Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Strange Dreams

28 March 2012

Last night I dreamed of the Last Supper.  My alter ego(s) in the dream were James (the Less), John the Beloved, and Judas Thomas, who learned that they were all the same person (or that they could communicate telepathically, and that they were all having the same thoughts more or less simultaneously).  Then Jesus told them (or told John, at any rate) to disband the church when he died.  John said he didn't want to do that, even if the consequences would be dire.  This is all I remember.

29 March 2012

Last night I dreamed I was a strange man entering a new town, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  There was another man in charge there who kept really savage dogs that he pretended to have under control and away from me.  I knew that they weren't really safe, and at the end of the dream I was able to avoid being fed to them.  (He tried to have me shut me up in a vault with them: I ducked out of a closing aperture just in time, and the guards chaperoning me were eaten instead.) 

30 March 2012

Last night I dreamed that I was playing this computer game like Risk, only it was set in a slightly earlier time period.  (The weapons and strategies employed seemed to come from the High Middle Ages.)  My force was small and scattered all over the globe, and we kept losing to the opposing army (which would outflank us in Europe, cutting us to pieces before we could gather and determine on some kind of cohesive strategy that didn't have us all being cut off individually and killed by superior numbers).  For some reason I was never able to access complete information about all the units allied with me.  I kept hoping the machine would tell me who they really were, what precisely their assets and positions looked like, but it never did.  Every now and then I would learn that another one had been destroyed by the almighty foe.  It was pretty frustrating.

31 March 2012

Last night I had one of my strangest dreams yet, a flying dream (in which I regularly floated around without any mechanical assistance).  At the beginning of the dream, I was flying around this old neighborhood (it looked like something from a Southern American town in the late nineteenth century, with an brick school- or warehouse that was rather somber).  I was collecting information on cards and in books of various languages (I remember seeing Greek and Russian words), and bringing them back to some kind of bureaucratic mastermind, who used them to execute criminals (who might have been innocent: I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable with my role in bringing them to death).  The mastermind hinted to me that my flying powers might be imaginary (i.e. an illusion), and I agreed with him (even though they seemed real to me: I would hover over the landscape, then plunge suddenly and violently downward, catching myself before impact).

Somehow, I found myself trapped in a moving car, which had some full white trash bags holding my feet in place on the accelerator.  People kept on crowding onto the highway, until finally in order to avoid running them over I was forced to swerve off the road into the woods (since I could not slow the car: I was really afraid I would hit someone and be guilty of manslaughter).  I drove through the woods and ended up arriving (and stopping) at this gated village (sort of like a giant castle).  I was taken in by the people there, and it became my responsibility to manage the personal security of the master (the major of the town, or the lord of the castle).  I flew around trying to anticipate and thwart the attacks of a team of professional assassins, who kept on attacking us (and the castellan) from a bridge connecting the town to the forest on the opposite side from the gate where I arrived.  Many people came into the town via this bridge, including at least one pair of LDS Mormon missionaries.  The bridge was like a giant white jigsaw puzzle, and the final part remained unassembled (possibly as a security measure), requiring people to leap down from it into the village (which was markedly lower than the far side of the woods).  The missionaries were afraid to jump, but they did so, along with everybody else--including the assassins (dressed in black with their faces hidden) who kept shooting at us.  I did not feel bad shooting back at the assassins, at least, making them somewhat unique among all the people I put in mortal danger in this dream.   

1 April 2012
I dreamed I was in this large house: in fact, it resembled a hospital or a school inside.  I was working with a team of people, fighting against these bugs that would appear out of nowhere (were they ghosts?).  Initially, we battled the bugs with plastic swords and waterguns.  I remember grabbing a handful of these "weapons" at one time and rushing into a dark hallway, which seemed empty initially but was soon teaming with bugs (the bugs seemed to emerge from children's toys, kind of like our weapons).  I knew that the bugs were coming from somewhere underground, using secret tunnels to travel from their lair to the hospital where we found them.  Later in the dream, I went down to the lair.  The bugs here were much larger and scarier, and I was armed with a real (and very large) Japanese katana (with which I would dismember them).

I had another dream this same night which may or may not have been connected to this one.  I was living in a castle (again), with some magic implements (like a thimble, or a pin) that I needed very much in order to survive (or do something important that was my task).  I lost one of them when some invisible (female) spirit inhabiting the place took offense by me and absconded with them.  I spent a lot of time fruitlessly trying to convince her that I was a friend and that she should give me my stuff back.  Then, the master of the castle lost his (female) partner.  He went out to find her (and I identified with him in the dream, for some reason).  He was (or became) a large, black water snake, and I remember him plunging into this immense, dark lake.  It was incredibly deep and murky, full of thick, wavy plants and huge, fierce monsters (whose presence I felt instinctively as the snake-castellan swam around).

8 April 2012

Last night I dreamed I was being attacked by this spider (that looked like some kind of baby toy -- one of those multi-part gizmos that comes in all the colors of the rainbow and makes creepy noises).  It wouldn't leave me alone, no matter how I tried to avoid it.  Finally, I chopped its head off with a katana.  (This dream is a lot like the one recorded just above, eh?  I guess this is what happens when someone trains martial arts his whole life and has kids, who have toys.)  The dream went on, but I don't remember any other episodes with great clarity.  I have a vague impression that one part of it involved a married couple who were dealing with some kind of massive betrayal.  (The wife may have been married to someone else for a while, and she might have used that connection to do something that ruined her first husband, with whom she was reunited in the dream.)  At some point, there was an evil toy clown masterminding criminal plots from a dark warehouse (that may have doubled as a theater). 

13 April 2012

I dreamed that I was attending a department party at some professor's house with Kirsti.  We were driving alone (without the boys) in an SUV (which I found hard to maneuver).  For some reason, every time I went to park in the driveway, something was off and I had to circle round and try again.  Some of the faculty were sitting nearby at a table, watching.  (There was one professor in particular, whom I respect and fear, who was watching me fail to park.)  Finally, I crashed the car into a post holding up the carport.  The post shifted, but the carport did not fall down.  I drove away humiliated, and told Kirsti we should just park in the street, which was far from the house (owing to the great length of the driveway). 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Living with the Unknown

Flogging Molly. "The Story So Far."  Float.  Borstal Beat Records, 2008.

This song is a good illustration of what it feels like to live with relative truth, in a topsy-turvy world that is constantly changing.  There are constants, like gratitude when we survive and grief when others' don't, but stories we tell about our success and failure keep changing--as new facts appear and old ones disintegrate.  We struggle perpetually to understand, and aspire to act always on our best understanding, but we can never see the whole picture, and so our story is never finished, never perfect.  It is only "the story so far"--whether that means the last five minutes or the last five million years.

You always had what you wanted
So leave it behind
And if the glass isn't broken
Then the future's not blind
All that you know 

Means nothing to you
But it's the loss of control 

That shatters the truth

'Cause the story so far
Is already here
We've made it this far

Through the daggered-edge spears
But life cuts to pieces
Till the wounds hold no secrets
Makes it all who you are

Love craves self-destruction
It's a blizzard in hand
You lay your cards on the table
But you're not in command
So burn with the fire
You so eagerly lit
Watch the flames flicker higher
Say I don't care about me

'Cause the story so far
Is already here
We've made it this far
Through the daggered-edge spears
But life cuts to pieces
Till the wounds hold no secrets
Makes it all who you are

Makes it all who you are
Makes it all who you are
Makes it all who you are

Though it's bitter the pill
That you swallow to feel
I don't care what I lost
I just thank God I'm alive

Makes it all who you are
Makes it all who you are
Makes it all who you are
Makes it all who you are
Makes it all who you are
That's the story so far

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Scott Crow on Anarchism

This talk is a good addendum to my article on play.  Scott Crow is a very interesting man, whose ideas I will have to look at more carefully.  I like his approach to community-building: small, responsible, non-violent, participatory, egalitarian.  This is what I wanted from the LDS church, really.  In Mormon terminology, this is Zion--a group of committed people who live together in productive peace.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Problem

Man is a social animal. We make clubs. We make corporations. We make churches. We make governments and mafias. We then use these organizations to order our lives, to bless and to curse. All organizations subsist by a give-and-take between conferring advantages and causing harm (both to those who belong and to those who don't). There is no historical organization that has not hurt somebody. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I have yet to learn of an organization that didn't hurt some innocent person, at some point. And yet we need organizations to survive. This puts us in a sticky place, a place from which there is no easy exit.

If there are no perfect organizations, then there are at least some that appear decidedly better than others. I can readily understand why someone with means would want to belong to these groups and not others that work against them. I think it makes perfect sense for someone in John Larsen's shoes to come to the conclusion that he has reached and work against the LDS church. But not all people are John Larsen. Some people lack the tools (mental, emotional, physical) to save themselves from bad (or at least suboptimal) organizations. Calling for these people to throw off the chains that oppress them is like telling a cripple to ditch the crutch and walk already. Worse than that, some of the cripples function even worse without the "oppression" that the church gives them. (A good friend of mine, when asked the rhetorical question, "Would you go around committing crimes if you weren't LDS?" has responded, "Yes, actually, I think I would." I believe he is sincere, and he might even be right. I don't want to push him. For what it is worth, he didn't reject me when I decided to distance myself from LDS Mormondom.)

In my experience (actual and vicarious), what really improves the quality of human life is something more subtle than simple affiliation (with any group, including churches of all kinds). Some people are better at empathizing with others. Some people are better at learning from others. Some people are better at coming up with methods for cultivating and spreading the benefits of civilization (humanity en groupe). There are ways around these people: historically speaking, many groups like to suppress them, control them, use them for the group's own purposes, etc. But if the world survives, then their work always rises to the top (even if some dead ne'er-do-well like Joseph Smith gets the credit for it). Real quality is something against which there can be no effective argument. Even Muslims (to name one religion frequently mistrusted these days) believe in things like compassion, charity, and honor (which has some positive meaning for them, too, not just rejoicing that another idiot has blown himself up in the marketplace praising Allah).

There are moments in history when we would like to pull humanity up by the bootstraps, raising the moral level of every person such that each and every one might see that suicide bombing (or nuclear war, or any war waged for profit) is just wrong. We would like to make the bad mafias go away and replace them with good ones. But the bad ones are all good, in some way, or they would not exist. (This is true even of the worst Muslim sect you can imagine, I think.) And no good one that has ever existed has not, at some point, been bad. This is part of why I am having a hard time disentangling myself from Mormonism (even as I leave the church behind, along with any kind of positive theism). Maybe in time I will advance to the place where John is today, but for the present I am not there. I do not see how it is possible to strip superstition and ignorance out of the human psyche. I do not see how kicking the religious idiots out the front door doesn't inevitably turn into admitting them in again through the back. (A good example of this is Soviet Russia, which secularized enough to lose God but not enough to get rid of all the worst aspects of human organized behavior, i.e. religion.)  People are stupid. In large numbers, it seems that our stupidity compounds. There is no easy way out of this (that I can find, anyway). In the end, our best hope is for thoughtful individuals to take the time and make the effort necessary to publicize human stupidity, warning the people (the way prophets are supposed to) that they are all idiots.  (Naturally, prophets are idiots too, being human.)

It really doesn't matter what clubs one belongs to, or what "doctrines" one espouses (in the abstract). Theory is often wrong, and its wrongness can lead to unnecessary suffering and death whether practitioners are rational or not (and many are simply never going to be: until people in the Third World stop having to fight for survival every day, some of them are always going to be violent lunatics, with some justification: if I had been born in their place, I would be as they are; fortunately for me, the USA is not Yemen or Saudi Arabia, and LDS Mormonism is not conservative Islam, though Brigham and Joseph tried to take it that way in their time). What we need is a massive dose of introspective, individual skepticism--something that does not come with declarations for or against this or that company. If we want to convert the idiots, we have to speak their language. Some of them will respond well to explicit deconstruction ("you are wrong and your prophets are full of shit"); others will respond to something less harsh ("there is another way to find peace between heaven and earth: this war is not the will of God").

If you take a tally of the deaths caused by the LDS church and compare it to the deaths caused by other companies in human history, I think you will find that the LDS are small potatoes. I could be wrong, and Sam Harris would no doubt say that we are still a time bomb waiting for our chance to become the next al-Qaeda. He could be right, but I don't see it happening, at this point. Where any individual stands relative to Mormonism, institutional or otherwise, has relatively little bearing on the central problems facing humanity (e.g. how to live in harmony when our big brains require socialization that leads to tribalization, and then turn around and invent weapons of mass destruction). I think these problems might be better served if more energy were spent engaging them directly, which necessarily means spending less time quibbling over whether a like-minded person is Mormon or not, Christian or not, Jewish or not, Muslim or not, religious or secular. In the fight against barbarism, the humanist finds all kinds of unexpected allies (including some who choose, for reasons of their own, to retain organizational affiliations that strike the outsider as dangerous and/or ludicrous).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Truth and Lies, Reality and Myth

Peter Kingsley. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Inverness: Golden Sufi, 1999. ISBN: 189035001X.

Peter Kingsley. Reality. Inverness: Golden Sufi, 2003. ISBN: 1890350095.

Peter Kingsley. A Story Waiting to Pierce You. Point Reyes: Golden Sufi, 2010. 1890350214.

Robert Pirsig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Morrow, 1974. ISBN: 0688002307.

These books were all important in my discovery that reality exists apart from myth (without excluding it).  I encountered Kingsley's work while investigating the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, about whom he has written extensively.  (He also has many interesting things to say about Empedocles.)  I was impressed with Kingsley's scholarly depth (more than one of my dissertation advisors, who finds some of his historical ideas "fanciful"), but what really drew me to his work was its elegant simplicity.  Reading his work shows you (1) how ancient people found meaning in the pre-Socratics, and (2) how the pre-Socratics remain relevant today.

The central thesis of Kingsley's work is that Parmenides was concerned with reality as people actually experience it.  He wanted to talk meaningfully about all the experiences that all of us have every moment of our lives--no matter who we are, where we live, or when.  In other words, he was what some people call a mystic.  Like other mystics ancient and modern, he used the language and ideas of his time to talk about the human experience (conceived as something universal, i.e. bigger and larger than any single person's understanding).  He told myths.  He composed poetry.  He saw changes happening all over the place, all the time, and he saw continuity underlying change.  He recognized that people are at once alike and different (when compared with one another), and that they all see the same world (even when they see it very differently).  In short, he was an ancient analogue to Robert Pirsig -- the mad modern genius whose idea of Quality is very like Parmenidean Being.  I will try to summarize my understanding of this Quality/Being below.

Reality is not a narrative.  It does not develop predictably from known principles, and its end is equally mysterious.  When storytellers say in the beginning, they are venturing into the unknown--a place none of us has ever been--just as they are when they say the end.  (How do we really know that a story has ended?  What is the end, really, of anything?  If there is no known beginning, then there is no known end.)  Most of us experience reality as a series of impressions--thoughts, feelings, impressions, ideas, reactions, intuitions, experiences.  But these only ever exist in the present moment, where we organize them and reorganize them, over and over again.  In this process of organization, something is always lost.  No story can ever do justice to the full extent of the experience it seeks to describe.  From this perspective, all stories are lies: they omit potentially important information.  Living well is learning to live with lies, learning to hold them when they help you and to let them go when their usefulness is gone.  Lies are not inherently evil, but they become so when  we insist that they must be true.  Lies are not inherently good, but they become so when we know how to use them well (i.e. when to stop believing them).  The wise man is aware of lies, is happy with them, because he sees the reality behind them.  He is in the moment, discarding the lies that hurt and embracing the lies that help (which he will let go in turn when they prove false).  Consciousness is not a matter of learning the absolute truth (finding the rock upon which to build a permanent house), but of learning the impossibility of absolute truth (riding the wave of contextual truth, which moves constantly as moments pass and the nature of life's game changes).  Truth (reality, quality, being) is in the experience, which no myth, however great it may be, can really capture.  Myth is useful.  It can help you benefit from someone else's experience, but it is no substitute for actively engaging your own experience (which is the most important thing for you, the bricks and mortar out of which your very own life is made).

When it finally broke through to me what Kingsley, Pirsig, and Parmenides were talking about, I knew that something had changed fundamentally in the way I think consciously about the world.  Part of me assented unconditionally to the way they conceive consciousness: waxing psychological, I think that my conscious mind finally realized how it really works (and has always worked, as near as I can tell).  As I experience life, following the truth is much more like surfing than building a house on a rock.  I tried building that house on the rock, and the rock kept washing away.  Now, I am riding the wave.  I don't have to stop every few moments and convince myself that the rock is not water.  I do not have to pretend to hold onto solid matter where all I can find is fluid.

Kingsley warned me that reading his books would change the way I looked at things.  As a faithful LDS, I was not convinced (with good reason: maybe if I had read them 10 years earlier, they wouldn't have changed anything: every individual walks a unique path to Reality).  In the end, however, he was right.  I must credit him with providing one of the most interesting interludes in my faith journey as an adult.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cave Apes ... et Lupum

Alex Gibney.  "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."  Jigsaw, 2006.

Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System--and Themselves.  Viking, 2009.  ISBN: 0670021253.

Daymon SmithThe Book of Mammon: A Book about a Book about the Corporation That Owns the Mormons.  CreateSpace, 2010.  ISBN: 1451553706. 

All of the ideas represented in these sources have been important to me over the past several years as I have slowly started coming to grips with the way things work in the modern world (including my corner of it in the United States of America).  If I could summarize what I have learned so far, I would say something like this.

Since the dawn of recorded history (sometime after the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago), human beings have been gathering in groups too large to function as small hunter-gatherer clans.  Agriculture creates caloric surfeit, which leads to more people: eventually, there are so many people that we need a way of relating to others whom we do not know personally.  So we come up with laws, by-laws, and loopholes (for the times when laws and by-laws don't apply, apply badly, or thwart us in something we really want to do, for reasons that may or may not be justifiable).  In short, we invent corporations (governments, companies, mafias, and everything in between).  Corporations, like people, create culture.  They are themselves alive, after a fashion--with their own habits, their own ways of being, and their own desire to survive and thrive (no matter what: they are not necessarily hostile toward other corporations or people, but their primary goal is to survive for themselves: at the end of the day, bees exist to protect the hive).  There is always a tension between the individual person and the corporation(s) to which he belongs.  The individual is an ancient clansman, with habits, culture, and ideals suited for relating well to people he knows personally.  The corporation subverts his clannish sense of honor and integrity--of necessity, since corporate business cannot happen unless people give up or at least suppress the kind of egalitarian individualism characteristic of hunter-gatherer clans.  The beehive and the wolf-pack do not work alike: the bee has no life outside the hive (versus the proverbial lone wolf), and conformity to the "rule" of the hive is largely beyond contention (adult worker bees do not become queens, while a low-ranking wolf-cub might easily end up ruling the pack).

Human beings are both bee-like (in their corporate activity) and wolf-like (in their relationship with themselves and people that they know personally).  Laws, by-laws, and such work for us the way pheromones and such work for bees (and other social insects that have to live in enormous groups, like ants).  But underneath the blanket of corporate pheromones lurks the werewolf, desiring nothing more than the simple life of his less civilized, less socialized forefathers.  When the hive breaks down, he comes out.  When the hive decides that he is not worth saving, or that he must be sacrificed for the common good without what he recognizes as due process, he rebels--and all good servants of the hive rush to condemn him out of hand, for his existence constitutes a perpetual threat to their lovely Deseret.  I grew up under the mistaken idea that the hive is only ever responsible for good things.  "God save the Queen!" was a mantra that I lived by.  For better or worse, however, I imbibed a lot of wolfish values to go with this apian ideal.  At a relatively young age, I became committed to things like individual freedom, civil disobedience, and constructive criticism.  As I grew older, I became more involved with the business of the hive.  My grandparents gave me some stocks (and maybe a bond or two) for birthdays.  I joined the Boy Scouts and wrote letters to congressmen.  I committed myself body and soul to the Corporation of the President (more commonly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), dedicating two years of my life to proselytize in northern Spain.  I signed up for the draft.  I enrolled in several universities and took degrees.  But the more involved I became with learning and preaching apian values, the more troubled my allegiance to the Queen became.  I saw her hurting people--people I knew, people that the wolf buried deep in me could not forget.  These people were not always aware of how the Queen hurt them.  Sometimes they welcomed the pain, as any good worker bee would.  I sometimes wondered whether I was not horribly deviant for objecting to their suffering (particularly when they took it up so gladly). 

At some point, the turning point of my life thus far, it dawned upon me that the Queen was not acting alone.  She was not an almighty Other, living apart from ordinary humanity in some exalted state of being where moral decisions are clear and everyone always gets his just deserts.  She was just another wolf like me, and she was using me to do her business with others.  This was not bad in itself.  We absolutely need things like law in order to deal with other people, and we have not managed to create a law whose sanctity requires no guard (no Queen).  But now the Queen was using her position to get me to do things that did not feel right, things that the wolf in me found downright degrading.  As an American and a Mormon and an academic, I knew I had certain "rights" (on paper), rights to which I had often given lip service in the past.  I realized that I did not have to take all of the Queen's orders lying down.  If she ordered me to do something that I did not approve, I could protest.  I could refuse.  I could stand for something I really believed in.  In theory, I should even be able to do this without getting myself killed.  (Modern society has progressed beyond the point of burning werewolves at the stake; today we adopt a more passive-aggressive approach, which on the whole I find much preferable.  I have no objection to being ignored or shunned when the alternative is violent death.) 

I still stand for many of the things that the Queen supports.  But I take exception to a lot of what she does.  I think her proselytizing is often bad business, whether it is Mormon missionaries going door to door or American soldiers meddling in the affairs of foreign countries.  I am fortunate in that most of my academic advisors have refrained from using force or lies to have their way with me, but I am aware of others who have not been so lucky.  I want to gag just about every time I hear any kind of political advertisement, no matter what party or candidate it represents: the man who would be Queen sends out pheromones that say, "I'm cool! Put your faith in me and it'll be OK!"-- expecting me to be a good little bee and take him seriously (letting someone else, probably some crackpot with a wolfish grin, do a serious background check on his bona fides).  Don't get me wrong.  I love the sound of words like faith, hope, and charity.  But the wolf in me wants them to stand for something more than the Queen's latest scheme for fleecing me and using the proceeds to save her drones on Wall Street (not to mention the Ivy League or downtown Salt Lake City, or any other place where a few plutocrats sit in judgment over the lives of their "less fortunate" fellows, shifting them around like so many pieces of chattel without bothering to ask permission or doubt themselves or even tell the public what they are really doing). 

My real problem with the Queen is not so much what she does as the manner in which she does it.  She likes to hide.  When making really important decisions, she always avoids public scrutiny (retreating into the boardroom with only her closest flunkies, who are always kept in strict confidence).  She does not like talking to the company rank and file in anything other than rhetorical cliches ("I know this company is the best ever: we stand for hope, growth, and a better future!"), which sound hollow even when things are going well and ridiculous when they are not.  Whenever anyone gets a whiff of her books being cooked (as they more or less always are), she puts a drone on the TV to deny it (and accuse short-sellers, terrorists, rogue scholars, or anti-Mormons of seeking to ruin her beehive with base slander).  She never admits any wrong on her part, preferring to pass the buck to "bad" drones, whom she then offers for public humiliation: two recent examples are Dick Fuld (the only banker who was actually allowed to fail) and Randy Bott (who is currently taking heat for expressing out loud what some more powerful members of the Corporation of the President have long believed).  John D. Lee is another example, and anyone who blames Bush or Obama solely for any of the decisions made by their army of handlers (not to mention incredibly powerful associates, like the chairman of the Federal Reserve) comes close to making them scapegoats as well.  In short, she is not very good at being honest.

So transparency is not something she does, until she has to, and even then she fails to come fully clean, blaming one drone for a mistake that implicates all of them along with the culture of crazy groupthink that their mistress cultivates--a culture in which the greater good requires worker bees to make any sacrifice, no matter how great, to keep the company alive in its current state.  (That is the Abrahamic sacrifice, right there.  Do this awful thing because God demands it.  Hold your nose, and it will all turn out right.)  Unfortunately, sacrificing scapegoats does not always work.  Wall Street is still teetering, even though Dick Fuld's Lehman Brothers went bust.  (Other businesses also needed to go down, and the more we keep them alive on life support, the weaker our "recovery" is going to be, before we are once again in the emergency room.)  LDS doctrine on negroes is still historically racist, even if the Corporation of the President has excoriated Randy Bott.  The Democratic and Republican parties are both out of touch with reality, no matter whom the voting public elects to sit in the White House and hold press conferences.  (Clinton? Gore? Bush? Obama? Santorum? Romney?  These guys all look remarkably similar to me.  All of them are plutocrats.  All of them pander to me with words that sound nice.  All of them are Queen's men.)  Nazism was certainly bigger than Adolf Eichmann, who represents perhaps the most famous individual instance of the problem created by human hive culture.  Suppose that some historical fluke had allowed us to extract him alone, try him solo, and punish him somehow for his callous attitude toward human life.  Would Nazism then have been perfectly benign?  Was Eichmann (or the other Adolf, for that matter) the only reason thousands of bureaucratic Germans went berserk in the mid-twentieth century?  No.  The problem is bigger than any one person.  It comes from the hive.  It comes from too many people burying the wolf too deep.

The wolf knows that there is no such thing as a greater good that does not do irreparable harm to somebody.  The wolf knows that truth is always better than lies, if you want to run a business that does not go bust or trample on the people it aims to serve.  (On the other hand, if you are a worker bee dealing with a cut-throat Queen looking for somebody to scapegoat, you had much better lie than tell the truth.  The Queen always claims the right to lie to you as much as she wants: why does she throw a royal fit when someone pays her back in her own currency?)  The wolf knows that only men without honor suppress truth that is not "useful" -- coaxing workers into the hive with promises that don't match reality.  If you want to do business with the wolf, you have to stand for something yourself.  You have to be more than a company drone.  The wolf is not always polite.  He does not always dress posh.  His accent can be off-putting.  He often has habits that others find distressing.  But he is honest about them.  He doesn't play the Queen's game of Jekyll and Hyde, wearing one face in public and another inside the boardroom.  If he wants to lie to you, or take your cash (or the livelihood and life that that cash represents), or assassinate your character, then he will do it to your face.  He won't stab you in the back and then come calling with some story about how the degradation is good for your character development (but bad for his, it would seem: why does the greater good always mean workers doing more for drones? the Queen hates questions like this).  If he pays taxes, it is because he either fears retribution (e.g. from the IRS) or believes in the services that he actually securing (e.g. federal agencies, with everything they do for the common good).  If he pays the Corporation of the President their 10% of his income, it is because he believes in what that corporation does: he wants his money feeding a church that just spent some $5 billion on the most expensive mall in the world (at $2500 per square foot, the City Creek Center in Salt Lake City is more expensive than the Burj Khalifa, which only cost $450 per square foot, or the much larger City Center of Las Vegas, which came to $655) while offering a mere $1.2 billion (or so) in humanitarian aid over the past 25 years (1985-2009).  (Shopping is great!  And we should give some change to the beggars, too.  That's what Jesus would do, right?  Some wolves probably believe this.  The bees just bring their honey into the hive because that is what bees do.  They don't care what happens to it afterward.  That's someone else's job.)

The reason that we need to keep closer touch with our inner wolf is that the beehive is never as safe as the Queen wants it to seem.  Eventually, it is going to topple over.  (Every hive in history has fallen.  Why should ours be any different?  Others were no less convinced of their special invulnerability than we are, and look where that hubris took them.)  When it does fall, we need people able and willing to put up a new one.  We need people who know how to take risks, how to lose (without blowing up), and above all, how to connect with other people and convince them not to go berserk.  It takes a wolf to talk a wolf down.  Some of the Queen's top drones are just wolves patched over with a thin layer of beeswax: they are actually not as scary as those whose wolfish nature is wholly dormant.  These jokers believe in their own mythology, to the point that they cannot accept correction.  (Dick Fuld is one of these folks: to this day he thinks that he did nothing wrong, that his bankrupt business was fundamentally sound.)  These are the guys who cannot see reason, no matter how it dresses up and dances for them.  Drunk on their own righteousness, they will go to their graves refusing to doubt themselves no matter how ruthlessly reality tarnishes the fantasy that they are masters of the universe.  ("Just give me a chance!" they tell whoever wants to hear, "This time, it will be great!  Profits are going to go up!"  The proper wolfish response is, "Whatever, dude.")  Following such philosopher-kings is dangerous, to the individual (especially) and to the group as well.  I hope there are less of them in power than I sometimes fear.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Making Peace with Stupid

Here is something I wrote in response to an informal discussion of this article

Superstition is a natural state. We all behave superstitiously at some point every day (when we pick a shirt that reminds us of something pleasant; when we repeat words uttered before some successful venture; when we invest in some complex activity that we don't fully understand that has turned out well in the past). Some kinds of ignorance can be overcome with newer, better information (which falsifies or clarifies the earlier stuff). But it nevertheless remains true that lack of superstition is not natural: we have to work hard to achieve moments of clarity, and even then we only get moments (and only in certain contexts: many of us who are very astute when it comes to dealing with claims about physical or religious realities devolve into primitive morons when we grapple with politics or economics). 

A body-mind analogy may be helpful here. The human body is an enormous colony of cells, some of which work at cross purposes with one another. If something goes terribly wrong, these cells can go crazy and start killing one another (cancer, metabolic disorders). Sometimes, killing off large numbers of some cells can mitigate the damage (and save the body). But in the long run, the body that is going to survive has to have some viable means for integrating "rogue" cells: we need an immune system, and we need foreign bacteria to invade and colonize various parts of us (especially our intestinal tract).

In the same way, the human mind is an enormous collection of ideas/memes, some of which are always going to be idiotic.  Healthy living means learning to accommodate the right amount of stupid ideas, learning how to avoid letting our stupid ideas destroy us.  We would like to eradicate stupidity, but this is impossible.  We have to live with dumb, because that is what we are (at least in part).  Religion has a lot of experience dealing with stupid, and not all of that experience is bad.  Learning from history is not a bad idea.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Playing with Peers

A friend sent me this article, which in my mind represents a really robust, thoughtful kind of conservatism.  Where the author and I part ways is unclear, largely because I cannot tell precisely what social policies his political platform proposes.  (Is he against gay marriage?  Is he against polygamy?  Does he support the US Department of Education? etc.)  I like this article enough to say a few things here about it.

The author recognizes that evolution does not make all human beings equal: men are not women, Westerners are not sub-Saharan Africans, and I am not Bill Gates, Grigori Perelman, or Barack Obama.  This is an important point that often gets the shaft, for reasons that the author recognizes: saying that humans are inherently unequal flouts the Declaration of Independence (at least prima facie) and reeks of the kind of eugenics (and so-called Social Darwinism) whose most famous practitioners were the Nazis.  That the Nazis believed in inequality is unfortunately no reason to doubt (1) that inequality exists or (2) that it is a permanent part of the natural landscape (which includes humanity).  Here I have a point to make, which may or may not agree with whatever it is that the author ultimately wants to say.

What makes people evil and wrong and dangerous is not inequality, but the way they use their inequality.  You and I are different: maybe you are more athletic and smarter, but I was born into a much luckier family.  There is really no way to make our ultimate outcomes different (in my opinion).  My genes will never be yours, and my luck won't be either.  In my world, law exists not to make us similar (taking away my excess good luck and giving me more wit or athleticism--or taking yours away--so that we can be peers), but to insure that we don't use our differences to beat each other up unnecessarily.  You don't get my spot, but I don't get yours either.  You don't get my luck.  I don't get your muscles.  Neither one of us gets to decide precisely when or how we die.  Society works best when both of us are allowed as much freedom as possible to be what God (or nature) made us to be.

This is why I say, let the gays marry.  If it is meant to come to no good end, it will (though how this will happen remains unclear).  On the other hand, if it yields some unexpected benefit, I don't want to stand in the way of that.  Let women do the same work that men do.  If Larry Summers is right about their mental capacity (a big if), then a few really great female brainiacs will be surpassed by even brainier male counterparts.  Big deal.  Society doesn't require the smartest people to be the only ones allowed to study: Marie Curie was an important influence (a vital one), even if she wasn't as smart (by some measurement) as some less famous male colleague(s).  The same goes for women in the sciences today: they are doing important work, even if they aren't the best at whatever it is they do (how do we define "best" here, really?  I confess I find reductive definitions of intelligence unconvincing, but then maybe I am a closet female).  I'll personalize this.  Let me spend 10 years pursuing a PhD in the humanities.  Maybe I will come out with a degree and no job, since the market is small and I am less qualified than many other candidates.  If that is the case, then I will go back to the drawing board.  I will adapt.  I will find or craft a niche where I can use what I have learned in a way that benefits me and those around me.  Maybe I will go back to school and study something else.  Maybe one of my hobbies will take off.  Maybe I will make a lucky investment.  Maybe some friend or family member will lead me to an unexpected opportunity that makes my fortune (not that I am counting on this, by any means).  But I won't wish that my choice to study Greek and Latin had been co-opted by some careful civil servant crunching my test numbers and deciding, "No, you had better go into some other field: I think you belong in secretary school."  If I am to live, it is important that I have some choice in the manner of my life (or death, if that is what it ends up being: if I can steer the ship, then I can also wreck her).  Human beings are structured this way, I believe.  We adapt.  We play.  We discover solutions in unexpected places, often by accident as we goof off.  (Here I put in a shameless plug for Mark Sisson's 2011 AHS lecture on play, which I thoroughly enjoyed.)

Somewhere along the road to civilization, many of us lost our playfulness.  We created rules, inventing people who are "more important" to the community than other people.  Hunter-gatherers, from what I understand, are fiercely egalitarian.  They share everything (food, shelter, sex, play, you name it).  We moderns cannot be so open.  But we can be more open than many of us want to be.  And when we are, we do better work (as individuals and as a community).  More idiots interested in science means that more resources go into science (which then speaks more loudly and intelligibly to the really smart people, who may or may not turn out to be Larry Summers' male brainiacs).  Mistakes give us the chance to learn how to do things better.  Ideally, rules are just useful shorthand helping us to remember past mistakes.  In reality, they often turn into me rigging the game such that I always win and you always lose.  In the end, this rigid approach hurts both of us, when I win a passive-aggressive wife who resents my superior intelligence (ha!), and you--as a homosexual--are left with no honorable place to take your sexual urges.  The really helpful rules, the ones without which we cannot live, are pretty obvious and pretty simple.  Breaking them usually results in death and mayhem (not always in that order).  It is unfortunate that sometimes we become so attached to unnecessary rules that we feel duty-bound to commit unnecessary mayhem when they are broken.  Despite what some people felt (or feel), there is nothing inherently awful or destabilizing about letting black people associate freely in every way with white people (or any other people).  Desegregation was supposed to destroy the world in the old South.  It didn't (though some crazy fools did their best to make sure it did).  Based on the evidence I see, I think the same is true for homosexuals.  Let them play with us.  If they do something really terrible, we can always unleash the beast that so many of us want to set loose pre-emptively.  But they won't.  They know better than to try and rig the game on us the way some of us want to rig the game on them.  Hatred begets hatred.  Suppression begets suppression.  Merciless rules beget merciless rules.  The fewer merciless rules, the better.  The freer play is, the freer we are to learn from it.          

I may not be able to paint as well as you, but that is no reason for me to be forbidden from picking up a brush.  I may not be as successful as you, but that is no reason for me to give up my dreams without even trying to make them real.  You get nothing by stamping on me.  I get nothing by stamping on you.  Fascism doesn't help anyone's game.