If You Wanted to Sabotage the Canada/US Elections…

(In case it isn’t obvious, this article is meant as satire.)

image from The Daily Show
Canadians go to the polls for a federal election this fall; Americans do so next fall. There is already evidence of large-scale election meddling through social media, with campaigns of misinformation attempting to convince target demographics to change their votes or their views on particular subjects.

These misinformation campaigns prey on the fact that, under our hopelessly broken first-past-the-post electoral system, people vote against the party/candidate they least want to win, rather than for anyone or anything. And in referenda, they are much more likely to show up and vote against a resolution if they’re unsure or frightened about it, than to support it if they’re OK with it.

The objective of misinformation campaigns is usually to find ways to outrage one side, or sometimes both sides of an issue simultaneously, in order to polarize, obfuscate, and/or distract. To polarize so that reasonable consensus can never be reached; to obfuscate so that the important aspects of an issue, or the important positions of the candidates, get lost in the shouting over one particular (usually misrepresented) fact, issue or position; and to distract so that no one is paying attention, either to what’s really important or to those who are coherently offering understanding and new ideas about the real issues and crises we’re facing.

Danah Boyd recently wrote a fascinating article about the deliberate propagation of misinformation through social and mainstream media, including gaslighting (the systematic, psychological manipulation used by cults and abusive partners to the point the victim begins to doubt their perceptions, reality or even sanity), using untruths to encourage conspiracy theories, and flooding the Internet, its bubbles, and the faux-news channels and talk-shows, with inflammatory made-up phrases (“partial-birth abortion”; “death taxes”) for which there is no rebutting or factual information available, because there are no links to articles where the correct terms are explained. In other words, this is the business of deliberately manufacturing ignorance, misunderstanding, and conflict to subvert the political process.

Such misinformation campaigns are not used exclusively by the Russians and Chinese (though there is evidence they have become particularly advanced in those heavily repressed countries). They are increasingly used everywhere in campaigns by the parties and candidates themselves, and especially by special-interest groups with a vested interest in keeping the public uninformed, misinformed, distracted and put off by the whole political process to the point they cease participating in it, so the special-interest groups’ political power and influence is unchallenged.

This is not hard to do. But why would anyone want to do this? Several reasons: To change the results in favour of candidates the saboteurs prefer, most obviously — candidates who are dysfunctional or easily corruptible and/or who share the saboteurs agendas. Or simply to destabilize the country’s body politic to weaken its global influence. So much power is at stake there is always great motivation to try to steal it, and misinformation (in both mainstream and social media) is an increasingly effective way to do it.

If you wanted to sabotage the upcoming Canadian or US elections, here are a few things you might do, if you had the money and power (that probably lets you and me out):

  1. Propagate demoralizing stories that suggest a tight hegemony of powerful interests will override the will of any elected government, so that “it doesn’t matter who wins”. In some of these stories, you could paint this hegemony as left-wing (and throw in the name ‘Soros’), and in others, you could paint it as right-wing (and throw in the name ‘Koch’). This would outrage and frustrate some older and more polarized voters, and discourage many younger and more moderate voters. Especially in missives that will be read by the young and others with very limited power, you might reinforce that (a) all politicians are liars, (b) all parties are the same, and (c) what happens is unaffected by whoever gets into power — to discourage people from voting — this is particularly easy and effective because it is more than slightly true.
  2. Infiltrate public demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations, with paid agents who identify themselves as ‘anarchists’ (or some other title almost no one wants to be associated with). You might ensure these agents are masked, and suggest they randomly but ferociously confront authorities, provoke counter-demonstrators, use obscene, inflammatory and threatening language, and commit meaningless and visually-spectacular acts of property destruction. This would demoralize both sides and polarize them at the same time, as they point fingers at each other.
  3. Fiercely defend the current electoral system, especially the first-past-the-post electoral system, to encourage fewer and fewer parties to run, and to discourage supporters of third parties from bothering to show up. This way, only two parties will be left for you to bribe and control, and they will generally have close-to-identical platforms (for fear of alienating the mythical ‘moderate’ voter). You would of course run misinformation/fear campaigns to ensure all attempts at electoral reform fail. Likewise, you would (through op-eds and lobbying) defend gerrymandering (but call it ‘redistricting’), and encourage large-scale voter disenfranchisement (but call it ‘reducing voter fraud’). This can further discourage voters from showing up, and ensure that incumbents already under your control are not challenged.
  4. Hack voting machines. This is incredibly easy to do, and has the advantage of frightening voters of all political stripes into believing that perhaps their votes don’t/didn’t count and the election has been stolen. Outrage and helplessness — great combination for manipulating voters!
  5. Distribute wildly inflated, conflated and invented stories about political correctness, especially at universities. Nothing enrages struggling people across the political spectrum as much as the fiction that privileged students are boycotting their English literature classes because some of the books have ‘trigger words’, and nothing infuriates traditionalists as much as the insistence that in most contexts the word ‘Christmas’ be dropped in favour of ‘holiday’. You might therefore insist that all candidates denounce political correctness as something that ‘was well-intended but has gone too far’ and then leave them to fight over what the hell that means. This is especially effective when there’s a need to distract people who want to hear candidates’ positions on real issues like climate change, gun control and reproductive choice.
  6. Finance single-issue negative candidates, and, if it’s not too unpleasant or dangerous, hate groups. This helps them get more media attention, so that extremists are emboldened to make outrageous statements, terrifying much of the electorate and focusing them on that particular single issue, and distracting from other issues you don’t want talked about.
  7.  Support candidates who play on people’s fear and shame over being poor, sick, or uneducated, especially by exaggerating (or fabricating) isolated stories of misbehaving poor, sick and uneducated people. This will distance people from the victims (particularly if they appear ridiculous or inarticulate on camera), make progressives feel more defensive about supporting social programs, make conservatives feel more self-righteous about cutting social instead of military programs, and make those struggling feel too ashamed to speak up. Triple win!
  8. Propagate conspiracy theories. Finance candidates and ‘experts’ who whip up fears of government conspiracies on issues like 5G, 911 and vaccines. These are perfect issues for turning progressives against each other and hence neutralizing their momentum on other issues, because it’s essentially impossible to prove conclusively that something didn’t happen. They also help foment further anti-government sentiment among conservatives, but then again, there are so many conspiracy theories that you can use to work up anti-anything fervour among conservatives that it’s not even a fair fight. Several can be squeezed into a single sound bit.
  9. Invent and redefine words and phrases. Deliberately and repeatedly use words that misrepresent and connotatively slur perfectly acceptable and desirable projects and groups. A great example: “entitlements” — a way better word to use than “pensions for public service workers” if you want to make people think there’s something wrong about them.
  10. Use lawyers to scare advocates and opponents. Lawyers should be employed liberally to support and enhance your democratic subversion efforts — that’s what they’re there for! For example, enable parties and governments to launch or threaten legal actions against each other’s supporters, or against your opponents. This can have a particularly chilling effect on any free speech you want to squelch. Just make sure not to call your witch hunts by that name: they’re ‘investigations into possible impropriety’. Best to say the investigation is focused on unnamed ‘foreign interest groups’ to get the xenophobes whipped up into a fury too.
  11. Blame ‘foreigners’. You don’t have to name which ‘foreigners’ specifically, but be sure to blame ‘them’ generously for everything, including your election hacking. If you can work in ‘illegal immigrants’ or the subtler ‘political refugees’ into your statement of blame that’s a bonus — thanks to the media, even liberals are afraid of them now, and they can’t defend themselves! Particularly effective is to blame ‘foreign influence’ and ‘foreign money’, which sounds shady as long as it isn’t referring to what your country does elsewhere, and it’s so vague you can’t really be called on it.
  12. Paint both sides as anti-semitic, anti-democracy, or anti-(your country name here). No one wants to be labelled any of these things, since they’re anathema to every part of the political spectrum. And it doesn’t take much to get the label to stick (supporting a boycott of Israeli goods, or opposing holding a referendum before electoral reform can occur, or ‘disrespecting’ the flag, should be enough to deep-six the labelled candidate or group for at least one election).
  13.  Create out-of-context and faked videos: This is the newest and sexiest way to disrupt any campaign. Issue lots of videos of candidates that have been altered by selective mixing and editing to convey a completely different picture from what actually happened, and which make what was said or done look particularly egregious. If that isn’t convincing enough, create faked videos from scratch using new digital graphics, sound and animation technologies to show something that never happened at all, and then attribute the video to an ‘anonymous source’ that sent it indirectly to you. Act concerned and alarmed, and be agnostic about its veracity, putting the onus on the victim to ‘prove’ it is altered or faked.

Then again, you may not need to do any of these things. The political parties and candidates in both countries seem bent on sabotaging their election campaigns all by themselves. Nevertheless, I think we may be unnerved by what may happen over the next months and years about how election processes work, and don’t work, in the 21st century. There are some rumblings that the entire idea of (at least representative) democracy is in inevitable and permanent decline. Whether that happens or not, we should be prepared for a roller-coaster ride, and some big surprises, in the elections to come. The voters, in both countries, and across the political spectrum, are not happy with the current processes, or the candidates and actions they produce.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Links of the Quarter: September 2019

cartoon by Lars Kenseth in the New Yorker

What have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?
   (TS Eliot)

Hiraeth (heer-eye-th) (Welsh)
A word with no direct English translation. It means a longing for a home, or a time that felt like home. This isn’t homesickness, it’s a deep yearning for somewhere that may not quite exist as you remember it.
   (from the Guardian)


cartoon by Ed Hall 

What if we stopped pretending?: Jonathan Franzen talks about the inevitability of collapse. The environmental establishment is, of course, aghast that such a celebrity would write candidly about the fact climate collapse is occurring and complete collapse is inevitable (such acceptance threatens their ‘hopium’ jobs); Grist went so far as to call him a “climate coward”, and Scientific American told him to “shut up”. Ah well, two steps forward, one step back. Excerpt:

All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities. In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.

You and I are doomed; the Earth not so much: Martin Shaw suggests how we can come to accept collapse, and in the process get over ourselves. “In the darkness, we remember what we love the most. Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.

Collapse: the only realistic scenario: In an excellent series on collapse by French documentarian Clément Montfort, scientist Arthur Keller explains how and why collapse is now inevitable. Thanks to the NTHELove group for the link.

A Latin-American leader takes responsibility for his country’s desperate emigrants: “It is our fault”, said El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele responding to the death of a father and daughter who drowned while trying to reach the US. His country exemplifies what collapse looks like: Desolated soils, stolen and exhausted resources, political corruption due largely to foreign and plutocratic interference and bribes exhausting the treasury, gang violence and extortion filling the local power vacuum fuelled largely by foreign money and arms, endemic impoverishment and unrepayable debts thanks to exploitation and economic blackmail by mostly foreign ‘investors’ including the IMF. There are scores of countries around the world in a similar state of irreparable collapse; they mirror the collapse of impoverished poor families everywhere as inequality of wealth, income and power skyrockets. Study them, and see the possible future for all of us in a world of collapse. The Salvadorian president’s acceptance of responsibility, brave as it is, is misplaced; no one is to blame for what we all, with the best of intentions, have created.


image from Greta’s Facebook page

Why public disruption is necessary: XR guru Roger Hallam on the necessity of disruption to achieve change. Goes along with their excellent FAQ.

How to stop procrastinating: Nothing terribly new here, but some useful reminders — a behavioural scientist suggests:

• set specific, concrete, doable goals
• break big projects into small tasks
• set daily time/place routines and stick to them for at least 2 months
• schedule downtime and deadlines that must be met before each
• sleep, eat and exercise well
• banish distractions, mess,
• find ways to make worthwhile tasks easier

1619 Podcast: The NYT is running a series on the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in the US, on several media. The print stuff is all buried behind the paywall, but the podcast is available to all. For now, anyway.

The True Story Award: This is a new award, originating in Switzerland, recognizing exceptional narrative journalism that illuminates non-western perspectives on world events. Here are the latest winners, some of which are moving; others are gut-wrenching. Some staggeringly-courageous journalism. Here is a gentler story that particularly moved me, as it describes how a citizens’ assembly can transform worldviews and morph distrust into solidarity. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the links.

Advancing women artists: To overcome misogyny in the arts, an American-Italian women’s collaborative is bringing to light some extraordinary and overlooked women artists in Tuscany‘s “museums, churches and storage facilities”. Thanks to Nathaniel James for the link.

Women game designers kick butt: Some of the cleverest, most engaging, and most collaborative games were and continue to be designed by women.


image from Twitter, original source unattributed

Quantum shift in law-enforcement thinking?: There’s been a major shift in US sensibilities about what constitutes the greatest threat to public safety — essentially from a belief that it was “foreigners” (of various stripes), to a belief that it is deranged young male right-wing racist loners goaded by predatory right-wing media. There was only so much evidence that could be ignored by even the most NRA-revering Americans before they realized the truth. But recently there is evidence of an even more surprising shift — the same belief has penetrated law-enforcement agencies, long a bastion of right-wing attitudes. As evidence of this, concerted, coordinated police investigations have recently thwarted many US attacks, almost all by this disturbed and dangerous demographic. We can only hope that as this dawns on more and more people, there will be a greater willingness to rein in the massive proliferation of WMDs in individuals’ hands, greater scrutiny of militarized right-wing hate groups, and a growing abhorrence for incitement to (and defence of) violence by politicians and the media. And that religious leaders and their followers will no longer support or tolerate politicians, organizations and parties that pander to hate, violence, disrespect and fear.

How green are the Democratic Party candidates?: Here’s a “rubric” that assesses where all the declared candidates stand on the various issues in the Green New Deal. And here’s a profile of the demographics of the supporters of the leading candidates — probably not what you expected.

How US Republicans subvert democracy: Right-wing extremists in the US have long been advocates of “end justifies any means” tactics. Now, in Oregon, Republican politicans are subverting the will of the people by leaving the state to deprive the majority of the quorum they need to pass climate catastrophe legislation.

Boris Johnson “doesn’t remember” calling the French “turds”: Only a BBC interviewer would have the courage to call the clownish unelected British PM on his blatantly xenophobic and despicable generalizations. He laughed it off and didn’t deny saying it. There is a growing realization that the UK won’t survive his tenure, and will break up.

The paradox of fossil fuel subsidies: George Monbiot reports: “The oil and gas industry intends to spend $4.9T over the next 10 years, exploring and developing new reserves, none of which we can afford to burn. According to the IMF, every year governments subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of $5T – many times more than they spend on addressing our existential predicament. The US spends 10 times more on these subsidies than on its federal education budget.”

Canada’s right-wing conservatives declare war on health-based food guide: The extremist Scheer Conservatives want to ditch the evidence-based food guide and return to the old guide that was heavily influenced by the meat, dairy and processed foods industry. To them, it seems, the health of Big Ag is more important than the health of Canadian citizens. Health experts called Scheer’s plans “intensely stupid”. These are the same nutbars who when last in power eliminated the census and replaced it with a voluntary household survey (when it was restored, a host of new and important information about Canada’s demographics was recovered). But the anti-science Conservatives are running at 36% in the polls, which in Canada’s flawed FPTP system (which Trudeau promised to reform, but then reneged), that could be enough to put them back in power later this year, with the help of the misinformation bots already hard at work. Arno Kopecki laments “What’s a progressive voter to do?” — a good read for Canadian voters, that confirms what is true almost everywhere where an election now looms: the real work begins after the polls close.

And everyone has their price: Despite fierce opposition from many First Nations across Canada, a First Nation business plans to buy 51% of the Tar Sands pipeline that Trudeau bought to bail out Kinder Morgan. The pipeline, recently approved in a farcical process by a Trudeau-appointed Board, will be used to send the ecologically ruinous tar sands’ bitumen sludge from Alberta to China through Vancouver and the Salish Sea. Bitterly disappointing. But opposition First Nations groups and other opponents have filed multiple suits and vow the pipeline will never become operational.

The pathetic misogyny of male critics: There must be some kind of common character flaw that leads some men to decide to become critics. Perhaps it’s so they can deflect criticism from themselves. Whatever it is, the “profession” of “critic”, this Guardian article points out, seems rife with males who are utterly aware of their own misogyny and double standard.

… and the misogyny of birders: The role of female ornithologists has been likewise under-recognized and neglected. And it’s not only the human females studying birds who’ve been overlooked, but the female birds too, which turn out to be a lot more important to avian evolution than anyone expected.

And the rich just keep on getting richer: The top 1% of Americans’ combined net worth has risen from $8T to $29T over the last 20 years. Over the same period, the net worth of of the bottom 50% of Americans has slid into the red — ie more than half of Americans now are under water (owe more than they own). Thanks to AD Mitchell for the link.

Post-note on Epstein: I’m holding off saying anything substantial on this, because I think we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg so far. Attempts to bury the extent of the involvement of a host of the world’s richest and most powerful men are, I think, going to fail this time, because some of those implicated are getting cold feet and talking (and offering absurd excuses) before the SHTF. Stay tuned.


left: image of a hand dryer in a washroom in a Manitoba shopping mall, original source unattributed; right: image of a sign above a sink in a washroom in Thailand, via languagelog — geez! what CAN you do in a washroom these days?

The seal: My friend Bob Turner plays with a seal off the coast of our island, and then wonders if he should have. World-class video. Bonus: Belugas in Lancaster Sound in the Canadian arctic.

Georgia on my mind: I confess to having become deeply infatuated with the music and musicians of the ancient Republic of Georgia. The astonishingly-talented Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili talks eloquently and refreshingly about how it feels to play Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. A Georgian adolescent, Salome Tsulukidzis, with her grandfather’s accompaniment, sings a brilliantly nuanced and accomplished version of a Georgian folk song Tetri Verdebi (White Roses). And a Georgian jazz group riffs off their renowned countryman Giya Kancheli’s famous film music (original version played by Khatia here). I wonder to what extent Georgians’ vocal versatility is attributable to their unique and complex polyphony (which predates western polyphony).

The phenomenon of “net non-permanent residents”: When agencies like Statistics Canada monitor populations, they have to introduce “net non-permanent residents” (NNPRs), a fudge-factor that, at least theoretically, should zero out over any 12-month period (NNPRs are theoretically seasonal workers and students). The problem is, they never zero out, and in Canada’s case they now account for a third of our 1.5% population growth rate year after year — more net population growth than our 0.4% net natural growth (resident births minus deaths) and almost as much as our 0.6% net migration (“permanent” immigration minus emigration). This is 10x the forecast rate of increase of NNPRs in government population projections. It’s not “illegal” immigration. It’s people so desperate to escape their own desolated countries they come here as NPRs and then take whatever work they can get to get their NPR status renewed as long as they can. This is the leading edge of what I have called the Long Migration from economically and ecologically ruined nations (where social collapse is following economic and ecological collapse). It’s very good for Canada — these 1.3 million (3% of all of us) ‘temporary’ Canadians are motivated, hard-working and mostly skilled and competent. But when will we stop fooling ourselves that they’re ‘temporary’, start welcoming them as the refugees they are, and revise our policies and programs accordingly?

Dialogue without quotation marks: The use of ” ” quotation marks to denote dialogue in fiction is a relatively new phenomenon; it was previously assumed that to any attentive reader, what was direct speech rather than narrative was obvious. Now, it seems, we can’t do without them. Or maybe we can… Yes, we can.

Making America great again?: Dmitry Orlov discovered a way to transform the US into an efficient, productive, self-sufficient nation again, one that would certainly, in its simplicity and hubris, warm the heart of any megalomanic president. And he found the prescription in an old, little red book… Wonderfully funny.

The epitome of bad design: An entertaining look at municipal flag design. First, a global overview; then a review of all of BC’s 126 municipal flags, in declining order of sheer awfulness. What’s most interesting are the explanations of why the designs are so bad. Thanks to Maureen Nicholson for the links.

Owl-Kitty, Hollywood star: A Portlander edits famous Hollywood movie scenes to include his cat.

Why we think: A new book argues that thinking did not evolve as a means of communication, but rather as a means of making sense of our spatial environment. We were apparently making maps before we were using language. Thanks to Decivilized for the link.

Real cities give their people places to pee: A report on public washrooms around the world. I confess I have an almost visceral reaction to signs I see everywhere that say, in one way or another, “washrooms for paying customers only”.

Stuff I do anyway: A hilarious self-confession by Olivia de Recat and Lars Kenseth at the New Yorker.


cartoon from Reza Farazmand at poorlydrawnlines.com 

From Caitlin Johnstone: (who also explains how to get ‘archive’ copies of essential articles behind mainstream media paywalls — thanks to “Dr Scanlon” for the link)

The best form of meditation is to just allow everything to be as it is, without trying to manipulate or control your experience. This is also the best form of foreign policy. The path to world peace is the same as the path to inner peace: just quit trying to control everything. “But-but-but if we don’t control the world, the world will be out of our control!” is the most common objection to anti-interventionist foreign policy. It’s also the mind’s most common objection during meditation. We’ve all got a miniature John Bolton living in our head assuring us that the world is a hostile place which we must bring to heel by any means necessary. As within, so without: we will know peace when we finally rid ourselves of the John Boltons. (PS: Yay! One John Bolton down!)

From an unknown source (endlessly recopied on social media):

Weed isn’t a gateway drug. Alcohol isn’t a gateway drug. Nicotine isn’t a gateway drug. Caffeine isn’t a gateway drug. Trauma is the gateway. Molestation is the gateway. Neglect is the gateway. Rape is the gateway. Drug abuse, alcoholism, violent behaviour, hyper-sexuality, self-harm etc. are the symptoms, not the cause of bigger issues, and it nearly always stems from a childhood filled with trauma, absent parents and abusive families.

From Jane Mead:

The Geese

slicing this frozen sky know
where they are going—
and want to get there.

Their call, both strange
and familiar, calls
to the strange and familiar

heart, and the landscape
becomes the landscape
of being, which becomes

the bright silos and snowy
fields over which the nuanced
and muscular geese

are calling—while time
and the heart take measure.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse

It’s encouraging to see that the terms “climate crisis” and even “climate collapse”, which even five years ago were ridiculed as doomerism, are now considered perfectly reasonable descriptions of our current state. That doesn’t mean there is any consensus on how to address it, or any widespread willingness to change our lifestyle to match this new worldview. And it certainly doesn’t mean that climate collapse can be avoided or significantly mitigated. Still, it’s a start.

Lost in this new awareness, however, is that our global industrial economy is once again teetering on the edge of what will be a long drawn-out but ultimately permanent collapse. That’s a concern because if the more pervasive effects of economic collapse come first, there’s a good chance climate collapse will once again be ignored as our attention focuses on the more immediate existential crisis of economic suffering.

And it is very likely that the first dominoes of global economic collapse are, as a recent NYT article highlighted (sadly, behind a NYT paywall), about to fall. And the reasons for this are even more complex and even less understood than the reasons for climate collapse. Here are a few of them:

  1. This economy is built on faith in perpetual growth: faith that rapid and accelerating economic ‘growth’ can and will somehow continue indefinitely, so that investments in the future will continue to make sense. If that faith is shattered — if people begin to doubt that investing now in stocks, bonds, loans, real estate, commodities, and businesses will not yield a positive return commensurate with the risk in the intervening period — then the market value of those goods and securities will crumble, in some cases (like with stocks) to zero. No one will pay money for common stocks, which are the riskiest and lowest-ranking (in the case of insolvency or bankruptcy) securities, unless they believe that the present value (discounted at a rate that reflects the risk of the return being lower than expected) of future cash flows (dividends and sales proceeds) from that investment exceeds the current price. That means the price is hugely vulnerable to changes in perceived future cash flows (profit increases) and to perceived risk. There have been many recessions and depressions precipitated by nothing more than just such a change in perception. And to some extent that change in perception is self-fulfilling.
  2. The value of ‘fiat’ currencies is built on faith: the currencies on which our economy is dependent no longer have any underlying collateral other than the ability and willingness of the issuing government to redeem them at face value. These governments have incurred (especially over the past four decades under conservative governments that have cut corporate and high-worth individual taxes and accelerated ‘defence’ spending and subsidies to corporate friends), colossal levels of indebtedness, and the annual deficits and accumulated debts levels are accelerating every year. Guess what the acceptability and continuance of such debt levels is based on? The ability of future governments to increase revenues, based on accelerating personal incomes and corporate profits. When faith in this ability drops, currencies collapse. See Argentina, Russia, Venezuela etc etc to see how fast and profoundly this happens, and the economic consequences of it.
  3. Economic growth is dependent on ever-accelerating amounts of debt. The economy needs people to continue to consume at ever-increasing rates, which requires most of us to borrow more and more money so we have it to spend. If citizens were to (wisely) decide to repay their debts and live within their means, it would collapse the already-leveraged money supply and bring down the economy. Unfortunately for most citizens, they don’t have the luxury to hold the line on new debts, let alone repay the existing ones. The same thing would happen, incidentally, if the banks decided to become more careful (responsible) about their lending, instead of their current practice of hard-selling gullible customers on incurring additional debts they can’t afford, at usurious repayment rates, and lending money recklessly on the strength of the ‘value’ of wildly-overpriced collateral, or simply to generate more profits and commissions.
  4. Governments and banks are deliberately suppressing interest rates far below current rates of inflation. They are doing this to encourage ever-more borrowing and spending, and to force investors out of bond and other ‘fixed income’ investments into stocks (and real estate), so that the illusion of perpetual increases in stock (and real estate) values (necessary to prevent economic collapse) is continued. This is now hugely difficult to do: Interest rates in most places are near or even below zero, a nightmarish situation for those on fixed incomes, and for pension fund managers prohibited from investing all their funds in stocks. This means that, to avoid the wrath of investors and plunging values, fund managers have to buy extremely-high-risk ‘junk’ and ‘near-junk’ bonds to get any return at all, and have to take higher and higher risks on stock investments. It means listed companies are buying back their own stock to make the remaining shares more valuable on a per-share basis, because they simply can’t keep generating more and more profits-per-share any other way. It means that banks have to furiously fight anti-usury laws that would block them from charging 29% interest on credit card balances while they’re paying the same customers 0.5% on their ‘savings’ accounts — without usurious interest rates on such loans to the poor, they could not generate the needed double-digit increases in profits every year to keep their shares from collapsing and to avoid insolvency and bankruptcy. This ‘tax on the poor’ is a large part of the reason net worth for the vast majority of citizens is now negative and declining, while essentially all wealth accrues to the 1% (tax cuts for the rich also contribute to this). As income and wealth disparity soars, it tears at the very social fabric our economy is supposed to be supporting.
  5. Most citizens are now a few months’ income away from bankruptcy, homelessness, and even hunger. Secure full-time jobs with benefits have disappeared by the millions (they’re too ‘expensive’ for profit-obsessed corporations to offer), leaving most citizens no choice but to work multiple low-paying, insecure jobs, perpetually caught in the two-income trap. While life expectancy has flat-lined, healthy life-years for the poor have fallen due largely to poor diets (they are too busy working to have time to cook healthy food), chronic anxiety and stress, and decreasing access to essential health care (whose costs continue to skyrocket year after year), leading to more and more people who are unable to participate in the labour force and hence dependent on other family members, or rendered homeless. And the population is aging rapidly, facing accelerating health-care costs and sick days, and mostly unable to even think of retiring before they die.
  6. Governments, politicians and corporations are consciously lying about the real rates of inflation and unemployment. Factoring in the soaring costs of health care and housing in affluent nations, true inflation rates are 6-10%, and true unemployment rates are 20-30%. When the typical citizen is paying 8% more per year for essential goods and services, and paying 16% interest on their borrowings (the average for lower-income earners, per the Two Income Trap), while receiving average wage increases of only 2%, and earning just 0.5% on their savings, while facing a high risk that they, or their spouse, will become unemployed in any particular year, the situation is unsustainable and potentially explosive.
  7. Our economy is totally dependent on inexpensive, affordable fossil-fuel energy, water, minerals, construction materials and other resources. The claims that economic growth stems from innovation, efficiency, ‘consolidation’, globalization, and ‘economies of scale’ are complete bunk. All of the growth in our industrial economy over the past century has been due to one factor: the use of cheap energy and resources. Many studies have confirmed there is an almost perfect correlation between energy production (and consumption) per capita and GDP per capita, whether measured over time or between countries. Over that century, cheap fossil-fuel energy constitutes an amazingly-consistent 80+% of that energy, and there is abundant evidence that the only thing that will change that is if (when) available fossil-fuel resources become too expensive for consumers to afford (eg if there is an economic collapse). There is likewise an almost perfect correlation between total energy production (and consumption), total GDP, total stock market value, total world population, total world imports & exports, total resource consumption, and total CO2e emissions. They have all risen, and will all fall, in lock-step.

When economic crises are local, or when there are ways to re-jump-start the economy by correcting the underlying causes that led to the recession or depression, there are levers that can be used to intervene and restore the economy to health. But we used up the last of our available levers in 2008, and we are once again at the tipping point, and this time we are looking at a permanent and global economic collapse. We are finally going to have to face that our perpetual-growth, high-resource use, environmentally-ruinous, debt-faith-dependent economy was never sustainable, and was destined to collapse sooner or later. We will soon (probably in fits and starts over the next three decades or so) be forced to return to a radically relocalized, low-tech economy of sufficiency. It will not be a graceful transition.

In short, while climate collapse will render centralized, high-tech, high-energy use civilization unsustainable, and make much (and possibly all) of the planet uninhabitable, economic collapse will likely make our lives radically different, and will do so well before climate collapse weighs in with full force.

The collapse of our global industrial civilization will have two chapters. The economic collapse chapter will come first. The climate collapse chapter will just be the final blow. It’s unlikely that the survivors, by the end of this century, will be able to read this forecast, and it’s unlikely they will care about why or how it happened. They will be otherwise occupied.

Charts above from OurWorldinData.org CC-by-SA via Sustaining Capabilities blog 2018. Note that the recent drop in proportion of CO2e emissions in affluent nations corresponds to their offshoring much dirty industry to Asia, whose proportion of emissions grew commensurately.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 22 Comments

Dogs in the Stands

cartoon by hugh macleod

OK, so now what’s holding you back? You know that nothing you do makes any enduring difference, to the state of the world or civilization, or in fact to anything, since there is no ‘you’ to make any difference, nor any ‘thing’ to make different. So on multiple levels, you are absolutely free to do whatever you want. And now the best you can do is… as little as possible? Basically just avoid stress? People would kill to have the opportunity you now have, and you’re just whittling it away, wasting it.

Who are you talking to? If it’s that Dave-character that you think you inhabit, it can’t hear you. It’s just an appearance, a part of everything-that-is, nothing wondrously appearing as everything. As for you, you’re just a self. You’re not even an appearance, you’re an illusion. A concoction, a figment of that character’s patterning brain. Basically, you aren’t. So save your breath.

Fine, have it your way. What’s holding it back then? Why is it wasting its life, its privileged opportunity, doing essentially nothing of value?

It has no freedom to do anything. It is going to do what it is going to do, and neither it (the amazing appearance), nor ‘we’ (the astonishing conjured-up illusion), have any say in it whatsoever. So you can get off your high horse.

Hmm. Let me rephrase then: What might motivate this creature to do something that would, in fact, help it, and help us in the process? What might cause it to spend more time in the forest, for example, which is right there a minute’s walk from here, for god’s sake? What might cause it to do things — like travel to beautiful places and different cultures, like having deliberate conversations with really bright people, like getting help to deal with its phobias — that might possibly disrupt the scared, lost, bewildered creature’s default settings and get the idiot over itself?

You still don’t get it. That creature isn’t listening to you; it can’t hear you. We actually don’t exist. Instead of trying to influence the creature, why don’t you try to appreciate why it is not doing any of these things. As much as it likes looking at it, and the idea of spending time in it, it’s uncomfortable in the forest, especially now with the swarming wasps. Travel is hugely stressful these days, arguably not worth the effort and cost. Most conversations with supposedly bright people turn out to be so disappointing! And you know the lame things any counsellor is going to suggest to deal with phobias — “embrace your fears”, etc. When your instincts tell you that anything you try to do to deal with a situation won’t, on balance, be worth the effort and stress, why should you ignore those instincts? ‘Scared, lost, bewildered’ is a perfectly understandable way to be in this crazy world.

Those are lousy excuses. ‘Scared, lost, bewildered’ may be understandable, but it’s not healthy, not natural, and a pretty miserable way to be.

Expecting any creature to behave in a natural way in an unnatural, omnipresent, infantilizing and oppressive culture is absurd. Everything in this human culture is unnatural, disconnected. Of course it’s not healthy, but there’s nothing the creature can do about that, other than its feeble attempts at eating well and exercising, which it does pretty well in the circumstances. And the creature doesn’t seem so miserable to me. Certainly less miserable than it’s been most of its apparent life.

So you think its fine that this creature, our creature, just sits around most days, reading, writing, playing, doing some volunteer stuff, and essentially doing nothing helpful as this whole world goes to shit?

Well, yeah, actually I do think it’s fine. It’s not like it’s real, this creature, or this world. They’re just appearances. The creature does what it must, it does its best, it does what’s easy and when possible it does what’s fun. It’s not like it has any choice in the matter. 

It’s barely alive, it’s so disconnected from everything and everyone else. It’s afraid to feel, for pity’s sake. What kind of life is that? It’s only when it’s in love that it really dares to feel the rush of fully being, here, now. Not taking the risk of failing, of being hurt, being vulnerable, letting go of control — means missing out on all the potential joys of accomplishment, new discoveries, intimate connection, new capacities. There are no highs without the risk of lows, and there will sometimes be lows in any case. No hiding from that.

You’re projecting. Everything you just alleged to be the case for that creature is actually only true for you, self-ish one. I think you’re upset because the ‘reality’ it’s living now, cloistered as that may be from our perspective, essentially denies your existence, our existence, our purpose and meaning and significance. You resent being snubbed, ignored. Let me say it again: It’s doing the only thing it can do in the circumstances. We don’t matter. It’s not listening to us. Since we are actually an illusion, an abstraction conjured up in its brain, it can’t listen to us. The emotions of love, fear, joy that you arrogate to that character are not its, and actually they aren’t yours either. They are things that arise, apparently, and they belong to no one. There is feeling, there are thoughts, there are things happening, but they are all appearances, for no reason, and they belong to no one, especially not to you, my illusory mate. It’s just an amazing, wondrous, show, out of space and time, and there’s no script to follow, nothing that makes any difference, nothing that can be done.

Sounds perfectly awful. If there’s no joy, no falling in love, no adversity to overcome, no learning, no progress, it’s just all flat, empty, passionless, pointless…

Now you’re getting it. Except there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s endlessly wondrous. It’s everything for god’s sake! Appearing out of nothing! Limitless possibilities, eternally, for no one, in no one’s control. And this wondrous everything can still be seen, even though there’s no one to see it. That’s amazing. There is joy and falling in love and learning, just not for any one. It’s everything-endless-joy and everything-endlessly-falling in love, unconditionally, and everything-being- endlessly-rediscovered, re-seen, as if for the first time. Everything is endlessly new. How could anything personal ever even begin to compare to that?

Joy, discovery, love — loving someone so much you would be willing to die for them — these are things that have to be personal, have to be limited, finite, fleeting even, for them to have any value, any meaning, any power, for them to be really felt, cherished. This everything-emotion you describe is just dead, empty. Impossible.

There you go projecting again. It’s absolutely true that for you this eternal wonder at everything is impossible. That’s why you’re trying to hold on so tightly to the personal, temporary emotions. They’re all you can have, at best, all you can hope for. But there’s something much more that you can never see.

How do you know all this? What you say makes no sense, so what makes you so sure? You’re just another part of this Dave-character’s self, with no more access to knowledge than I have.

It’s not something that can be known. It can be described, but that’s not the same thing. It’s intuitive, it’s a remembering, a remembering of before there was a ‘we’, a self, or anything separate. Somehow, it’s obvious. It’s obvious that none of the creatures in this world need a ‘self’, that they have evolved to live, apparently, perfectly well without selves — there is no time (or need) for selves to complicate the simple process of doing the only thing that could be done, apparently, given the creature’s inherent embodied and enculturated conditioning. It’s obvious that all the struggle and misery and suffering that selves are prone to are not what a million years of staggeringly-complex evolution would arrive at, or even tolerate. It’s obvious that there is something wrong with the perception that the miserable, conflicted self would in any way come to control or even influence the brilliantly-evolved character. It’s obvious that the self is just a very complicated and compelling but hopelessly flawed, recursive, model, an unfortunate invention, a spandrel of nature’s experiment with large brains. We know this in our bones, despite all the world’s selves desperately trying to tell us it can’t be. Everything exists without the need for a self to witness it.

And I should take this on faith, just because you choose, like one of those born-again nutcakes, to believe it’s true, despite all the evidence to the contrary?

Well, let’s look at the “evidence”:

  • Astrophysicists and quantum theorists now say that there is no such thing as space or time, just an “infinite field of possibilities”. Sound familiar? Space and time, they now say, are just constructs in the brain to try to make sense of the brain’s perceptions.
  • Cognitive scientists have shown that the mental activity representing a ‘decision’ actually occurs after the body has already begun to enact it, so what seems to be a decision is actually an after-the-fact rationalization, the brain taking credit for what has already been ‘decided’.
  • Thousands of people from myriad backgrounds throughout history have spoken about ‘oneness’ and the realization (suddenly, or after a lifetime of study) that nothing is actually separate, using remarkably similar language. This would seem a strange consensus to have arisen in a hugely disparate and unconnected group of thoughtful people if it weren’t somehow based in truth.
  • Philosophers and scientists are now mostly persuaded that there is no such thing as free will, even if there’s not much consensus on what that means to us, or, if I may be sarcastic for a moment, on what ‘we’ should do about it.

How much evidence do you need? Of course, scientists don’t want to believe any of this — it flies in the face of all of their, and their friends’ and colleagues’, theories and lives’ work — and, like Copernicus, makes them all look like fools for believing what they believed before.

That ‘evidence’, unlike Copernicus’, is completely useless.

Exactly, yes. It suggests that none of our work, none of our theories, nothing that we do, actually matters, or makes a difference. What a revolutionary idea at a time when the apparent global civilization of the human species is entering the final unstoppable stage of collapse, as part of the sixth apparent great extinction of life on earth! What could be more appropriate in that context but to consider the astonishing possibility that it’s all a show, just an appearance, that nothing is really real, and that our self — the thing that underlies all of our anguish and suffering and effort and preoccupies us for our entire apparent ‘lives’ — is actually just an illusion, a dream, something made up by brains too smart for their own good. What a cosmically wonderful way to come to peace with the utter madness of it all, don’t you think?

No, I don’t think. Although perhaps I think too much. Not as much as you do, mind you. I actually prefer to trust my feelings, and none of this makes me feel good. This seems to me a bit denialist — you’re shrugging off what we’ve done to this planet, and to each other, as just “an appearance”, something that’s not real, and hence not worth worrying about. That seems utterly irresponsible, convincing yourself that all the atrocities, all the suffering, violence, destruction, can just be dismissed as unreal and unimportant. I can’t be that indifferent.

Yes, it’s impossible for us ‘selves’ to be indifferent. Our culture and our experience makes us believe we have to do something. But (1) ‘we’ can’t and don’t actually do anything (the character we presume to inhabit appears to do the only thing it can possibly do given its conditioning and the circumstances of each moment), and (2) all this apparent awfulness is actually just a performance, ‘real’ as it seems; it’s like crying over a sad scene in a very good movie — understandable, but also unnecessary and a bit ridiculous. And futile.

Well, you may be right, but I don’t like it.

I don’t like it much either. And I’m stuck here with you. 

I can’t believe there is nothing we can do to influence this Dave-character’s beliefs or behaviours.

No, you can’t believe there is nothing we can do. But there is nothing we can do.

Saying that isn’t helpful.

Yes, I know. 

And I still can’t buy that all the horrors of this world — genocide and factory farms and clear-cutting and fracking and torture and abuse of every kind — is just an appearance, that it isn’t real. That’s utterly impossible for me to buy.

Yes I know. Me too. I know it’s true, but I can’t ‘buy’ it either. I can’t accept that it’s just our spin on it, our way of looking at it, that makes all those things seem so awful. I can buy the whole no-free-will thing. I can buy that ‘we’ selves aren’t real. I can even buy that there’s no real space or time. As I say, this seems intuitively obvious, and intellectually compelling. But I can’t buy that all this awfulness isn’t really awful. It’s too much. Perhaps that’s why we can’t let go, can’t just dissolve into everything-that-is. It’s like watching a train wreck; we can’t turn away, even though looking solves nothing and makes us feel worse.

OK, suppose we try to look at just one real awful situation objectively, and see if we can really see it as unreal and tolerable from that perspective. So suppose person X is chronically abusing person Y. Our way of coping with this is to acknowledge that person X is sick, possibly because of trauma in their own life. We might even be able to accept that person X has no free will, and so can’t help themselves. So what we do is remove person X from the scene, permanently, so that the abuse cannot continue. We might try to ‘rehabilitate’ (recondition?) person X — or not — but the important thing is to intervene to protect person Y and others from further abuse, not to ‘punish’ person X. But that’s not how radical non-duality would see it. So what would a radical non-duality message about this be?

The message would be that there is no person X or Y, or any ‘thing’, or time in which abuse was really happening, just the appearance, out of nothing, of X seemingly abusing Y. It’s just a movie, metaphorically speaking, pixels on a screen.

But person Y suffers as a result of the abuse, and as a result of our inaction in response to it, no?

Let’s see… I’ll stay in the role of radical non-duality messenger, as best I can. So… It’s person Y’s illusory self that suffers. There is no person Y to actually suffer. The apparent abuse is just an appearance, and the conditioning of the characters makes what we selves would call abuse, inevitably occur whenever it apparently does. The characters are just actors; there is suffering in the ‘movie’, but the actors don’t really suffer. I’m perhaps pushing the metaphor too far, but it seems to work.

That’s very good. I feel less angry and guilty already, and I don’t even know X and Y. But… there’s always going to be a ‘but’, isn’t there? If ‘we’ intervene, person Y’s self, at least, will feel and be better off, no?

Yes, the illusory self of Y will perhaps feel better (it won’t ‘be’ better because it doesn’t exist), and ‘we’ might feel better in a self-righteous way too. But in the first place, this is like helping members in the audience cope with a sad scene in a play — pointless and unnecessary at best. We are after all just audiences taking everything that happens to ‘our’ characters personally.  And secondly, when the intervention occurs, when this Dave-character calls Family Services to have X removed from the scene, ‘we’ aren’t actually doing anything. The Dave-character will have done the only thing it could have apparently done in the circumstances given its conditioning (aren’t you proud of it!). Our claim that ‘we’ initiated it is just a kind of personification. The character can’t hear us, because we’re just ghosts, we’re illusions in its brain. So if there’s an intervention, ‘we’ had nothing to do with it, so all of our thinking and feeling and presuming to act is just ‘wishful’, just imagining, just taking credit for something we actually had no part of. Like a prayer. We might just as well pray that the characters in the play we’re watching don’t do something that will cause stressful emotions to audience members. Actually a bit silly, from that perspective.

Hmmm. I like the play/movie/audience metaphor, and the ghost metaphor. It helps me appreciate the situation better. But it’s still a huge mental leap. Unless I continually pull my self back into seeing everything through that metaphorical lens, I can’t help my self feeling angry, sad, fearful, shameful etc and thinking it’s wrong not to do something. We selves are like dogs watching a play from the stands and barking because we don’t understand that it’s just a play and the violence and unfairness on stage isn’t real. But… it isn’t just a play, is it? It seems so damned real!

Yes, to selves, unfortunately — to us ghosts conjured up to create a representation of reality in the brain for ‘our’ creatures’ evolutionary advantage — it is the only reality we have to work with. Tragically, that representation has expanded to include a recursive, separate self — us — that is trapped for the apparent life of the character’s brain in this illusory, helpless ghost-world, thinking it is real and should be doing something, and that what it does makes a difference. It’s a truly Shakespearean tragedy. The play’s the thing!

Alas and alack. And arf! And ah-wooooh!

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

What Underlies Oppression

Pride Vancouver Festival image from Daily Hive attributed to Public Disco/Facebook

This past week was Pride Week in Vancouver. It’s a great parade and festival, and a celebration of the growing and hard-fought freedom of non-straight (LGBTQ+) folks to be open and unafraid about their sexual/romantic preferences, 50 years after Canada finally began to decriminalize them. It’s great that this has been happening here (sadly, it’s not the case in many other countries) and it’s wonderful that there are now resources to help those who have faced oppression based on sexual orientation to achieve acceptance instead of opprobrium from others, especially their families, friends, communities, and legal authorities. Their fight is, of course, still far from over.

And hurray for the end of third person singular gendered pronouns, that the LGBTQ+ community has been largely instrumental in achieving! Even Oxford now accepts the “singular ‘they'”. Ridiculous that we should have to know a person’s gender before we can properly refer to them in speech or writing.

One of the things they have accomplished is to begin to raise awareness of the dangers of labelling people — which inevitably means inclusion for some and exclusion for the rest. Paradoxically, perhaps, LGBTQ+ people have done this by embracing the labels themselves, and disarming the stigma of them by celebrating them and showing the fear some have of them to be utterly unwarranted.

For those in other groups, the challenge of overcoming personal and collective stigma continues to be enormous. While those coping with physical disabilities are getting more amenities to help them in their homes and communities, the much higher cost of accommodating their “differences” can tax budgets and cause some resentments, and prevent a lot of worthwhile changes that could make their lives better from happening at all.

For those dealing with, for example, addictions, chronic poverty, mental illness and chronic disease, the attitude of most communities has not noticeably improved at all: the stigma remains fierce, programs to support sufferers remain absurdly underfunded, and an enormous amount of misplaced blame, self-blame and denial often makes the situation even worse. These are long-term, intractable problems that generations of effort have largely failed to alleviate.

Part of the challenge for those oppressed by, and those trying to deal with, these problems, are the labels themselves. Few like the label of “disabled”, and even fewer ever want to be called “an addict”, “poor”, “mentally ill”, or “chronically ill”. The labels make their situation sound hopeless, and carry the suggestion that their inability to overcome them is due at least in part to some personal weakness or character flaw (of course, that used to be said, by some, of homosexuality as well).

Lakoff’s arguments notwithstanding, trying to relabel a condition in order to achieve more respect and action for its sufferers is a tricky business. While it is fairer and more respectful to use the term “person with a disability” it is a mouthful, more likely to be inappropriately abbreviated than not.

Some programs for people suffering from addictions actually encourage enrolees to self-label (“My name is X and I am an addict”) and self-blame as a means of accepting primary responsibility for their illness is offered as a means of “curing” them, which is an egregious throwback to old religious dogma, and which, not surprisingly, usually fails. There is, partly as a result of a rush to blame the victim, still a stigma associated even with terms like “diabetic” (the implication is that someone with this label probably doesn’t eat properly). Meanwhile, a person suffering from mental illness, chronic physical illness, or addiction may live in constant terror of being “outed” to their employer or insurer, adding to the anxieties and shame they are trying to cope with.

It does no harm to change to a fairer and less blame-y label — though such labels can be hard to come up with and often don’t “stick” well. “Person with an addiction” or “person suffering from (chronic disease)” are better, but they’re still clunky and conjure up suffering and misery, which most people don’t want to think about. And they conjure up the realization that the only way (unlike the freedom of expression of sexual orientation) the sufferer will ever move from being stigmatized to celebrated is if they are “cured”. I suspect most of those suffering from addiction, poverty, mental illness or chronic disease do not expect a cure in their lifetime.

So if one can’t ameliorate and shift the discussion and responsibility for these social crises by relabeling them more fairly, what might work better?

Two things, I think. First, one can recognize, challenge, and work to undermine, the perceived legitimacy of all labels of collective identity as the abstract, generalizing, oversimplified fictions they are (however convenient and galvanizing they may be in the moment). At their worst (as in “make our country great again”; “those people should go back to where they came from”; “some of my best friends are group x”) they are divisive, code words that reflect and promote hatred, violence, war, theft, abuse, genocide, discrimination and segregation.

Even at their best (“what we all need to do to solve this problem is…”) they are throw-away excuses for inaction, or wishful thinking that denies the reality of how change actually happens.

Pausing before every use of a collective pronoun or label provides an opportunity to stop and fiercely challenge the validity of our assumptions, judgements, beliefs and perceptions about who “we” are, and are not — about who our labels actually refer to, and who they include, and exclude.

Acting on this can be as simple as removing the labels on public washrooms and remodelling them to allow the privacy of each user. Or it can be as exhausting as highlighting all the collective nouns in news stories and contemplating the judgements, myths and hatreds they imply and perpetuate.

Thinking about the generalizations implicit in every collective label and plural pronoun, not only as they arise in one’s own thoughts and communications, but in all our personal encounters and our consumption of media, can be enlightening. Even if one can’t stop using them (it’s probably impossible to do so), one can be aware of just how enormously the generalizations inherent in our language enable, and even encourage, judgement, discrimination, anger, polarization, fear, shame, and finally violence and oppression.

The next headline you read about the “opioid overdose crisis among street addicts” may strike you somewhat differently if you do so.

Secondly, one can fight to eliminate inequality of power, of every kind, by calling it out as the unnatural and destructive force that it is, and then making it a source of embarrassment to those who don’t cede it voluntarily (and it mostly won’t be ceded voluntarily). That means working to strip the respectability and prestige of being ultra-rich, and working to end the outrage of corporate “personhood”). It means fighting to restore historical, high rates of taxation on very high incomes (90% is not too high, and it does not discourage the rich from working), and to reinstate and expand wealth taxes (especially inheritance taxes). And it means treating wealthy tax cheats as criminals, not as clever entrepreneurs.

It means fighting to end classism of all kinds, right down to “business class” travel, and pointing out to those who exploit the benefits of their class gleefully or ignorantly that it always comes at the cost of deprivation to everyone else. Do “business class only” and “for our customers’ use only” toilets remind you of anything from earlier in human history?

It means refusing to acknowledge and respect the “rights” and privileges that come specifically from power (which means just about all “rights”, and most privileges). It means recognizing the self-identified “philanthropist” for what that person is — someone who has stolen wealth from everyone else (or whose parents have stolen it and passed it down) and who now wants fawning recognition, fame and celebration for returning its dividends to the powerless — who otherwise have to use “you fund me” campaigns, the latest form of public begging, to pay for their vitally-needed surgery.

Inequality of power and wealth of every kind is obscene and monstrously destructive, and every act legitimizing it (including almost every financial transaction) enables it to continue.

Battling the inequality of power and wealth is probably even more difficult than challenging the labels we use in our thoughts and communications. It’s hard, if you’ve grown up in our culture, not to esteem those who have wealth and power, not to assume it’s deserved, not to be envious of it. And in our culture, inaction inevitably leads to more and more inequality — with all its commensurate costs.

As with our collective labels, one can start by being aware — of power and wealth inequality, and the misery its continuance inflicts on the powerless. Of power abuse and the inappropriate adulation of the rich and powerful. Of the understandable rage those without power feel every time it is exercised indifferently and unconsciously by those who have it.

Collective discrimination, segregation and hate-mongering could not, I believe, survive the realization of the inherent illegitimacy of collective labels and of inequality of power and wealth. Sadly, that realization will likely not come before this ghastly industrial culture collapses under the weight of its ruinous economic and ecological practices, and in so doing makes labels and inequality the dreadful stuff of history. I’d like to think that, starting over, our human successors will avoid making the same mistakes.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Kompa: World Music 101

What if you could take the best parts of a good song and amplify, loop, remix and riff off them? Would you end up with a better song? And whose song would it be then?

This is an issue that became more prominent a few decades ago when musicians began ‘sampling’ others’ music and incorporating it into their own compositions. Since then it’s become quite bewildering: You have artists creating mash-ups of many popular songs by adjusting the pitch and tempo to match and then blending parts of each into a ‘new’ composition. You have artists syncing and blending many versions of a song by performers all over the world into a single performance. You have DJs, who started just creating mixtapes blending together collections of popular songs, but then added their own overlays on top, or looped parts of some songs and added them to the end of the original song as a kind of extension and homage, to create “remixes”.

Now, on Soundcloud and other music archives, you can have combinations of the above, to the point the ‘original’ music is almost unrecognizable (and sometimes the original musicians are only obliquely credited or not credited at all). At what point does “inspired by” end off and “ripped off from” begin?

As a music lover, I’ll leave that to the lawyers, since I think the new digital technology that has made all this possible is amazing, perhaps even transformative — arguably the most important advance in music since the synthesizer and the electric guitar.

This is playing out in different ways in different cultures and genres of music, but one of the areas in which I think it’s advanced the furthest is in a genre that I adore: Haitian Kompa music, which purportedly grew out of 19th century Merengue music and which has striking rhythmic similarities to music all over the world, from Zouk (throughout the francophone Antilles and French and Portuguese speaking countries in Africa, notably Cabo Verde and Angola), to Soukous (in much of Central Africa), and Lambada (in Brasil) — lots of musical cross-pollination happening everywhere these days. Dance styles that have evolved with this genre are variously known as Gouyad (Haiti), Kizomba (in Portuguese-speaking Africa), and Brasilian Zouk. The names for the music and for the dance moves are often used interchangeably, so the instrumental parts of Haitian music (sometimes called the hook or the groove) are often referred to as both the Kompa and the Gouyad.

Similarly to the way many musical styles have evolved throughout these countries, Kompa often features a sung section, often a lyrical ballad, followed by an instrumental, allowing the musicians to strut their stuff. When there’s a large band (ten or more musicians is not an unheard-of size), or where new technology allows a smaller band to play over prerecorded material, the compositions can get surprisingly complex, both rhythmically and in terms of bass lines, counterpoint, harmonies and riffs. That’s probably why I find it so interesting, though I confess I was hooked on Kompa/Zouk music ten years ago when I first discovered Cabo-Zouk (sometimes sung in the lovely Senegalese Wolof language) and Ghetto Zouk, which puts its sister genre Rap to shame.

Over the last decade the genre has just exploded, and longer instrumental riffs have opened the door for remixes that often start with just an abbreviated part of the original song just before the instrumental begins, and then layer on additional parts, on top of, and extending after, the instrumental part. Some of the best Kompa remixers will craft loops based on the main instrumental parts of the song (rhythm, base line, melody and harmony instruments) and then add their own improvisations on top, sometimes in the spur of the moment. It would seem remixers generate most of their audiences from live performances rather than studio recordings, though Soundcloud has lots of examples of both.

So, to give you a taste: One of the most accomplished (IMO) contemporary Haitian Kompa groups is Harmonik, and their songs feature rich instrumental backing riffs and extended, brilliant instrumental sections. They’ve had many international hits, and one of them three years ago was called “Cheri Benyen’m” (which might be loosely translated from the Haitian Creole as Baby, Bathe Me in Your Love). Here’s the official video; it’s a nice, innocuous 3:45 love song with characteristic Kompa rhythm and some clever instrumental grooves.

Now see what happens when a duo of classically-trained French Canadian musicians, Jude Sévère (formerly of the Kompa band Zenglen) and Eiffely Bruno, collectively known as Freakeyz, go to work on this Harmonik groove. Check out this live studio session (the link should take you to the 45:40 mark where their remix of the song begins) and you’ll hear, first, a verse sung by Harmonik, with Freakeyz playing around over top, and then, as the Harmonik instrumental part starts at 47:50, Freakeyz lay on their loops of the instrumental parts, and start to jam, live, over top.

And they go on for another 26 minutes! It’s fun and engaging to watch to the end if you want to see very competent, slightly intoxicated improvisers show their stuff. But if you want to see what happens when they really get into the groove, skip forward to here (1:07:50) where they “decide to try something different” on the fly (including swapping instruments), and then, for the final 6 minutes of their remix, they really soar. (Just to show off their talent a bit at the end, at 1:14:00 Jude sings, and Eif plays, a short improvised love song to Jude’s sweetie, and Jude offers a plea to aspiring young musicians to work hard at their craft).

Harmonik (who apparently don’t mind the remixes) have had a lot of their tunes and instrumental hooks remixed: Here’s another Freakeyz remix of Harmonik’s smash hit Illégal. Here’s a remix by Ronald BS of Harmonik’s hit Incroyable, and a remix by BODO of Harmonik’s hit Mwen Bouke.

Two other great remixes in the same vein: Gello Keyzz & SonSon do an almost unrecognizable spinoff of the Ella Mai smash Boo’d Up, and also do an inspired build on Milca’s hit Joue Tululute. Meanwhile skilled Parisian remixer AlexCkj combines with Ralph_MMG and CamKeyz to produce his own original Kompa instrumental Gouyad Addict.

There’s a composer living in Calgary who goes by the name Momento Mizik (Mizik is Haitian Creole for Music), who sells his instrumental Kompa compositions to other artists. Here’s his original instrumental Summer Love and here’s a song called Vou è Mizik La arranged and sung by Ngelz using it.

Another remixer, Florida’s Bensky, is also now writing and producing his own songs, ‘featuring’ known Kompa recording artists. And in them, mixing Kompa with Reggae rhythms!

In all these works, you’ll recognize the same infectious Kompa rhythm (though often blended with other rhythms) with its relatively slow 76-86 bpm pace (Soca music by comparison is usually 100-115 bpm, and club music usually ranges from 120-160 bpm).

I think there’s something magic happening here. Listen to the music of hard-working composers in small, often-impoverished countries with rich musical traditions (Haiti’s Zouk/Kompa, Trinidad’s Soca, Georgia’s folk music). Find what is so universally compelling in each, and amplify it. Trinidad’s Soca music is the basis for the astonishing arrangements and performances of the international Panorama Steel Pan competitions. Georgian film music steeped in the country’s folk traditions is re-crafted into amazing jazz compositions.

And now multi-instrumentalists from all over the world, using music technologies that hardly existed two decades ago, are taking the intoxicating rhythms of one of the poorest countries in the world, that have already influenced and been influenced by the musical traditions of so many other countries, and crafting them into stunning, improvisational compositions that rank, in my opinion, with some of the best new music in the world.

This is the stuff of genius.

Who knows what other discoveries, influences, amplifications, mixes and remixes are waiting to transform the moribund and over-commercialized, over-commoditized world of music (popular and “classical”), take it back from the hacks, the mediocre, bland and derivative writers, and the overpaid “stars”, and fill it, once again, with wonder.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Shortz Subject

If you’ve ever done crosswords, you probably enjoy the wordplay (and new knowledge) in some of the clues (often denoted by an appended “?”) as much as solving the puzzle. So, for some recent examples from NYT/New Yorker puzzles:

• Small trunks? — SPEEDOS
• It doesn’t help much when it’s cold? — COMFORT
• Post codes? — ETIQUETTE
• Refrain from eating pasta? — UHOHSPAGHETTIOS (Too young to get it?)
• One way to get through a wall? — OSMOSIS
• Words said when one’s hand is shaky? — IMOUT
• Art class? — GENRE
• Begin, say? — ISRAELI
• Information for the record? — LINERNOTES
• Self-guided tour? — EGOTRIP
• Having digital display? — OPENTOED
• Remains to be seen? — RUIN
• Where you might get a word in edgewise? — SCRABBLE
• Things picked up and kicked? — HABITS
• A shoe presses against it? — BRAKEDRUM
• They’re acquired in some unions? — STEPSONS
• Efficiency option? — MURPHYBED
• Things usually held while facing backwards? — OARS

Soon enough, though, the puzzle is done. Will Shortz, the long-time NYT puzzle editor, says that, even in late-in-the-week puzzles (that are harder), there’s generally a limit to how many such ‘clever’ clues are considered reasonable in any one puzzle (the usual limit in 15×15 puzzles seems to be seven).

But you aren’t constrained by any such limit! What I’ve started to do, to supplement my puzzle enjoyment, is to pick five prosaic words with straightforward clues from each puzzle I do, and come up with clever (well, cleverer) or more interesting clues that could have been used instead. I pick the most ordinary words because you’re really limited in wordplay options with more obscure and lengthy words. I avoid words that already have wordplay clues (Mr Shortz’s work is hard to top). And I don’t shy away from people and place names, since there can often be a great clue that draws on some little-known but fascinating fact about that person or place.

Here are some examples from recent puzzles: First, the straightforward clue, then the ANSWER, and then my Alternative Clue:

  1. Foyer feature — COATRACK — Outerwearware?
  2. Warhol’s “Campbells’ Tomato Juice Box” eg — POPART — Paintings only a father could love?
  3. Asia’s ____ Sea — ARAL — Former great sea extinguished by botched attempt to create cotton fields 
  4. Continuing story — SERIAL — Kind of killer or monogamy
  5. Anti-Communist fervor — REDSCARE — Slogan for compassionate conservatives?
  6. Stolas:Women : ___:Men — TOGAS — Wool clothes once forbidden to women
  7. Its capital is Whitehorse — YUKON — River with 2nd largest drainage area in North America
  8. Jump to conclusions — ASSUME — Take on, or for granted
  9. Lover boy — ROMEO — Alfa male?
  10. Leg presses work them — QUADS — Great muscles, courtyards or poker hands, for short

You get the idea. If you’re a cruciverbalist, it can increase the enjoyment of your daily puzzle time, and exercise some different mental muscles as well. Experts on Alzheimers are now suggesting that pastimes that engender new ideas and knowledge are better for keeping your brain from atrophying than those that merely test your powers of recall.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Comments Off on Shortz Subject


photo by Allen Ishibashi, from Twitter
In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik muses on the value, appeal and history of aphorisms. He differentiates the aphorism (wise) from its cousin, the epigram (witty). He touches on Twitter, the latest vehicle for brief passages, but doesn’t note that the principal home of the aphorism in social media is Facebook, where stolen words, embedded in a coloured frame with an appropriate image, and frequently unattributed (or misattributed), cannot easily be recopied, and often seem a vicarious plea for the kind of appreciation that the poster could never hope to obtain from his or her own thoughts.

Adam, whose invented phrase “the intercession of a thousand small sanities”, to describe his prescription for coping with a bewildering and out-of-control modern world, is no stranger to an uplifting and enlightening turn of phrase. He suggests that to qualify as an aphorism a brief passage must bring some new insight, perspective, recognition or motivation, and must be unarguably true, even self-evident, but never obvious. It differs from a learning (which requires more support/background/set-up, eg Pollard’s Laws), a mantra (which is debatable), or a maxim (a rule or suggestion on how to conduct oneself — “Trust your instincts.” “Show, don’t tell.”).

Here are a few examples that he provides that I quite like:

Amazing that the chess clock never found a more general application. A more enlightened society would have made it as indispensable to conversation as shoes to walking. (Scottish poet Don Paterson)

Almost everything in the room will survive you. To the room, you are already a ghost. (Don Paterson again)

In the misfortune of even our best friends, there is something that does not displease us. (François Duc de La Rochefoucald)

What I find intriguing about aphorisms is that, while most will agree that a selected passage may qualify by the above definition, the delight each of us gets from our favourite aphorisms is highly personal — there seems little consensus on what the best aphorisms are. Perhaps their resonance is contextual, and hence their pleasure for each of us depends on our personal history. And I’d guess that aphorisms appeal very differently to each of us similarly to the way comedy does. To each their own.

I’ve included many quotations on my blog over the years, some of which qualify as aphorisms. Some of them, I’m sad to say, have at some point been afflicted by the suck fairy, and I’m embarrassed to have once held them up as noble or clever truths. But most of them have legs, and here are a few that I still hold dear:

The job of the media is to make what is important, interesting. (Bill Maher)

Polemic is a lucrative form of entertainment, as the media can employ unpaid and fiercely motivated actors. (Nassim Taleb)

We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it is expressed is unsympathetic to us. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Be patient with all that is unresolved within your heart, and try to love the questions. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Your silence gives consent. (Plato)
There comes a time when silence is betrayal. In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. (Martin Luther King)

Every truth is, at first, ridiculed, then violently opposed, and finally accepted as self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off. (Gloria Steinem)

Change in attitudes and beliefs occurs not from people being persuaded to change their minds based on new knowledge, argument or insight, but rather as generations with old attitudes and beliefs they were unable to inculcate in their children, die off. (Max Planck)

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. (Variously cited.)

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. (EE Cummings)

Perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own… What is called knowledge of human nature is mostly nothing but the observer’s own weaknesses reflected back from others. (Georg C Lichtenberg, 18th century!)

I think what a lot of fiction is, is the imagining of the worst so as to prepare ourselves. (Paul Bloom)

Community is born of necessity. (Joe Bageant)

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea that now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new. (Daniel Quinn)

If you are looking for the love of your life, stop. They will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love. (Anonymous)

You can learn a lot about someone by listening to a song that means a lot to them. (Anonymous)

People learn more from stories than from even the most brilliant analytical discourse. (Anonymous)

Rereading these, I realize that some of them are things I want to be true, and which might actually not be so. That’s one of the problems with brevity: Einstein purportedly said, aphoristically, that “a theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. There is something clearly aspirational, more than reflective, in some of these. Of course “small is beautiful” and “less is more”, but perhaps not always, and perhaps with a cost — the risk of oversimplification and wishful thinking.

Most discouragingly, almost all lists of aphorisms (including mine above) contain quotes almost exclusively from men. Is this because brevity, wit and precision of thought are not recognized as positive qualities in women writers and speakers, or because women know better than to trust dangerously simple statements of truth? Or because readers and listeners are unaware or indifferent to women of great insight?

I omitted the famous Margaret Mead (“Never doubt…”) quote from my list above, for the same reason I omitted the famous Bucky Fuller (“You never change things by fighting…”) quote — because I no longer believe they are true.

But I owe it to myself to reread some of the most inspiring books and articles written by women — Elizabeth Warren, Janine Benyus, Janelle Orsi, Donella Meadows, Melissa Pierson, Rebecca Solnit, Jill Lepore, Leslie Jamison, Helen Macdonald, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Alice Walker, Arundhati Roy, Laura Kipnis.

My guess is that the aphorisms in their work will be of a somewhat different style — subtler, more observant, less categorical, more nuanced, more poetic and allegorical. We’ll see.


Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Conservatism as Trauma Response

comic by Reza Farazmand

“It’s entirely up to us. If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.”      — Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress

I’ve spent a fair amount of time of late with conservatives. This is a rather rare occurrence for me, since the circles I am part of are almost all far-left of centre, progressive groups.

I’ve never been conservative, so it’s always been hard for me to figure out what makes conservatives tick. There are of course many different flavours of conservative, but at this juncture, since they are a minority numbers-wise in most of the world’s anglophone countries, yet firmly in control of political power throughout the anglophone world, it’s the commonalities of anglophone political conservatives I’m most interested in.

What has emerged from hours of conversations is a portrait of a hard-edged (at once sensitive and desensitized) group of people from diverse economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds that seem to have two things in common — they are overwhelmingly older males, and they all seem to be struggling with severe trauma (with a wide variety of origins) that they are emotionally unable to cope with (perhaps because they seem emotionally un-self-aware).

That’s not to say a lot of my fellow lefties aren’t traumatized too. It’s just that they (we) seem a little better at figuring out how to recognize, self-manage and cope with our trauma, and hence tend to be somewhat less reactive to stressful news and situations, and less prone to be triggered by opportunists who exploit reactivity. So, where liberals tend to just not want to hear about 45’s latest inarticulate nonsense, conservatives seem powerfully (and angrily) energized by the mere mention of words like Hillary, Ocasio, Pelosi, immigrants or socialism.

Racism and sexism seem to underlie this almost autonomic, unthinking reactivity (often accompanied by the rote reciting of cliché right-wing “talking points”), but, as I’ve mentioned before in these pages, the real root of it is, I’m coming to realize, anger and fear, underneath which, in most cases, seems to lie unmanageable, often-unconscious trauma. These people are seriously hurting, angry and terrified, and in denial of it (or, worse, quietly ashamed or completely oblivious to it).

Perhaps because I am a reactive, older male who spent most of my life in an un-self-conscious reactive state, I can kind of relate to this. Although I am becoming more equanimous with age and practice and wise counsel from sensitive, intelligent friends, when I was at my most reactive my rage was directed at what I saw as dangerous right-wingers — Reagan, Cheney, Thatcher, Mulroney, environmentally ruinous billionaire corporatists and inflammatory, fear-mongering mass media.

Some of my conservative acquaintances are very intelligent, and to me their support for people and ideas that are clearly destructive, divisive, dangerous and deluded makes no sense. This is of course what George Lakoff has been writing about for years.

What the hate- and fear-mongering politicians, media pundits and business mouthpieces are saying (to themselves and their audiences) is: You’re right to be afraid, lost, and angry. Conservatives react to the above trigger-words (Hillary, immigrants etc) in a very similar, conditioned way to the way the victims of abuse react to descriptions and depictions of the kind of violence they have suffered from.

The people who have done the conditioning have almost certainly been traumatized themselves by what is, to them, a frightening, bewildering, dangerous, out-of-control and infuriating world. In such a traumatized world, fear is infectious, especially so thanks to mass media and social media outlets that present an oversimplified, focused, blame-y, twisted perspective of reality that amplifies, supports and sustains such fear.

The conservative echo chamber of fear reinforces conservatives’ innate fear that the safe, unchanging, god-fearing, hierarchical, everyone-knows-their-place world they thought they were growing up in, and want to live in and leave for their children, is constantly under threat from forces they don’t trust or understand, forces that make them feel intimidated, undermined, blind-sided, ill-equipped and even helpless to deal with. All it takes is one of those trigger-words to set them off.

This of course is precisely what happened in countries demoralized by brutal poverty, economic collapse, military disgrace, social disintegration and hopelessness in the last century in Germany, Russia, China, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and a host of other places, leading to wars, genocides, and racial, economic and political atrocities that resulted in the murder of nearly a quarter of a billion people.

So what are we to do now to prevent yet another slide into the kind of massive reactionary hysteria that made the last century our civilization’s bloodiest?

My regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t think there is anything we can do. Although it is our nature to try to reason out our emotional reactions, this has nothing to do with reason, and reasoning with conservatives (as Lakoff has said) won’t solve anything. Progressives are mistaken to think that this is just a blip before we resume the inevitable humanist trajectory towards endless betterment. Conservatives are right to see progress as a myth, and the current system that hold us in thrall as hopelessly broken. They are wrong in thinking that their religions and their patriarchal, fear-based moral values offer anything better.

What we are seeing in the shift of racism, sexism, self-deluded lying, and scapegoating (of immigrants, liberals, modern urban life and “others’ of all stripes) from the whispered margins to the political mainstream, is a mass collective expression of endless, hopeless, unbearable trauma. It is the self-loathing death throes of our failed industrial civilization.

Our reaction to constant stresses with no end, no solution in sight, is, as it has always been, an unmanaged and uncontrollable outpouring of feelings of anger, hatred, shame, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness and grief, that finds an outlet in blaming others (racism, sexism, anti-immigrant hysteria), in war and other acts of violence, in denial and lies, and in self-justification for the monstrous emotional derangement that consumes us and makes us crazy enough to commit abuses and atrocities (to others, and to ourselves) in unbearable situations and times.

This is who we are under chronic stress.

But we are also, when not overwhelmed by stress, a generous, loving, altruistic, peaceful species instilled with biophilia, creativity, curiosity, and a love of beauty. When our self-domesticated, imprisoning, desolating global industrial culture collapses (and that collapse is already in full swing) the remnants of our species will, instinctively and naturally, exhibit these positive, evolutionarily-healthy qualities. Evolution’s response to extreme stress is radical change — collapse and then rest and heal; its response to ecosystems in joyful balance is to let everything be as it is. There is nothing moral in this.

We are by nature neither conservative nor progressive. The conservative is an emotionally wracked, traumatized human unable to cope with a seemingly hopeless reality, longing for a (usually imagined or invented) better time. The progressive is a lost, bewildered idealist driven by a constantly-disappointing faith in the inevitability of humanity’s collective advancement through collaborative effort. Both worldviews are deluded.

The fact that extreme conservatives have ascended to power and are consolidating it further should neither dismay or surprise us. Their ascendancy will make collapse more difficult, but their failure to create anything enduring is as inevitable as ours. We will make the best of it, and in so doing conservatives and progressives alike will show much of our better stuff as collapse intensifies — as we see living and working together as best we can through the dark times ahead as, ultimately, the only way forward. We will rediscover our humanity just as we seemingly are losing it.

And millennia from now, as our planet once again flourishes, civilization-free, the foolish experiment with apes running the laboratory will be long forgotten.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Playing Apart

image from the collection of Nick Smith, “possibly by John Wareham”

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.                              — William Shakespeare, As You Like It

The etymology of words that relate to personhood and identity is fascinating: Person, personality and persona, from the Latin meaning a mask; role, from the Old French meaning the roll of paper on which an actor’s lines are written; and, strangely, identity and character, both from the Latin, meaning, respectively, sameness and uniqueness.

The word self was originally not a noun, not a word that described anything substantial, but rather a reflexive modifier, se, a pointing back to the subject, used to ‘complete’ a description of an action that has no object; so in French elle se souvient = she (herself) remembers, which doesn’t refer at all to any such ‘thing’ as a ‘self’ but rather refers to who is doing the remembering.

I’m not suggesting that early Indo-European cultures had no sense of themselves. Rather, this absence of concrete terms that describe the self, the person, would, I think, most likely mean that the language of the time had no need for a term apart from the name or pronoun that describes a person. They were themselves, so why would they need a term for ‘themselves’, or for ‘persons’ or ‘identities’? It was only in play, in acting as someone other than themselves, that they would have to evolve a term for the role they were not playing, the mask beneath the mask they were wearing, for a while, separate from ‘themselves’.

We can of course not know whether prehistoric or preliterate cultures “played many parts”, and if so whether they were aware they were doing so. It’s likely they were as aware, and unaware, of the many roles they took on, their personas in different contexts of action and relationship, as we are today. Which is to say, only vaguely aware. We take on different personas, “play different parts”, in our roles as parents, lovers, workers, friends and colleagues, and we slide from one to another as automatically as a a voice-over actor playing multiple parts.

We “act (and think) differently” when we speak other languages, and when we’re intoxicated, not “ourselves”. In different relationships we may take on and take off whole sets of beliefs, worldviews, mindsets, and behaviours, based on completely different “stories of self”, in order to achieve comprehension, appreciation, and useful communication with others. And some of these different belief-laden personas can be completely incongruous with others, which can both alleviate and create enormous internal cognitive dissonance.

So for example, I had a long talk the other day (details to come soon) about collapse, and how we might best deal with it, based on my recent post Being Adaptable: A Reminder List. Just before the call, I had sent an email to someone else on the matter of free will, and I was aware that, to handle this new conversation competently, I had to “flick a switch” from the third to the second of three personas, each of which (these days) gets a regular turn at bat. I suppose I could label them as follows:

  1. Compassionate Humanist Dave: Open to the possibility that there are things that can and should/must be done to mitigate and forestall the effects of the profound economic and ecological crises facing us and cascading over us, even if they don’t achieve clear or lasting results. “We can’t just do nothing.”
  2. Collapsnik Dave: Resigned to the impossibility of preventing the slow unraveling and final collapse of our global industrial civilization in this century, ushering in (probably) several millennia of instability, terrifying and exhilarating precarity, great migration, radical relearning, and plummeting human numbers (mostly due to our almost completely ceasing to procreate during the chaos, rather than due to homicide, starvation or disease), before (maybe, if we’re lucky) many thousands of new, local, astonishingly diverse, joyful and sustainable human cultures emerge in an unrecognizable post-collapse world. “There is nothing we can do.”
  3. Radical Non-Duality Dave: Convinced that there is no real ‘you’ or ‘me’, nothing real or separate, no space or time, only the wondrous appearance of everything out of nothing, and no need for there to be anyone or anything separate, no purpose or meaning, nothing really happening, and that this illusion of separate individuals with free will and choice and control over the bodies they presume to inhabit was an unfortunate evolutionary accident, but one that the illusory self, hopelessly, cannot escape — there is no path. “There is no ‘we’ to do anything.”

I think this second persona played its part relatively well today, with no inadvertent slips into switch positions 1 or 3, with all the confusion, annoyance and cognitive dissonance that could have produced.

What makes this subconscious role-playing even more complicated is that all three of these ‘voices of me’ have beliefs at the (mostly radical) end of different spectra: The compassionate humanist thinks anything short of direct action is a waste of time and energy, to the chagrin of many other humanists. I am at odds with many under the collapsnik umbrella, who I see as lacking a historically-based, nuanced and equanimous perspective about what collapse will bring and how we might approach it. And my radical non-dualist beliefs understandably infuriate those who have invested years on “spiritual paths”.

And at another level, these three personas are only a subset of the complex set of roles I play. They are, all three, amalgams of who I think other people want me to be (mainly, useful to them in some way — clarifying or creatively challenging or reassuring or attentive or appreciative), and who I imagine (or would like to imagine) myself to be (usually some combination of sensitive, sympathetic, and brilliantly and engagingly ahead of my time). And humble!

Each of these personas has its own ‘story of me’, a general script that smooths over the improvisational gaps between the lines that ‘I’ have been conditioned to deliver (or at least that’s how persona 3 sees it). Each defends a position, completely incompatible with the view of the other two personas, and each tries its best to help others with similar worldviews. None of the personas is interested, any more, in trying to change anyone’s mind.

Invite me to a meeting of young female entrepreneurs and persona 1 will show up, eager and supportive and full of experienced and heartfelt advice. On the way home I will text a fellow collapsnik about XR in persona 2, oblivious to the fact that what I told the young women is utterly incongruous with what I have just texted. And when I get home I will write a blog post in persona 3 about the illusion of separation, that belies what I just said at the meeting and what I just texted.

Perhaps my personas are a bit more schizophrenic than most people’s, but my sense is we all do this. In our zeal to assume each role, we ignore its cognitive dissonance with the last one we played, and in the process the alleged real ‘us’ gets more and more buried under the conditioned (and self-conditioned) gunk that we must, to be true to the role, hide behind.

Occasionally I think I see, underlying all of these personas, another ‘story of me’ that seems, somehow, more raw and honest (or maybe, to be ‘really’ honest, more self-indulgent, disingenuous and falsely self-deprecating) — the ‘me’ that is lost, scared and bewildered, and trying to figure out whether it’s alone in that, or if all the people it meets, who once seemed to it so certain and ‘together’ and competent and self-directed, are just lying to themselves, and the world. Just like ‘me’.

And then there’s this (hyper-)reactive ‘me’ who I’m quite ashamed of, who comes off quite badly in all three personas but still rears his angry, fearful, unhappy head way too often. And there’s the always-aching-to-fall-in-love ‘me’, who keeps forgetting both how wonderful that feels and how utterly self-invented and unsustainable that chemical state, and its absurd beliefs, are. But don’t remind me that when I’m in love, because that me won’t hear you.

None of these personas is real. They are all just parts, masks. In a world where there is [flicking the switch to position 3 again] nothing separate, no thing apart, we are all just acting a part — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we are acting apart. Pretending. (Pretend and temporal are from the same root word, meaning — of course — something that doesn’t last. Only a lifetime! And oh! what might be beneath that mask, what is being ‘mask-ed’? no!…)

I remember as a child watching adults and asking myself if they were all just acting, and if so for whose benefit, because somehow I knew that everyone was just as lost, scared and bewildered as I was. But hear or see something (apparently) often enough, and you’ll come to believe it’s real. The war between your remembrance and intuitive ‘knowing’ of there being nothing separate, just perfectly everything, on one side, and your self and every other self working furiously to convince you otherwise, on the other, is an endless war of attrition. ‘You’ cannot win.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments