Sunday, January 23, 2011

Genesis of Failure

A smirk, a nod, a wink
Now who would ever think
That could erode our state’s
Effectiveness and charm
Or destabilize our fate
And do us long term harm
But the smirk became a sneer
That broadened every year
Becoming then a smear
That covered efforts dear
And that became a shout
To throw the bastards out
And shouts became the shots
At the haves from the have nots

As I try to make sense out of the current state of our democracy, I am reminded how Ronald Reagan cleverly created anecdotes to emphasize his political points, but even Reagan would not be able to understand how much this one anecdote has morphed. You may recall Reagan telling this “story”: “I am from the government and I am here to help.” It was pretty innocent and meant to generate a smirk or two if not a laugh. Yes, of course, Reagan emphasized the negative aspects of government in order to make a political point as well as to entertain his audiences. He favored outsourcing and espoused “small” government although he grew it at an alarming pace along with additional deficits of $1.6 trillion. At no time, in my recollection, did Reagan suggest the destruction of government in order to reach his goals. That task was seized by Grover Norquist: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Drowning is destruction in most contexts including that of government. We will look at how that concept of destruction has gone viral.

It took years after Reagan for the smirk to become a sneer. Under Clinton, the negative regard for government took deeper root. Right wing Christian fundamentalists led the charge against Clinton partly due to his personal behavior yet the government shrunk slightly during his Administration. Under Clinton, another aspect contributed to the erosion of faith in government. The Waco, Texas law enforcement against Davidians seemed eerily similar to the war philosophy of destroying a village in order to save it. Clearly, Davidians were armed and wrong, but did our methods exceed expected enforcement? Clinton added $1.5 trillion to our debt in his 8-year administration, while our debt grew by another $1.6 trillion in a mere 4 years under GHW Bush. Clinton was followed by GW Bush who added a whopping $5.5 trillion to our debt. The “conservative Republican” portion of the $10.5 trillion added to our national debt prior to Obama was $8.7 trillion. GW Bush alone accounted for 64% of the added debt under Republicans. Bush Jr. may have been influenced by Vice President Dick Cheney who simply said: “Deficits don’t matter.” Deficits have become a major talking point by citizens on both sides of the political divide with largely conservative rhetoric followed by profligate spending. This has exacerbated distrust of government as well as income differences. We borrowed money to fund tax reductions and moved to tax rates not seen since 1950. The move sharply increased incomes for the rich while the middle class received a smaller share and lost good manufacturing jobs. Tax and spend or borrow and spend?

Another controversial policy that eroded our faith in government was the removal of a social safety net that protected both mentally ill individuals and society at large. The Lamterman-Petris-Short Act signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan ushered in a new era of neglect of mental health patients by transferring them to community centers where they languished and lacked the intensive support of psychiatric institutions. At the time in 1967, it appeared to be a humane way to reduce costs and yet provide an effective structure for delivering care and it came with some federal money to reduce the impact on California. The law also prohibited involuntary commitment, so, predictably, some patients refused treatment. Unfortunately, many patients soon were simply homeless and without treatment while they became more visible to the general population. His budget bill abolished 1700 hospital staff positions and closed several state-operated aftercare facilities. People discovered the previously invisible mental patients and many reacted as though government had failed again.

Trust in government has tanked in the past couple decades and excessive spending but borrowing has only played into that image. Another contributor was media extremists like Rush Limbaugh, who has imitators but no peer on the left, depend on outrageous accusations and chatter that help erode respect for government while they build listener rosters. I have recently seen Glen Beck call for “shooting Democrats in the head,” supposedly before they “shoot you in the head.” Increasingly, citizens have begun to relate to “government” as some anonymous and distant “enemy” rather than an outcome of democratic voting. They wanted more immediate and responsive action to address grievances or fears. In the 2000 election, right wing activists stormed some vote counting centers in Florida demanding immediate redress by stopping recounts. Today, they would probably carry guns. This seems to be just opposite what democratic processes require. Miss-steps by elected government continued, however. Under Bush Jr., for example, the questionable war in Iraq was followed by the establishment of a domestic monitoring system of all phone calls by ATT from a San Francisco center. That became a reality that shook some Americans, although it was allegedly done to eliminate and then monitor terrorists. Could Americans be the focus of information gathering by their government? For some, this added to their distrust of government while others felt that the practice was needed to spy on potential terrorists. A divide opened wider and “foreign terrorists” were targets of vituperative language. Soon anybody that looked or sounded Middle-Eastern or Islamic was isolated and condemned in the media and some political extremists. As the economy slipped to recession in 2007 and 2008, additional blame games began. The middle class shrunk while the rich were much richer and while some blamed government policies, others blamed Mexican immigrants. The anti-immigrant rhetoric soared. Meanwhile the arming of individual Americans grew with the lexicon of fear. Some Tea Party events look more like sedition than support of conservative policy.

If you are both a plutocrat and an extremist, then one way of accelerating your goals would be to have the government acquire so much debt that only draconian measures could save the day by, for example, eliminating all entitlement programs. The programs of the FDR Administration rankle ultra conservatives who are still looking to repeal the New Deal. Failing to fund the Iraqi war, added massively to our debt. The arguments for tax breaks are simple and persuasive. It is your money that you earned, why let the government take it away? Instead of tax and spend, it became borrow and spend. Unfortunately, it is not our money. It is money from China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Korea and they demand interest. The reality of borrowing escapes the logic and the rhetoric.

Unfortunately, the average American is told that his/her jobs are being taken by “illegals” and we need to stop the flow. Were the flow to stop, wages would rise and plutocrats would fight that until wages fell again. Meanwhile, agitators can blame all this on the “government.” What a wonderful world. In the past couple years, even the word “tyranny” has gained traction at rallies and demonstrations. America is far from tyranny, but closer to uprisings. The behavior has become more enflamed and the rhetoric more combative as well as irrational as people fall from the middle class. Banks gambled and homeowners lost, but the government got blamed instead of banks. Permissive regulation contributed heavily to the gambling, and yet the cry by banking is to remove the few regulations that remain. Profits are literally at an all-time high and yet the Chamber of Commerce and other groups are complaining that the government has too much control. Pundits and commentators take up the chant and the chant becomes a shout: “Throw the bastards out.” As we create more have-nots and engorge the plutocrats we also limit opportunities to educate our citizens. Reducing taxes reduces public education, the historic avenue to improve our lives. Wages are stagnant. Homes are lost. Desperation grows and the stable become shaky while the unstable become explosive. “Kill the government,” forgetting that the government is us. Opponents become enemies. Differences become targets. Shouts become gunshots. Selfishness replaces commonwealth. Death replaces life. Failure is in birth throes.
George Giacoppe
15 January 2011

Monday, January 03, 2011

Who/What Do You Think You Are?

The year’s end often brings up thoughts about fundamentals, and this one is no different. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this odd fact: though we have all kinds of religions and spiritual practices, and though science has brought us insight and evidence about natural processes from the inconceivably huge—the universe, said to have originated 15 billion years ago with a Big Bang—to the infinitely small—particles so puzzling they can hardly be said to have an actual existence beyond a certain probability, yet the whole existence in which we are engaged is still an almost total mystery. Who are we? What are we? We don’t know. We all have beliefs about this; and half-baked ideas from popular versions of science; but when it comes right down to it, we not only don’t know who we are or what we are, but even less about why we’re even here. How we’re even here. Why the human race is even here (sometimes, and often these days, it appears we’re here to fuck up the planet so badly that it becomes unlivable not just for us, but for all else. Even prehistorically, as Edward O. Wilson in The Future of Life says, man, far from being a “noble savage,” was and is “the planetary killer…Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse.”)

But for now, let’s just look at this simple question: Which is primary, matter or mind (sometimes referred to as spirit, soul, etc.)? Science, of course, has few doubts about this. Matter spontaneously generated life (it used to be thought that light energy, a flash of lightning perhaps, was needed to ignite basic chemicals into amino acids; now, much research is focused on life originating in the oceans near the deep vents—sites where exudations of sulfur and heat from the earth’s interior generate anaerobic bacteria, and strange life-forms that require neither light nor oxygen), and from tiny one-celled organisms continued to evolve into more and more complex organisms over billions of years until finally, there was us. In fact, for most of the previous hundreds of years, scientists did not even consider ‘mind’ a fit term to investigate. More recently, though, psychologists and neuroscientists have been looking more seriously into this thing called ‘mind.’ And though they’re still not sure what mind is, or where it’s located, it appears to be some product of matter, specifically the brain, and to have a ‘real’ existence. When it comes to priority, though, most scientists would be adamant: matter comes first. And this has meant, logically, that our era has become the age of materialism. Matter is what matters. All conclusions about origins and purpose stem from that.

Materialism, though, is precisely what many thoughtful people—philosophers, artists, spiritual seekers, religious leaders—find wanting. And so the origin stories that have come down to us from great thinkers and spiritual leaders all put matter secondary to something else: spirit, soul, mind, ideal forms, consciousness, something immaterial. And, that that something immaterial either is or gives birth to mind. In Genesis, God—the great spiritual, eternal being—creates the universe and all in it, including all the various animals and humans, in seven days. God speaks the Word (or is the word), and it is made flesh, or is clothed in flesh. Thus, the breath of some creator God instills life and order into a previously dead and chaotic mess of something, or nothing. And keeps it going. And the task of beings, especially human beings, is to seek to obey and eventually to reunite with that creator God in a more ideal place, an Afterlife. In eastern traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, the theoretical base suggests that some sort of Cosmic Mind has priority. From that big mind emerges the forms that are designed to survive in the material world: cells, bodies, and all that drives them from the beginning, mainly desire for increase and security. The task of the human—built as a vehicle for contemplating all of existence, sometimes imaged as the desire of the creator mind to reflect or contemplate itself—is to come to some sort of realization of what is true and real, above and prior to the material self that is secondary and, in some sense, illusory. As Karen Armstrong puts it in the Great Transformation: “The ultimate reality was an immanent presence in every single human being. It could, therefore, be discovered in the depths of the self.” It takes most humans several lifetimes to accomplish this; meantime, the imperishable part keeps recycling through life forms (rebirth or reincarnation) over and over. Plato’s image of the cave provides a concrete image for a similar idea. That is, the ideal forms that are primary and eternal for Plato, are not seen by normal beings, who see only reflections—reality reflected by firelight on the wall of a cave. Most humans, that is, see only the physical world, which is changing constantly, and which was created by a demiurge. Though the world he created was based on the eternal forms, it is really only a weak, pale reflection of the true forms. These eternal forms themselves are accessible only to philosophical reason and exalted perception.

It is clear then that two positions are available to us all. Either we consider material existence the be-all and end-all; which is to say that we are born, our brains generate an entity we call mind, we mature, and we die; one shot and that’s the end of it. OR, we are aggregates of some stuff that is really only a pale shadow of a more fundamental reality—a prior and superior mind or soul that we can unite with through the proper rational, behavioral, spiritual, or contemplative practices. Those who subscribe to the first view are sometimes called ‘realists;’ those who subscribe to the second are sometimes called ‘idealists.’ Which are you?

What has given new life to such questions is the emergence, in recent years, of formerly esoteric practices, mostly from the east, coupled with interpretations of scientific developments that appear to provide real-world support for those esoteric views. Consider this quote from a recent book, The Non-Local Universe: The New Physics and Matters of the Mind, Robert Nadeau and Menos Kafatos, Oxford U Press: 1999:

If the universe is a seamlessly interactive system that evolves to higher levels of complexity and if the lawful regularities of this universe are emergent properties of this system, we can assume that the cosmos is a single significant whole that evinces progressive order in complementary relation to its parts. Given that this whole exists in some sense within all parts, one can then argue that it operates in self-reflective fashion and is the ground for all emergent complexity. Since human consciousness evinces self-reflective awareness in the human brain and since this brain (like all physical phenomena) can be viewed as an emergent property of the whole, it is not unreasonable to conclude, in philosophical terms at least, that the universe is conscious. (p. 197)

What this interpretation leads to—starting from a wholly materialistic view based in the most materialistic of all scientific paradigms, evolution—is the rather idealistic view that the material universe is actually not dead matter at all; it is alive. It is, in some sense that we are still not clear about, conscious. More, that this universal, conscious whole—that which may have given rise to the idea called ‘God’—“exists in some sense within all [its] parts.” Which is to say, in each one of us.

So what are we? Are we truly separate selves going about our daily lives as best we can—which is to stay alive long enough to reproduce our kind in a way that helps them not just survive, but out-compete all other beings? Or are we interconnected manifestations of some incomprehensible whole, some mind that has not only generated us, but which is within each one of us and thus accessible to our self-reflection?

And how can we tell? What would serve as proof of one or the other position? Is there such a thing as proof; or is there simply belief? And what does it matter?

I would suggest that the view one settles on matters profoundly. For what we believe about who or what we are is the basis for all sorts of decisions about how to act—both towards all other humans (not just those in our tribe), and towards the world as a whole. And it is this that will increasingly, I think, become the crucial matter for all of us.

Obviously, there is more to say about this. Later.

Lawrence DiStasi