,” “environments,” “mechanisms,” and the like. It is impossible to prefigure the salvation of the world in the same language by which the world has been dismembered and defaced. (italics in original) (p. 8)

Berry’s solution to this crisis, if there is to be any solution to it, is for scientists, artists, and religious people, whether they can work together in the end or not, to root their work in local considerations and return to such considerations at their works’ end, as well as, ideally, throughout the process.

Directly opposed to this reduction or abstraction of things is the idea of the preciousness of individual lives and places. This does not come from science, but from our cultural and religious traditions. It is not derived, and it is not derivable, from any notion of egalitarianism. If all are equal, none can be precious. (And perhaps it is necessary to stop here to say that this ancient delight in the individuality of creatures is not the same thing as what we now mean by “individualism.” It is the opposite. Individualism, in present practice, refers to the supposed “right” of an individual to act alone, in disregard of other individuals. (p.42)

Any new invention or idea or practice should, in the end, be weighed on the merits of its impact on our communities. “Suppose we learn to ask of any proposed innovation the question so far only the Amish have been wise enough to ask: What will this do to out community?” (p.134) Obviously, most people don’t have the benefit of living in anything resembling a community, so we would have to break up the corporate capitalist society into local communities first.

Life is a Miracle elicits some hysterical reviews on Amazon, as one would expect with books that challenge our most basic assumptions about ourselves and the world. I expect that if it were more widely read, the greater part of our country would be foaming at the mouth over this book. God I wish it were. This is likely one of the most important books of the decade, or century, or however long we plan on living miserable lives governed by anti-human precepts.

May 10

Gentle Soul

Camping in langlade co, wisconsin

 

This is for my friend, Josh Gilman, a talented and generous person who is impossible to forget. He could change the life of another during a brief interaction, maybe because he didn’t see any interaction as “passing,” and appeared (and really did, I believe) to give all of himself to a person or a situation regardless of how small or insignificant it may be. This is what many people remember him as: someone who could be discussing the most personal and profound things with a stranger within minutes of meeting, someone who was as thrilled about life and its possibilities as we should all be, and maybe once were.

 

Perhaps more than anyone else I know, Josh made his life be about beauty and truth. What generations of people romanticized and further generation maligned and made fun of as cliché, he pursued in earnest and, I would say, with success. When he lived in Colorado, Josh would sometimes face his amp towards the Sangre de Christo mountains and play guitar to the uninhabited distance. If this sounds silly, the fault is with my writing.  Or maybe with our stupid jaded times, because, I assure you, we may be endlessly rediscovering things others discovered previously, but this is just what being human is about.  No two loves are ever alike, as no two sunsets are ever alike.

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Josh spent much of his life traveling, abroad and in the U.S., for pleasure and in pursuit of ideas, people, or beauty. He’d hiked the Appalachian trail, where a bear raided his food and left him to walk a two or three day stretch of the way hungry. To my knowledge, he camped in Yosemite, visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, lived in the San Luis Valley in the high Rockies. I have beautiful pictures he took in Mexico, as well as from multiple trips in Southeast Asia, where he biked the length of the Malaysian peninsula to Singapore and eventually to Sumatra to see the Orangutans before they are eradicated from the wild. He spent significant amounts of time in Thailand on multiple trips and wanted to settle in Chiang Mai for good, though on his last trip there he came upon a politically volatile and unstable situation which thwarted any plans for staying. Josh also travelled to meet writers and poets he liked, or in homage of ones already gone. Josh admired Gary Snider, the beats in general, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jim Harrison, Patti Smith, Neil Young. He travelled to meet Doug Peacock in Montana, and to hear Amiri Baraka speak in Madison, as well as others, I’m sure.

 

I don’t remember meeting Josh when we went to grade school together, but sometime around then I came over for lunch. We weren’t close friends and I didn’t know him that well, and hanging out on this occasion was the result of living a block apart and sharing the walk to school on occasion. I don’t think we were even in the same grade, since they put me in a class with younger kids because I had just come over to the U.S. from the U.S.S.R. and didn’t speak good English yet. I remember Josh striking me as an easy person to be around, and generous, more like the Russian kids I knew in that regard than American boys. I think even then, he saw material objects as meant to be shared and used for the purpose of making others happy. When we became friends years later, this was among the qualities that impressed me most about him. Without any pretense, like it was the most natural thing in the world, Josh did things for people he cared about, things to make them feel good.

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I would get to know that house really well some years later, housesitting when Josh was living in Colorado. He was jealous that I got to hang out with Juniper, the brilliant border collie. Much of the handyman work the place has seen over the past decade has been my doing, for better or for worse. A couple years back, I spent a beautiful summer afternoon making a watercolor of the facade from across the street, a present Josh wanted made for Renee, his mom. Later in the day, a neighbor lady came to Renee to ask her if she was aware a man was drawing the house. In the heady days of Bush-era paranoia, perhaps she thought I was scoping out the place as a terrorism target.

 

In the mid or late 2000s I spent the summer living in the garage, which Josh transformed into a remarkably homey space with Asian hangings, candles, furniture, and whatnot– among the latter, a woven prayer rug from Afghanistan with an AK prominently and intricately depicted in the center, and a theme of weapons continued in the margins. Not sure where he got that thing. He had a way of creating sacred or liminal spaces which really worked in a magical, unfathomable way, half ritual and half empathy. We cooked food on a coleman stove and drove Renee mad burning huge bonfires and playing music into the night, as friends came and went with the ease afforded by a garage hangout and summer nights. The culmination of that period was the art rummage sale we held early in the fall, at which I sold every single piece of art I ever made up to that point to a generous friend and gave away many drawings to others. It was billed as “Full Moon Gallery,” a benefit for the Chiang Mai Artist Collective (which never materialized but was intended to be the next phase of our lives– more clearly so in Josh’s mind than mine).

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The artist collective in Chiang Mai was for us, but it was also meant to be a place and an experience available to anyone who wanted to escape the mindfuck that is this nightmare of a creatively stunted and competitive society for a simpler and cheaper alternative on the other side of the world, as well as for friends he had made there on previous trips. It would be a place where people could live in beauty and make art to send back to the states to sell. Almost as soon as he got back to Thailand, I think, it was clear that things had changed and the plans had become an impossibility: the friends he looked forward to seeing where in the dumps, the country was on the brink of rioting, the prospect of settling down was all but impossible. Biking the length of the Malaysian peninsula on the way toward Sumatra, hoping to see the last of the remaining wild Orangs before they were wiped out, he encountered angry and fearful people along the way. Later in the trip, armed with razorblades and a bottle of rubbing alcohol, he tried to get rid of the large “Siempre” we had tattooed on his thigh that summer before he left. Alone in some hotel room in some giant city, it must have been quite the opposite of what he hoped for when he left for Thailand with every intention of staying. I can’t fully wrap my head around this, but I can’t wrap my head around the way he just decided he was gonna start an artists’ collective across the world and went for it, with the assumption that if he built it, people would come. This is how legends are made. I don’t think I ever had this kind of confidence and certainty in my vision or myself.

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Josh was genuinely happy to see people he cared about succeed, and was unstintingly generous with his time and energy towards this end. The art rummage was one example of his faith in me, commissioning the painting of their house another. At the same time, he could be utterly mute about his own art and accomplishments. I never learned about the book of poems he had collaborated on with Antler and two other poets, “Four Against the War,” until I googled his name this year. I don’t think we were friends when he was writing most of those poems, and he never showed them to me, so I was only to realize what a talent he had when I couldn’t tell him so anymore. This is the price of exceeding humbleness. Its not that I was ever unaware of how special he was when I did have the benefit of his company, but we don’t make a practice of telling as much to one another, assuming that the unspoken fact is confirmed automatically by virtue of our bestowal of our friendship on another. Of course this may or may not be the case, and probably isn’t the case when you are depressed or agitated and your entire demeanor sends the message that the whole universe is shit.

 

I saw the gnarly scar on Josh’s thigh where the “S” used to be when he came back later that winter, but even though I lived in a rented flat just up the block from him for the rest of that year, we spent little time with each other compared to the summer previous. At some point during the following year Josh had cloistered himself off from me and everyone else I knew for the better part of a decade. Because I didn’t see him for so long, I can’t be sure when the change in him took hold, and whether it did all at once or gradually over those years. It was clear that he returned from Asia shellshocked, but not as clear what happened and what it meant. Maybe he was going through the protracted funk of trying to figure out how to live meaningfully in a world which doesn’t care whether you live or die, just that you produce value. Though, this being a general diagnosis applicable almost universally among many or most of us, its probably not of much use.

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When we reconnected after that period, Josh had much more sadness about him. For a year, we both lived in Bay View and could visit each other by taking a ten minute walk past the big park and across KK. I think Josh was miserable for much of that winter, because he said as much, but for me the walks we took just talking and hanging out were anodyne; though I too was depressed in my life and far from productive or pursuing anything like a concrete plan. Sometimes we walked to Anodyne Coffee and marveled at the way people live their lives and what they consider important. The extra time I got to spend with him that year is a huge reward I was somehow given for I know not what good deeds. Josh brought much wonder and beauty into my life, as I know he did to pretty much everyone who knew him.

 

Josh thought life was a spiritual journey. The way he had of being concerned with things on a non-physical plane meant he was present for whatever was going on then and there. In light of this, the decision he made must be seen as a considered one. It may be true that suicides are impulsive acts, and that prevented from carrying it out, a person has a 4 out of 5 chance of living out their lives to old age. But statistics don’t ask, “What were these lives like? Fulfilled? Happy? Meaningful?” At the same time, I know (as Josh surely knew) that there is an element of chance involved in all of this, and that life is fickle. It is always possible for everything to change at a moment’s notice, for love to take you where you didn’t know exists, for the shunned and ridiculed weirdo with his head in the clouds (yurodiviy of Russian folklore) to become the only person with anything resembling answers in a sudden reversal of everything anyone has ever known or taken for granted. He may have felt this gambling isn’t “honest,” or just that the odds aren’t good. Or maybe it simply comes down to the ratio of pain to joy, and his reached an unacceptable level.

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I’m not the first to note that all too often, it’s the best ones that are taken away, that seem to stand no chance of making it in this world. I won’t be the first one to say that this isn’t right, and that it doesn’t have to be this way. The facade was maintained, only a generation or two ago, that the goal of all our endeavors, all our industry, is for the betterment of the lives of men, the notion was that progress was human progress, concerned with the welfare of our species, if not the welfare of all life. There was serious discussion of what people would do with all their free time once menial tasks were mostly automated. Maybe it should have been obvious that this was a charade all along, and to some it probably was. Today, even the charade has been dropped: “progress” has come to mean the development of objects from simple into more complex forms, the total price of the stocks traded by robots and rich people on the NYSE has come to be an indicator of the fitness of our society, and no one talks about growth in terms of our minds or souls any longer. A society which, in the words of Aldous Huxley, is based on “organized lovelessness” does not deserve to exist. It is yet to be shown whether it can exist, in the long run.

 

Why we put up with it is another question. Clearly, many of us are simply not aware that any alternatives exist. Most people are convinced that the best they can hope for is a raise, a winning lottery ticket, “true” love, as opposed to the false kind. They’ve never seen a truly happy person in their life, have no idea what happy people do, where they come from, what kind of environment they inhabit, what they consider important. Most people wouldn’t know what they’re looking at if they did come across such a phenomenon. I have, and what’s more, I’ve been one. A very faulty one, perhaps, but one nevertheless. By and large, this is a matter of the company you keep and are blessed with. The friendship I got to enjoy with Josh was part of the reason why I know what happiness for human beings feels like.

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Kurt Vonnegut, speaking to an assembly of the American Psychiatric Association, said: “All of you, I am sure, when writing a prescription for mildly depressed patients… have had a thought on this order: ‘I am so sorry to have to put you on the outside of a pill. I would give anything if I could put you inside the big, warm life-support system of an extended family instead.’” Whether they did have had such a thought is something only they know, clearly they wouldn’t remain psychiatrists long if they not only believed such heresy but went around saying so. But I will take Kurt Vonnegut’s wisdom over an assembly of psychiatrists any day: the point is that family—extended family—is an essential element we humans need to succeed, or to exist on any level but the most unfulfilling. Extended families don’t treat each other as bosses, employees, competitors or customers. Extended families offer a human being the opportunity to love and be loved, to be a student and a teacher, to be comfortable in the knowledge that they are accepted for who they are and will always be, that while they may do something that can hurt or disappoint, they themselves will always remain a part of the group. By and large, no group of people, related or not, gets to live any longer in a manner that would allow their members to live, grow, and die in the embrace of the kind of community that we require to thrive, certainly no one I’ve ever met. If we’re lucky, friends fill some of that space for some of the time—I consider myself about as lucky as anyone I know in this regard. Needless to say, it’s a tall order to maintain the level of support we require in an informal group of this kind.

 

Here’s hoping that the end of this dark age is at hand. When we finally manage to change the premises on which we’ve built this society, premises like man’s mastery over the rest of creation and, by extension, some men’s mastery over others, we may have a chance of ridding ourselves of the organized lovelessness that is the condition of such a society. When and if we do that, we will surely remember the ones who didn’t make it as the victims of the bad old days, and some as the prophets who pointed the way towards sanity. Not that that can ever take their place.

 

I miss Josh almost daily, still. Living in a city which we spent so much time in together can’t help but remind me of things we did, but even without outside triggers, I am the person I am today because of Josh. Sometimes I feel like with his passing, I am taking on his qualities. I got a puppy recently, and this has brought on all kinds of changes and new experiences which sometimes seem like deja vu, except not of something I’ve already lived, but that Josh did. I imagine him training June to “heel” and curb her prodigious energy as I do the same with puppy, or walking the Milwaukee river trails as we do almost every day.

josh at taj mahal

Photos in this post except the top one are ©Josh Gilman.

Stay tuned for a page featuring Josh’s poetry, fiction, travel writing, photos, and more.

Feb 02

Outliers

because america

Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Company
2008
ISBN 0316017922

Celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book that appears to contradict the class interests he usually represents. I’m not exactly sure why, but i’m glad he did. This isn’t a very good book by most standards: as other people noted, it lacks any advice on how to fix the lack of meritocracy in our society. More troubling for me, Gladwell doesn’t go anywhere near far enough with the premise he chose for his book. The notion that we live in a country where all you need to succeed is gumption, hard work, ambition, etc., is nothing less than a part of the official mythology of America. To say that this myth also happens to be flat out untrue carries a certain amount of responsibility to set right this wrong, it would seem– one could write volumes on this subject, and another writer would. Gladwell doesn’t see it that way: he believes he is merely the “dispeller” of faulty ideas, him and those Freak-O-nomics jerks, responsible to no one for anything. It is the responsibility of all the rest of us citizens of this free and till recently believed to be meritocratic nation to take the information he’s provided and do something about it.

Still, I am glad he took the subject on. It’s hard to over-emphasize how important it is. Among the main points in his book are the following:

  • Talent is mostly a myth, the “genius” is simply a person who invested a huge amount of time early in life in the field of their choice. (This is true, despite the fact that elsewhere in “Outliers” Gladwell himself quotes someone asserting that “intelligence” is 50% hereditary. What would that even mean?)(Another myth: the 10,000 hour rule. It took me only 9,812 hours to attain genius level in blowing bathtub fart bubbles)
  • No one succeeds on their own. Every success, from Michaelangelo to the guy who owns all the Domino’s Pizza stores in Milwaukee, WI, has had a village of family members, friends, teachers, associates, etc. standing behind them, not to mention fortunate breaks, from being born in the right month or year, to accidents of upbringing, etc.)
  • We tend to imagine that life works like the Olympics: one person, or at most an elite group, is “the best.” For almost all situations outside of competitive sports, the reality is that a bunch of people are good enough for the task, and a bunch are not. Gladwell uses the example of the admission process to ivy league schools: when every applicant has a 4.0 GPA, perfect SAT score, and tons of extra-curricular accomplishments, the admission process can’t be said to be anything but arbitrary.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the idea that anyone can succeed in America is not really true: it’s a piece of highly useful propaganda. Some people can succeed much more better than others.

To Gladwell, it may be fascinating to delve into the minutia of the subject: hockey players are vastly more likely to be born early in the year because the junior leagues tend to take kids born in a calendar year, with the result that the kids born earlier are bigger and therefore better at hockey. To the rest of us, this means that we are mostly shit out of luck: while there are times and situations where the po’ boy can make good, by and large the odds are stacked against us.  Last week, Oxfam announced that the richest 1% now own 99% of the wealth, worldwide. That’s something to think about, unless you’re in America, where every boy or girl can become the president.

If you want to read someone who went much deeper into these subjects, and actually had a conscience, read C. Wright Mills. “The Power Elite” tackles many of the same issues as “Outliers,” but was written half a century earlier (small allowances need to be made because of this: in C. Wright Mills’ time, for example, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were immensely powerful. In the 1980’s they were taken out of the direct chain of command of the U.S. military, now serving an advisory role only. Obviously, corporate power has grown exponentially since the 1950’s).  These trifles aside, reading C. Wright Mills will give you a clear picture of how our world operates, then as now. Reading Gladwell will make you wish he got a soul, mostly.

Jul 11

Fredy Perlman’s The Strait

Freddy Perlman

The Strait. Book of Obenabi. His Songs.
Fredy Perlman
Black & Red
Detroit, Michigan 1988

The last book written by Fredy Perlman (in fact, unfinished at his death: this is the first volume of a two volume work he planned), “The Strait” is the story of Indians and whites in and around present day Detroit, starting in the 17th century (or the beginning of time) and ending in the 19th. It is narrated by a series of characters whose lives are progressively more uprooted by the European invaders, their diseases, technology, and eventually ways and means. The book chronicles the different ways people of the community deal with the invasion and the destruction of their world.

I fell progressively more in love with this book as I read on; by the end I didn’t want it to end and spent hours looking up any extra information on the characters and events that i could find. The portrait of a human community in slow free-fall is moving and instructive. Having only briefly seen what a human community looks and acts like in my 36 years, I couldn’t get enough of the ones depicted here. Fredy Perlman is acutely aware of what it is that makes people living among each other more than a mere collection of individuals, and the ways in which this unity is inherently fragile. I think Fredy is on the same page with Wendell Berry and others who have suggested that joy is not real unless it is shared. Said otherwise, our lives are meaningless without joy, and joy is impossible without a shared human context. The “constraints” of old-fashioned cultures are revealed to be the opposite of what we’ve always been told they are (namely, fetters): the framework which makes joy and self-realization possible.

“The Strait” is initially hard to get into, in part because Fredy Perlman refuses to give his narrative conventional time markers or common place names, and in part because of the nature of the writing, which is verb-heavy and song-like, definitely no popular fiction here (Detroit is Tiosa Rondion, its Iroquois name; the lack of time references was circumvented in this Black & Red edition by putting corresponding dates at the top of every page). After a while, this seems perfectly natural, and pretty soon you are immersed in the story. Perhaps this is what the accounts of people who inhabit cyclical time would sound like. Once acclimated, the book is more than rewarding of the effort.

Like “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan,” “The Strait” is deceptive in that it reads like poetry, but is thoroughly researched and accurate with regard to what goes on. I read an academic history of the Indian-European relations in the great lakes region earlier this year (“The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815″ by Richard White), and as a result noticed early on that the events described here are historically accurate. Reading this book with the internet browser handy has been fun as well, since the characters are largely historical, and easily researched on the web.

“The Strait” and “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan” are both amazing books which will unfortunately go unread by the vast majority of people because they are unconventional and uncompromising with regard to the expectations of the average reader in our culture. The low expectations and short attention spans will not go unappeased as long as there are NYT best-seller lists, while books that require the kind of work from the reader that this one does are few. Once that “work” has been put in, the reader is amply rewarded; knowledge of the entire world and one’s place in it can be this book’s gift to those willing to try.

Jul 11

Jihad! or, The vilest little book this side of Mein Kampf

I dream of Fatima: the immaculate draw of orientalism

Radical Islam vs. America

Benjamin Hart

Green Hill Publishers, inc., copyright owned by Traditional Values Coalition

Ottawa, Illinois, 2003
It is, I suppose, a testament to the freedom of speech we so cherish in America, that trash like this exists. It is also a testament to the stupidity of the American intellectual establishment, because, make no mistake, this guy’s career is thriving after a lifetime of devoted work on behalf of the most rabid racists and plutocrats in the American right (Traditional Values Coalition? Sounds very… traditional… and valuable), work which this booklet is a typical example of.

This little tract can be summed up in a sentence. Islam is a religion which has its roots in violence, intolerance, and warfare, therefore, Muslims today are violent, intolerant, and committed to erasing the West from the map, you know, jihad!!

Yeah, I saw the “disclaimer” about how “this book is not about the moderate elements of Islam.” It was followed by 91 pages of “argument” about the fact that Islam is a religion of fanatics, established by a fanatic. The booklet is 92 pages.

More recently, Benjamin Hart said that Bush made a mistake to take out Saddam Hussein because Saddam was a bullwark against radical Muslim extremists, but Obama made a yet much bigger mistake by pulling out of Iraq and leaving it to said extremists. Who pays this guy for his idiotic thoughts? Who is Benjamin Hart?

From a italkyoubored piece on Ralph Reed, a born-again co-conspirator of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff who appears to have been deeply involved in the scheme to launder millions of dollars of tribal money through non-profits associated with the group, though never indicted:

Benjamin Hart, a co-founder of the conservative campus paper Dartmouth Review and a former executive of Oliver North’s lobbying group, Freedom Alliance, had joined the coalition (the Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson’s group created to mobilize Christians for conservative purposes- see below-ED.) in 1992. Hart’s work put him in good stead with Reed, and though technically an outside contractor, he became a trusted confidante and his de facto lieutenant. “Any conflict that came up with Hart was going to go Hart’s way,” said one former associate. Hart’s ascension was due to the fact that, even in god’s work, you need to bring in the dollars, and Hart brought in the dollars: through his efforts, donations went from five million in 1991, to four times that in 1994. The key to the coalition’s expansion, and its influx of donations, was direct mail, and Hart was given full sway over this: he handled direct mail, telemarketing, the voter guides, and the bidding on the million-piece direct mail packages. This last item was where the problem started.

Benjamin Hart “had bagged the coalition for a million dollars or more” by handling the direct-mail solicitations through his own companies, companies which received the contracts on a no-bid basis since Hart himself was responsible for dispensing the contracts. Robertson and Reed both quit the Christian Coalition shortly thereafter, but all three men would go on to continue working to make America and the world safe for a return to feudalism.

The Christian Coalition would quickly become little more than a shadow of itself during its glory days. Among other problems, “at the turn of the new century, it was sued by a group of African American employees who charged that they had to enter their offices by a back door and eat in a segregated area. The suit was settled for about $300,000, according to several published reports.”

So, I know I used the words “intellectual establishment” above to refer to a millieu that neither Benjamin Hart nor anyone else mentioned in this post belongs to, if it can be said to exist at all anymore. These guys are better described as being, on the one hand, active members in the ongoing project (I’d say struggle, but the fight has become so one sided- see below) to defraud the American people of the last shreds of democratic control over their government and their lives; and on the other, as propagandists for this project, voicing their schlock through conservative publications like the National Review, the above mentioned Dartmouth Review, etc., and lately FOX news and various AM radio programs. To belong to this rarefied club carries obvious pecuniary and professional benefits. There’s no shortage of money earmarked for free-market propaganda and coded, thinly-veiled race-baiting that these guys excel at crafting for the multitudes of disgruntled laid-off middle Americans, who eat up the notion that their degraded conditions are the fault of brown folks coming to take their jobs or living large off their hard-earned taxes- no matter how plain the truth of our nation’s current malaise is made. In the words of Warren Buffet, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Who’s waging jihad now, bitches?

And you know what? They’re frauds and cheats, hypocrites of the first order, scum whose words and actions lead to impoverishment and worse for good, honest people, here in America and hundred-fold abroad. Yet Benjamin Hart and his ilk are just following the unwritten rules of our rotten society in doing the bidding of their masters: grab yours while you can, everybody else be damned. May we live to see the day love and justice rule our lives instead.

May 21

Happy People

alienation is not a family value
Majority of Eastern Germans Feel Life Better under Communism, Julia Bronstein, Spiegel Online, July 3, 2009. Translated by Christopher Sultan.

“The Continuum Concept,” Jean Liedloff, Perseus Books, 1975

A majority of Eastern Germans feel that life was better under communism, according to a 2009 poll. The Der Spiegel article is incredulous at the results, and tries hard to paint the poll’s respondents as deluded. “What about the Stasi?” asks Julia Bronstein, the article’s writer. What about the shooting of people trying to escape across the Wall by border guards? The answer of one man interviewed for the article:

“As far as I’m concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today… People lie and cheat everywhere today, and today’s injustices are simply perpetrated in a more cunning way than in the GDR, where starvation wages and slashed car tires were unheard of.”

God bless the Germans. The article’s writer, unable to step outside of the official ideology, calls this the “whitewashing” of memories of the dictatorship. East Germans defend the GDR “as if reproaching the state meant calling their own past into question,” a political scientist interviewed for the article insists. “Many eastern Germans perceive all criticism of the system as a personal attack.” They are lying through their teeth because they are insecure, see. Ironically, the ideology of liberal democracy ought to see the opinion of the majority as legitimate, but as Noam Chomsky has never tired of repeating, it’s never been about that. The real issue is the supremacy of capitalist society and liberal democracy over all alternative ways of life, and if 99% of the people thought otherwise, as they sometimes do, they would be in the wrong.

The article sounds like a badly made propaganda film at times as it tries to paint the majority of the people of eastern Germany as dupes or worse. Clearly, since democracy and capitalism are by definition good, and they call modern Germany such things as a “slave state” and a “dictatorship of capital,” they are sick in the soft parts (“I am afraid that a majority of eastern Germans do not identify with the current sociopolitical system,” laments the political scientist). Tisk tisk.

Let’s try to answer some of the questions which leave the journalists and the academics baffled by carefully reading the article as written, leaving the ideological blinders off for the time being. Here is another interviewee, a man named Schön who has become very rich since the reunification.

“In the past, a campground was a place where people enjoyed their freedom together,” he says. What he misses today is “that feeling of companionship and solidarity.” The economy of scarcity (GDR had a GDP of $9800 in 1984, $21,000 in 2008 dollars), complete with barter transactions, was “more like a hobby… As far as I’m concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today.”

Elsewhere, the sentiment is expressed that modern Germany is a soulless capitalist hell. The respondents are saying that they may have gained materially, but nevertheless lost something intangible in the process: a feeling and a way of being part of a community. “I’m better off today than I was before, but I’m not more satisfied.” Of course, many people are neither better off nor more satisfied. We don’t know how many because capitalist society, lacking an overt mandate to care for those who fall through the economic cracks, doesn’t bother to find out how many such unfortunates exist and seems to go so far as to purposely distort the numbers, as is the case with the U.S. unemployment rate.

I hope it doesn’t seem like I am defending state socialism. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Having lived for ten years in the U.S.S.R., I have no illusions about what it is like, nor any need to defend the system. What I’m concerned with is human happiness. Clearly, for people under late capitalist societies life is not good (it goes without saying that it’s not good for the species we drive extinct, the animals we keep in industrial feed lots, the planet which provides for us all, etc). The usual way to justify this unfortunate fact is to compare life under capitalism to other social systems, but this is a faulty comparison.

To say that what we have under capitalism is the best we can do is to make a number of assumptions about the nature of humans that are insupportable, assumptions like “all men are greedy” and “people are too stupid to be trusted with direct democracy” and such, not to mention the more basic assumptions regarding the role of mankind, vis a vis other life, the planet, and the universe. I’ve dealt elsewhere with some of these assumptions. Suffice it to say that people are by and large what they believe is appropriate under the circumstances, greedy in a greedy society, selfless in a selfless one. Yes, all men want the same things, to love and be loved, above all, to thrive, etc., but there is nothing in human nature that forces us to enslave fellow men or scratch and claw our way into a position of hegemony no matter who or what stands in the way: this is the life we live under late capitalism, state socialism, etc., and see how far it’s gotten us.

Secondly, the comparison between liberal democracies and often dictatorial third world or second world societies is faulty because the two are opposite sides of a coin, each impossible without the existence of the other. If there weren’t free trade zones in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Indonesia, China, Bangladesh, etc., the semi-starved semi-slaves who populate the sweatshops and maciladoras would have to exist somewhere else, namely, inside the “developed” countries themselves where they could, god forbid, be seen, and questions would be raised. It’s not as easy to justify keeping an American, a German, or an Englishman in slavery conditions, lacking in rights and completely disposable, but there is no way to maintain the high level of return on investment our markets are used to without slave labor. The high return on investment is written into the architecture of the civilizations we’ve created around the globe, a condition as basic as gravity: everything is built around maintaining continued growth.

There is another reason one might prefer life in a dictatorship. In “Manufacturing Consent,” the documentary, Noam Chomsky says that “in a totalitarian state, it doesn’t matter what people think, because you’ve got a bludgeon over their head with which you can control what they do. But when the state loses the bludgeon, when you can’t control people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you have this problem: it may make people so curious and so arrogant that they don’t have the humility to submit to a civil rule. And therefore you have to control what people think.”

Someone, at some point, figured out that people who live in large close-knit groups don’t make for very good workers or consumers, and without telling the rest of us about their discovery, little by little transformed the world into a shape hostile to communitarianism. People who live among their kin are just not depressed enough to consider spending their free time in mind and soul-numbing wage-labor so they can buy objects and experiences. As far as they are concerned, their lives are fine as is. Don’t take my word for it, this is something the original capitalists were well aware of and discussed among themselves in earnest. The history of this process is described in scores of books such as E.P. Thompson’s classic “The Making of the English Working Class.” The would-be “working class” fought the new order every step of the way, from the medieval enclosure laws to Taylorism in the early 20th century and on.

You really have to isolate a person and destroy their life before the little pleasure they can derive from consuming products and services is something they find appealing. And even then, as advertisers well know, whatever it is they are buying, the consumer is forever trying to purchase love and belonging with their hard-earned dollars, regardless of what you’ve been told about the individualism of “generation Pepsi.” The most mundane day following your own whims in your native village, among your kin, is preferable to working a highly compensated nine to five job and taking your sulking wife and your selfish, bratty kids out afterwards. Even drugs, unlimited amounts of heroin and cocaine, the supposed straight pathway to the pleasure receptors of the brain, are experimentally proven to appeal to animals only if they are kept isolated. Given the choice to continuously press a button that releases IV dope into their bloodstream, or doing the regular things animals do with their kind, the animals invariably choose to be drug-free. Think about that, think about what that means for all the fucked-up drug addicts we have in our society: given half a chance to live dignified, productive lives among their own kind, they would leave the drugs! For whose benefit are we spending billions of dollars fighting the war on drugs and billions more importing drugs into the U.S. from places we spent yet billions more destabilizing so that they can grow the drugs, since it is so clearly not for the benefit of the drug users?

***

Today, the ideological battle continues. Globalization is, according to its promoters, turning impoverished peasants into happy middle class consumers the world over. Yes, the workers assembling our crap in China are paid pennies, the ideologues acknowledge, but the reason they accept such wages is because they stand to make nothing back at the farm, and eventually, little by little, they are going to swing themselves up, bootstraps and all, into the ranks of the middle class. Unfortunately, this is sheer propaganda.

The truth is somewhat more complicated, and as such, less easily packaged into a soundbite for TV. The process of making peasants into wage-slaves begins with overpopulation, which has its own nefarious dynamics. (Normally, the food supply remains evenly matched to the population, but in our case, petroleum-based agriculture has allowed an unprecedented explosion in the amount of food we are able to grow.) The next stage is making it impossible for people to make a living back on the farm, forcing their children to look for work in the cities. There, they will take work at wages offered, the alternative being starvation. The fact that people somehow manage to survive and sometimes even send a family member to the U.S. doesn’t mean that anyone anywhere is going to become middle class. This is simply not something capitalism does, the sole thing capitalism is concerned with is maximizing profits for the capitalist. There is no disagreement about this fact, as there is no disagreement that there is no room for altruism in capitalism. Instead, the ideologues claim that everyone will somehow benefit by selling and buying each other’s crap, and those who fail to benefit are just lazy or stupid and deserve to die.

There is only one instance in which a sizable middle class was born out of the working class, and that was in post WWII U.S.A. and Europe. This was the result of social policies such as a heavily progressive tax rate, the government taking responsibility for creating full employment, social security and unemployment benefits, and many others. As the U.S. has shifted away from these policies, the results are plain to see: the middle class has been living off of the savings of the previous generation and credit, social investment has plummeted, and the only profit being made is by the wealthy, while the rest of the country is in a holding pattern at best. If you’re inclined to be more cynical, the argument that the only reason these progressive policies were put in place during the great depression was because the country was on the brink of a revolution has a lot to recommend it. Further more, someone somewhere has to buy all the crap being manufactured, although it is starting to appear that the richest 1% may be capable of doing all the consuming for the rest of us. Maybe the future of America will look like Brunei, where the entire country sells goods and services to the royal family.

The difference between the village and the city is, above all, the difference between people who live in the supportive embrace of a community, and those who live alone.

The price of exporting the brutality inherent in the system we live under is felt by the citizens of the first world in ailments of the mind and soul. I suppose this is preferable to the outright torture experienced by the citizens of the third world, and lets not imagine they are entirely immune to psychological assault either. But by and large, their souls are healthier because they all know who they are: the victims of a brutal, unjust, and exploitative system, and they have one another for support as they struggle against their circumstances. We in the first world can’t count on the support of anyone, and, since no one wants to admit to the identity of the beneficiary of an apartheid system, we have a psyche rent in two by knowledge we can’t dare process, and no positive identity to speak of. This phenomenon was brilliantly analyzed by James Baldwin as it applied to the minds of whites in segregated America, but it applies equally well to any situation where an unequal society exists.

Unfortunately, the mental problems experienced by the well-fed citizens of the first world are often as debilitating as any physical ailment. When one speaks of mental pathology, images of schizophrenia and psychosis may come to mind. But it need not be a full blown psychotic breakdown to destroy a person’s life. What does it mean to “lead a life of quiet desperation?” Why are so many Americans on drugs, legal and otherwise, or alcoholics, or suffering from depression? Where are the happy people, what are they like, what do they do with their time?

***

Jean Liedloff’s book “The Continuum Concept” offers just that: an example of contented and functional human beings. It offers much more, as well. The author refers to her time spent with Indians living in the Venezuelan rainforest as “unlearning,” principally because the life of the people she found herself among was so clearly superior in every way to what she’s known. They didn’t have a concept for “work,” using a corruption of the Spanish “trabajar” when they had to communicate what the westerners spent their time doing, abhorred coercion of any kind, even in regards to their children, and didn’t seem to experience unhappiness. Here is an illustrative story from early in the book:

…Cesar had been “adopted” by Venezuelans when very young and had gone to live with them in a small town. He was sent to school, learned to read and write, and was reared as a Venezuelan. When he was grown, he came, like many of the men of those Guianese towns, to the Upper Caroni to try his luck at diamond hunting. He was working with a group of Venezuelans when he was recognized by Mundo, chief of the Tauripans at Guayparu.
“Were you not taken to live with Jose Grande?” Mundo asked.
“I was brought up by Jose Grande,” said Cesar, according to the story.
“Then you have come back to your own people. You are a Tauripan,” said Mundo.
Whereupon Cesar, after a great deal of thought, decided that he would be better off living as an Indian than as a Venezuelan and came to Arepuchi where Pepe lived.
For five years Cesar lived with Pepe’s family, marrying a pretty Tauripan woman and becoming the father of a little girl. As Cesar did not like to work, he and his wife and daughter ate the food grown on Pepe’s plantation. Cesar was delighted to find Pepe did not expect him to clear a garden of his own or even help with the work in his. Pepe enjoyed working and since Cesar did not, the arrangement suited everyone.
Cesar’s wife liked joining the other women and girls in cutting and preparing cassava to eat, but all Cesar liked was hunting tapir and occasionally other game. After a couple of years he developed a taste for fishing and added his catches to those of Pepe and his sons, who always liked to fish and who supplied his family as generously as their own.
Just before we arrived, Cesar decided to clear a garden of his own, and Pepe helped with every detail, from choosing the site to felling and burning the trees. Pepe enjoyed it all the more because he and his friend talked and joked the whole time.
Cesar, after five years’ assurance, felt that no one was pushing him into the project ans was free to enjoy working as Pepe, or any other Indian.
Everyone at Arepuchi was glad, Pepe told us, because Cesar had been growing discontented and irritable. “He wanted to make a garden of his own”–Pepe laughed–”but he didn’t know it himself!” Pepe though it hilarious that anyone should not know that he wanted to work.

“The Continuum Concept” is an unaccountably obscure book, an injustice which I hope will be remedied. Jean Liedloff is, I believe, unaware or uninterested in the details of ideology and politics discussed above, but her book is a perfect and necessary part of any attempt to understand why our world has become as bleak as it has, and what might be done about it, if anything. While “The Continuum Concept” is in large part about child rearing, it is far from a parenting manual. Simply, the author happened to observe what life is like for people who are mostly untouched by centuries of western learning, living in small groups composed of a number of extended families as we all used to do until we adopted agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rest.

Among the book’s points is that we in the west have done ourselves a disservice by denying our instinctive know-how as far as child-rearing is concerned. We swaddle babies from the minute they are born, tell ourselves that their cries are OK to ignore, and set up a lifelong battle of wills between ourselves and our children when all they really want to do is follow us around and do right by us. J.L. was struck by the lack of conflict, intergenerational or otherwise, between the Indians, by the way the children never seemed to cry, by the lack of parenting done among these people:

When he goes about on hands and knees, a baby can travel at a fair speed. Among the Yequana, I watched uneasily as one creeper rushed up and stopped at the edge of a pit five feet deep that had been dug for mud to make walls. In his progress about the compound, he did this several times a day. With the inattentiveness of an animal grazing at the edge of a cliff, he would tumble to a sitting position, as often as not facing away from the pit. Occupied with a stick or stone or his fingers or toes, he played and rolled about in every direction, seemingly heedless of the pit, until one realized he landed everywhere but the danger zone. The non-intellect-directed mechanisms of self-preservation worked unfailingly, and, being so precise in their calculations, functioned equally well at any distance from the pit, starting from the very edge. Unattended, or, more often, at the periphery of attention of a group of children playing with the same lack of respect for the pit, he took charge of his own relationships to all the surrounding possibilities.

Perhaps the most profound revelation offered by “The Continuum Concept” is that humans are, above all, social animals. The worst thing that anyone can do to anyone else is to banish them, right on par with death. Among a species as social as we humans are, it takes special effort to induce disobedience in our children. Much of the effort has been expended already on our behalf by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and by a society set on molding people into workers and consumers rather than human beings. We don’t have to work hard to raise our children to be insecure, confused, defiant and petulant, yet at the same time self-absorbed and possessing of over-inflated egos. We will raise our kids as we ourselves were raised.

The implication of our species’ innate sociability are myriad, but the entire notion can be summarized, albeit rather vaguely, by saying that in a social setting that agrees with our species’ time-tested needs and habits, little or no further work is required to maintain the system in an equilibrium. Children need no parenting, they will merely follow the example of adults and older children and raise themselves. Policing isn’t necessary, because group shunning will get the offender to change his or her behavior with less conflict and stress than any jailhouse could, and of their own free will, and permanently! People will find themselves having less and being more, and the result of this effortlessness will be greater sanity and contentment.

Obviously, this is no prescription for how to improve (or even maintain) the world we live in today, since there’s no way 7 billion people can live like hunters and gatherers. Perhaps if we took all the land horded by the rich, tore out the useless crops grown for export or ethanol, and had everyone plant subsistence crops, 7 billion people may have a chance of surviving the present century. Assuming we also somehow stopped and then reversed the warming of the planet we set into motion in the 20th century, tore out all the dams to restore fisheries and wetlands, got rid of all the guns and bombs since their presence makes it highly unlikely people will have the fruits of their spring and summer labor to sustain them through fall and winter– someone will always find it easier to just steal stuff if they have the means. And did all this right away, since time’s not on our side at this point. Let’s just say the odds are against the present situation being sustainable in any shape or form.

But if you want to know what’s gone wrong, read this book: it will show you what your life would be like if you were to be happy. Perhaps bits and pieces of the knowledge it offers can make it into your miserable 21st century existence to make nominal improvements. Sadly, this may be the limit to what we can do now, even with the best information possible. It may be time to admit we fucked up, close down the mines and the factories, and start over. God bless all of us.

May 10

Economic Warfare, the Milwaukee way

911 is a jokeLetter to the New Yorker magazine re: “The Milwaukee Experiment” by Jeffrey Toobin, May 11, 2015.

I wish that your May 11, 2015 article about my city’s problems with law enforcement and criminal justice spent less time giving “both sides of the story” with ridiculous, slanderous quotes from Rush Limbaugh and earnest but uninformative commentary from Milwaukee County D.A. John Chisholm himself, and spent more time providing context to the issue at hand. What are the causes of the racial imbalance in Wisconsin’s incarceration rate? Of the awful crime statistics in Milwaukee’s inner city? Is the crisis really worse in Milwaukee than other cities? If it is, why is it worse? None of these questions are addressed: all we learn from your feature article is that John Chisholm has made a genuine effort to keep non-violent offenders out of Wisconsin prisons, that Governor Scott Walker and Sheriff David Clarke oppose his efforts, as does the conservative establishment (though not universally), and that nothing’s really changed one way or the other.

Coincidentally, the current issue of the Shepherd Express, Milwaukee’s local paper, ran an article about a recent study from the non-profit Justice Initiatives Institute which noted that municipal violations and unpaid fines for these violations not only land Milwaukeeans in jail, but end up costing them their driver licenses. (“Is Being Poor a Crime?” Lisa Kaiser, Shepherd- Express, April 30, 2015; p.6) The article notes the racial aspect of this phenomenon (78% of those detained for failing to pay their municipal fines were African American), and talks about the impact of these policies on the ability of people who lose their driver’s license due to unpaid tickets to find and maintain employment. John Pawasarat, the study’s co-author, says that suspending a defendant’s license for failure to pay municipal fines “is probably the worst possible employment policy ever.”

This would seem to be a very direct, documented cause for the epidemic of violence and criminality in Wisconsin. My own experiences support the Shepherd’s conclusions. I have a BFA in Fine Art from UW-Milwaukee, but, like everyone else I went to college with, I’ve been unable to support myself in my field and have had any number of badly paid, unrelated jobs to pay the rent. For the last two and a half years I’ve worked as a delivery driver for Domino’s Pizza, a position which offers an unobstructed view into the conditions of Milwaukee’s inner city. Our delivery area encompasses, in part, Milwaukee’s near north side, the same area noted as the center of violent crime in your article.

There really are two Milwaukees, white and black, existing side by side without much interaction save that mediated by the police. White Milwaukee is not unlike any other city: though not without problems, it functions. Black Milwaukee is a place where little evidence of progress since the Civil Rights era can be seen. Your article notes that the unemployment rate on the north side of Milwaukee is above 40%, but this statistic, horrifying as it is, reveals little of what the neighborhood supporting it is like. Besides the well-known undercounting that happens as the result of the methodology employed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is the issue of what kind of jobs are available to those lucky enough to have them.

Milwaukee’s north side used to be a middle class neighborhood centered on the A.O. Smith plant, shuttered in the 80’s. Today, people work at minimum wage jobs at fast-food restaurants—disposable and undignified jobs unfit for human beings, without benefits or the protection of unions. Last year, I joined hundreds of fast food workers going out on one day strikes for a $15 minimum wage and the freedom to form unions. The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. The better paying manufacturing jobs in the area are largely in the suburbs, places like Waukesha, Racine, and Ozaukee Counties, where little if any public transport goes. Milwaukee Transit Authority has been cutting routes and funding for decades, while simultaneously increasing rates, and Scott Walker refused federal funding for light rail, against the wishes of a majority of area residents. That makes having a valid driver license absolutely essential in order to get to work. Without it, the legal options of inner city residents are dismal.

Milwaukee’s crime problem is the result of specific policies which make it all but inevitable. The media abroad don’t mince their words when calling such situations by their proper name: economic warfare. In the U.S., we shrug our shoulders and shake our heads in bewilderment: what could have gone wrong?