How to Get Environmental Science Wrong

A Longread article proves little more than how bad us non-scientists are at Science

I’m still pretty new at this WordPress stuff; at this point I ought to include a link to an article that attracted my attention when I signed on today.  The tagline to it, under the heading ‘Longreads’, was entitled “In 1975, Newsweek Predicted a New Ice Age, We’re Still Living with the Consequences.”  I apologize for not knowing how to do the doubtless simple act of including a link to it.

(Ooo!  I just figured it out!  Wow!  Rampant delusions of adequacy flood my puny brain!  Here it is:  https://longreads.com/2017/04/13/in-1975-newsweek-predicted-a-new-ice-age-were-still-living-with-the-consequences/   I’m so proud.  Party like it’s 1999!)

The article, allow me to suggest, shows more than anything else how very much harder than one might imagine it is to get a grasp on reality; the Real World, if any, is dominated by a complexity that constantly fools us.  The article referred to is about how, some forty years ago, some environmental scientists ‘mistook’ some incoming data to suggest that we were heading into a new ‘little ice age’, how later evidence showed they were wrong, and how the climate deniers used this mistake to further cast doubt on global warming, helping to set back needed actions to solve this ever-increasing threat.

Fortunately – fortunately?  Really? – almost all of this gets the science wrong.

First, some basic concepts.

When scientists hear ‘global warming’, they picture the increasing energizing of the planet’s atmosphere by the overproduction of carbon in the atmosphere – they hear ‘global energizing.’  It’s a much better way of thinking about what is unarguably going on on our good Earth.  It confuses many when we keep having severely cold winter weather; if our planet is warming, how can we continue to have such extreme blizzards here in the Northern Hemisphere?  Answer; as the atmosphere gets more energetic, the polar jet stream that normally (remembering that ‘normal’ is itself a fairly useless concept over time) keeps cold air over the Arctic begins to wobble.  Thus the ever-more-common ‘polar vortex’, when a lobe of the polar jet stream extends far south of its usual course – bringing very cold air to temperate zones and allowing warm air to flood the pole.  Thus the snowball the Longread article alludes to having been brought into Congress proved the exact opposite of what it was intended to show.

Also – The popular idea that the Ice Age ended some ten thousand years ago is not reflected in scientific nomenclature.  We are still in an Ice Age, and have been for some two-and-a-half million years; the warm period we are now in is, in scientific thought, an ‘interglacial’ period – that is, a time when the norm of extensive glacial growth and low sea levels is reversed.

Also – Another relatively popular idea, that we live in our star’s Goldilocks Zone, is partly true, but inadequate.  Yes, our planet is a distance from Sol that is neither too hot, like Mercury and Venus, nor too cold, like Mars.  But – and this part is very important – we live at the far outside edge of that zone, and slowly are moving out of it.  For this reason, we are gradually having longer ice ages with briefer and less frequent interglacial periods.

Please don’t think simply about this.  Our planet’s path around the Sun varies slightly every year; we might generally be farther away, or closer, and yet for one or a few orbits be the opposite.  Thus ‘little ice ages’ during interglacials, or brief warm spells during periods of extensive glacial advance, and these can be years, decades or even centuries long.  But these are no longer surprises, because they can be predicted.  We know, with limited confidence, when the interglacial – the warm period – we are now in will gradually end.  It will slowly end in –

Minus 250 years.

That’s right.  This is known.  It is an amazing fact of our amazing life on our amazing blue gem of a planet: At about the same time as the Industrial Revolution was beginning to pump an excess of carbon into the atmosphere, between two- and three-hundred years ago, we were moving, on average, a bit farther from the Sun, which caused – or should have – a return to the frigid norm.  For stupid, selfish, poorly-informed reasons, out of ignorance and greed, we were, quite accidentally, doing just the right wrong things to halt, and then reverse, a period that should have been marked by the growth of the polar ice sheets, the lengthening of winters, the slow fall of sea levels and has instead been marked by the opposite.  So the researchers who, in 1975, predicted a coming return to a colder environment were not wrong – or shouldn’t have been.

Being human, you will want to think simply about this; being human, with the tendency of brains to see as determinative and linear, black-or-white, things that actually are complex, non-linear, random – chaotic.  This isn’t a weakness or a fault; since it seems to be a universal tendency, there is doubtless some hidden, non-linear reason this must be so.  Still, I am certainly aware that many readers (again with the jokes, like I have ‘many’ readers) will choose to see this as more evidence that Global Warming Is A Hoax.  As I will comment at the end of my diatribe, I’m okay with that.

Yet I am bound to say that this expectation of simplicity is weak-minded.  The fact that stupidity and cupidity saved us from the Freezer Compartment of Life is neither a ‘good’ nor a ‘bad’ thing.  It is a thing; like all of reality, it exists in its own space, quite independent of what we want to believe about it. Not to be too Hamletish about it, but ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’  For now, let’s not worry too much that the guys the Danish Prince said that to didn’t make it alive to the end of the play.  After all, neither did Hamlet.

Yet it is, this non-spiritualist must admit, one of those staggering coincidences that make one doubt whether anything is truly coincidental.  So very strange.  It’s like a voice rang out at the end of what is colloquially considered ‘the last ice age’ telling this single, intelligent (or at least intelligent-lite) species that we had only ten thousand years to develop our civilization before the Ice returned to crush it – and we crushed Nature instead, in absolutely the nick of time!  And not by our intelligence, but by mindless bumbling and greed!  You couldn’t write so unbelievable a storyline, even in hyper-gullible Hollywood!  A starter’s gun fires ten millenia ago and we cross the finish line just in time almost to the year!

Those researchers who, according to the Longreads article I’m picking on, ‘got it wrong’ should have been right!  In a planet like ours that hadn’t so badly fouled its atmosphere, so wildly interfered with its carbon cycle, winters would, on average, be longer; ice caps would extend farther south; and though it’s impossible to predict how far these effects would have gone – it’s the problem of knowing the unknowable, knowing when the tipping point is going to be reached where a slow trend would suddenly gather speed and flip us into the next period of runaway glaciation – our civilizations’ fate would be sealed.  Should have been sealed.  From Stone Age Man to Globe Changing Species in a relatively few years.

In other words – we screwed it up just right.  Amazing.  Another Thornton Wilder moment – surviving by the skin of our teeth.

What does all this mean for our future, assuming we have one?  Clearly, we overshot; and even given that, there are problems that using the overproduction of atmospheric carbon to prevent the returning ice would lead to in any event.  Even had we found just the right balance of carbonizing the air, there would still be very dangerous threats, such as the acidification of rain and oceans, wild gyrations of weather patterns, threats to other species and the like.  What it does show, though, is that our tendency to depend on centralized control mechanisms is foolish and unwarranted.

Complexity theory suggests at least one vital, powerful idea.  Solutions to big problems must – must – exist on the level of granularity upon which those problems are created.  Though governments do affect challenges like global atmospheric energizing, and have a role to play, the level of granularity upon which atmospheric energizing happens is the individual human and his choices and actions.  Your actions.  Your choices.  The decisions you make in the environment you live in, multiplied by seven billion other actors and their actions, choices and decisions.

And just as in any other highly complex system, you don’t need any universal rules and regulations, any absolute demands applied to all.  It isn’t necessary, or possible, that all parts of the system adopt solutions.  You need a tipping point – enough better choices, enough wiser decisions.  Not ‘We Must All.’  More ‘I will.’

The danger is that centralized, command-and-control, “We all gotta just shut up and (fill in the blank)” thinking is too often simply the way in which the good-hearted are fooled into thinking that something has been done to address a problem by the passing of legislation, the compelling of behavior.  It’s just too hard to do these hard things ourselves, make those hard choices, those sacrifices of our own comfort and ease if we imagine that we have succeeded in demanding, commanding, limiting the choices others make.  We marched; we wrote our Congresspimples; we passed the laws, made the programs, spent the taxes.  Now we can go back to our lives, turn up the heat, drive our massive SUVs to Starbucks.

That way lies madness, death, destruction.

And what is preventing this madness?  What is keeping us from the delusion of thinking we’ve solved anything by commanding not our own behaviors but those of others?

The doubters.  The idiots.  The deniers.  The poorly informed, the greedy, the foolish.  The extractive industries, and those that support them.  The moron who brings a global-warming-proving snowball into Congress and imagines himself to have been clever.  The moron who thinks it’s all a Chinese plot.  Those who so muddy the legislative process that we can’t pass those useless laws we want to pretend solve anything so that we can keep in our driveway the four-wheel-drive off-roader that never has, and never will, go off road.  Because of the idiots who doubt the problem, the wise must change themselves – not because they are wise, but because they are scared.

It’s all so friggin’ weird.

Advertisements

You are John Galt

Ayn Rand’s failure to achieve objectivity doomed her philosophy, and infests both Republicans and Libertarians with lunacy

For readers whose lives have been blessed by a complete absence of awareness of Ayn Rand’s writings – for Lack of God’s sake, don’t read them! – a brief ‘splanation is in order.  (Thus a running joke I keep telling; that I can be brief about anything.)  Ayn Rand was a Russian-born American writer of repellent romance novels in which she indulged in entirely emotional political observations disguised as ‘objectivity’ that brought the action to a halt while we are expected to stand in awe of her brilliance.  She believed, over her long, tedious life and with consuming passion, in the inalienable right of every man, woman and child on the planet to be completely free to completely agree with every single thought Ayn Rand ever had.  And that pretty much sums up her philosophy; all the rest is merely her personal history warped into small-minded political theory.

She grew up under the domination of an emotionally distant and autocratic father (boy, there’s a rare thing upon our Earth) who she loved with her whole mind and soul.  This love shaped her thinking in ways she entirely failed to understand or appreciate.  Her philosophy of selfishness became a worship of the rich and powerful over every other consideration.

She was a stunningly bad writer.  I was attracted to Libertarian philosophy as a teen, based on things I’d read, and so came to her novels with an already-forming appreciation for the importance of liberty, and of the ‘voluntary society’ as I’d heard described in Civics classes since the fifth grade.  After high school, when I had become friends with several students at an upscale Liberal Arts college near the lower-middle-class neighborhood we lived in, I read ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ to understand her ideas at the same time my friends were encountering – well, to be more honest, forced to read – her novels in their Literature classes.

We all had pretty much the same reaction to her thick, foggy, unreal characters with their bizarre motivations and twisted sexuality – never two people making love, always a man taking a woman by force with the woman resisting until she became Overwhelmed by His Masculinity and willingly Gave In to His Domination.  What decent human being would want to be either part of this ugly kind of – well, you can’t really call it ‘love’, can you?  Fine for those warped souls who are into Dominance and Submission, but not much there for human beings.

We all thought this was yucky and not believable at all, so much so that it became a running joke with us.  “I love you, Pamela!  You are my heart, my soul.  You consume my mind.  You are everything to me!  And so I must leave you, and become your mortal enemy!  I must spend my life destroying everything you stand for, until you lie before me, bereft of all that you have achieved!  Because I love you!”  “I hate you, Theodore!  I despise you and everything you stand for.  Therefore I will marry you, and make our lives together an endless chain of worthless accomplishment until we grow to be empty shells of once-human wreckage, until your love for me turns to hate!”  I promise you, if you read her muck – please don’t – you’ll see this mocking is accurate.

I had a lot of trouble finishing Fountainhead – I’m not sure I ever did – because of this very unattractive vision of inhuman human relationships, but more than that, because I had no sympathy for the central character’s motivations.  I had known since an early age that I wanted to be an artist, and had already formed ideas that I have kept all these long years since; that nobody’s concepts had any importance at all except mine in what I should make, what it should ‘mean’, how I would work or what vision I should create – up until I was done, until I had presented it to the world, at which point I had had my chance to speak, and had to shut up.  My artwork would be about me and only about me; but once I’d finished, it had to stand on its own, and then only other people’s ideas mattered.  If one person thought it was wonderful, then it was wonderful; if another thought it was garbage, then it was garbage.  I’d had my chance to speak; if I’d failed to say what was in my mind and heart, so much for me.  Art is a deeply personal experience, belonging entirely to the person having it, and at that point, to hell with the artist.

That might seem, to anyone who has encountered this thick, ugly book, to be pretty much what the architect at the center of the hopeless BDSM apologia that is ‘The Fountainhead’ believes.  Here’s the thing:  He’s an architect!  He imagined that the tall apartment tower he’d designed was his and his alone, and when the people who paid for it to be built had the gall to add balconies to his design, he had the right to burn it down.

This repelled me.  If he wanted, like me, to be the only one whose ideas mattered, he would have been, like me, a sculptor, an individual working alone; or a writer, or painter.  But there simply are some artistic fields that are – that must be, by their very nature – collaborative.  Even writers and composers have publishers, editors, musicians, conductors, people who make contributions to the end result, people who the artist cannot create without depending upon.  The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who some say was the inspiration for Rand’s Howard Roark, was the kind of arrogant goober that she admired, and he created buildings whose designs will stand forever as monuments to inspired creativity, to the brilliance of his mind – but his buildings won’t, because he didn’t listen to his contractors and builders, and so his roofs leak, his beams sag, his foundations crack and shift.  Richard Wagner was also this kind of dismissive, selfish composer, and wrote some of the greatest music ever heard – but he over-estimated its worth, especially in his endless, moronic Ring cycle, where half an hour of greatness is stretched into nine hours of butt-numbing tedium.

So I was repelled just where I ought to have sympathized.  So much for The Fountainhead; mindless dribble.  So much worse was ‘Atlas Shrugged’.  In it, a man named – well, crap, folks, if you’ve read the thing, you know what happens, and if you haven’t, there’s only one thing I can say, one word of advice –

Don’t.

It’s Ayn Rand at her power-worshiping, dominance-dependent, father-adoring worst.  Hopeless.  But in a strange way, not really her fault.

Rand simply couldn’t understand the basis for her own ideas, for two regrettable but inevitable reasons.  First, she was so lost in her own endless worship of her father, and for any emotionally distant, dominating, abusive male figure, that she was unable to see how deeply it affected her philosophy.  Can you say that you truly understand how your own philosophy has been shaped by emotional need?  I’ve tried; I’ve been aware since childhood that my own deep rejection of authority, as much as I might justify it with logic and reasonable argument, is a reflection of an emotional reaction to anyone who tries to tell me what to do, say, or believe.  There’s no way around it – so admit it, right up front, don’t lie or deny, either to the audience or to yourself.  I try – but if you conclude that the philosophy herein described is merely an outgrowth of that resistance, can I argue?

Ayn Rand didn’t even get that far.  Her father, who must have been a repellent sumbitch, shows up in all her characters; her heroes are like him, her villains his opposite.  As much as she wished to state her philosophy in her works, her message was hopelessly clouded by these sods she couldn’t help but write about.  Thus did they creep into her ideas of the Ideal Community, where men – in her mind, always men – of great wealth and power, Titans of Industry all, should dominate, and where the rest of us should willingly submit to them.  Thus her ideas of ‘liberty’ – that each one of us should be free to find, and kowtow to, our own Dominant Father of wealth, our own John Galt.

Even among her own followers of ‘libertarian’ thinkers, called, snarkily, ‘The Collective’, she maintained this mad exclusivity of the right to think, bizarre in a philosophy that is supposed to be about the importance of the individual.  Members could belong as long as they kept agreeing, as long as they always parroted every word, every thought Rand uttered; challenge her on any idea, even slightly, take a position that was one degree away from hers, and you were out on your ass.  She never could see this was true, never could account for her own sick emotionally-distant-hero-worship and its effect on her thinking.  She was trapped, and so made a hollow, unsuccessful advocate of anything that could remotely be called ‘liberty’.

Even sadder, even more important to understanding Rand’s complete failure to create any useful philosophy out of her rejection of what she called ‘collectivist thinking’ (a rejection I share) and the second of the two important reasons she couldn’t understand her own concepts of libertarianism, was simply that she was born too soon – just a bit too soon.  If she’d been at all open to developments in science that were taking place in the 1950’s, by which time she knew everything she was ever going to know and had completely closed herself off to further introspection, she might have seen the growth of a field of mathematics that explains what she was trying to find in her search for an ideal of society that might have been worth fighting for.

She grew up in a time of determinism, a time when science was the investigation of how this clockwork universe ticked.  Science assumed that there was a way that all things worked, nested simple machines under all of nature, linear mechanisms hidden from our view, and that once these linear processes were understood in detail, we could control all things and perfect our world.  This was Science as she was taught to understand it.  I’ve always found Firesign Theatre’s statement of this inevitably flawed concept the most compelling, in Fudd’s First Law – ‘If you push something hard enough, it will fall over.’  Thus the trap she could not avoid; she truly thought that, if only everyone would learn the joy she felt at giving in to the strong male, society could be perfected, a simple mechanistic world greased by wealth, an orgy of selfishness – with self-interest assumed to mean a slavish worship of the kind of unfeeling masculinity that made her knees weak.

Thus the Atlas who, in her fevered imagination, held up the world; the Captain of Industry who she imagined was responsible for creating the ever-increasing wealth and power of America and the West.  She simply didn’t know enough about those Captains and their weaknesses, accepting as she did the propaganda that surrounded them: Henry Ford displayed his wisdom about industrial processes while hiding his abusive dismissal of the rights of the human beings who made his wealth, and whose inventiveness at every level added greatly to it; the inventive genius of Thomas Edison, who hid so well the actual inventors who really made his breakthroughs that few were aware that it wasn’t really him who ‘learned 88 things that didn’t work’ when trying to find the right filament for ‘his’ light bulb; the cruelty and ruthlessness behind the monopolists who made vast fortunes in railway, steel and oil – these users of other’s creativity, who made great wealth from the blood of others and left them crushed and impoverished, she imagined to be themselves the creative force of human accomplishment – the determiners of her deterministic world.

If she had been more open to new ideas, she might have learned and grown in her thinking – but she never did.  It’s the application to politics, to cultures, of this new understanding of how rare and how common is randomness, how the smallest things shape the largest systems – the science of complexity – that I try, and doubtless fail, to apply in what I call ‘organic politics’, and in my Three Laws of Advanced Civilizations (You can’t tell people what to do; you can’t tell people what to do, even if you are right; you can’t tell people what to do, especially if you are right.)  The linear science of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the deterministic processes she was taught were the basis for all things, whose precise understanding must lead to human greatness, fooled her into thinking too simplistically about the nature of cultures, and the motivations upon which people act within them, the vital complexity of human experience.

‘Atlas Shrugged’ portrayed just such a deterministic world as she grew up in, in which the source of human creativity was imagined to be a small number of powerful men – again, in her world, it was always men – who the rest of us unworthies depended upon for all things, and who we, in our petty delusions of importance, oppressed with our imagined equality; and just as a clock depends on its mainspring, if only we had the insight to yield to and be controlled by these Great Men, ours would be a better world.  In her thick novel, saturated with sickening domination sexuality, a man named John Galt conspires to remove from society all these ‘mainsprings’ upon whom Rand, in her own confused deterministic thinking and bondage-fantasy imaginings, pictures as being vital to the workings of our world.  By taking away these all-important men, Rand’s Galt would prove their necessity, which would – well, I don’t know, result in all of us worshiping them as she does?

I’m not sure where she was going, because I threw the book down at the end of John Galts’s endless rant, a swamp of foggy thinking in an opaque mess of a speech at a party of VIP’s that Galt visited, theoretically to explain why more of these movers and shakers should follow him into exile, but actually to give Rand an opportunity to lecture the rest of us peons on our failure to get all moist at beholding these Gods, as she did.

It was a tangle of weak argument and improbability.  These titans of industry were supposed to be standing around this big room at a party of vast wealth and privilege, dumbstruck by the magnificence of this speech, overawed by the stunning philosophy displayed.  I’ve known some of these powerful; there’s not one chance in hell they’d have let this clod rant on for more than about a minute and a half.  Movers and Shakers aren’t interested in what you or I or the Lord Gawd Awmighty might think or say about anything.  As I read through this clotted glob of speech, I couldn’t for an instant suspend my disbelief; I kept thinking that about now, one of the Rich and Mighty would clock the twerp.  A friend, as an exercise for a sophomore speech class at this college I hung out at, gave a dramatic reading of the speech; it took more than an hour, and not the most impassioned intonation could make what was being said clear.  Oh, yeah, sure; the Powerful Elite is going to stand for that.

As my own writings constantly betray, if you can’t say something succinctly and clearly, if you can’t express your ideas understandably, and have to keep backing up and running at it again and again, it is because you yourself don’t really understand what you are saying.  It’s not that all ideas must be simple ones to be good – far from it; but if you have to keep hacking at them again and again, adding more and more words instead of clarity, then you should give it up as a loss and rethink your message.  We lecture ourselves inside our own brains about what we wish others would understand, and are too willing an audience, too easily persuaded by our own arguments; but if you can’t make a sensible presentation of your ideas in writing, it’s because you’ve too easily skipped over some vital bit of logic, just as she did.  I got to the end of his great speech, this distillation of Randian Objectivism, and threw the book across the room, never to pick it up again – not out of rejection of her argument, but because I was aware that I’d just encountered her most important exposition of her reasoning and yet hadn’t an idea in hell what it was.

The true creators of our world are the poor, the used up, the weird, the desperate.  The rich who control all things are seldom of any creative importance; invariably they are users of other people’s creative genius – though I would at the same time insist that the using is itself an ability of great value.

Consider Microsoft’s Bill Gates; his entire fortune was based on his theft of the operating system known as CP/M (after all these years, I had to look up where that name came from; it stood for ‘Control Program/Monitor.’)  My first programming in personal computers, on the brilliant Eagle II business desktop that I learned to build batch files and a few machine-language programs on, ran on CP/M, and for many years – and wouldn’t I give a lung to still have these! – I had both CP/M and a very early, pre-commercial-release copy of MS-DOS on the old 8-inch floppies, which were very floppy indeed, and knew how to look at their hidden machine language code that both showed the same ‘boilerplate’ that gave credit to the designers of CP/M.

Thus the Gates fortune was based, unarguably, on the stolen work of others; and from there, by practices that John D. Rockefeller would have recognized and admired, he bought out, stole or forced into submission or bankruptcy the efforts of thousands of creative people, holding back rather than moving forward the progress of computing by many years by imposing on us a broken, weak operating system.  It is for these very reasons, as the unavoidable result of just these piratical activities by a man who hardly deserves his reputation, that Windows is today such a mess, so leaky of privacy, so open to viruses.  From the influence of his manipulistic nature, the Internet developed practices so abusive that the user has become the used, the product to be consumed rather than the consumer of the product.

And yet, might it not have to be so?  Since this story is repeated over and over in the development of our advancing technology, might it not have to be that the ability to create is a different skill set than the ability to generate wealth out of that creativity?  Might it be that those two abilities – creativity and business acumen – might be, at least in most individuals, mutually exclusive?  I think about whether I could get up every day and go to work knowing that the jobs of thousands of people, the interests of thousands of stockholders, the continued existence of a world-wide corporation depended on my ability to make the right decisions.  No, I couldn’t; could you?  Doing so depends, I think, on a focus of mind and a domination of personality that cannot exist in a brain that allows itself to wander about and see strange, often illogical connections – and that’s the essence of creativity, to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast.’

And so our politics is haunted by Rand’s flawed reasoning, the unreal wanderings of a sexually deviant mind (not that I have anything against deviancy, mind) who didn’t know enough about complexity to guide her own thinking about political systems.  We are plagued by her legacy and the warped thinking it has led to, of the wealth-worshiping Republican Party, of the Speaker of the House who cannot see beyond his sycophantic obedience to obscene wealth to even imagine that the poor, the sick, the unfortunate might have any contribution to make that could possibly compare to that of the Kochs, the Rex Tillersons, the Rupert Murdochs of this world.  To his small mind, all these huddled masses with their plebeian yearnings are clogging up the system, and he’s here to scrape them off, to get them out of the way of the John Galts of this world.

The Republican Party may or may not be able to get rid of the ACA, to defund Planned Parenthood, to end government welfare, NPR, regulation of the stock market, to overwhelm resistance to oil pipelines, to allow corporations – ‘people’ in their minds – to foul the air and water, enslave workers, remove any trace of power from the lower classes – and they might actually not give a damn if they do; but certainly, they will reduce the taxes of the rich.  That, they can be depended upon to do.  Your Republican Party; comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

So who is John Galt?  What is the creative force we so desperately depend upon to keep us from drowning in a sea of the waste-product of our technologically advanced, extractive-industry-dependent culture?  It isn’t the rich and powerful; being rich is almost never the result of creativity but rather of knowing how to use the creativity of others to advantage.

No, the rich are not, are never, the force that moves us forward, never Atlas holding up the world; they can shrug all they want, and only their own privilege will suffer, nothing else.  You are John Galt.  So is everyone who solves problems, works to improve lives, educates themselves or others, volunteers, gives, contributes to a food bank, drops their coins in the little box that sits next to the machine that gives change.  Every act of decency, every bit of creativity applied to any thing you do, whether done selfishly or selflessly, each thing done to make your life or someone else’s better, easier, healthier –

That’s how John Galt acts in this world.   You are Atlas, and if you shrug, the world falls.

In ways Ayn Rand could never imagine, every small act of creativity in this non-linear world we live in – these are the things that make our world work, in ways far beyond anything that can be done by the wealthy elite that Ayn Rand, and today’s make-believe Conservatives, could ever imagine.  Be John Galt.  We all depend on it.

 

 


The Myth of White Culture

‘Other People’s Babies’ make us stronger; Steve King makes us weaker

It saddens me to discover that one of my favorite quotes is almost undoubtedly false – or ‘apocryphal’ as eddykated pipples like to say about lies when they like the lie or the liar.  Mahatma Gandhi should have said, but didn’t, when getting off a boat to visit England in the 1930’s and being asked what he thought of Western Civilization, that he thought it might be a good idea.

Challenging the popular misconceptions around our American culture sounds like an early ’90’s Saturday Night Live Mike Myers skit – ‘Coffee Talk (“Coaffee Toauk”) with Linda Richman’, when he/she’d become ‘a little verklempt’ and instruct the audience to talk amongst themselves; “I’ll give you a subject: Western Civilization is neither Western nor a Civilization.  Discuss!”

Because, of those two words, neither is true.  Western civilization isn’t all that ‘western’, and ‘civilized’ is an argument with little evidence to support it.

Civilization, to the degree it has ever been in evidence in Europe and, applying guilt by association, the European infestation of the New World, began as the cultures developed in and around the mountain passes of the Himalayas spread into India, the Middle East, around the Mediterranean Sea and northward; and as I have argued elsewhere, that culture that seeded it was itself a development of all the cultures that existed at the beginning of the most recent interglacial period, around ten thousand years ago.  The mongrel culture we know as the Aryans made, of all the cultures those extremely varied individuals came from, a melange of solutions to the dangerous environment they found themselves in as they took advantage of the trade flowing though it, the connections from the developing civilizations in Asia, Africa and Europe; and having made this powerful, practical culture, flowed out into India and the Mediterranean not as a conquering nation but as a powerful idea – the force of useful variety – giving a tremendous boost to the evolving cultures they encountered.

Thus from the very beginning, from the foundation of the Classical worlds of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, ours has been an inheritance with its roots deep in the most ancient cultures of Asia and Africa, influenced even by the earliest American native populations.  At the very earliest moment, it was already a World, more than a Western, culture.

We choose, of course, to ignore the pre-Classical contribution, and so start with the Greek and Roman contributions.  Even here, we err; the advancements those classical European cultures made depended to a very great extent on the cultures they had conquered, including those in Africa and Asia.

This brings us forward to the Renaissance, which would not have happened at all if not for that knowledge available to it from the Islamic cultures that had safeguarded the knowledge those Classical cultures had discovered, and considerably added to it, after the Germanic hordes had destroyed Rome and brought about the Dark Ages in Europe. Especially helpful to European cultural progress was the Moorish culture in Spain, before intolerant Christianity destroyed it.  What we call ‘Arabic numerals’ are called that because they came to us from the Islamic world, though in fact they originated in India; and it took us pasty-fleshed a long time to understand the importance of ‘0’, which lack of understanding shows up in Gregory’s calender in the moronic absence of the year 0 which should have separated BC from AD, and the reason the first year of this century was 2001, not 2000.

Where would Western science have been without the decimal system?  Without algebra – “al Jabr”, Arabic for ‘the re-attachment of separated parts’?  The Arab world first proved that the planet was a sphere, and for centuries, the only place you could study geometry, mathematics, or any science, was in the Middle East.

Most of the racist Ohio Congressman Steve King’s racist fans would not include the Jewish world as part of ‘Western Civilization’.  Little do they know – well, anything, but particularly that this marvelous technological world we’ve made could not have happened without the powerful, transformative contributions of both Hebrew culture and Jewish individuals.  Because of the idiocy of Christianity, expressed through the Middle Ages money-making center known as the Vatican, free enterprise could never have evolved without Jewish lenders; the Pope, in order to protect Church power and wealth, decided that any interest added to loans constituted usury, and was thus not permitted.  Talmudic scholars knew this was wrong, and so Hebrew wealth became the only source of the capital that nascent Capitalism needed.  The Renaissance and the later Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the development of what would become modern banking, but that development depended on lending, on the ability to use wealth as a resource in creating new industries; without interest, why would anyone lend money?  Throughout the blossoming that was European cultural renewal, the Jewish world was the source of funding that made their persecutors rich.

And on and on.  Gutenberg was only able to print his Bibles because of the Chinese invention of reusable block printing elements.  Glass was first produced in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, as were iron implements; air-dried clay brick appears to have been an ancient Chinese invention, and kiln-baked (vitrified) brick in the Indus Valley; Sumeria (now part of Iraq), as well as India and China, first started making the copper alloy bronze; steel from Anatolia, now Turkey; paper from China; alphabetic writing, and the collecting together of such writing into scrolls and, later, books, from Egypt; astronomy from Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and South America, as well as Greece; libraries from Sumeria and Egypt, with the greatest library of the ancient world, in Alexandria, destroyed by the Romans; it’s hard to find a single pivotal invention or idea of our ‘Western’ culture that wasn’t either discovered or helped in its development by the rest of the planet.

And how could it be otherwise?  Because humans really like sex, every culture on the planet, including ‘ours’, was constantly added to by peoples from other places.  This is hard to believe for uneducated Americans – that we’ve always had Other People’s Babies added to our mix.  So many of the markers we use to make distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ depend on visible cues that are entirely undependable and meaningless.  For example, it seems that symmetry of features is in every culture a marker of beauty, and its absence seen as ugly; this then would seem to have more to do with us as animals than as sentient beings.

Homo Sapiens is clearly a black-skinned species with local variations.  All human beings are brown; since our brains are so powerfully focused on detecting small differences, the shades that Humanity come in seem hugely varied to us, but from the blackest to the whitest to the reddest to the yellowest of us – if you simply put all those colors on a chart of samples, as if selecting paint for your bathroom, you’d easily see they are just different hues of brown.

Skin color, as well as every other physical characteristic, is strongly influenced by ideas of beauty, which in turn are determined by signals of health.  Light-colored skin is dangerous near the Equator because the direct rays of sunlight leads to cancers and other diseases of too-irradiated skin; but as cultures move north, dark skins lead to health problems brought about by too little Vitamin D, which is produced on the skin by sweat and sunlight.

Consider what modern science has discovered about one of the ‘proofs’ of evolution that Victorian England discovered.  A species of light-colored moths that gather on the trunks of trees ‘evolved’ into dark brown moths as the Industrial Revolution turned the bark from light tan to dark as they were covered with soot; it wasn’t until something like fifty years ago that genetic studies discovered that that change was not evolutionary at all.  The genetic makeup of those moths didn’t change – the species had always had light-colored and dark-colored individuals, but the increasing carbon in the air had changed the ratio of light-to-dark as birds increasingly found the light, rather than the dark, moths on their perches.

Let’s try a mind experiment.  Let’s take the darkest Africans we can find and put them on an island in the far North, and the lily-whitest Europeans and put them on a similar island on the Equator.  How many generations would it take for those populations to adjust to their new realities?  In truth, not that many; the signs of ill-health among the dark-skinned in the North or the light-skinned on the Equator would be so immediate and so powerful that our perfectly natural tendency to see health as equating beauty would punish those showing skin problems in every generation by reducing the number of breedings they would produce.  And yet these populations would not change genetically, beyond the normal ‘drift’ of any species of anything.

That explains some of those differences we think mean so much, and don’t – but that’s only a gross effect.  More subtle are the ways cultures develop their own distinct concepts of beauty.  The other thing we could say about our two islands is that, at least assuming we were isolating them, each would, for reasons both vital and insignificant, develop their own ideas of beauty.

Was Helen truly so beautiful, or did her particular facial features become themselves a definition of the desirable which started a selection process where those features became part of the Greek definition of beauty?  Was there something that happened early in the Chinese culture that made that particular color of tan, and the almond-shaped eye, a desideratum?  These sometimes-logical, often-random markers of what one or another culture thinks of as beautiful, or ugly, can rapidly have a determinative effect as power and beauty, or powerlessness and ugliness, come together.  It may be that one culture’s constricted or limited environment shows up as a need to define beauty as having diminutive stature.  It might just as easily be that great height quite accidentally becomes a desired thing.

So what the hell is ‘white’?  Genetic studies show these many European cultures to be as variable as any other, containing markers from the entire planet; whiteness (let’s be honest here; wallpaper-paste-ness) of skin was continuously selected for no matter the source of the genetic contribution to any particular individual in those cultures – but not an evolutionary selection, simply a cultural one as ‘beautiful’ individuals did better than ‘ugly’ ones.  Thus we peckerwood adopted as indications of beauty a whiteness of skin that could be achieved by any genetic contribution given only a few generations to show up; it has been well-established that a light-skinned or dark-skinned Brazilian is just as likely as not to have more of the opposite skin colored individuals in his genetic ancestry as similarly colored.  After all, using height as an example from African, the very tall Watusi are most closely related genetically to some of the many peoples we call ‘pygmies’, while quite distant from others.

I had for many year a very good friend who was born in Yakima, Washington.  Though he was a third-generation American, he had a peculiarly pure genetic history.  That area of the semi-arid West had been settled by immigrants from Germany – assuming I’m remembering correctly, from a small area in Bavaria; his parents, and their parents, were descendants of a group of Germans that had married exclusively with other immigrants from the same area.  Thus he and his five brothers represented a ‘pure’ genetic history going back hundreds of years from one small German area.  And on his wall he had a picture of himself with his exclusively-Bavarian brothers.

It was a fascinating picture, and I’d often look at it in amazement.  There was dark skin, light skin, ruddy skin; every size from quite tall to relatively short; broad shoulders, narrow shoulders, sloped shoulders; black hair, red hair, blond hair, brown hair, straight and long, curled and short, kinky, wavy; fat bodies, muscular bodies, skinny bodies; and he had other pictures going back to his Black Forrest ancestors that show the same wild variation.

Hitler proved the point.  He created select Army units, tall, broad-shouldered, blond, the very epitome of what idiot German researchers falsely thought of as ‘Aryan’, and fully expected they would lead their Army to victory.  They were useless in the field; if you want to select for effective soldiers, you have to accept that every other characteristic will be random and widely variable.

So, again – what the hell does ‘white’ mean?

In America, to be ‘white’ has come to mean to unquestioningly assume privilege, to expect a dominant position to ‘non-white’.  To avoid objective, rational thought in favor of ‘scenario thinking’, whereby the goal – such as proving one’s inherent right to rule – is reached by any means possible, no matter how contorted and illogical the path.  Thus idiocy like “No nation can survive without secure borders” is an unexamined assumption; how did we ever come to create the American Century with borders like sieves for countless generations?  How is it that those few nations that have managed to secure their borders – North Korea comes to mind as an excellent example – are such minor players on the world’s stage?  Conservatives used to fear dictatorship; now they seem to revel in it, and to glorify its characteristics, like ‘secure borders’.

The histories of immigrant cultures and their contributions are well-known, well-researched.  First generations of immigrants strongly tend to be law-abiding and hard-working, usually at menial jobs ‘whites’ won’t do.  Their children powerfully adapt to the American way of life, and are driven to excel in it in any field open to them and to push against their assumed limitations, often developing great wealth and making tremendous contributions; their grandchildren may try to re-discover their roots, but just as often seem to want to forget them – and become as American as anybody.  It’s only in the fourth and fifth generations – when they’ve become as ‘white’ as Steve King, no matter their ancestry – that this strong urge to prove their American-ness becomes the privilege-assuming, arrogant, condescending snideness we know as ‘white’.

And to introduce here an aspect of ‘white’ that infuriates and embarrasses me – to lose the simple, basic, essential ability to clap in time to the damned music!  Jeeze, what a bunch of apes!  Some dreadful polka starts up, the Colorless Clods start clapping immediately, and in two bars they’ve lost the beat!  And this is the Master Race?  Gag me with a spoon!

Here’s a truth you won’t like – beauty, as defined within any particular culture, almost ensures stupidity.  The uncomfortable fact is that, unless a child is strongly influenced to use its brain, it won’t.  Our brains, depending entirely on what you measure and how you define it, use from a third to two-thirds of the energy we take in.  Not thinking very much or very hard thus becomes the norm, a wise conservation of energy that is its own reward.  To be diverted away from this norm, the growing child must encounter some strong influence, some situation that drives it to use and develop its intelligence.  Thus it is not surprising at all that, when you examine the lives of the creative among us, you always find some strong trigger that moves them to think; a disability, a difference, like poverty, or sexuality, or social constrictions – some situation in their upbringing, some difference from the norm, that forces them to use their brains.

Whereas the beautiful are seldom drawn to think.  Why should they?  The people who surround the Rich and Beautiful are always so willing to do as the Beautiful wish; their assumption of privilege is always fulfilled.  What is there to think about?  Why waste the energy?  The Beautiful skate across a world created and maintained by the energies of the Different, the Weird.  ‘Whiteness’ is too often the froth on America’s delicious latte, itself adding no flavor, empty of any meaning, not making any contribution – but always assumed to be there, on top, pretty, mindless, pointless.

So Representative King need not worry about ‘other people’s babies’.  His wealthy backers will take advantage of newcomers’ economic slavery; Wall Street investors will jump at the chance to profit from those babies’ and their babies’ inventiveness and strong work ethic; McDonalds and Burger King will feed them lousy food and employ them at insulting wages; they’ll pay taxes so that King’s true bosses can avoid paying their share; and in only a few short years, these ‘other’ babies will be sitting on a porch in King’s district, with their tee-shirts barely covering their beer bellies, belching at the passing cars, listening to Country&Western music, complaining about ‘other people’s babies’ and voting for idiots like King.

Ecce whiteness.

The View from Space

We spin out of control – because we tried to control.

So here we are, sitting in space, looking down on the Earth from the comfy confines of our alien hosts’ ship, and viewing this massive power shift in the civilizations of the planet beneath as our green friends chuckle, in their weird subsonic way, at our bewilderment.

They are used to it, you see.  They have the histories of many civilizations at their suction-cup-covered finger tips.  They know that civilizations of sentient beings are the most complex organisms in the Universe, and so follow the rules of such.  They know that complex systems known as ‘cultures’ can display great peace, calm, civil behaviors as the norm in those that are healthy, stable, and productive for all its members as long as they obey this rule: Order must self-arise from the voluntary interactions of its parts, not from imposed ordering.

They also know that this realization – that trying to act globally to impose Order, no matter how wise the ordering, will always, must always destroy order and collapse the productivity of the system – is always going to be anti-intuitive to any civilization that has grown in its power to the point that the issue becomes important.  It hardly mattered if the Romans or the British Raj understood the dangers of the Unintended Consequence when merely the lives and cultures of the lowly millions were at stake.  They are just so much empire-fluff, History’s dust-bunnies.  Or so the Great Powers thought; deterministic, top-down ordering got them what they wanted, so what matter the blood beneath their wheels?

But as power is spread to more and more of those dust bunnies, comes a different time, a time when technologies bring the lives only lived before by the powerful within the reach, or at least the dreams, of all – when the entire planet has enough wealth that all intelligent beings on it come to want control of their own lives.  Things become very different then, and very dangerous: The mistakes a technologically advancing culture can make are powerful enough to snuff out their civilization, and their populations, entirely.

Klaxa and Quionxilla have seen this happen.  They know they are watching a tipping-point as the system as a whole behaves in predictable, but to those living it out, bewildering ways; that is, the stable patterns will increasingly wobble nearer to instability until a point is reached where new mass behaviors start to emerge, where behaviors previously accepted as generally the ‘norm’ break into many different streams – bifurcation patterns – including many behaviors followed by large minorities of individuals that are far outside the previously acceptable – and invariably violent.

The entire civilization could collapse, and that’s what Klaxa wants because he’s a blood-thirsty sod, and when Great Civilizations fall, they fall hard, killing many as they do and returning that minority that survives to live in the nature that is left, if any.  Quionxilla is a sweetheart – not ‘heart’, exactly, more of a smear of sponge all over the – well, let’s not talk about it, it’s not too pleasant – she’s a sweetwhatever, and she is hoping for the best; that a new norm arises that more effectively meets the needs of that large mass of individuals who tipped it all into chaos in the first place.  She wants the silly, rather ugly flesh-lumps beneath to discover that world of peace, decency and comfort that can only come about when its members quit trying to force these good ends on others and instead act locally, and live them themselves, doing what they can for those around them rather than imposing global commands.

But she’s not expecting it either.  On their version of the Internet, the Universe-Wide-Snotglob, they’re both betting the same way; they’re shorting Mankind.  With Klaxa making a side-bet that the result is an irradiated planet, the slate wiped clean, see what the lower forms can build back up to.  I don’t much like Klaxa, really, but I gotta suck up or he’ll throw me out.

That’s why they’re here just now, inviting me along to view in noble ease and with blissful detachment as the World’s Most Powerful Nation decides it doesn’t want to be that any more, and maybe not this messy Democracy crap either.  Will we hoomans wake up in time?  Will we keep this experiment in self-government going?

They’ve made big bets against.  The race doesn’t always go to the swift, but that’s the safe play; and we’ve shown, as the great Walt Kelley once said, all the wisdom of a back molar.  Very un-swift.

What they are expecting is that among the individual parts of the evolving culture, with its predictable but wrong-minded dependence on control mechanisms, there will grow an increasing sense of unease, of dis-connection.  The particular cause of this for any one individual could be many things, many local conditions, but taken together they emerge as fear, anger and hatred – themselves fairly standard patterns across galaxies.  Beings led by intelligence must arise from beings led by emotion, or some analog of it, and will become overwhelmed by that emotion when under stress.

Self-awareness always arises from a state of ‘nature’, whatever that might mean on any given planet, and inevitably comes to see itself as internally a hierarchy with whatever that being pictures as ‘me’ atop it, ordering the brain and body ‘below’ it.  I propose that idea as an observation in how all intelligence arises anywhere in the Universe; all organic intelligence must evolve in such a way that it believes itself to be a single entity in hierarchical command of all its processes, even though that isn’t, and cannot be true – intelligence can only be a productive, orderly manifestation of a highly complex system in which that order has naturally arisen, not remotely hierarchical but distributed and variable.   Because of this it’s always hard for those beings to resist the urge to see that need for top-down control, that false but needed illusion of internal command structure, in the patterns it sees around it.  Our hosts see culture after culture making just this mistake; that the self-arising Order that brings so much productivity doesn’t behave at all like the simple systems needing top-down ordering that the culture is getting so good at making.

 

That’s why mayhem-loving Klaxa and sweet-natured Quionxilla are here.  They see this Drumpf fellow (they have a tradition in their culture of maintaining family names) as hilariously unhinged, but inevitably unimportant.  He represents little more than the unintended consequence, important only as he represents the disorder that always follows attempts at imposing order.  He is simply the way in which this particular culture spins into deconstructive insanity, himself of no real significance beyond what he represents – the disordering of a culture that had become dangerously dependent on centralized control for the imposition of an order that had become, for too many individuals, constrictive and unresponsive, a false order too removed from the lives of its members as they wanted the freedom to live them.  They’d seen it all before, and it seldom works out well; and again, with Klaxa’s side-bet that the funny little Great Orange Prune will, in his comical flailings and rantings, set off the planet’s primitive nuclear weapons.

In fact, Klaxa expects that, within fifty of our planet’s orbital rotations around its star, he will be able to return to a sphere that is little more than a snowball.  That’s okay with him – he likes snowballs, and expects to profit from this one.  Quionxilla hopes she sees an advanced civilization at peace with itself, with its parts willing to let the other parts be wrong without trying to force rightness on them.  She’d like to see that, so that’s her side-bet.

 

She hasn’t won one of these side-bets yet.  She lives in hope.

 

My bet?  That she loses.  That Klaxa and Quionxilla don’t exist; that I just made them up.  That when we turn our high-powered listening devices upon the Infinite we hear no trace of any other technologically-advanced civilizations because there are none, not anywhere in the Universe.  That it’s an unavoidable consequence of the nature of organic intelligence that it will not, can not see beyond its own dependence on the false assumption of an internal top-down ordering far enough to imagine that others might possibly come to do The Good and Right because it is good and right, and not because they’ve been forced to.  That no matter the kind of being and the nature of its ‘mind’ it is just too seductive to see itself as a unitary, hierarchical intelligence rather than the distributed one it actually must be.  That this always leads to essentially insane beings.  That technology will always arise to put great power and force under the command of that internal insanity; unable to imagine that the world can exist without this mad desire of the powerful to impose order on what it sees, organic intelligence always ends up destroying itself, controlling itself to death.  I bet that the Universe contains only burnt-out shells where creativity once arose, flickering candles whose brightness shone out only for a short time, and died.  That’s my bet.

 

But they won’t let me bet.  They think our money is ridiculous, and dull.  Such, while it lasts, is life.

 

 

Playing Political Ping Pong

How the False Idea of ‘Popular Mandates’ Maintains the Two-Party System and Gives Control to Extremists

The first thing we need to understand is that every American eligible to vote does, in fact, vote.  If you do not vote, that itself has a power and an effect in the system fully equal to that of the people who do vote; it itself ends up being a vote against the system, a vote to empower others, and has a meaning.  Whether you actually register and fill out a real ballot or not, you still vote.

With that observation understood, we can talk about the electorate – both those who vote at the ballot box and those who vote by not voting – as being divided into very roughly three groups.

One third has traditionally been called ‘conservative’, though this designation means very little any more.  For several centuries, the word ‘conservative’ has been applied to people whose interests are centered on an impulse to defend – that is, conserve – existing social structures.  Using that definition, which I insist is the only one that is of any use, we can more easily understand that President Obama was of this tradition, as every one of his decisions can best be explained as being solidly within those habits of thought.  He conserved the banks; he conserved General Motors; his Affordable Care Act was designed first and foremost to conserve and expand private health insurance; his judicial appointments have been people concerned first with conserving our legal traditions.

But this third no longer has any such beliefs.  They have come to believe in an aggressive, expansive, tradition-destroying, budget-busting extension of Government deep into people’s lives.  They have worked hard for decades to make sure their party is the only one that can legislate, administrate or judge; that wealthy backers of the party should have unfettered access to government processes at all levels; that their chosen religion should be recognized as the one official belief; and that anyone wanting to work with or in government should belong to the One Party and praise the One God.

That set of political descriptions has a name, and I will use it –

Fascism.  The particular fascist brand being pushed at the moment can best be called ‘Trascism’, but that is true only at this moment.

So that’s about one third of the electorate.  Another third has traditionally been called ‘liberal’, a word meant to describe the habit of thought that social structures should be open to change, with the understanding that the free marketplace of ideas debated outside of governance, rather than a slavish defense of tradition by the mechanisms of the State, should lead us to make better voluntary associations.  But ‘liberal’ also has very little meaning any more, with the power on that side having been ceded to Progressives.  Thus the concept of respect for the clash of ideas leading to better voluntary social structures has been replaced by the much more seductive idea that governance should be directed toward advancing specific causes and meeting social goals of equality and charity – that is, the perfecting of society – through law, tax policy and government programs.

Weak-minded Rightists have claimed that this, too, is fascism.  But fascism, as much as other boomers like me have thrown this term around very loosely, is in fact a specific, definable political belief; the seamless, boundary-free blending of One Party, all State mechanisms, one chosen Religion and that Wealth that supports the Party and its Leader.  Nothing the Left has done can be described this way – but in the end, it’s just as dictatorial.  Fascism is the dictatorship of Wealth; Progressivism is the dictatorship of The Good.  These are very different goals, very different processes, but both lead to the same place – the Voluntary Society being replaced by the Command Society.

Since the creation of a two-party system shortly after the founding of our nation, we have been at tremendous advantage due to the tension between these habits of thought – between conservative and liberal.  The parties have changed over time, with this constructive tension being as much within as between parties.  Issues of color have always been a large part of the changes that have happened to and within parties, and were responsible for the greatest change to parties – between Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, this tension stopped being within parties but came to define them.  In my childhood there were still conservatives, reactionaries, liberals and progressives – and fascists, on the fringes – in both parties, and it was, in fact, more likely that if you were a conservative you were a Democrat and if progressive, Republican.  The reactionaries and racists, pretending to be conservatives, were drawn to remake the GOP by Reagan; that ended the time of conservative-liberal tension within parties at the same time heralding the slow replacement of conservatism by fascists and liberalism by progressives.

So that describes about two-thirds of the electorate.  The final third largely consists of those who vote by not voting, composed of those who are more or less repelled by the too-Holy-by-half two-thirds, and often by past members of the other two sides too pooped by Ping-Pong Politics to play.  This third has an odd position in our Game of Governance; strangely, it’s both the only third that actually matters in elections and yet is the only third that makes absolutely no difference, has absolutely no power between elections.  With the centrist two thirds having at most a plurality, whoever appeals most to these immoderate Moderates and dependent Independents wins; but whoever wins, these unPartied make no difference either in support of or opposition to the choices the two parties make for them.  The exhausted, uncertain and disinterested mostly want to live their own lives without telling anyone what to do or being told what to do, though enough of them would love to tell others what to do if only they could make up their minds.

Thus, the set-up that leads to the Game of Ping-Pong which has best described our political system over my long, irritating life-time, a game that is being played with ever-increasing intensity, and has become the only game in town.

I know full well that, if anyone reads this, that reader will most likely belong to one or another of the two Statist groups. That means that, if you’ve gotten this far, you are angry at my description – not of the opposite group, but of the one you belong to.  This is unavoidable.  It’s easy to see the things that others do to achieve political ascendancy as ‘dictatorial’, but it’s nearly impossible for you to see the things that you want to force on others as anything other than Necessary and Good.  Because of the way our brains work, we are blind to our own acts of control by our desire to do good – our own decency and morality – so that the only limit we can possibly conceive of to turning our morality into The Official Moral Dictum is whether or not we are right about those morals.  If we see a problem, the impulse to turn to centralized control of society to impose our preferred solution on others is too strong; so of course we must (fill in the blank.)

People believe in this so strongly that their resistance to centralized control (by others, anyway) becomes limited by whether or not they can allow themselves to recognize the existence of the problem itself; once they agree that there is some specific ill to be cured, the assumption that the State must cure it – that “we all must . . . ” – is immediate and unchallenged.  Thus the inability of the Right to ‘believe in’ global warming.  The fascist Right is just as convinced as the dictatorial Left that a problem as vast as the anthropogenic unbalancing of the carbon cycle would demand a strong governmental program of controls on society, and that accepting global warming as ‘real’ would instantly mean supporting centralized solutions being imposed from above.  They cannot accept such regulation, but lack the intelligence or the objectivity to take the wiser position – yes, it’s a real problem that must be solved, but no, it cannot be solved by commanding behaviors.  So they square that circle by the easier method; deny the problem exists.

And there you have the ground rules for the American Political Ping-Pong Game.  I want you to try to see beyond your own chosen group’s habits of thought so that you can see this objectively; I propose to you the idea that this Game best describes our politics as, say, an observer from a different planet might see it.  For this reason, and somewhat in honor of those magnificent philosophers known to History as Monty Python, lets call them Team B and Team 2.

The third that mostly wants to be left alone, mostly votes by not voting, decides all elections and nothing except elections, is The Ball.

We’ll give Team B first crack.  They serve first; that is to say, their time in Governance begins the game.  They are convinced by their victory at the ballot box that they have a Mandate To Rule, and so they set about imposing their own, God-Endorsed policies and social constrictions on everyone.

The Ball reacts to this imposition with horror; they just want to live their lives, they don’t want to be told what to do, and so they are repelled by Team B, and fly across the net.  Our politics is absurdly dualistic; there are allowed to be only two sides with any power, so the only place The Ball can fly to in their fearful rejection of the commands of Team B is –

Team 2.  So now, after one or two elections, The Ball is on the other side of the net.  And now Team 2 convinces itself that they have A Mandate From the People, and impose their chosen commands on society.  This isn’t at all the truth; they have taken power only because The Ball has suddenly appeared in their court, flung there by The Ball’s rejection of the demands of the other side.  But this truth is invisible to their view, clouded as it is by their own desire to Do the Right and Good.  So they take this assumed but false Mandate to mean it’s full speed ahead for all their imposed commands, nor do they see them as commands, because ‘of course it must be so’.

And so, after one or two elections, The Ball, now scared and repelled by Team 2’s new programs and regulations, flies away from them.  And again, in our limited political duality, there is no where else for The Ball to go except into the court of Team B.

Back and forth, back and forth, each side empowered in its turn not by any actual mandate but by the temporary presence of people who have rejected the other side; back and forth, back and forth, each side in its turn deluded by their own desire to tell everyone what to do into thinking they have this chimeric Mandate.  Back and forth, back and forth; and since, when their side is In Command, each team is much less interested in cleaning up the excess of Law left by the other than in using Law to carry out their own desire to control, the only thing that is actually accomplished over time is that Governance gets more and more powerful, more and more entrenched, more and more the definer of what our society is and how it behaves, more and more the imposer or limiter of approved or disapproved behavior.

So in the end our democracy grows weaker, and Dictatorship as an assumed, unchallenged need gets stronger.  The only debate that those playing the game are having is about which side gets to be the dictator.  We’ve abandoned any pretense to being a Voluntary Society, with our entire political debate being limited to an argument over which side wins the permanent right to command all – to be the arbiters of the Command Society.

Right now, the repellent, corrupt, moronic, Russian-puppet Trump Administration is doing its best – at this point, very successfully – to work its way so deeply into all facets of The State that it can sweep away all resistance, destroying the protections of free speech and a free press.  The intrinsic right of every citizen to petition the government or be represented in the Legislature or protected by the Judiciary is being replaced by a system that will respond only to the needs of the One Party, the One Religion, and that Wealth that most supports the Glorious Leader.

People are, quite rightfully, repelled and frightened by this, and are protesting.  And how are the Progressives, the Democrats, reacting?  By choosing to see those protesting the Fascism of the Republicans as somehow, magically, being an endorsement not of our tradition of representative democracy and its checks and balances but of Progressivism.  People are in a panic, and with good reason – but Democrats only see this as opportunity.  We see article after article, discussion after discussion, not in support of the virtues of our democratic republican system but as a specific endorsement of Progressive control.

How can Progressives best take advantage of these protests to put themselves in power?  That’s as far as the Left is able to go.  The concepts of Liberty, the defense of the Voluntary Society, are nowhere to be seen; The Ball is being flung with tremendous force, a massive, powerful, emotional rejection of the now undeniable fascism that has swept all Republican and Conservative values into the garbage can and replaced them with a massive endorsement of the aggressive, intolerant Trump State – and all that the Progressive-controlled, liberal-values-rejecting Democratic Left is able to see is the political advantage that they can bend these protests into.

That’s the American game.  There can be allowed only two sides; only the most extreme believers on each side are allowed to play; the side that has the serve at any particular moment is that which has been fooled into thinking it has a Mandate To Rule by the voters who have temporarily fled to them in fear of the demands of the other side; and the winner is the side that can so thoroughly take command that the game can be ended.

And the loser?

The great American experiment in representative governance.  Thus ends the American Century.

 


 

Don’t Call It Obamacare

The Tortured, Tortuous History of the Conservative Solution to Universal Health Care

As the Nixon Administration was nearing its collapse, the man who was said – with reason – to have ‘a face like a foot’ made a concerted effort to find a Republican solution to health care that would, first, maintain and fortify the grasp of the private insurance companies, second and almost as important, reduce or at least slow the growth of the costs of medical care and, third and largely a pretense, expand the percentage of Americans with health insurance with the idea that the uninsurable residue would be small enough that it could be covered by the Government, if it had to.  In this effort, Nixon enlisted the help of the then-CEO of Kaiser Permanente, aided by expertise largely from private industry.

They studied the matter intensely, and came to the conclusion that, for such a private-insurance-centered system to be successful, it had to have three legs:

  • Business mandates requiring that all companies above a certain size provide their employees with comprehensive coverage;
  • Individual mandates requiring everyone self-employed or working for small businesses to buy their own insurance; and
  • Insurance policy minimum requirements, so that insurance companies wouldn’t sell ‘junk’ policies that didn’t actually pay out anything, dumping the costs of needed treatment back on the government.

Nixon then pitched this idea to an unresponsive legislature.  The R’s balked because of the proposals’ dependence on mandates; the Democrats, led by Teddy Kennedy, resisted because they wanted ‘single payer’, that is, government-supplied health care; and both sides resisted because by then they smelled blood in the water.

And so it went nowhere.  But only a very few years later, conservative ‘think tanks’, particularly the Heritage Foundation, took the matter up again, not because they actually had any interest in anybody except the rich having health care but because they realized that the increasing costs of health care was becoming a drag on American competitiveness in the growing global market and creating increasing demand for single-payer, to which they were opposed with religious fervor.

And so, once again, a tremendous amount of experience with and expertise in insurance and health care was summoned.  How can a health care system be designed to meet the goals of protecting the existing insurers, reducing the growth of costs, and (minimally) covering as many as possible with the least expansion of government-supplied care?

And so, late in the brief Ford administration, they came out with their conclusions, which were that, for such a private-insurance-protecting system to be successful, it had to have three legs:

  • Business mandates requiring that all companies above a certain size provide their employees with comprehensive coverage;
  • Individual mandates requiring everyone self-employed or working for small businesses to buy their own insurance; and
  • Insurance policy minimum requirements, so that insurance companies wouldn’t sell ‘junk’ policies that didn’t actually pay out anything, dumping the costs of needed treatment back on the government.

You could feel the wave of disbelief and anger that swept over the Republican Party.  Weren’t these clods listening?  No mandates!  No!  Several researchers lost their jobs, and the whole effort was once again shelved.

 

So, back to the drawing board.  After a few years to cool off, the same pressures arose to solve the problems of rapidly-increasing premiums, high costs of using the Emergency Room as provider of first (usually the only) choice for the increasing number of the un- and under-insured, and (most importantly for the R’s) decreasing profits for insurers.  Once again, the Heritage Foundation’s health care experts were called upon, still bruised and limping from the last go-round, to tackle the problem.

Now I do not at all want to pretend that I have any expertise in insurance or health care.  But I found that first, Nixonian effort to be, as a question of how systems work, how ideas live or die, and of politics, quite interesting.  I had no interest in health care per se, but this ballet being danced again and again was fascinating.  So I kept reading about it, whenever it arose again as the conservative answer to the challenge of creating a health care system.  And it kept coming up, again and again, arising every five or so years through the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II administrations.  And every time – every single time, without exception, with me laughing harder and harder each time the Gorgon reappeared – every time these researchers, with all their broad and deep expertise, were forced to exactly the same conclusions:  You must have employer mandates; you must have individual mandates; you must have minimum policy requirements.  They couldn’t even support one or two of those legs without the others; people with infinitely more knowledge than you or I would ever have, and with all the reasons in the world to avoid the same result – kept coming to the same result.

And every time, without a single exception, the same result brought the same reaction; howls from the rank-and-file R’s, researchers sacked and careers ended, indifference from leadership, and the turned backs of D’s who were only interested in single-payer.  Again, I am no expert; but when massive efforts of the well-informed keep coming to the same conclusions despite all the dangers to their jobs, over and over, then it’s pretty clear that for such a private-insurance-centered system to be successful at achieving the arbitrary demands the conservatives make for it –

It has to have three legs:

  • Business mandates requiring that all companies above a certain size provide their employees with comprehensive coverage;
  • Individual mandates requiring everyone self-employed or working for small businesses to buy their own insurance; and
  • Insurance policy minimum requirements, so that insurance companies wouldn’t sell ‘junk’ policies that didn’t actually pay out anything, dumping the costs of needed treatment back on the government.

 

That’s the real reason that the enemies of what they, as racists, want to pretend is Obamacare but which is actually Nixoncare, have been utterly unable to describe a replacement that doesn’t humiliate them by being no different from the Affordable Care Act in any important way, and further infuriate their base.  They may repeal; they can’t replace.  They are in a Sisyphean trap of their own making, where the task as they have described it – ‘First, Do No Harm’ to the powerful private health interests – can only be achieved one way, through three mandates that cause their base to set its hair on fire.  The only possible solution that achieves the only acceptable result causes the unacceptable result of them being turfed out by the revolting of their revolting base.

 

In the meantime, other forces came into play.  Starting late in the Clinton administration and culminating in changes contained in the ACA and in separate legislation, there arose a broad consensus right the way across the entire political spectrum, from conservatives as passionately as progressives.  A broadly-expressed demand arose that insurance companies should not be allowed to refuse to insure anyone, that the specter of the pre-existing condition as a limiter of coverage should be ended, and that insurance companies must limit their use of defining group charateristics to only a few – primarily, to age and geography.  A strong, healthy individual should be put into the same actuarial group as the sedentary smoker.  So wide-spread was this rejection of lifestyle markers being used to create similar-risk insurance groups that actuarial science – defined by Wikipedia as ‘the discipline that applies mathematical and statistical methods to assess risk’ – has largely disappeared from insurance.  So popular has this proved that this actuarial limitation has become an irresistible force in the political equation.

This effort to remove the actuary from his central role in insurance, though of course not seen as such, has made the insurance company ultimately unimportant.  The result is entirely predictable, and inevitable; as premiums and costs continue to increase, and they will, any further attempts to corral expenditures will be forced to one unavoidable conclusion.

Private insurance, at least as the provider of health care for the vast majority of consumers, must die.

The only benefit to anyone (other than Wall Street) of private insurers is that, by ever more precise and detailed application of actuarial tables, free market forces will result in savings that will keep cost growth to a minimum.  Healthy competition in health care will keep the whole system healthy, and at least somewhat affordable.  But once the actuarial table is removed as a source of savings that put the more costly individual in groups that pay higher premiums, the only way one company can out-compete any other is by limiting payouts.

We’ve now eliminated that possibility, in legislation both within and outside of the ACA – legislation which has such wide-spread support that ending it cannot be done.

Thus the trap the Republicans in Congress are in.  They will never be able to replace Nixoncare with anything that isn’t itself just another iteration of it; they will never be able to repeal it un-replaced without ending their own cushy, self-important, insurance-supplied careers; and they won’t survive the torch-carrying, pitchfork-wielding Trascists massing at the barricades if they don’t.  And no matter what they do, single payer – probably Medicare For All – has been made inevitable as the removal of actuary from insurance spells its doom as the moment nears when people realize that no further savings can be made in the system except by removing profits, and thus profiteers, from the equation.

 

What fun!

 

 

A Call for Organic Politics

We can end the Trump mis-administration, but only by giving up a cherished idea – that we need to boss others.

The danger we now face of a sudden lurch into fascism can be averted, but we only have a short time.  The danger is that the very things that people instinctively do with problems, the direct government-centered actions that both Right and Left always fall back on, these attempts at control, are spinning us out of control.

Both sides are simply increasing these control-others actions as the only thing they can see to do.  People’s reactions are driving us further into Fascist madness, which results in more fear and thus more control imposition; we’re stuck in a devastating feedback loop where the very attempt to solve the problem is making that problem so much worse.

Think of what we’ve discovered about the dangers of pesticides.  A field is a highly complex system which humans overwhelm with determinism, in the form of plows and cultivators.  We remove all the other kinds of plants and sow just the one kind we want, and then spray all kinds of chemicals on the field to maintain that seeming control.

This doesn’t work long term, and yet doing this has led to amazing productivity.  We tend to think of systems as determinative when they aren’t, which creates all kinds of problems over time.  We don’t want pests or weeds in our fields, because we get less of what we want out of them; so what problem can there be to using a chemical that rids us of them?  Obvious, right?

But we now know so much more than we used to about the unintended consequences of all that imposed ordering; the problems of chemical use, not apparent at first, eventually overwhelm the good that their use does.  This widespread use of chemicals, as much as it may have done great harm, was done because the farmer wanted to make more food for more people.  The desire to do good by imposing order on a system led to doing a lot of damage.

Once the farmer had to live with the damage that chemicals did – that is, when the unintended consequences of his imposed ordering had swamped the intended good of his choices – he could see that a better approach would be to work with, rather than against, nature, and the organic revolution got started. This movement has done a lot of good; for example, organic foods not only are better for you but are also better tasting, and we’ve discovered why those two things are mutually dependent.  Just as this movement toward a more responsible, more natural food supply, at least where it has been applied, has healed a lot of the damage that modern agriculture was doing, so do we now need a politics of hubris, of accepting the limits of what can be done by command.

We need an Organic Politics.

That’s the theme of the time we are in.  Both progressives and reactionaries, both left and right, have wanted to do good by their own lights to create a better culture.  These farmers in the field that is our culture have tried, and unfortunately succeeded, in imposing deterministic solutions on it.  This seems so intuitive, so obviously the right thing to do – ‘There Oughta Be a Law!’ – and was done out of the goodness and decency of different groups of citizens, as their own judgment best informed them.  Just as the farmer watching the pests die from spreading DDT cannot immediately see the future where all those chemicals destroy the natural balance upon which he depends, so Left and Right have been blind to the long, slow piling up of unintended consequences that their oh-so-obviously-needed rule-making has created.

Nor can you make them understand.  Trascism’s devastation of all that we have built up over these many generations is the political equivalent of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ – a warning that we’ve pushed the culture too hard in our efforts to perfect it, and it’s now spinning out of control.  The effort of trying to explain to people on both sides that its their attempts to impose order that have created the disorder that fascism needs for it to grow is one that is beyond my poor ability to explain.

And besides – when people are certain that they are right about what you should do, explaining the dangers of imposed ordering on a non-determinative system like the cultures of sentient beings seems to them a surrender to the problem they’re trying to solve.  You become The Enemy.

For example, I can make a much better argument than the Progressives can that the just, caring community they seek is not only a good thing, but the only way we can survive and thrive in the increasingly challenging world we face.  But those very arguments, based as they are on Chaos Theory and the powerful discoveries we’ve made over the last forty years of how highly complex systems work, are invisible to those seeking a more powerful State strong enough to stamp out injustice and want.  Their desire to do good blinds them to the need for allowing people their own ‘Right to Be Wrong’, and anyone resisting their dogmatic approach becomes as evil as those they’ve set themselves to defeat.  Many of these political activists were taught in grade school that we were a ‘volunteer society’, but the lesson didn’t take – and so we’ve become a ‘command society’, leaving them stunned when, as is inevitable, they lose their role as the maker of commandments to those attracted to Governance not by a desire to do good but out of a lust for power.

Right now, if the Left (who are not more or less to blame than the Right, but there is that about reactionary conservatism that precludes thought or introspection) could only understand this one thing – this hard, anti-intuitive idea that you do vast damage when you try to tell others what choices, ideas and actions they should and shouldn’t take – they would find very many citizens on the other side of the political divide who are just as frightened by Trascism as they are, and could create a consensus to remove him from the office he is so disastrously unfit for.  But it will require that Progressives give up the one thing they are most addicted to –

Bossiness.

Progressives do believe that there should be limits to the power of Governance.  That’s the true challenge of this moment – Trump is an accident of history, and well deserves being dumped into history’s wastebasket along with Hitler and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein, but he is if nothing else the pinnacle of all the many unintended consequences of the massive ordering that we all labor under.  Not even in the most ruthless dictatorships have there been as many laws and regulations upon a culture, nor have even the worst of them incarcerated as many as we do.  Can the Left come to understand that the regulations and laws they are so passionate about passing, all the good-hearted but unwise ordering of other people they’ve come to depend on as the goal of all their efforts, all these laws stifling and limiting us, have resulted in the ascendancy of the Orange Menace?

That the Orangutan is really the predictable result of everything they’ve been trying to do over generations?  That the Unintended Consequence is about to sink us?  That Trump is just being Trump, and it’s their own chemical spraying of the culture that has given shape to this Silent Spring of a dying nation?

My guess is, no.  It’s just too hard, too complex.  They know they are right about the things they are demanding we all embrace or avoid; and to make things worse, they are right!  And this rightness blinds them to the acid they’ve thrown on the culture.  But if they could – if they could –

It would make all the difference.  We are being choked by the Good Order that both Right and Left have imposed on us, and this has led to the accession to power of a very dangerous group of people who are determined, and well able, to replace our democracy with dictatorship.  This has shocked the Left; and yet the fact that the Right has felt for decades the chains of a liberal dictatorship is invisible to them.  And why shouldn’t it be?  The idea of a Leftist dictatorship is absurd, at least if you already agree with all the commandments the Left hands down; why worry about how others feel about it?  They’re so clearly wrong, and why should we care if they can’t see their own wrongness?  After all, aren’t we right about the things we’re trying to do?  Yes; the Left is as right as was the DDT-spraying farmer who was trying to feed a hungry world.  If the Left could see this, see that all of this is the predictable result of their own choices, and could accept responsibility for the damage they’ve done, it would change the nature of our entire debate about what the hell to do now.

And so I ask you to consider – what do you think are the limits of centralized authority?  What actions do you consider are too intrusive into your own life?  And then think about people you know on the other side of the political divide – that it’s not enough to consider just what you believe to be too intrusive.  What do they feel is too intrusive?

Wisdom comes with realizing that, even if you disagree with the other side about what state actions are too intrusive –

You, and I, and all of us have to live with the results not of where we think the line between ‘me’ and ‘us’ is, but of where other people feel it should be.  Our system spins out of control when too many people find the culture too constrictive, no matter what we may think they should agree to.  Were the Left able to understand this, and generate their own manifesto about such limits, they would find a lot of people they now think are The Enemy are actually their greatest asset.  We must defeat this mad man-child; but to do so, we must first accept our own limitations, and that everyone has the right to be wrong about their own lives.