History — It’s Happening Every Second!

This blog is dedicated to the work of Ron Brandstetter.

Here’s a quick guide for newcomers. My deepest work, my unique — and comprehensive — philosophy of history, which leads to my effective re-formulation of the social sciences, is here. (This is a long piece, a summary of my next book, I’m trying to cover the breadth and depth of the human experience with a new scientific vision. It will take you 20 minutes or so to read it, so please, bookmark this article and come back to it later if you don’t have the time right now. I’ve tried to make this article as easy to read as possible and I do hope you’ll enjoy taking your time to read it.)

In other pages on this site, my forward-looking political thoughts, based on decades of practical participation in American activism, are here. My unusual path to spiritual understanding, and some of the conclusions I’ve come to with this, is outlined here. Some of my most concise and hard-hitting writings and speeches, meant to emphasize a point, are here. And finally, a not-so-brief biographical sketch of this wonderful life I’ve enjoyed is is over here. The page you’re on is the current postings page, scroll down for varied and sundry reflections on politics, culture, and whatever else I feel I need to tell you about. I haven’t put up much in the last year, I enjoy a complicated life, and I like to say things of significance only. Some new ideas for postings are brewing, yet please, read the deep material I’ve placed here, dig into it. Just for example, the December 2010 post on “Presidential Politics” has remained valid through the Occupy Movement and the 2012 elections, I have updated it in Feb. 2015 in the hope it would remain valid through 2016 and beyond, and most of it does remain valid. To the extent that the catastrophe of an extremely unfit man probably backed by a foreign power capturing the Presidency has changed things, that is addressed in my January 2017 post regarding Trump. The “Hope Vs. Advertising” post remains far ahead of the conventional wisdom. As a writer, I have always wanted my readers to find my work both entertaining and profitable to their total life experience.

My mission, in all of this work, is to help people think better thoughts.   I’m not going to claim that this always or ever brings instant success and happiness; most of the time we humans are quite happy with our dysfunctional thought, and if that thought fits into a dysfunctional subculture, it can be successful in that context.  Getting to better thoughts can be slightly or greatly painful, and I myself hate it when a better thought forces me to change one of my deeply-ingrained personal habits or preferences.

Yet I believe that if you are an intelligent human being, you have to be able to see the evidence that we as a 7-billion strong global society, in today’s time, are spitting off too much pollution from too many sources — including huge amounts of intellectual pollution from our advertising and public relations industries — to be able to sustain our current modes of ‘civilization’ for too many more decades.

Thus the mission of this website: to help us plan and achieve positive social change to create a better world for ourselves and our grandchildren.   I do believe my effort at re-defining the social sciences to help each human being become their own best social scientist in understanding the motivations and actions of all other human beings — popularly known as “Ron’s omelet of the social sciences” or “the democratic revolution of the social sciences” — can be a helpful step in this process.

For more about who I am and my qualifications for this work, please see the About page on this blog.   For more about the new thoughts we’re going to have to think, and the work that we’re going to have to do to provide a sustainable future for our human race and the planet we live on, please follow this blog as it develops and grows, hopefully, into a force that moves the world.  I can’t do it without you.  You, perhaps, can do it without me, yet it is my goal to prove to you that moving the world will be slightly easier if we can do it together.

NOTE – NEW PRIVACY  REGULATIONS    The European Union and many other jurisdictions have instituted new regulations regarding the privacy of your data.   Back when I established this site, I was just a struggling writer, working two other jobs, I just wanted to get my work out into the world.  I did not know what other websites were doing to collect visitor’s data and make money from that.    So I did NOT ask my web team to set up those types of capabilities into the site, and they did NOT include those types of capabilities into the site.  So, for the last 14 years this site has seen millions of visitors (thank you!) , but except for the email addresses of those who choose to leave comments, this site has not collected ANY data on visitors.  I can’t identify you, I can’t  put any cookies on you, I can’t read whatever cookies you may come in with, and I hope I have placed enough layers of protection that no malware or hacking can get through  but if they do, there is no data on you for them to steal or damage.   All visitors here remain as private as you entered, again except or the email addresses of commenters.

A comment on comments:  Please do comment on my posts, all comments will be read and considered.  However, for the short-term future while this blog is getting established, and I am still working at my demanding day job, and still working at my family-business job in which everything needs to be done immediately, no comments will be published immediately on this blog.  It’s my blog, and I want to control it.  All reasonable comments are now being published after review and approval. In the spring of 2020 the ferocious onslaught of spam comments (which are all being deleted by my hosting service) has decreased,  thankfully,  to the  lowest levels in 10 years.  99.9% of it is just awful illiterate ungrammatical junk;  the latest fad is long posts of medical referencing, mostly disjointed fragments, which is better than lists of luxury goods, I guess;  however the filters are not perfect and some real comments may be lost in the flood of spam.   Yet if you’re a real person with questions or comments on anything in this website I do VERY MUCH wish to hear from you. To help make sure I don’t mistake you for a spammer, it would help if you’d say a word or two about yourself, and show that you have actually read one or more of my pages.

Because of all this, commenting here may be a little slower process than you’re accustomed to on modern websites: it will almost certainly be as much as a week or more after your comments.    My ideal of a typical  website — back in 2010 — where registered users have an open and lively discussion in real time,  seems to be losing ground in the hateful modern environment.    Yet if you the readers start providing scores and hundreds of intelligent comments on all our discussions here, you will accelerate my process in getting the website to that status, as I simply won’t have the time to read and approve all your comments individually.

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The Universalization of Uncertainty

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This post probably won’t make a lot of people happy.  The news from our world, and from its human populations, seems to be generally bad, and seems likely to be worse in the future.  I am hoping, however, by helping you understand why everything seems so much more difficult these days, and by passing on some tips for trying to help you to live with it, that there might be some reward in the future. 

We all want to be able to have certainty in our lives, We need that certainty: rocks are hard, ice is cold, my bedroom is this room over here, person B in my life is really good  to me, or maybe person D in my life is just awful.  Yet many of the “big” things in our lives have always been uncertain, unpredictable.  Basically every question we might have about the future, anything that involves other people in our human/social world is always uncertain: what happens next month, next year, will my plans succeed, can my dreams be fulfilled?

Yet we can all feel it, it’s hitting us in every area of life.  Almost every question involving the future, or the cooperation of other people,  is more uncertain now than it was ten, twenty years ago.  Can I count on my job?  It’s more uncertain now.  Should I live here or there?  It’s more uncertain.  Should  I start this particular business?  It seems like there’s many more variables to consider.  The increasing uncertainty is a basic aggravating factor in why life seems to get more messed up with annoying details, while everything gets more expensive as we move further and further into the 2020’s.

We all want certainty, our minds work by trying to find patterns and make sense of them.  Modern society is based on forming stable patterns of social interactions.  The modern economy requires us to be as stable and reliable as possible, while fulfilling social roles that are presented to us as certainties requiring specific behaviors: nurse, teacher, janitor, construction work specialties, and not just being a “manager” or “executive,” but being a “manager or executive in our specific business.”

It’s very rare a person is seeking or selling uncertainty, this is not a goal that anyone aspires to. Think about it: just about every advertisement that you encounter in your environment, on your phone or computer, TV or radio, billboards, posters, everything, 95% of the time they’re trying to convince you of the certainty of some outcome if you buy the product.  Tide pods?  Jet skis?  The fashion choices of some teen-age influencer? It’s all the same, follow our lead, use our stuff, you will feel cleaner/more excited/more-high-status or whatever it is they’re trying to sell.

Now it is true that the level of uncertainty we are all suffering from over recent years has been increased, on purpose, by a particular type of advertisers and/or aspiring religious and political cult leaders, who are often selling a particular product: doubt.  Doubt is a neighbor of uncertainty, doubt can work together in a mind to increase both doubt and uncertainty, and that’s a negative loop to be avoided. 

Yet if you examine the details of what doubt-sellers are saying, they may often be playing on generalized feelings of doubt and/or uncertainty, yet they are almost always attacking some particular “certainty” that is out there in the media environment, in order to sell a particular alternative “certainty” – which the doubt-seller just happens to believe gives the seller more credibility as a particular business,  religious or political leader – or is just another bald-faced lie to get you to buy whatever ridiculous piece of grift they need to move. 

Organized dishonest doubt-sellers are just one new aspect of modern society that is leading to a sense of increased uncertainty in all aspects of life in the 2020’s.  Indeed, just about all the aspects of our current political-economic evolution as a global civilization seem to be dedicated to increasing uncertainty.  We have magical new technologies that create great wealth and power for a few, but when they’re set out (to replace actual customer service) as hastily-written software on government and business websites, this tech magic turns  into hours of hassle and headaches for the mass of citizens and consumers who can’t get what they want.  We have an  increasing exponential divide between a tiny plutocratic elite, that easily gets governments and other businesses to listen to and  cater to their needs, and the increasing billions who lack basic modern services and infrastructure,  and  who have no voice in government and business to obtain any basic services and  infrastructure.   There’s the fact that in over a half the land area and for half the population of  today’s globe, people  suffer greatly because  a basic part of modern civilization, organized government,  is in the hands of selfish dictators and autocrats of all types who do everything for themselves and  nothing for their people, this creates huge piles of uncertainty  for all our futures .

And then there are  the specific incidents of ‘crazy’ disruption  that have affected much of the globe in recent years, starting with the surprising – to all rational thinkers –victory of Trump in the 2016 American election, developing into what seems to be a cult of 40% of Americans pursing a vision of truth that appears quite irrational and dysfunctional to the rest of us, and of course introducing huge new postulates of uncertainty into American political life (and that affects many others)  which many of us – especially the narrow-focused  national political reporters of major news outlets  — are finding hard to grasp.  The old certainties of American politics are gone. 

Then we had to suffer the pandemic of COVID-19, which has thrown many of our old economic / industrial certainties into the trash heap of history.  Stable supply-chains  keeping production managers and customers happy?  No more.  Everyone expecting that business requires workers in offices? Not so much.  Stable expectations that a career path could mean decades of relatively stable and prosperous  life?  Also way down.  It is generally positive that many folks are finding it possible to live out the individualism that helps them feel free and  happy (although some folks are pursuing their individual happiness by expanding a hatred of others) , yet even the most creative and  positive  aspects of your individualism (and everyone else’s) is generally contributing  to uncertainties in our personal and social lives that we can’t  escape. 

All of these problems are of course being propelled, accelerated and intensified  by the great existential problem of  modern society.  The pollutions we can’t stop releasing because they’re being caused by the production and use of the comforts and conveniences that no one can sacrifice using even for a moment, appear to be quite capable of ruining the basic  food, water and shelter patterns  of continental areas,  destroying  the pleasant futures,  hopeful dreams and  perhaps even the lives of everyone who hopes to be living their lives in 2030 or 2040. 

Do you understand how bad  it is, how deep the universalization of uncertainty is going to reach?  No asset is ever going to be really “safe,”  no real estate is going to be assured to be valuable,  no physical or financial asset will necessarily hold its value in the emergencies of tomorrow.  No education, no career path will be secure (though some may be desperately needed), no personal relationship has ever been able to be guaranteed, and  in the future  it is likely even the most trusted  persons in your life may be facing unprecedented,  unusual pressures you can’t control.     

It is possible that modern economies may stabilize and prices may even fall for a year or several years,  however in general it appears to this economic historian that supply shocks and price shocks will be contributing  strongly to the “universalization of uncertainty” that will continue to plague our civilization, because these price and supply shocks are being pushed by the severe weather events that are affecting all areas as we disrupt  the atmosphere (and the oceans) with our waste and emissions from the fossil fuels that power our outward prosperity.    Which rich privileged people  are going to give up their privileges and conveniences to help save  the planet  for the rest of us?  Who among us ordinary folk can sacrifice any type  of convenience or emotional need, to attempt building a new society for our children that is not based on consumer greed ? 

Without piling on the pessimism and dark tones, that’s the  unfortunate  summation of our situation.  Almost all of our “progress” in the 21st Century is contributing  to a “universalization of uncertainty,”  where very little of our human social environments  can  still maintain the institutions and  attitudes  that upheld feelings of “stability” and “reliability” that many of us old folks can remember – being widespread — from past decades.   Nearly all political and  religious groupings can see a pessimistic  vision in which the institutions  protecting  their visions and privileges seem to be failing, because nearly all privileged institutions and attitudes are indeed being threatened by all sorts of uncertain threats, and so far we are all too individualistic to build new institutions and attitudes that might serve us better.   Nearly all aspects of our human social environments are becoming more uncertain,  and we’ve got a lot of work to do if we hope to reverse this tiresome, depressing trend.  Things are bad, and they are unlikely to improve significantly without a lot of human attention to details.

Before I try to end this essay on a more positive note,  there is one talking point I’d  like to make clear for you.  As a historian, and  as someone who’s tried to watch the world more scientifically than wishfully,  I’m very clear that there are no alternative  physical facts.  Atoms and energies are in one precise pattern, in every nanosecond of time, and  that includes the atoms that make up our bodies and  the sound vibrations that come out of our mouths.  There is no alternative physical  history of  this earth (even though there are innumerable details of that past history we don’t  yet know about).

All the uncertainties come from human beings, who can and will contradict each other over what was said or what was done, out of all sorts of misunderstandings and  false assumptions  and mistakes, and a few people who tell self-serving lies.  In human environments we absolutely do see “alternative “facts” in the sense that populations in conflict can each believe a set of truths that are directly contradicted by the truths of  the other population in their conflict   And because of the conflict,  both sides become more and  more invested in the “truthiness” of their side of the stories.  That’s a big bad  pattern creating lots of uncertainty as we try to face the world and what it’s doing to us. 

Is there anything we can do help ourselves deal with all this increasing uncertainty?   In trying  to think historically about things, I hope  I’ve been sliding into the better mental attitude for quite a few years now.   It’s fairly simple.   Just try not to think in terms of  “yes or no,” “good or bad” types of categories and assumptions.   There  isn’t any human situation  out there  that’s  pure  “negative’ or ‘positive,’ everything is shades of grey. 

There are no certainties; some things may look like certainties today, but they could conceivably fall the day after tomorrow.   Everything is possibilities and  probabilities.  Yes, some things in our human environment can seem like certainties,  but they just maybe might  be overthrown by a  war or a flood  or a social movement or a pandemic the day after tomorrow. 

So the mental attitude that works for me is try to see things in terms of probabilities, “there’s an 80% chance Maria will say yes to this change at work”  or maybe it’s  “there’s a 50% chance I can make all these connecting flights out and  back without any big hangups or lost luggage.”  You’re  looking at the possibilities of the answer or result you’re seeking, yet also looking at the possible  mistakes and  outside interventions on the other side of the question. 

 Every possibility has a probability,  and I try to always remember  a 1 or 2% chance of “some crazy outside event disrupting all my plans/ideas/hopes” in every situation.   Of course  you’ll start out guessing at every choice, yet experience should  help you refine your assessments.    I also find that thinking this way helps me anticipate and think through better responses if my favored probabilities don’t work out. 

I’m a guy who has mostly tried to be both a scientist and an optimist; that’s getting to be a pretty tough road  to walk these days.  The physics of the climate emergency are extremely frightening; the sea level rises or the food supply failures or other unforeseen mass disasters – far beyond anything we’ve already seen — could start affecting every nation and every economic system any year now.  If we’re still allowing tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to flow into the atmosphere in 2035 or so,  it seems over 50% likely that this crazy un-balanced so-called industrial civilization we have created for ourselves  is going to have a nasty painful extinction event from food supply disruptions and/or other severe consequences of extreme weather and global sea level rises and god-knows-what- else awaits us. 

The history of  human selfishness and  ignorance is also quite frightening, for most of us at the bottom of the economic pyramid, we simply can’t make any choices besides doing the best we can with our little bit of funds and  whatever industrial-economy junky “band-aids” we can get our hands on,  for whatever  crisis is hitting us today.    Generalizing over thousands of  years of history over all the  inhabited  continents,  social systems with highly stratified decision-makers do not have a good record  of  making  timely decisions to ameliorate  negative outcomes for their populations,  when unforeseen crises hit.  

Nevertheless, let’s try to end on a positive note.  It’s just possible we will learn to deal with increasing uncertainty in our physical and human environments, it’s just possible that we will able to follow the wisdom of indigenous peoples in creating alternatives to wasteful industrial economics in colonial social systems, it is just barely possible that millions of people  in Asia and Africa and elsewhere can learn the lessons for resisting authoritarian regime, it is just barely possible that we can get through this mess we have created without great pain and the loss of all pleasures.  Is it even possible that we can learn the lessons of how people create history with their thoughts and  their actions, and begin to create new patterns of personal and social behavior, new patterns of economic action and  government support  that  will help us survive  the climate emergencies our past behavior has given us  ? 

 It’s going to take a heck of a lot of work, I think, and probably a lot sacrifice of privileges for the benefit of future generations, I wouldn’t give us  more than a 30%  chance of success even if a whole lot us start working very hard  to create something  better – but darn it, the alternatives are so bad,  we’ve gotta try, and try hard  to do better.  Please, let ‘s not allow the uncertainties of our selfish past to destroy all possibilities for our children’s and grandchildren’s sustainable futures.  

Posted in climate change, cllimate emergency, current world history, Economic History, Economics, History, Politics, Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Help Your Climate Anxiety, Just Follow Paul

Paul McCartney in concert 2016. public domain image distributed by Pixabay.

The Climate Emergency is here.  Our wonderful capitalist civilization of convenient consumption has pushed too much pollution into our common atmosphere, and our earthly and watery environments are suffering as well.   All around the world,  smart and well-informed people are feeling climate anxiety,  a lot of climate anxiety.   

It’s really depressing to contemplate our current setup: we have rampant capitalism even in the most open, democratic nations, there are totalitarian dictatorships covering most of Asia (and would-be dictators appearing almost everywhere), and sociopathic “edge-lords” heavily manipulating their positions controlling various types of economic resources.  Imagining how these unaccountable forces might react to even more disruptive heat waves, floods and fires brings us a lot of anxiety.   And what happens when we reach even worse possibilities  like 6-ft sea level rise creating hundreds of millions  of dispossessed migrants, or the failure of major food systems like wheat or rice crops, or the East Pacific fishery? 

So we need a simple memory device to help us deal with our climate anxiety.  I have been advising folks on staying whole and grounded while involved in political activism since the “90’s, and I think I’ve hit on a simple memory device that should already be fairly well-implanted  in a lot of people.  It’s something that Paul sang to us, in one of the Beatle’s greatest hits. 

Specifically, it’s the advice in the last two lines of the first bridge in Hey Jude.  Here’s the whole four lines.

“And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain, Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders, For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool, By making  the world a little colder.”

So let’s repeat that: “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool, By making the world a little colder.”

Yes, we’re all to aware that we do carry the fate of our children and our world upon our shoulders, and while our overriding goal is to make our actual earth a lot colder,  it doesn’t do anyone any good for any of us to be depressed, to be anxious, to be “doom-looping” all the bad possibilities,   And it really hurts everyone if we allow our anxiety to get so bad that we stop caring and stop trying and give up in despair.

But let’s not be fools, let’s try to avoid making our human environments colder,  more selfish, sore toxic.   We desperately need to be making our human environments and actions “warmer” (and more loving and  accepting), caring even more for our families and friends and neighbors, we need to be much “warmer” socially and politically in getting organized and helping create a global youth movement that will not tolerate governments that are failing to significantly control fossil  fuels.   Can you imagine if the billion or more folks who really want to reverse climate change were as organized for political action and economic power-plays as the billion or so people who are profiting from fossil fuels?     

Individual action is necessary, neighborhood organizing for safety and sufficiency will be extremely helpful , but to actually save the future for all  the human beings under 65-70 years old, we are going to need strong, organized political and social movements demanding that governments and corporations are getting out of at least 90-95% of the fossil fuels we are burning.   This will be incredibly divisive and contentious, as nearly all of our economic activities and expectations are based on the fact that, in general, manufacturers and consumers are not having to pay the full costs of cleaning up their pollution.   

And before you say that it’s impossible, that we can never change governments and corporations in a short enough time, steps are already in motion.   One initiative that I personally believe could serve as a useful model is a global coalition of positive-minded activists, which has put out a “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transiton from the Peoples of the South” that has received zero attention from the Western media.  I find it an amazing document, which basically understands the capitalism must be transformed into something new that benefits all, yet also understands that this will be the work of all of the rest of our lives, and that everyone will work on this in their own way, in their own areas.  These are the people who are already suffering the effects of the Climate Emergency, and they have understandings that could be more widely shared by privileged activists in privileged nations.  

Another important step that has not been reported in American media is the case of six Portuguese youth who have filed suit in the European Court of Human Rights, against 32 European governments for failing to fight climate change which is already affecting their lives, and failing to meet the pledges of the Paris Agreements on Climate change.  Measures like this could soon possibly be forcing government to take serious action against fossil fuel pollution. 

Yet for us to really see such initiatives to fruition, we will have to be absolutely “white hot” in making our human political environments much, much warmer.  Every government will have to feel the pressure of a distressed citizenry in order to actually take meaningful action against fossil fuel pollution.  

For myself, I have to be an optimist, just to get through the day.  I have been a “news junkie” since 1958, and I’ve worried about a lot of silly and forgotten crises … but the last few years have been increasingly depressing.  The problems that the Climate Emergency is already bombarding us with, and the future problems that may be dumped on us unexpectedly, combined with all the other problems that selfish and stupid humans are creating, make it very difficult to be optimistic. 

Which is all the more reason to be all the warmer to our fellow humans in the struggle, a struggle which unfortunately looks like it’s going to be our version of the “Humdred Years War.”   Luckily, we have some great models to follow in our Ukrainian brothers and sisters: locked in an existential war against a selfish monster, they somehow find the courage to serve at great costs to their own conveniences, while also serving and looking after each other, and taking in stray creatures who’ve also been disrupted by the incredible struggle they face. 

The Climate Emergency is real, the anxiety we face is real.  But let’s not be fools, let’s be continually making our human environments warmer, more helpful to all of us who will be suffering through the Climate Emergencies to come.   It’s one positive point that we can focus on as we work to bring back a world we’d actually like to be living in

Posted in climate change, cllimate emergency, current world history, Economic History, Economics, Politics, Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

To Build A Green Future: Implementing the Manifesto

Image of earth in space, half burning up into space – image by Peter Linforth from Pixabay

Readers in America are unlikely to have heard about it, a very broad coalition calling itself the “Peoples of the Global South” has recently published a “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transiton from the Peoples of the South” that does deserve to be widely read and studied. It is a radical and highly idealistic work that calls for a complete overturn of our current political and economic institutions, in order to build a completely new set of ways of living and being, in which all peoples will be respected and not exploited economically.

These folks understand that the Climate Emergency is real. It is happening now, people are dying and communities are being disrupted now in countries around the world, and this huge problem demands a serious response that does not just continue the oppressions in government and inequalities in economics that plague us today.

My task today will be to convince you that this work is a necessary goal, one that will take every day of all the rest of all of our lives if we are to even get close to achieving it.

Realism and Idealism

As a writer and as a citizen trying to do my best for a better world, I have long been aware of the huge gulf between our individual and social idealisms, our hopes and projections and plans and daydreams of “if everybody would just do this”, all these visions that give us hope on one side, and the histories, cultures and attitudes that have resulted in the powerful economic and political institutions that bind and prevent us from achieving those idealisms, standing in our way on the other side.

“Everybody” will never agree to do anything in unison, people who control huge economic activities will always have more influence over governments than ordinary citizens, in too many countries toxic political organizations exert a selfish power over governments, and even the minority of citizens who want to build a better world will always be divided by attitude, history, personal ideologies, and their individual needs to take care of their families, emergencies and problems.

In my experience, being “realistic” rather than “idealistic” has always proven to be much more effective in working to meet a particular goal – whether that’s maintaining your family, getting a job, building a business, or working with others towards a fairly specific political outcome.

So on my first reading of the “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition” I was overwhelmed by the height of the idealisms that were being expressed. For example, here is the 3rd paragraph of the Manifesto, essentially calling for a complete overhaul and overturning of all our institutions of economics and government.

“The engines of this unjust status quo—capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and various fundamentalisms—are making a bad situation worse. Therefore, we must urgently debate and implement new visions of ecosocial transition and transformation that are gender-just, regenerative, and popular, that are at once local and international.”

Yes, they seem to be calling for an end to capitalism, yes, they seem to be calling for all the people who have privileges in our existing institutions to shed those privileges for the benefit of others less well-off than themselves. And my first thought was, ‘How completely unrealistic, they basically need everyone in the world to change their personalities, attitudes and behaviors.’

Yet the more I read and the more I considered this “Manifesto,” the more I realized, how completely necessary their idealism has become. We are very likely to poison our planet, very soon, to the point where we cannot live comfortably upon it any more. We need to take serious action against climate change, otherwise our surviving children will likely be hungry vagrants, foraging in the ruins of our privileges.

Dealing with Climate Emergency will almost certainly prove to be the Life or Death question of all our lives in the future; will it hit us in 5 years, 15 years? Nobody knows, but I’m not betting we still have 20 years to act before the disasters are hurting us every day.

Do you understand this problem, or are you one of the deniers? If you understand the problem, you need to share the idealism of the “manifesto,” because we are not going to slow down or prevent climate change with the half-hearted, unenthusiastically financed, lightly enforced plans and goals that the biggest governments and corporations can agree on –- that they can agree on only because none of their own privileges are seriously affected.

I can list the histories, the attitudes, the institutions, all the things that make government-supported late-modern capitalism nearly impossible to change in any serious way – yet that would leave me a depressed pessimist. I need to have optimism in my life, I need to believe that if millions of young (and old) people could organize and act with enough focus and determination, we could bring about a more fair and balanced civilization we can all be proud of. We need the idealism of the Peoples of the Global South.

The Mountains We Must Climb

The size of the problem confronting all the world’s peoples can be seen by my attempts, in what follows, to give the briefest possible summary of the major points raised by the “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South.” You should read the whole document, it’s not long; over 30 organizations are on a “short list of organizational sponsors,” (I am not familiar with most of the names, they seem to be activist, charitable and academic organizations working on social justice issues, and you and I as individuals are invited to add our signatures as well).

The Manifesto begins by noting that the Global North and Global South approach the situation from entirely different histories and attitudes. “In the context of climate change, ever rising energy needs, and biodiversity loss, the capitalist centers have stepped up the pressure to extract natural wealth and rely on cheap labor from the countries on the periphery.” The awareness of the Climate Emergency is causing the North to increase its need for raw materials such as cobalt and lithium.

Trade officials in the North can talk about “establishing responsible, sustainable, and transparent supply chain” trade agreements for these raw materials, which nevertheless act to “protect and enhance corporate power and rights, “ while the pressure for raw materials leads to externally-financed new extraction and processing facilities, leading Southern nations into debt that requires even more raw material extraction. All of this represents a new form of colonialism, for the Peoples of the Global South.

Southern nations must also face their own problems: “Corrupt elites in the Global South have also collaborated in this unjust system by profiting from extraction, repressing human rights and environmental defenders, and perpetuating economic inequality.”

At the heart of the Manifesto in several places, the authors make it clear that they envision a radical transformation of our current economic infrastructure.

“Minor changes in the energy matrix are not enough. The entire energy system must be transformed from production to distribution to consumption and waste. Substituting electric vehicles for internal-combustion cars is insufficient, for the entire transportation model needs changing, with a reduction of energy consumption and the promotion of sustainable options.”

“The energy transition should be part of a comprehensive vision that addresses radical inequality in the distribution of energy resources and advances energy democracy. It should de-emphasize large-scale institutions—corporate agriculture, huge energy companies—as well as market-based solutions. Instead, it must strengthen the resilience of civil society and social organizations.”

They also understand that this process of transformation is not “just” economic: “Rather than solely technological, the solutions to these interlocked crises are above all political.” They see this process as incorporating “radical, democratic, gender-just, regenerative, and popular “ types of values, they proclaim that “Energy is an elemental and inalienable human right, and energy democracy should be our goal.”

While they understand that the struggles are political, the authors seem to be very clear that there will not be one big political organization or one political theory or ideology to guide this work of transforming our relationships to energy and social organization. They know that their “ecosocial alternative is based on countless struggles, strategies, proposals, and community-based initiatives” and also comes from “the lived experience and critical perspectives of Indigenous peoples and other local communities, women, and youth throughout the Global South.” In short, the authors of the manifesto clearly see that there must and will be a wide variety of groups and coalitions, who may not agree with one another on every possible issue, working towards common goals: “We make an explicit call to continue political coordination among the peoples of the south while also pursuing strategic alliances with critical sectors in the North.”

One Step At a Time, Climbing These Mountains

The “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South” did leave this reader with the impression of a having a strong perception of their goal, while leaving the means of reaching these goals to a few general statements. Yet if we understand that we, the eight billion individual and highly disparate people on the earth, are indeed creating our futures (and our history) with every one of our thoughts and actions in every minute of our life, the message and the path should also be quite visible.

Each and every one of us who wants to avoid climate disaster, must be ready to work, to give, to connect, to sacrifice, absolutely as much we possibly can, every day and every night, and most likely for the rest of our lives. We are indeed fighting for the futures of every person we love and honor.

It will be the hardest and most challenging work we will ever undertake. In the first place, today in 2023 we are faced with strong social forces that are anti-democratic, dictatorial, socially backwards and economically selfish, who are convinced they are winning the future for themselves, and they hate and wish to crush our visions of green transformation and economic democracy. The current governments of Russia and China, controlling billions of people and a large part of the Asian landmass, are the most important enemies of any kind of transition or evolution, and their behavior demonstrates how they are willing to kill any community and destroy any infrastructure, to use all their military and dictatorial powers, to prevent any change to their power and privilege. Too many other governments are almost as bad, and some small long-established dictatorships may be even more controlling of their citizen’s thoughts and actions.

Even in the USA, it is possible Climate Emergency deniers may win the next election. Many of us here are already quite fearful that we aren’t doing half enough to prevent and heal the Climate Emergency (that the USA is more responsible for creating than any other nation). We fear that if we halt even today’s small efforts, the Climate Disaster involving billions of deaths and loss of the infrastructure of ‘modern civilization’ will be the ugly end of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives.

To counter these immense obstacles to human progress and survival, we are going to have to learn and grow and organize and work as much as possible. We are going to have learn new ways of talking to our fellow-citizens, some new ways of helping them realize they have a choice of intentionally sacrificing some of their privileges and conveniences in a purposeful manner.today and tomorrow, or having those privileges and conveniences torn from them in unexpected and very painful ways, destroyed forever by the unpredictable outbursts of the Climate Emergency a few years from now, if they try to ignore the problem.

We are going to have find new ways of communicating with our fellow-citizens that it is probably more important to our future happiness to be helping build communities and to organize for change, than to focus only on amusing ourselves with the latest technological distractions. We need to learn how to use our activist organizations for persuasion that goes beyond basic protest. Those of us in the Global North need to learn how to control our individualism and egos to work effectively in mass organizations, to learn how to support community efforts that we personally may not totally agree with 100% of the time.

In pursuing the idealistic goal of economic democracy, the first 95% of the work is going to be political. As an economic historian, I do believe that markets are social creations that reveal the psychological and political values of the societies they exist within; in modern societies, changing economic behavior almost always involves changing government regulations; these will be inch-by-inch, step-by-step struggles, involving all types of businesses and types of governments. We will also need to work on changing the social attitudes that underly government regulations, which is an even more subtle and long-term crusade.

This political work in a long-term crusade for idealistic goals is probably always going to be frustrating and difficult, we are going to have to work for short-term and intermediate-term goals that do not fully reflect our ideals, the forces of backwardness and selfishness will be fighting us at every turn, there are going to have to be compromises with more powerful and less idealistic political forces. It seems likely we will have to learn how to work effectively in such situations, making the compromises (that provide at least some help to underprivileged communities) today while spreading the message of the greater transformation that is needed.

The Climate Emergencies that are already occurring are already creating victims and refugees who require immediate relief, and it will be very important for us who wish to create something better to improve our skills at providing that immediate relief – no matter how much that hurricane or fire or heat-wave is disrupting all aspects of society and community. My realism and pessimism is envisioning scenarios where severe weather emergencies are creating tens of millions of refugees both within nations and crossing borders – when a major food crop fails. Is there anything we can be doing today to prepare us to be able to provide relief in such circumstances?

And yes, to undertake the level of commitment and work that will be necessary to live up to our idealisms, we will all need to learn more about our own selves: how and when to work for the future we need, and how and when to work on supporting the families and communities that support us, and how and when to work on balancing and giving support for our own bodies and our own psyches. We are complex beings, we humans, and we do need some measure of distraction and amusement to help keep ourselves ready for those moments when our lives depend on attention and action.

I can’t accept it – the disruptions of the Climate Emergency are already here. It’s true, as of today no major city in the American East Coast or Midwest has yet experiencing a life-threatening heat wave; that will change, perhaps in the next 2 to 5 years, and American attitudes may start to begin to accept the reality of the Climate Emergency. I was glad to see the first article talking about an issue I have been considering for several years: real estate properties along America’s coastlines have been the most popular and expensive for decades, they have been prized assets, but they are going to become liabilities for many privileged people, and American attitudes will begin to change.

It is going to be a long journey, our future dealing with Climate Emergency.  Again, it is going to be the hardest work we undertake, it is probably going to be harder in the real future, when disaster and emergency may be striking us every week,  than in our most pessimistic imaginations.

We will indeed be working to save our own lives, our own families, and to do that well, we must also save the whole darn World. We need the idealism of the Peoples of the Global, South, and their vision of a global economic democracy, to inspire us and guide us – combined with our own best realistic understandings of which tasks and battles are required right now, and which can be postponed for another day.

We can only make it one step at a time. Those steps need to begin as soon as possible.

Posted in climate change, cllimate emergency, current world history, Economic History, Economics, Social Sciences, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

National Sales Tax? Let’s Have the Plutocratic Sales Tax

We have a severe problem of economic inequality, both here in America and also across the globe as a whole.  There is a very small class of plutocrats, extremely wealthy individuals, and the decision-makers in the largest corporations, who have great power simply from their economic positions, and also because they are constantly leveraging that economic power to influence the governments of their nations; in the worst cases, dictatorial governments have complete power of all aspects of their national community. 

Changing all of this will be a huge undertaking for committed reformers, and hardly any of us are even talking about it, let alone having ideas about where to start.  I certainly don’t have an answer to the whole problem, yet I do have one suggestion for a policy we can advocate for here in America that should provide some inspiration to raise consciousness about this problem, while being a first step toward ameliorating the undue influence of the plutocracy over all of society. I call it the “Plutocrat’s Sales Tax.”

The Republicans in Congress are embarrassing themselves with a proposal to please the ultra-conservatives by abolishing the income tax, in favor of a 30% national retail sales tax of up to 30%.  They don’t understand that their own low-income, high-selfishness base voters would hate a tax like this even more than all the rest of the voters would hate such a tax. 

There is, however, a type of sales tax that is highly needed in our modern, individualistic and diverse society, which would be highly likely to add significant revenues to support all the improvements that all significant sectors of our society desire.  This would be sales tax on the toys, entertainments, and luxury products of our multi-millionaire “plutocrat” class. It should also, and importantly, be levied on huge businesses, when their purchases reach the level of tax, whether that is part of their regular operations or if they’re expanding or investing.  Businesses always tout their investments being “good for the community” because of possible new jobs and infrastructure; yet when these are being done by the largest and most powerful businesses, there is almost always one or many smaller businesses that are hurt, there are always resources being taken by and reserved for that company that are then unavailable for everybody else.  It is very true that the richest individuals are gaining far more from overall growth than the mass of society. This is a real, harmful social cost, for which these businesses should pay a relatively small social tax. 

The basic principle of the Plutocrat’s Sales Tax is simple.  Nearly all purchases and sales of assets and/or services,  made involving assets on American soil, or purchases by American citizens anywhere in the world, with a price tag of $10 Million,  shall be subject to a sales tax, generally to be collected and paid by the seller, (or by the purchaser in cases of American citizens purchasing foreign assets and/or services).   For purchases valued over $10 Million, the rate of the tax shall be 5% of the overall price.

If you or your company can cut a check for $10 Million, $10,000,000, whether that is intended to increase your personal pleasure  or your company’s ability to control economic resources,  you can cut a check for $10,500,000 with that extra half million going to the federal government to fund all the social needs and ameliorations that the majority of non-millionaires in society need and desire, in order to balance your ability to fulfill your own selfish desires. 

I’ll sketch out some of the tax code details that might be important in implementing such a tax at the end of this article, here let’s focus on the two major classes of people who would be affected by such a Plutocrat’s Sales Tax. 

The first class to be affected, of course, are individuals of great wealth.  The American Federal Reserve Bank provides very interesting statistics on the distribution of wealth in America, which clearly show that there is a fairly small class of persons whose bank accounts and assets are, yes, thousands of times greater than the average American citizen, and of course infinitely greater than the very lowest 1 or 2% who literally have nothing on any particular day.     

The Fed’s statistics reveal a sharply polarized society.  I’m going to use the stats for the end of 2021, which happened to be the peak time of wealth in America so far, the ‘22 numbers are slightly lower.  The Census Estimate for Jan. 1, 2022 was 332,662,961 persons, I’m rounding to 332.7 million.  Basically, the Fed shows that the top 1%, three million and three hundred thirty thousand-plus people, has rather more total wealth than the bottom 90% of the population, some 299.4 million people – the people you’ll see on a typical American street.  That top 1% had about 45.7 Trillion dollars of total wealth; the three hundred million people on the bottom, which includes all the people we typically think of “middle class,” only came up to $43.22 Trillion dollars of total wealth. 

The top-heaviness of this distribution can hardly be over-emphasized.  A very few people at the tippy-top of the structure – imagine a shallow, very wide pyramid, but with a tower rising up sharply out of the top – the top one-tenth of one percent, represent just over three hundred thirty thousand people.   If they were a typical American big city and suburbs, what the Census Bureau calls a “Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area,” they’d be way down the list, below places I knew from California, decades ago when they were still fairly small and unwanted, like Visalia and Salinas, below some place in North Carolina I’ve never heard of, they would be Number 157 on the list, below Spartanburg SC and pushing Boulder CO down to 158th.  This fairly small group had $18.42 trillions of wealth at the end of 2021, an average of $55,365,194 each, by my rounded-off numbers. 

The next nine-tenths of one percent, making up the full top 1% of the tower, had another $27.28 trillion of wealth (again, this plus the 18.42 trillion of the very tippy-tippy top makes up the $45.27 trillion of wealth of the top 1% that outweighs the bottom 90% of America’s living breathing people);  these relatively poor folk in the next nine-tenths of one percent of America had to get by with just an average of $9,110,643 of various forms of wealth each.

From there, it goes down fast.  I was comparing the tippy-top one percent with the lower 90%; that 9% above the 90th percentile actually had a bigger share of wealth than either the top or the bottom, a total of $53.42 trillion.   That works out to a nice $1,784,056 each, spread out over almost 30 million people.  These are the successful professionals in the biggest cities, their wealth is typically locked up in a nice domicile (in an expensive city) and a retirement fund, these are the people getting up to the 98th percentile of income at $400,000 that pundit Megan McArdle is so concerned about (yet as usual McArdle likes to start from shaky premises, no one considers these folks “middle class.”)   These folks know they’re well off, yet they’re often comparing themselves with the tippy-top, and their own very high expectations, so it seems that often as group they don’t feel super-satisfied.  

Just to complete the picture of the wide shallow pyramid on the bottom, the actual “middle class” is mostly within the group that represents the 40% of America that falls between the 50th and 90th percentiles;  these folks held $39.42 trillion of wealth in total, for an average of $296,213 each.  Basically they’ve got some equity in an average house and are trying to build up retirement funds, they know darn well they are not rich.  And then the 50% on the bottom, about 167,000,000 people, collectively held just $3.8 trillion of wealth, an average of $22,843 each; the folks at the upper levels of this lowest group probably have some tools and small savings, and be paying off some cars and saving for a deposit on a house, if they’re ambitious at all.  The lowest ranks of this half of America, are of course the ones suffering from the various levels of poverty, debt, and inabilities to succeed in the more “middle class” levels of work and life.   

So, if we want Plutocrat’s Sales Tax that looks for transactions of $10,000,000 or more, it should be clear that even among the very top of the structure, it is a pretty small number of individuals that will ever have to worry about this tax.  Even among the one-tenth-of-one-percent of folks who are worth over $50 million each, I think it’s fair to say that for most of those folks, those millions are all tied up, in real estate and/or strong local/regional businesses and/or reasonably complicated financial arrangements, they aren’t regularly writing any checks for $10 million.  

These are the folks who could go to the bank for a $20 million loan for a big construction project,  yet (referring to the tax details I provide below) even then they could employ some accountants to break up the loan over 3 years and break up all the contractor’s payments and avoid the Plutocrat’s Sales Tax. The number of individuals that will need to worry about this tax it is far less than the population of our hypothetical plutocrat’s metro area of Spartanburg SC’s three hundred thirty thousand and change.  Any individual who will “suffer” from the Plutocrat’s Sales Tax is, well, a true plutocrat, a tycoon, a multi-multi-millionaire.   Since the ultra-rich are reported to play ego games over their wealth, they should boast about the amount of tax they have to pay !

The class that will be greatly affected by the Plutocrat’s Sales Tax that I am proposing, are the corporate leaders of America’s largest corporations.  Those who study the stock markets generally identify about 2500 or more corporations whose stocks are listed on the major markets; while some percentage of these may have “only” $500 million to $1 billlion in annual sales, most of these large corporations have at least $1 billion in sales each year, and the largest and most prominent bring in much, much more.  Household names like Disney and Proctor & Gamble sold $67 billion and $76 billion, respectively, in our statistical year of 2021; among the true giants, Apple had $365 billion in sales, and Amazon had $469 billion in sales.   All these corporations can and do lobby Congress relentlessly for various tax loopholes and favorable regulations, very few of them are paying the kind of tax rates that millions of Americans in the more middling classes are paying. 

And again, all these corporations promote their investments (and the fact their investments almost always qualify for very favorable tax treatment in the existing tax laws) by looking at the jobs they might provide, the products they’ll be able to sell, some new roads or other infrastructure that benefits the existing communities they’re affecting, and with the general concept of economic growth.  Yet there are always more than a few social costs that come with a business expansion or investment: the competitors that are now shut out of that opportunity, land that is no longer available for any other purpose, increased burdens on physical infrastructure (like roads and phone lines) and increased burden on social infrastructure (doctors and hospitals, schools, law enforcement and emergency services).  And are we finally learning that “growth for growth’s sake” may not be the best idea to guide all civilization? Of course many investments may bring up all sorts of other costs, such as specific environmental problems or a company’s past history of racial discrimination or hating to actually pay competitive wages.

Whether your huge business is cutting a $10 million dollar check to stock up on raw materials at a good price, or hiring service companies to help with your business’s desire to expand swiftly into a new field,  or construction companies to build your new facilities, and especially if you are just buying up smaller competitors and buying up foreign companies for your global expansion, if you can write a $10 million dollar check, you can write a check for $10 million and five hundred thousand to help cover the social costs of your activities (whether your business plans are succeeding or failing).  If you can write a $500 million dollar check to buy up a domestic competitor or a foreign source of raw materials, you definitely need to be adding another $25 million dollars in the “plutocrat’s sales tax”  to help ameliorate the social costs of your activities – which you’re always ultimately doing with an eye to your own selfish benefit.   This is exactly what the Plutocrat Sales Tax” is designed for. 

Whether we are trying to catch the luxuries and toys of ultra-rich individuals, or the un-intended social costs of huge businesses that are trampling many others below them every time they “take a step” with their “gigantic economic footprints”, the plutocrat sales tax needs to be as wide and as comprehensive as possible. It needs to include nearly all types of purchases and other transfers that reach a $10 million dollar level.  

This includes all types of real estate, all types of securities and bonds including cryptocurrencies, any type of physical property such as machinery, aircraft, watercraft or spacecraft, art or collectible items, entertainment products or other personal products, and all types of corporate or other business properties including purchases of any type of business services.  

There are a few types of financial transfers that may reach the ten million dollar level that are not purchases, and which are already exempted from or given other special treatment under our current tax laws.   Lottery and contest winnings, inheritances and estate distributions, court judgements and insurance payments and/or settlements, and transfers that may be subject to the existing IRS Gift tax should be excluded.   Loans of over $10 million should definitely be included, those are plutocratic transactions that are not available to 99% of the population, are these the sale of a loan by the bank to the borrower? Yet if we know banks, somehow the borrower will always pay the tax.  For installment contracts, let’s keep it simple: if the payments are $9,999,999 a year, no tax, if they’re over $10,000,000, there’s some tax.  Again, companies on the margin can work a bit harder to legally evade some taxes by stretching out times if their lenders are willing.  And frankly, for any company that says “the tax is too much, now we can’t make our investment,” I would say, please don’t make that investment, leave some space for a more nimble competitor to have an economic opportunity. 

In a shameless ploy to court public opinion, one particular type of service contracts should also be excluded: contracts for the services of professional athletes competing in established sports leagues.  The poor suffering fans of long-struggling teams do not need the extra bit of worry about their team-owners having to pay a tax, if and when those owners finally decide to hire a big expensive star to boost their chances.   The big contracts of coaches and sports announcers, however, do represent the toys and luxuries of plutocratic individuals and businesses, and should be subject to the plutocrat sales tax. 

Governments don’t tax themselves, so all the levels of American government will not have to pay this tax, however any foreign government or government-controlled body should pay the tax for any purchase of American assets.  And any American entities that are teaming  up with foreign governments in multi-million dollar projects in foreign lands, whether it’s providing financing or services or whatever, should be taxed, as these are precisely the type of projects that are taking opportunities away from the less-privileged and allowing the ultra-rich to grab the greatest share of any new income growth.  Spending by political campaigns and political committees should also be covered, despite the special pleading that such a tax might be harming their “free speech.”  The vast majority of political campaigns will never be close to spending $10 million at a time; the few that are that big are finding plenty of opportunities to get their message out, these campaigns are making the choices to buy huge chunks of advertising (or whatever), which restricts the ability of others who are not so rich to get their message out.  (The fact that our courts have no problems with lies being broadcast widely by multi-millionaires who are allowed to hide their responsibility for the lies is prime example of the problem of plutocracy literally holding back the majority of society to make democratic reforms.)

A tremendous inequality of wealth is not only an American problem, and the Plutocrat’s Sales Tax is not going to cure the problem by itself.  Of course, in the current American reality of unequal wealth and unequal political power, it is highly unlikely that anything like this Plutocrat’s Sales Tax could ever be instituted, precisely because the wealthy individuals and wealthy corporations are already very much in control of our Congress, with their open donations and their huge pools of “dark money” giving that comes from hugely wealthy individuals and corporations, which are the same wealthy individuals and corporations  that are busy 52 weeks a year in their relentless lobbying of Congressfolks, who are worried they can’t get re-elected without  the donations of those wealthy individuals and corporations.   

The changes we are going to need to survive our future challenges are unlikely to come through the choices of wealthy individuals and corporations focused on maintaining their existing privileges.   There are so many reforms that need to be worked for, so many things we need to be doing to reduce the huge inequalities of wealth and government power that keep our global societies less than satisfactory for the vast majority of the world’s people. I am trying to listen to the scientists, and I am pretty worried about humanity’s future. If there are sudden catastrophes, like major failures of food crops or fisheries, or a sudden rise in sea levels that brings tens of millions of migrant refugees within nations and across borders, do we really trust the richest corporations and individuals to make decisions that will help anyone besides themselves? Global income inequality is a huge problem for our children, and we can barely talk about it. Promoting and advocating for a Plutocrat’s Sales Tax and similar policies are basic first steps we need to take now.

Posted in American Economic History, American Politics, Economics, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

We Weren’t Dealing Well with Climate Emergency, Now Ukraine Emergency Makes It Worse

the globe as the center of a clock, whose hands are lighted matchsticks, showing nine minutes before midnight. Image by Kai Stackowiak from publicdomain.net

(Original post, dealing with climate emergency, was greatly revised to cover Ukraine invasion and re-published Feb. 28, 2022.)

The climate emergency has the potential to destroy all our comforts and conveniences, and possibly our lives – and we aren’t dealing with it, well, or at all. Far too many of our political and business leaders are getting money out of the most polluting industries, they have no incentive to stop the damage we continue to do emitting billions of tons of harmful gases from our cars, our power plants, our steel mills and concrete, our food-growing and so many of our other “productive” industries.

And now, in February of 2022, the dictator of Russia needs to make it all worse, with a completely unjustified invasion of Ukraine – a democratic nation of 44 million people, and a significant source of agricultural and mineral raw materials. This first major land war, between established national governments in Europe since the end of World War Two over 75 years ago, is of course a disaster in all directions, for lives of Ukrainians, for the wealth of Ukrainians, for the environment of the Ukraine, for all the neighboring nations which must now deal with refugees and energy sources, for the disruptions of the oil and gas industries which will certainly help raise prices for consumers all over the world, for the neighboring nations that must now fear and defend against Russian aggression. In these and many other ways the disruptive and costly effects of Putin’s evil action will continue to affect people around the globe for years.

We, the collective 8 billion humans covering this world, were already failing to deal well with the harmful wastes of all our everyday lives. The addition of the Ukrainian emergency to the climate emergency makes the multiple problems even harder to deal with; Russia isn’t likely to be cooperating with other nations to reduce emissions, the Ukraine will be shipping out much less corn, wheat, and steel, Germany is going to have to figure out how the heat their homes and businesses, and American consumers may have to face a 20% or more increase in the cost of their irrational love for mammoth 3 and 4 ton vehicles for their suburban errands.

It’s not new, yet it is becoming more inescapable : we are all connected. Ending the use of fossil fuels in transportation and electricity generation is very likely linked to our continued lives and prosperity – but even in America the bottom 60% simply cannot afford to dump their current vehicle for something greener no matter how much they might see it is necessary. And it is highly likely that due to lingering effects of pandemic, supply shortages that have already occurred, the disruption of Russia’s useless new war, the floods and heat-spells and droughts that accelerating climate change will bring us, all these problems will further accelerate the cost inflation of all goods and services, enforced by those who are likely to benefit the most in the short term, the plutocrats that control too many economic resources.

To expand on a theme I’ve started to explore in recent writings, our global so-called “civilization” is facing extermination from the 3 major inequalities that rule our economic and political situations. We have the inequality between our need for consumer goods and our ability to produce consumer goods at the scale of our large modern populations in ways that DON”T destroy our land, water and atmospheric environments. What we love to consume, what we’re paid to make, is poisoning the air we breathe. This is what is driving climate change, and all those of us who like our modern lifestyles are at fault.

Yet there are two other tremendous institutionalized social inequalities that are aggravating climate change, and preventing any serious progress on climate change: the inequality of formal political power between the world’s 195-or-so governments and their various subjects, and the inequality of formal and informal economic power, seen in the explosion of a new plutocratic class with more tangible wealth than nearly all the rest of the world combined, all of them possessing great influence in the political structures of their particular nations as well. These tiny political and economic elites will be found behind nearly all of the obstacles that the 98% of us encounter when we try to change things for the better.

And of course, today in February of 2022, we have barely begun the process of changing things for the better. Last summer Americans in Congress were proposing some of the first serious steps, with the more intelligent of the two major parties with majorities in Congress – and two probably corrupt Senators switched sides, voting with the climate-deniers and the fossil fuel lobbyists (and gaining millions in donations from corporations) to block all progress.

We have barely begun to act, because we cannot yet imagine the total devastation that can come to our particular part of the world almost overnight – yet Ukrainians can now understand that kind of total upset. Massive unprecedented floods? Probably won’t hit me. Heat waves, already occurring in many countries, in which humans cannot survive outside in the sun? I’ve got my house, my air-conditioner will work. Loss of major food sources, like all the wheat or all the rice? That hasn’t happened … yet.

For nearly all of us in modern societies, our primary focus is on ourselves: our loves and our money and our families and our struggles for status and success. Our daily thoughts and tasks are all caught up in the difficulties of being/becoming stable adults in fairly stable societies, we want things to be mostly the same as they were before, except for the situations we want to make better in order to increase our loves and monies and our families and our success.

We have all grown up thinking that jobs and careers are pretty well-established patterns that will be pretty much the same as years go by, we assume that all our relatives and friends will go on living much as they have been, and nearly all of us hope we might find some sort of “retirement” before we have to leave this space. We think that piles of fancy new tech gadgets and basic raw materials and notations in bank ledgers can be relatively stable assets that will be there for us when we need them.

We want to think of all these social patterns as being stable, yet of course there have always been risks to every aspect of life. But while today the risk that you might be killed in a car accident is way down below 1/10th of 1 %, and the risk of a fire at your home or office is also minuscule and the risk that your business will fail is maybe 1 or 2%, and the total of all the unusual threats out there gives you maybe a 1 or 2% risk that your lifestyle will be greatly affected by outside forces in any particular week or month.

But climate change is not sitting still, nor are the evil dictators of various nations. Climate change is ACCELERATING, it is going faster and faster all the time. The fact that you have not had a life-threatening heat wave yet in your town is not evidence that such a heat wave will not occur this summer. Combining with the evil intentions and unpredictability of military dictators and selfish plutocrats, THE RISKS TO YOUR LIFESTYLE ARE RISING EVERY DAY. That risk of a heat wave was 2% yesterday, tomorrow it may be 5%, and in a month, with the weather patterns that are already forming, the risk of that deadly heat wave may be up to 40 to 60%, and there are steps to be protecting yourself and your family that you could be taking if you were aware of how threatened you really are.

It’s hard for us to grasp that just about everything we believe in today, everything in our lives that has an economic or social value to us, all those things ares at risk from the climate emergency. All those things are at risk from military dictators and selfish plutocrats. That especially includes the assumption that “things will still be normal 10 years from now.” And all the risks to the stability that we crave are growing, every day that we keep running our car engines in the parking lots to charge our phones or whatever, all the risks are growing every day that corporate lobbyists are pushing for “less regulation,” all the risks are growing as dictators and local conflicts create refugees from all over, who wish to get to the better-off nations of Europe and North America and Australia. The risks are growing as greedy rich celebrities try to sell you bad art, that you won’t really own in the format they’re selling with, trying to tell you that this will somehow create libertarian new financial systems, when 50% of Americans do not even have $400 in savings to repair their car or refrigerator if it fails. And if you’re uninformed enough to fall for this nonsense, your risks are increasing very quickly.

There are plenty of sources to fill you with the facts on how we’re being very bad to our collective futures. Yet of course there is still plenty of uncertainty about what will happen on any specific day.

However, it seems highly likely that by 2030, we are going to be seeing massive disruptions in food supplies in large regions of the earth, it is highly likely that there will population displacements and refugee flows in the multi-millions affecting some regions, and it is very, very likely that we will be experiencing all sorts of extreme weather events – hurricanes, droughts, floods, severe heat waves — and yes, even severe cold spells coming from the overall upset of climate patterns our pollutions have caused. All of these events will be disrupting our economic assumptions and patterns. It is certain that changing to “greener” forms of energy is going to require big outlays for new tools by both producers and consumers, and it is highly likely that weather disasters, invasions and refugee flows, and shortages of necessary raw materials will mean a strong and consistent rise in the prices of all the items we want while supplies will become less reliable.

Can we grasp that “business as usual,” which is exactly what all the conservative voters and the business lobbies and the politicians who serve the business lobbies want us to keep on doing, can we grasp that “business as usual” today very likely means “disruption, disaster, massive population displacement and death” in our upcoming tomorrows?

It is hard for us to grasp a coming emergency of any kind, we want things to be mostly the same (depending on our relative levels of privilege and handicap.) Our minds are trained to be optimistic, to imagine fine futures. I have known for a long time that I have to be an optimist in my daily life, I need to think that things are improving to keep putting out my efforts. It really hurts me deep inside, to confront the evidence that we are so short-sighted and so greedy that we, as a global human society, are apparently about to poison ourselves in the next 10-30 years.

I need to believe that all the intelligent people now forty years old or less will soon realize that they don’t want to end their lives in a disaster, that they will soon join the millions of young climate activists already demanding an end to fossil fuels absolutely as soon as possible, they will demand the end of politicians, governments and corporations who support fossil fuels, and they will organize and make the necessary sacrifices to re-organize economies and win votes and overturn autocracies and put an end, relatively soon, to the fossil fuel economy that is going to kill us all, if all of us don’t take a lot of action to make it stop.

I need to feel hopeful, which means I need to feel that there may be some escape from the locked-up cage of greed and stupidity and “business-as-usual” that we have built for ourselves, that threatens to wreck the whole human project and end all our lives – just maybe, if we all fight as hard as we possibly can against the rich people and powerful politicians who can’t accept change.

Will we be able to understand that the climate emergency means no asset is ever guaranteed to be “safe” ? Even your guns and your gold in your “prepper’s palace” in some rural badlands is just going to make you a target for someone crazier than you… and the thing that brings you down will probably be some small ecological change you couldn’t foresee, the fuel you couldn’t get to drive the last miles to your hideout. Do we understand that the increasing small local disruptions and floods and droughts and refugee flows will make all of our personal hopes and dreams more tentative, more challenging and difficult to achieve, more likely to be disrupted and denied?

It’s not easy to understand the immense scope of the coming climate emergency. It’s so easy to go along with “business as usual.” There’s just enough doubt and uncertainty for the deniers to spread their disinformation and propaganda. After all, increased CO2 can make plants grow faster. And maybe some tech genius will figure out a way to suck billions of tons of CO2 out of the sky and neutralize it, and all the extremely selfish and short-sighted tech-bro financiers will give that magic solution all the billions it will need to get running in 2 years.

But those idealistic dreams are even less likely to come to pass, and less likely to lead us in good directions, than our dreams that we will still be driving 3-ton gasoline-powered vehicles anywhere we want to, at little cost to our wallets or our children’s lives when we reach the year 2030. Goals to merely “reduce” fossil fuels by 2030 are a feel-good exercise that may be killing our children by 2035. A goal by a very large and very poor country to end coal burning by 2070 sounds like a sick joke to many of us; don’t they realize it’s their own country (already being hit by severe droughts, floods and pollution) that they’re condemning to greater, life-threatening disruptions ?

Recently major American TV shows were featuring advertisements for a video/computer game based on the idea of anarchistic urban warfare in broken-down America, in the year 2042. I understand that a lot of young Americans have really bought into the concept of anti-utopian future fantasies, and that books and movies and games may be influencing some (very short-sighted) people to take an attitude of “it’s all going to break down, we can’t fix it, we’re just gonna wallow in our privilege and cynicism and negativity and laziness as long as we can.”

Can I convince you how sick and stupid these attitudes are going to appear when real disasters start occurring ? Do you understand that the breakdown of our unsustainable economic structures is NOT going to fun in real life? If it happens, it will be inconvenient and painful for many many days on end, you will never come to a happy ending in that game.

We need to face the facts: our cars and trucks, our concrete and steel, high-tech economic structures are in fact today killing the atmosphere we all must breathe. We need to face the fact that the climate emergency we have created requires drastic actions, and probably requires severe sacrifices from all of us. And we’ll most likely have to greatly reform political and financial structures against great resistance, as well. We need to face our future: BUSINESS AS USUAL MEANS DISASTERS, DISPLACEMENTS, AND DEATH.

There’s still a lot uncertainty about how it will work out, there is still a chance that our concerted, effective action may save a reasonably-pleasant world for our grandchildren. But we need to accept the most likely results of our current situation: BUSINESS AS USUAL WILL MEAN DISASTERS, POPULATION DISPLACEMENTS AND MANY DEATHS.

That includes our own deaths, probably occurring in ugly and unpleasant ways. Isn’t it time to get to work ?

Posted in climate change, cllimate emergency, current world history, Democrats, Economics, History, Politics, Republicans, Ron's Omelet, Russia, Social Sciences, Ukraine, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

History Shows a Path

My writings have done their best to show that the existing political dictatorships in the largest nations of Asia by territory and population, and far too many other global nations, are the main obstacle to a happy and progressive future for any of the world’s billions of people. The problem of dictatorship is intimately linked with the two other huge global problems of climate change and income inequality, yet because of the resources available for the dictatorships to force their will on their own subjects and the international sphere, the dictatorships are arguably the hardest obstacle in the great work we will have to be doing over the next twenty years to bring about a world that is worth living in.

So I am very pleased to be able to bring the news that patient historical research has been able to identify paths of ‘nonviolent mass action” that have proved, in general, to be more effective than strategies of violent revolution in gaining increased citizen rights in the face of governments that are determined to repress those rights.

This will be a relatively short article, sourced from one magazine article (behind a paywall, sorry), “The Anti-Coup” by Andrew Marantz in The New Yorker, Nov. 23, 2020 (article title may vary between print and online editions), which relates the story of an emerging group of historians, of whom the most prominent currently is Erica Chenoweth, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. All material here in quotes is from Marantz’s article, all other material here I am summarizing greatly to respect “fair use” of copyright.

Building on the work of historians and activists going back to the 1950’s, and particularly a 1973 book “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” by political scientist Gene Sharp, they start from a rejection of the traditional political science perspective that power is a top-down phenomema. Instead, they hold that political power comes from the ability to bring about the voluntary obedience of others – which is of course backed by the police and military hardware of the state in most cases, yet still relies on the voluntary obedience of all the government underlings and economic actors and media and ultimately all the janitors and nurses and food-servers as well. (My own historical writings have come to the same conclusion, and I stress how every one of us in the world is making political choices in our every thought and action.) Those investigating this history make it clear that “nonviolent conflict” is very different from any kind of acquiescence or surrender to government power, but instead stress how protesters initiating violence often lose sympathy and legitimacy from the general public, while the government’s initiation of violence against protesters tend to bring public sympathy.

To summarize greatly, Sharp, working from historical examples, identified 198 “methods of nonviolent action,” such as vigils, strikes, boycotts, “slow-working” labor actions, mock funerals, and so on. He further noted whether these tactics were “methods of concentration” (bringing people together in large groups), or methods of dispersal and non-cooperation. Building on this Chenoweth and colleagues have built a database that attempts to account for every significant revolutionary-type political rising with over 1000 participants since 1900; their total is over 320 such movements.

A 2011 book by Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” presents detailed narrative case studies of some of these movements, closely studying why one was more successful than another. Even using fairly restrictive definitions of ‘success” for these movements, they found that over half of the movements in their database were successes, and that nonviolent civil resistance movements were twice as successful as armed movements. In the words of Tom Hastings, identified as “a longtime activist and scholar of nonviolence,” “I’ve been at this since the sixties … For a long time there have been those of us who had a philosophical commitment to nonviolence, or an intuition that nonviolence puts you at a strategic advantage. Erica and Maria took that intuition and empirically proved it.”

In conversations with activists this fall, Chenoweth identified Thailand in 1992 and Serbia in 2000 as examples of popular movements that were able to overcome post-election power grabs by authorities, and attributed their successes to four general characteristics: being able to mobilize mass popular participation, encouraging defections by people with various different types of authority, not relying only on mass demonstrations but also using “methods of dispersal and noncooperation, like boycotts and strikes,” and finally to be able stay “disciplined, even when repression escalated.”

That finishes my summary of this important and inspiring article, which should give hope to all of us who hope that repression and authoritarianism can someday be banished from all human societies. Again, I am the historical writer who tries to emphasize how we are indeed creating our futures with our every action, our every thought, we are constantly making choices of what persons and which behaviors we wish to honor and respect in our societies – even when we may think we’re not making any conscious choices at all. The work of Chenoweth and many others in showing how nonviolent conflict can overcome unjust power gives us a model to guide our choices, and I do believe we need to follow that model of possible choices as often as possible.

Of course, just knowing that a path may be possible is very far from doing the work necessary to make a successful journey towards greater freedom, and knowing that thousands may be able to use nonviolent conflict to secure social and political gains does not change the situation of any individual who is experiencing repression today. Nevertheless, having any idea of a possible path that citizens can strive for towards overcoming dictatorship, has got to be a better situation than feeling totally hopeless, better than seeing one’s self completely under the power of selfish and brutal autocrats. The world we are creating for our children and grandchildren needs to be better than that feeling of repression and hopelessness.

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Any Bravery Left, in our Sick New World? Updated June 2021

Let’s start with some context. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was a worldwide event, the economic effects reached at least 90% of the world’s population in significant ways. World War II, that followed (with the two events developing over 15 years or so) also had economic effects that probably reached at least 90% of the world, and the significant political effects were also up in the 90% levels, with many populations affected by civil wars, refugee flows and urban warfare.

My best judgment as a historian is that the Corona virus catastrophe is already, for all living generations, our version of the Great Depression.

In 2020 I said, if the pandemic goes on with shutdowns of events over 10 people over large portions of one’s country for the next four or six months – or with massive die-offs in the countries that haven’t locked down enough in that time period – or if it comes roaring back in the fall after an attempt to return to normal in the summer – the Corona virus will be our World War II as well. Now in June 2021, we can see that many nations did have renewed waves of virus last fall, some large “developing” nations are still having raging pandemics, here in the USA many states are trying to loosen restrictions, yet the un-vaccinated are still a large minority, and they may still be falling sick and dying at relatively high rates. Therefore, we can say that yes, for all living generations, this is our version of the Great Depression and World War II, a serious disruption of normal patterns that has had economic and political effects for at least 90% of the world’s population.

So far, in the more advantaged parts of the world, strong government action has prevented urban warfare, yet the looming, inter-related challenges of Climate Change, Political Inequality and Economic Inequality are getting the attention of thoughtful young people. Like after World War II, some decades of very agonizing “Cold War” (as the huge Asian dictatorships seem to be more aggressive) with continual outbreaks of real war on the “borderlands” (which may run thru cities) keeping everyone uncertain and unhappy, may be in our global future.

Nearly every society will be undergoing massive changes in social attitudes, in institutions, in politics high and low, and in economics high and low. This Pandemic is already Massive, and the worst is the huge number of uncertainties surrounding our scientific knowledge of the virus and its socio-political-economic effects, uncertainties which are just as large in 2021 as they were in 2020 – on top of all the usual local political, economic and personal uncertainties we all face every day.

There are so many questions for which even the best authorities just can’t provide definite answers. What’s the death rate, what is happening in the countryside in India and Brazil? Why the large disparity between many mild cases and the worst cases? In the rich nations, strong government action has prevented the worst effects of economic depression, what if there are further virus variants stimulating new waves of infection, could we yet fall into a deep economic hole? There seem to be long-lasting effects of the virus for those infected, is that another 2% or 5% of the population on permanent disability? The questions go on and on.

Currently some people are trying to make a controversy over the origins of the virus, realistically the specialists have already been arguing for over a year, though nearly all agree there is still no strong evidence of any particular theory, and unless the Chinese government takes a completely new attitude towards releasing information this question may remain forever disputed. To digress for a moment on another current argument, people like Dr Fauci, who did his best to represent and explain the best consensus of the scientists that day (and the consensus did change through the crisis) will look much better in historical perspective than the crew of professional liars around ex-President Trump.

I’m not the guy who’s here to give my predictions and prognostications and surmises on just how it will all turn out, on just what the huge adjustments that we will be making, will turn out to be.

I am the guy who’s here to pound on the point that your thoughts and actions (and everybody else’s thoughts and actions) is what will determine and create that future history that all of us – all of us who survive — will be experiencing. The zillions of hourly and daily thoughts and actions of all the world’s 8 billion people over the next year and more will be what determines our human future, our individual and social/national/global futures as well.

As a caution to all, including myself, against trusting your latest great insight, it is very easy for individuals in relatively small subcultures to feel that “the world is going one way” even though the muddled mass of global humanity may be moving in quite a different way.

I am the historian who says that we could understand nearly all historical situations, assuming we could get the data on people’s thoughts and actions. Of course that’s near impossible for the past (barring great archaeological discoveries) yet for us, now, in the 21st Century of drones and data banks, it does become (at least theoretically) possible to do something I wrote about 40 years ago – a Science of History that includes Every Single Person on this earth.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, you should consider that the Chinese government (with the help of American technology companies) is certainly trying to construct a database of the thoughts and actions of any one of the billions of persons under their control, and probably anyone else they can get to.

I am also the historian who has tried to develop an understanding of how our zillions of everyday thoughts and actions do in fact create the data of our histories and our cultures, the data that the social sciences are attempting to explain. And I’ve tried to provide some tools to help you in analyzing the social science data that you can get, from your everyday life, from your interactions with others, and from simple basic research you can do on people and situations in your life. I’ve been developing these tools for over forty years, and I believe they’ve helped me in my life situations.

So if you do have more time on your hands, I do invite you to visit the rest of my high-class, no clickbait, deeply longform website that’s been going for 10 years now (and according to Cloudflare service has received hundreds of thousands of readers coming in for over 3 million hits in the last four years). The whole site (with lots of autobiography, my best published work and other recent articles) is the size of a small book; read my article on why polling is never as accurate as claimed, or my article on reforming the advertising industry for a more progressive society.

My main article on how we simultaneously create history and the social sciences with our every thought and action is at least a 20-30 minute read, 9200 words or about 14-24 book pages depending on format. Please take your time to read it, in my old age I’m finding that my clearest writing usually means adding more words to help distinguish all the shades of gray we encounter in the human historical panorama.

In my old age, I’m also coming to realize that a lot of my personal success comes from a personal ability to understand and accept uncertainty and risk. I’ve always tried to accept that there are huge uncertainties in all our human situations, whether at the world-historical level, or the personal level of “what is my friend thinking/trying to do” in some particular situation. I’ve always tried to accept that there are great amounts of risk in every significant action I might take. I look at other people, and I see a lot of you tearing yourselves apart because you’re longing for certainty in some situation important to you, you crave it, and want it, and that’s understandable.

Yet we hardly ever have the kind of data on our fellow human beings that could allow us to make “absolutely certain” judgments on them, and our fellow human beings always have the theoretical possibility of doing something completely new.

In human situations and social environments, a lot of us can’t even have certainty in ourselves, that’s a big first step. Yes, small groups that work together closely and communicate can have a very pleasant certainty in each other. Beyond that there is very little certainty to be found. It gets worse the larger the group, so considering the whole human population is the most uncertain area of all.

And so here we all are. A global, life-and-death crisis with huge economic, political and personal effects reaching well over 90% of human populations, about which we cannot be too certain in any direction of analysis or planning. The fact that the USA is still recovering from being led by a severely mentally-ill individual supported by a party in denial of reality, supported by 20-30% of citizens living in private fantasylands backed up by fantastical commercial and social media, and that two-thirds of the world lives under dictatorships whose decisions may be far from what any citizen of their nation or other nations desires, means the global outcomes are likely very bleak, poor and depressing.

And again, it is highly likely that many of our current institutions and social arrangements and personal preferences are actually going to be completely reformed after the effects of this pandemic, because that’s what happens when many many people’s personal lives are entirely disrupted by world-shaking events like the Great Depression and World War II. The Corona virus catastrophe is one of those events.

Yet I do have to be an optimist in my personal life, I’m always trying to see a way out of whatever mess I’m in (including the world-historical messes way above my level of influence.) And so I’m trying to rouse and raise my own efforts and visions in this crisis, and I want to urge you to rouse yourself and raise yourself as well. We desperately need bravery and courage in this Sick New World. We need each other to provide it. We need each other to provide Bravery in the face of devastation and obstacles.

The clear model for all of us in our future attitudes and behavior should be the hundreds of thousands of selfless, hard-working medical professionals and hospital workers. They have stepped up and done their job in the face of a thousand obstacles, and all the rest of us need to do the same. We all need to be saying, “What is necessary, right now, to help the most people, let’s all pitch in and get the job done.”

Please, face down your fears, do your best to help create the better human societies that we all need very much. All the other problems of human society are still out there, needing to be reformed by our thoughts and actions. Big changes will come from the crisis – we need to be insisting that these changes really work to the benefit of the majority of the population.

The children and grandchildren we will hopefully be leaving our legacy to will need those better societies even more than we do.

Posted in American Politics, corona virus, current world history, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Climate Emergency: Does Anything Else Really Matter?

It’s really happening. We’re cooking the world to maintain our convenient and comfortable lifestyles. Every gallon of gasoline we burn is eight more pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The first big crop failure from climate change is happening right now with corn and soybeans in the American Midwest. The permafrost in the Arctic is melting accelerating the release of heat-trapping gasses.

Accelerating: that means all the bad changes we’re already seeing will happen faster and larger than the changes we haven’t really adjusted to, so far, in this frustrating fantastic journey that our “modern economy” is taking us on.

We all love being in rich, relatively free societies removed from the drudgery and pain of pre-industrial agricultural economies – yet my work as an amateur historian leaves me convinced that every major industry has “developed” by using the ability to dump their wastes cost-free into the global environments that support us, and every living thing. The dumping of fossil fuel waste into our atmosphere, unfortunately, has the consequence of heating the planet so we can’t live comfortably on it any more.

Extreme weather events, heat spells covering continents for months, floods we can hardly imagine, beyond-Category-5 hurricanes coverings 800 miles, the collapse of the Pacific fisheries, or simultaneous failures of global wheat, rice and cassava crops. Can you imagine the spectacle if Miami gets an 8-foot hurricane surge that doesn’t want to leave?

I’m pushing 70, I’m thinking of the crap I’m leaving my children. If you’re 50 MAYBE the world lasts long enough for you to retire for a few years with a semblance of today. If you’re 40 or under it is YOUR LIFE that is at stake.

The scale of the potential catastrophe – essentially, our suicide as a “civilization” leaving only a few hunter-gatherers if any of us at all – is so great that we, as individuals, as members of families and communities and citizens of nations have to fully confront the question: Does Anything Else Really Matter?

In the face of the existential/extinction crisis facing us as individuals and as a species, I can safely say that your games and TV shows certainly won’t matter, your social media triumphs and tragedies, the stuff you’ve saved on your phone, none of those things will matter. Your jobs, your savings and properties, your money will matter a lot in the run-up to the final crises – but they won’t matter if there’s no food or water to be bought. Your personality preferences and your politics – to the extent that they’re not focused on reversing the emergency – won’t, in the end when it all collapses, matter. Your loves, your sex drives, your feelings for your children and your grandchildren (or your possible children and grandchildren), none of that will matter – because hardly any of them, any of us will survive the disasters — if we can’t get it together to stop and reverse the climate emergency. The systems we have created that enable our wonderful lifestyles are not going to matter in the end, because to the extent they depend on fossil fuels or other pollution outputs, they are actively creating the agents of their own, of our own, destruction.

I’m trapped in it too, I can’t stop driving myself around to fulfill the three jobs that keep my family going economically. Two of those jobs are with the businesses run by my handicapped wife, I can’t get out of the many chores I have each day to help her keep going. At age 68 and nowhere-near-retired, I’m trying to convince myself that it’s a good idea to invest a big chunk of my retirement savings in an electric car and a lot of solar panels for the house. I love my comforts and conveniences as much as the next privileged person, yet it’s getting clearer and clearer that many things will have to change greatly if any global societies, either privileged or underprivileged, are to survive at any economic level resembling today’s.

Yet it’s also becoming clearer that significant change is exactly what our government and economic leaders are not willing to, or feel they are able to, allow.  Any Progress can only be allowed at the slowest speed, with retrograde urges from the already-privileged at every step.

The business and technology tycoons of the richer, freer countries, and the governments they support, and the even more selfish and more ruthless government dictators and privileged elites that control the two-thirds of the world that is less rich and less free, have apparently decided that maintaining their selfish comforts as long as possible is far more important than the survival of large populations enjoying stable food, water and housing supplies.

On the hopeful assumption we haven’t already burned ourselves, how many years can we keep dumping trillions of tons of heating gases into the atmosphere before we fatally condemn our future? 3?  5, maybe 7? I admit I’m just guessing, but 11 years to 2030 sounds way too long to me, and to think that setting goals for 2050 can be significant is a ridiculous fantasyland.

So the challenges are severe, nearly impossible. We have to remove (or bring very major changes in the behavior of) the most selfish, most powerful people in the world, the plutocrats, the dictators, and all their servants including the Republican Senators in America. The intelligent and altruistic persons in our world will have to overcome the selfish and short-sighted persons, something which is all too rare in human history.

There are no pat answers, and I don’t want you to fall shivering and helpless in hopeless pessimism. We all do need our entertainments and diversions, we all certainly need to spend time maintaining and improving our love and family connections. This is a capitalist world and all us non-plutocrats have to struggle to put food on the heated, well-lit table every night. But in World War II our parents and grandparents and great-grands had rationed food and gasoline. Are any of us ready to face that in an emergency? And gasoline and all fossil fuels need to get out of here posthaste anyway.

Yet my work as an amateur historian has led me to one big idea, a sort of “learning aid” for making sense out of all the crazy and conflicting data about human beings, helping connect our everyday actions to the basic social sciences so every person can try to be “your own best social scientist” in figuring out what people you know and see in your environment are doing and why they’re doing it. (It’s a 20-page book longform presentation, in my website that is a small book with my current articles and historical/autobiographical information, hope you can check it in a relaxed state of mind.) And the conclusion I’d like to share here is that we are not helpless in the face of this emergency.

We can (and we often do anyway) change our psychologies, our personalities and our personality structures, we can make the sacrifices and do the work that we’re going to have to do to save a world for ourselves and our children.

We can (and we often do) change our “explanations,” our sciences, our religions, our philosophies, and we can make sure our explanations of why things are the way they are, fit the reality we are finding so that we can find realistic solutions for immediate problems.

The realm of politics, our natural tendency to judge and rank others in our communities and to create status and rank, which has “crystalized” in our world into some 190 very specific nation-states, all with specific government structures to carry out their mandate of power over public behavior, yet all these government structures in their ways can be seen as very specific cliques with clear rules of behavior for joining and advancing in government structures, and the vast majority of them are too often ready to disregard their “citizens” at a moment’s notice (and even the best ones can end up disregarding their citizens on various issues).

Yet we can (and we do) change our judgements of who we honor in our daily lives and in our communities, and we can (and we do) change our ways of working with (or avoiding, or working against) our specific national and local governments, according to how they are aggravating or working to reduce the climate emergency (and how and when one may safely oppose their jealous government).

And in the realm of economics, our systems of value and our creation of goods and services to fulfill those values, we can and do change the most easily of all. Getting out of gasoline in X years will be very tough, it will require a lot of personal sacrifices by a lot of people. How do we make them happy about saving their children’s lives by giving up that comfy SUVin America, or the noisy, dirty 2-stroke vehicle that spells convenience for hundreds of millions throughout rural and urban India, Thailand, the Philippines, and others?

Yet we have been adapting to economic changes every season since our times as hunter-gatherer tribes, our consumer cultures can spin things very quickly, can we use psychology in economics to make it “cool” to use as little energy as possible?

Because of the tremendous opposition we face, two of our best resources are our creativity, and our communities. We plan against doomsdays by cultivating community resources of persons and goods and services and mutual support, we use our creativity to overcome all the persons and institutions that are stuck in the past.

It’s a heck of a load of work we face, and it’s going to have to be done together with a whole lot of other political and economic struggles, but if you plan on living much past 2025 or 2035, it looks like The Climate Emergency is going to be, in far too many times and places, the only thing that Really Matters.

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Trump: The Suicide of Civilization?

The election of Donald J. Trump to the American Presidency in 2016 represents a stunning victory of ignorance over intelligence, a triumph of fraudulent salesmanship over honest customer service. To the extent that Trump succeeds in boosting irreversible climate change and preventing the global phase-out of fossil fuels, and to the extent that he helps authoritarian/dictatorial regimes become more entrenched in their own nations and more important in world affairs, and tries to send America towards authoritarian government, it seems likely that Trump’s election represents the beginning of the Suicide of Civilization.

Led by the most powerful actors in politics and economics, short-sighted selfishness at the top of society will eventually result in mass disaster; any surviving people will most likely be at the hunter-gatherer level of organization and ability.

This breakdown of American leadership towards greater global peace and prosperity — which of course relied on the stable societies, honest workmanship and business practices, and ordinary people in all the world’s nations doing their best to better themselves and their families — has been a long time in the making. Among many factors, I would point out the degradation of American news media over the decades. At one time, American media owners considered it a social responsibility to actually inform the public. Yes, this was an elitist attitude, and information was provided within the context of prevailing social attitudes — yet it was a much better model than what we got as “news” became a form of entertainment and distraction, as the 1970’s progressed into the ’80’s and ’90’s, and the focus became the visual image of the news reader as a powerful male or sexy female, when actual background and context and nuance were eliminated in favor of rote, coded and very brief news items. This did contribute a general lowering of the public’s intelligence, and these trends did accelerate as we moved into the 21st Century.

The breakdown of social behaviors which were once normal and taken-for-granted, among American political leaders of all types, proceeded with significant momentum after Jan. 20, 2009, when Republican lawmakers gathered on the very day that Barack Obama first took office, and pledged to oppose every single action he took as President, no matter what it was.

The fact that these Republican leaders engaged in massive campaigns of complete falsehoods represented a further acceleration of this breakdown of past social norms. Obama wasn’t just a bad President: he was an African, he wasn’t even a citizen. The health care policy reform that Obama managed through Congress didn’t just have some points that conservatives might object to — even though Obama’s plan was actually based on Repubican proposals originally promoted by the Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts under Mitt Romney’s governorship. No, this new policy of Obama’s was suddenly a socialist conspiracy by a dedicated socialist (Obama) who was determined to ruin the American health care system.

With the descent of Donald J. Trump on his gold-plated escalator in June 2015, mouthing open racial prejudice, and spewing a fog of lies and nonsense — that he would insist and insist were actually truth and sense, and which our leading televised media could never manage to seriously question him on — as he announced his formal candidacy for the Presidency of the United States of America, we seem to have entered a new era of anarchic, selfish, completely hypocritical and compulsively lying, purposely-confusing behavior by a conservative political class that once prided itself on upholding the values that represented “the best of America.”

During the course of his campaign, Trump “survived” revelations of scandalous thought and behavior that would have ended the careers of any previous “normal” politician: talking openly about groping and assaulting women, refusing to reveal his finances, a long history of shady business practices including a consistent refusal to pay small business suppliers, his inability to speak coherent English for more than 30 seconds at a time, his own long previous campaign of lies against President Obama, his denial of the science of climate change, his clear preference for nearly all authoritarian leaders of foreign nations and his very clear embrace of the leading world dictator of the present times, Vladimir Putin of Russia, among many other faults and shortcomings. He managed this survival essentially by wrapping himself in his lying self-rightousness and refusing to discuss his problems, and by the failure of our major television and print journalists to actually challenge him to his face under any circumstances.

By managing to win the election by a narrow margin in 3 states while losing the overall popular vote by millions, Trump appears poised to bring America into a dangerous social state that nations such as Germany, Italy, Russia, China and too many other have suffered from in the last century: a state in which the “leader” insists on his own “truths,” with the support of the government apparatus and without contradiction from the major forms of media and information available to citizens, despite the evidence of their own eyes and from their own lives that says the “leader” is a lying fool and/or tyrant.

This problem of purposeful lying from the chief executive of the American government is in addition to the more “normal” problems Trump presents, such as constructing the most unqualified cabinet in American history, with an Attorney General who hates civil rights for black people, and Education Secretary who hates public education, a Labor Secretary who hates workers, and so on. That both Trump and his National Security Advisor seem to be very closely linked to what is today’s worst dictatorship in the world (both for its own people, and for all the rest of the world), and that Trump seems to hate both the NATO Alliance and the European Union, promises huge disruptions in major global institutions which have, despite their faults, done much to ensure peace and stability in the more open and advanced nations of the world over the last seventy years.

With Trump in power, America has completely destroyed the social norm that previously existed: our Presidents would be reasonably intelligent persons, capable of actually discussing public policy questions with coherence and an understanding of social/political realities, and they would be persons who generally commanded social respect from other intelligent members of the public.

From January 20 2017, the American government will be led by a person who is a mental midget and a moral monster, and a person who did NOT win a majority of votes in the American Presidential election of 2016.

It is not an accident or a fluke that America is now entering a social condition in which a major party takes on a selfish, power-at-all-costs attitude towards government, with an arsenal of self-serving lies and propaganda. It was six years ago that I tried to talk about the “intellectual pollution” that infects modern society, coming from the “normal” and “reasonable” activities of the advertising industry, trying hard to convince people to use the products of large and small companies. This “intellectual pollution” has progressed to the point where people who were once recognizable as traditional conservatives have evolved into power-hungry philosophical radicals, perfectly willing to tell any lie, promote any rumor, contradict whatever they said last week, and even to claim that “the truth” doesn’t matter, spinning off into the various forms of the argument that “there is no such thing as truth” if they feel really pressed.

This type of behavior from former conservatives is not an accident. It is entirely consistent with the information/propaganda work of dictatorial regimes such Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, and all the greater and lesser examples from the list of modern authoritarian regimes. It is also completely consistent with the work of large American and European corporations (supposedly conservative, and certainly selfish). As scholar Ari Rabin-Havt points out, deliberately trying to create confusion in the public’s minds over “facts” and “evidence” has been a favorite strategy of the American public relations and advertising agencies, when trying to defend tobacco companies against the evidence that their product kills their customers, and now in trying to defend fossil-fuel companies against the evidence that their product is killing the atmosphere that supports our very lives. As Rabin-Havt explains, this pattern has been adopted by a number of industries in recent years, and Trump has hired specific individuals who are experienced in practicing this art of deliberately lying for material and/or political gain. “The propaganda purveyors recognize that the media’s instinct to cover “both sides” of an issue, people’s tendency to believe claims that conveniently fit their ideology, and, more recently, social media’s propensity to spread falsehoods all create a fundamental weakness in our civil society. They (the propagandists) aren’t confused; they don’t misunderstand science or freely accessible truths. They have financial incentives to obscure those realities, and they do not care what they destroy in the process,” Rabin-Havt says.

To re-iterate some basic points, as a historian and as a philosopher, I believe in facts. The matter and energy we find in our global environment are the basis of facts and truth. Human beings are very much subject to the limits set by physical facts – temperature ranges, availability of oxygen to breathe, sustainable food sources. But as humans form societies and civilizations, questions of human behavior and motivation begin to add up to large uncertainties — precisely because people are not nearly as consistent as physical components of our environment. In an event affecting hundreds or thousands of people, there is only one set of actual true facts regarding that event — atoms and energies were in precise states and precise places and changed in only one true way over time. Yet the people over here may think they saw and heard X happening, while the people over there may think they heard and saw Y happening, a few people will be totally confused about what happened but their confused stories may affect other people’s opinions of what did happen, and of course some people may totally lie about what happened for any number of motives. And since different sets of actors may have motives to spread a wide variety of lies and distortions, and to insist that their perspective is the only possible perspective, the intellectual environment of that society may be degraded long into the future in a never-ending controversy over what whether what really happened was more like X or more like Y.

So there is only one true set of facts, but in complicated human questions affecting communities and nations, these actual facts can be very difficult or impossible to find, even by sincere historians with the best of records and motives. Nevertheless, we do not make progress towards solving our problems by deliberately lying about things, or by throwing up our hands and wailing about “all truth is relative, there is no true truth, and we can’t do anything about it.” Specific murderous dictatorial governments and specific selfish corporations and industries are now, in 2017, trying to make you confused about what is actually happening so you will not be able to stop the events that they are trying bring about. And one specific American Republican Party President, Donald J. Trump is following this pattern of trying to confuse you and disorient you to further his own political power, and his chief aide is a man who helped create a “news organization” that is openly dedicated to lies and exaggerations designed to confuse you, so that mean and selfish people may gain even more political power in America.

So please, finding and maintaining credible sources of information is a basic part of our self-defense against anti-democratic, anti-progressive forces in society. Donald Trump is and has been part of the war against the truth perpetrated by the worst people in the world, and he is going to continue to to be, as he would say, “a HUUYYGE” part of the war on the truth that is designed to dispossess honest citizens, of both their material goods and of their political liberties, for the sake of the most selfish and most un-caring power-holders of this modern world, and nothing that he or any of his allies say is to be trusted in any way.

And make no mistake, the access of Donald J. Trump to political power in America most certainly represents a triumph of the ignorant, the lazy and the selfish over those who are well-informed and who are working every day to make the lives of their fellow human beings better in any way.

It is not the ignorant, the lazy and the selfish who have built up our modern world, from scattered groups of hunters and gatherers into an economic miracle of peace and plenty that we call “modern civilization.” No, even if nearly everyone may be working for selfish motives at some level of their psychological structures, it is the people who have tried to see and understand facts, it is the people who have cared about others also doing well, it is the people who have labored selflessly at unrewarding tasks that maintained society, and it is the people who followed “higher” norms of behavior meant to maintain social peace, who have built this modern civilization whose pleasures we in the favored nations enjoy so much.

Yet despite all the promises and hopes for even greater prosperity to come, our modern so-called civilization (which still leaves billions of human being bereft of even its most basic hopes today), is built on two huge unsustainable structures, one in the economic realm, and one in the political realm. In the economic realm, every major industry’s costs and structures have historically and to a large part continuing today, depended on being able to dump their waste products into our air, waters, and lands without significant cost or regulation. And in the realm of politics, about two-thirds of the world’s peoples live under governments based on dictatorial methods — killing and bullying domestic opponents, twisting economic wealth even more tightly into the hands of a few than it would otherwise be, and insisting on a set of self-serving lies to confuse and demoralize anyone who might object.

The economic and political institutions that selfishly benefit from these un-sustainable threats to modern prosperity and peace are the most eager practitioners of the “war on the truth” that Donald J. Trump has enthusiastically brought to the forefront of American life in 2017. This is the huge breaking of norms that threatens to end what we now call world civilization.

To the extent that Donald J Trump is successful in his huge portion of the global “war against truth,” it becomes highly more likely that so-called global civilization will indeed completely break down later in the 21st Century, under the unforeseeable crises of a world warming quickly far beyond the ability of our food and water supplies to adapt, and by the actual wars that may be unleashed as ignorant and misled populations go to battle in the attempt to gain a momentary advantage in the overall global decline. If and when these disastrous future outcomes destroy any hopes of prosperity and liberty for our grandchildren, it will be clear to the last surviving historians that the Presidency of Donald J. Trump in the United States of America, beginning on Jan. 20, 2017 of the Christian calendar, was indeed a key starting point in the Suicide of Civilization.

For myself, I know that I have to be an optimist. I have faced many situations in my life when it seemed (to me, in my ignorance) that nothing was going right, that I would never succeed in what I wanted. And even in the best of times there are always problems, and much work to be done. I can’t get though those tough days without some ray of hope I can cling to. So I have to continue to be an optimist, no matter how much the evidence points towards negative conclusions. I have to believe that we who are not professional liars will be able to organize effectively, that we who are not economic plutocrats will not succumb to selfishness, that we who are not selfish thugs with guns will not allow societies to be ruled by the most barbaric members of that society. I have to believe that our ability to speak and act our truths will keep our democratic structures alive where they are established, and growing where they are now suppressed. I have to hope that somehow, against all the odds, rational progressive civil society will manage to organize to wrest power from the plutocrats and the dictators, and preserve a world worth living in for our grandchildren.

Yet the evidence is clear: the war against truth is an integral part of the unsustainable economic and political selfishness that leads directly towards the downfall of prosperity and liberty. The evidence is also fairly clear that all the short-term advantages now lie with the plutocrats of the more open societies, and the murderous dictators of the more closed societies.

Nice people have nothing, nothing but themselves and their abilities to organize and work selflessly.

And Donald J. Trump is indeed, in the economic and political context of today’s unstable world, an irresponsible and immature actor promoting a war against truth for his own selfish purposes, in a position that requires great responsibility and wise maturity if we are to avoid the Suicide of Civilization. It doesn’t look hopeful, yet I will continue to be an optimist, working for the apparently impossible – a world that is not ruled by selfish, short-sighted political and economic leaders. The rest of us are good enough, smart enough, dedicated enough — and scared enough of the alternatives if we fail — we have to do the work to create a better future for ourselves and our children.

Posted in American Politics, Communication systems, current world history, Politics, Republicans | 5 Comments

The Party of Selfishness and Destruction

The Party of Selfishness and Destruction

This time, February of the 2015 Christian calendar, is a very, very dangerous time in the long, on-going story of human beings on earth.

A political party which is devoted to the promotion and expansion of the political and economic privileges of the most wealthy corporations and persons, and to the promotion of the fairly-demonstrably-false ideologies of its supporters, has taken control of the American Congress, which of course controls the law-making and budgeting functions of the American government. This American Republican party does appear to enjoy the strong support of some proportion up to one-fourth to one-third, and to enjoy the votes of up to one-half of the voting public, and this party seems to be so attached to their privileges and their political narratives, that they will indeed drive their preferred measures forward, even if it leads to the destruction of any notion of the “social contract” in America, and to the use of the American military to physically destroy any number of other countries around the world.

What is even worse, this is NOT an isolated development in the story of groups and parties that control the nation-states of the modern world. In far too many of the national-governmental structures that make up our global political environment, control is firmly held by groups which are also devoted to maintaining their own particular privileges in their society at almost any cost, even if that cost leads to a destruction of the modern civilization and the modern technological economy that allows people around the world to live in some level of comfort. These politically-controlling groups vary widely from country to country, they may be highly organized political parties, loose coalitions of national elite classes, traditional Arab monarchies thrust into a fearful new world, or relatively small, military-based and/or ideologically-based structures of fierce dictatorship.

While America remains a very important actor on the world political and economic stage, unfortunately the American government has not generally been a strong force for worldwide “good” or “progress” – either at home, or in the world – in recent decades. (Of course I’m speaking to Americans with this sentence, everyone else already knows this). There have been some examples of the American government actually helping people, such as tackling the problem of Americans who can’t afford health care, disaster relief in the Philippines and Haiti, support for African nations facing the Ebola epidemic. It is even possible that American military & diplomatic responses in support of Kurdish and Yazidi minorities in Syria and Iraq, in response to 2014’s crisis of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” of military Sunni fundamentalism in those two countries, may eventually be counted as a “positive” development in world affairs.

Yet overall our modern civilization, including the American government/state structure and all other global government/state structures, does face many serious threats to its very existence. Our modern technological “economic miracle” has always depended on businesses and individuals being able to dump their waste products into any available land, water or air, without incurring any significant cost that causes them to question the wisdom of this pollution. Yet the bill to be paid continues to grow, with the inevitable forces of physics, chemistry and biology looming as implacable bill-collectors. We must now face the facts that the oceans and the atmosphere cannot hold much more of our pollution without changing in significant ways that will be largely negative for many forms of life in all environments, including our own lives, our pollution of our land areas has also been significant and raises many costs while denying us many options, and that dealing with the consequences of our past pollution of all the major physical systems of our dear mother earth is going to become a very significant cost to all governments, industries and businesses, and all individuals on earth.

The burning of fossil fuels to power our economic miracles is absolutely at the root of the incredible rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (and other heat-trapping gases) in the last 100 years, and the global warming that is resulting from this pollution. This development of “climate change” alone may cause future social/civilization disasters in any number of ways: food production failures, droughts, diseases, rising sea levels battering coastal cities, population migrations, and other foreseeable problems are just the beginning, the scariest danger is some unknown future tangle of several problems occurring simultaneously, entangling the emotions of differing suffering nations in such a way as to prevent positive cooperation, and overwhelming the resources of governments, societies and individuals to cope with the problems. How will societies, governments and individuals react if the world’s wheat crop is reduced by 90%? Or if the world’s rice crop is suddenly 90% lower, or if our pollution prevents ocean fisheries from being a major food source? I don’t think it will be pretty to watch, or fun to try to live through. And through the selfishness and ignorance of many governing elites and billions of disorganized, panicked individuals, it may well entail the end of what we now call “civilization.”

No government on earth is doing enough to reduce the risk of severe climate change arising from our economic system’s dependence on the free dumping of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere, indeed it seems that worldwide levels of carbon dioxide emission by human activity are growing and peaking, and of course the economic and political elites and interest groups that depend on this dumping are trying to deny that there is any problem at all, or to argue that the costs of attempting to curb emissions will be greater than any benefits. Whether it is low-level bloggers spreading false information to earn their pay, Nigerian elites benefiting from corruption, Arab princes, jet-setting American/European business leaders, or the American politicians getting big contributions from oil companies, there is indeed a worldwide Party of Selfishness and Destruction — based largely on the fossil fuels industries !!! — which doesn’t care what happens to the world’s 7 billion people the day after tomorrow, as long as the money, the political power, and their other social privileges deriving from the fossil fuel and other basic industries are kept safe from any challenges today.

We don’t know when these effects of climate change will seriously impact our daily lives; it may be as little as 2 or 10 years from now, or perhaps it may be as long as 25 or even 40 years in the future, if we are very lucky. But for the selfish economic interests and the unsociable political ideologies that animate the American Republican Party, these relatively vague threats to the well-being of our children are not enough. Their very first action upon taking the majority in the American Congress, was to pass a measure that seriously threatens the “social contract” in America by threatening the American old age and disability pension system, the Social Security program.

Despite the fact that the beneficiaries of Social Security paid into the program in their working lives, and despite the fact that many beneficiaries of the program regularly vote Republican (while thinking and saying things like “keep the government out of my Medicare”), the extreme conservatives of the Republican Party have always hated the idea of people “getting something for nothing” (and again, it doesn’t matter that this is not the case with Social Security, in which only people who have worked and paid in get any benefits. Extreme conservative Republicans hate it anyway.) Nevertheless, overall the Social Security program has been a huge success in maintaining America’s ability to enjoy a fairly widespread level of prosperity (at least compared to most other nations), which helps the rich and powerful in America directly by supporting consumer demand for their interests in major manufacturing and service industries, and indirectly, by maintaining a certain basic level of “social contract,” a sense of social and political contentment, which helps prevent more social and political threats to the power of the rich and powerful. Social Security of course also helps the rich very directly to the extent that they paid maximum taxes on wages or reported business income in their lives, and thus these people get pretty nice checks, equal to a middle-class wage, when they reach old age.

Since overall the Social Security program does help millions achieve a better life, Republicans and conservatives have learned that it can’t be directly criticized by anyone seeking to win an election. Instead, for some decades now they have tried to undermine Social Security by raising doubts about the future stability of the program – doubts which only exist because richer Americans pay a lower percentage of Social Security taxes on their total income than middle-class and lower-class Americans. To understand the current new line of attack by Congressional Republicans on the Social Security program, it’s necessary to dive into the details of the program’s funding and spending.

In addition to the major old age pension insurance portion of the Social Security program, since it was created in the 1930’s it has also provided support for children under 18 whose parents have died – a good friend of mine in childhood benefited from this in his youth – and disability insurance, for adults who lose their ability to work. The crucial detail is that when Social Security was set up in the 1930’s, the trust fund for old age and orphans benefits was made legally separate from the trust fund for disability benefits. And over the years, people have noticed that the privilege of being declared officially “disabled” by the Social Security bureaucracy provided a livable social niche for those who qualified. (The payments were based on previous contributions, so those who had higher-paying jobs when they did work got higher benefits than the lesser-paid; at the top levels it could compare to middle-class worker incomes, at the lower levels it could mean a poverty stipend less than even poorly-paying jobs.) Once you were qualified, you got your monthly checks; unlike unemployment benefits, you didn’t have to show you were looking for a job, and unlike state & local welfare programs, there was less regulation and less questioning & investigating by officials who might want to deny your benefits.

And so, over the decades, a lot of people wanted to get Social Security disability status, and a lot of people succeeded – about 10 million of them in 2013. And so the Disability trust fund has paid out more money than prudent insurance administrators would like, and over the decades Congress has chosen to make transfers – 11 times – from the larger Old Age trust find to the Disability trust fund. This situation, then, creates an opening for the conservatives who wish to attack Social Security but to do so indirectly. With the start of a new Congress with increased Republican majorities in 2015, their first action was to vote that there will be no transfers of funds (to continue 100% level payments to disability recipients), unless the funding of the whole Social Security system was reformed (which presumably would be under Republican principles of always cutting government budgets, except increasing government military budgets).

This little-noticed action in halls of government gives the Republicans two advantages in the rhetorical battles of modern commercial media: it allows them to claim a pure desire to cut government budgets, and thus relieve taxpayers; and it allows them to demonize and insult the Disability program with hate-mongering, exaggerated claims. Republican Senator (and likely Presidential candidate) Rand Paul was the first to jump in with the demonizing falsehoods, telling an audience on Jan. 14, 2015 that “over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts …”. (A later attempt at clarification by a Paul spokesman made it clear that the Senator was completely exaggerating and/or misunderstanding Social Security statistics.)

Yes, 14% of the approximately 10 million people on Social Security, about 1.4 million Americans, are getting welfare checks from the federal government because of their mental problems. Yet one has to have pretty serious mental problems, with letters from doctors attesting to one’s inability to work, in order to qualify for this benefit – mere “anxiety” isn’t going to be enough. Indeed, while 10 million Americans are found qualified for disability, there are at least another 5 to 10 million Americans who are trying to be found qualified for Disability, there is a small industry of lawyers specializing in Social Security Disability cases who are trying to get their clients qualified, and who are advertising that “I can help you with your Social Security disability claim.” (One of my best friends in college, who was born blind himself, became one of these lawyers.) So it is not easy to get on Social Security Disability; I am very sure that those who are getting qualified for disability tend to be those who have better doctors and better lawyers, who can write up the case papers in ways that please the Social Security clerks, than those whose cases are not being found to qualify.

Are there some people who are exaggerating their disability, who are committing fraud on the government? Yes, certainly there are some … but whether it’s 1% of Disability recipients or 5% or 10%, no one knows, and we will never be able to know without a complete case-by-case review of all 10 million Disability recipients, and even then there will surely be “gray areas” and “subjective judgments” that leave many cases in dispute. The Social Security system is rejecting enough claims that I feel pretty confident that the fraud rate would be found to be under 2%, and again those people will have very-well-written doctor’s letters in their files justifying their claims of inability to work. Furthermore, these folks who may be committing fraud against the system, and against the taxpayers, are just as likely to be conservative, Republican-leaning people as they are to be liberal, Democratic-leaning people.

Furthermore, there is a strong case to be made that many more Americans should be qualified for Social Security Disability, not fewer. Basically, the worker-hating heartlessness of late-stage capitalism and the current, advanced wealth-corruption of the Congress tend to create new classes of persons who are unqualified and essentially psychologically and/or philosophically unable to function in the workplace, while constantly creating opportunities for those who can manipulate millions of dollars at a time to hold down the wages of the middle and working classes. Major corporations are making huge profits over video-games that hypnotize able-bodied teens and 20-year-olds in their rooms, unwilling to emerge or exert themselves in any other type of activity. America’s oxycontin drug epidemic of the last 15 or so years is supported indirectly by the drug manufacturers, and more directly by third-rate doctors running “pain clinics,” it has largely occurred in the socially-conservative small cities and rural areas of states or regions that tend to vote Republican. Major corporations are making huge profits from supplying food products of dubious nutritional quality, while also creating huge pollution problems, and they have effectively “captured” the federal Department of Agriculture to prevent any regulations that might promote better food quality or environmental quality. With the average inflation-adjusted wages of average workers stagnating since the 1980’s, the slow breakdown of the traditional family structure, and the increase in the long-term unemployed, many more individuals are developing “specialized” strange ideas in their own particular psychology and/or philosophies, which may transform into socially-disabling conditions of overall personality.

Do all these persons “deserve” permanent pensions at taxpayer expense? Probably not, yet overall economic demand will certainly be increased, and an interesting portion of social ills and individual hardships might be lessened, if we increased Social Security Disability recipients from 10 million now, up to 12 or 18 million Americans who do have real problems holding a job. What seems to be the preferred Republican alternative, reducing the number of recipients to 6 or 8 million, or slashing the current payments by 20% to 40%, would certainly hurt the overall economy by reducing economic demand, and would certainly bring great frustration, hardship, increased homelessness and crime for those directly affected, and increase the less-direct burdens on families, relatives and friends of those who lost their Disability income.

When we consider that this Republican attack on Social Security Disability payments is just a tactic in their long-term attack on the Social Security system as a whole, and the approximately 47 million old-age pensioners, widows and orphans it supports (at the end of 2013) – and we remember that about half of these millions are socially conservative and likely Republican voters – the cynicism, the selfishness and the ultimate destructiveness of these Republican policies should be like red-flashing alarm lights with bells ringing, warning us that any perceived time of American “greatness” has long since been left behind.

Unfortunately, it is just this widespread belief in America in our own “greatness” and the correctness of our own institutions and values, that provides large numbers of voters and citizens who blindly support America’s huge military machinery, and the conviction – especially strong among conservative “strategists” — that the American military can and must act anywhere in the world where American “interests” may be threatened. Depending on how things are counted, American military spending is about 40% to 50% of the world’s total military spending, far higher than any potential coalition of “enemies” we might face; and while Republicans hate, demonize and wish to cut all forms of domestic spending, they are more likely to give the armed forces MORE money than is officially requested, than to ever question, criticize or reduce military spending (despite the overwhelming evidence that programs like the F-35 are financially disastrous and militarily ineffective). Any possible plans to reduce American troop commitments overseas, to reduce drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen or elsewhere that inevitably kill unthreatening civilians, or to negotiate agreements with difficult regimes are denounced by Republicans as “weakness,” while these same Republicans applaud and support the effort — ongoing for over ten years now — of Israel’s nuclear-armed government to foment a war against Iran because Iran might someday achieve a capability to make its own nuclear weapons.

Which brings us to the central problem of politics and government in this modern world of 2015. It is true that there are great variations in political systems among the world’s 200 or so separate nation-state structures. Something like 60 nations, from America through Europe, Japan and India and nearly all of Latin America, on to places like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and even Iran, can claim to have significant amounts of democracy, in which citizens can theoretically organize peacefully for change and could conceivably produce serious institutional changes, working through constitutional structures over a period of years (yet of course it’s probably much easier to imagine this in Canada or Sweden, than in Iran, Thailand or Malaysia). In many other nations, such as Russia, China, and too much of the Arab world and the African continent, military, ideological and/or monarchical structures may try to show off democratic trappings, yet it is clear to all observers that the ruling elites were not consciously selected by their people, and that the ruling elites have no intention of being open to any serious changes suggested by their ordinary citizens. Yet whether they inhabit either the decidedly-more-democratic nations, or the determinedly-more-dictatorial nations, ordinary citizens everywhere find it very difficult to believe that their day-to-day thoughts and actions will have any effect on their political structures. In all nations, political elites tend to have significantly different psychological experiences than average citizens, and these political elites also make decisions based on very different philosophies than you or I probably use, or any average worker and citizen we may know.

I remain very firm in maintaining my overall thesis, that human history is made by the individual thoughts and actions of every single living human being, and that the “political” sphere of action – which derives from our human habit of making judgments on the honor, status and rank on other persons in our environment – is an inseparable part of our basic humanity. Nevertheless, it remains true that centuries of specific historical actions, creating and evolving monarchies and empires and eventually modern states, which now cover all the world with their ‘monopoly on violence” in their particular societies, has definitely caused this sphere of “politics” and government to become “crystallized,” to become “reified,” rocklike and apparently permanent.

Our own personal judgments of honor and status cannot change the governmental institutions that hold vast power over the outcomes of our lives; and if the curious psychologies and philosophies of our rulers thrust us into violent situations, on either a local level or on a global stage of massive high-tech warfare, our options are very limited. In the more democratic nations we can try to organize and vote for different leaders who will implement significantly different policies (and see here for my discussion of some of the practical problems preventing this, and suggestions for how to overcome them, in my own nation the USA).

If you are not lucky to live in such relatively-democratic places your options for dealing with outbreaks of political/military violence shrink even more: the first priority of citizens of a dictatorship is to themselves, to remain alive and safe, and keep family members alive and safe. (Those of us in happier lands cannot usefully judge your choices in this respect.) Otherwise, the options for inhabitants of un-democratic lands are few: one can join in with and accept the actions of your rulers (or pretend to join in and accept), one can try to lie low and evade their structures, one can try to run away, or one can attempt either violent or non-violent actions of resistance and protest.

Attempting any type of serious change in our lives is always a difficult and uncertain proposition: yet attempting changes in our own psychologies, attempting changes in our own systems of beliefs and explanations, and attempting changes in what we value economically – while still usually long-term affairs – seem more likely to result in changes that are historically significant, at least at the individual, family and cultural levels, than attempting serious changes in the current institutions, the current power structures, of our native countries.

Changes in how you see other people in society, changes in whom you give your own measures of honor and status to, will occur if you attempt to change in other respects. Yet for an ordinary person, to try for serious changes to established political power structures (including the national myths, convenient media lies, and ideological rigidities that typically surround our national government power structures), such a path seems to inevitably bring disappointment and disillusionment, if not prison and death. Such changes are simply illegal in most nations of the world, and seriously discouraged even in the most progressive outposts of democracy and citizen rights. It is precisely to prevent serious changes to established political power structures, that these structures insist on a monopoly over violence in their societies. Our natural human practice of “politics,” making judgments on the honor, status and rank of others in our society, is not allowed to have any effect on the government structures that have defined specific ways of attaining rank and office within their structures: the basic, unquenchable human urge to judge and sort, at the level of individuals and families, has become completely divorced from the official “politics” of gaining power in a particular system.

This divide, this separation, this huge chasm between the reality of millions of individuals
in all lands who feel alien and estranged from the government of their nation-state, who long vaguely for a different type of political behavior even as they struggle with challenges of living in the midst of vast social and technological change, and the government elites who apparently never question either their legitimacy or their policies, or the obedience of the various “servant” classes (including police forces) who do the hard work of maintaining the privileges of these elites, is a major problem as we move forward and try to think about improving our lives and our societies. Modern urban societies rely heavily on basic agricultural production being reliably harvested & processed and transported to outlets in the cities; any weather-related, ecological, military, or social-unrest-related factors which might break any link in the chain threaten disaster for millions. Ordinary factory workers and truck drivers and retail workers must be able to do their jobs for all to live and survive: yet in times of crisis it is precisely the errors of political elites in dealing with such problems that creates the chaos that will equal disaster in the cities. Every small failure to maintain food supplies and keep civic order will increase popular suspicion of elites and institutions, while increasing the determination of elites and institutions to “do something, do anything” to counteract the crisis – and this is how a mutual feedback loop of distrust and uncertainty can grow to replace whatever social goodwill and political legitimacy a particular society may have once enjoyed.

Overall, this divide between rulers and ruled in all the nations on earth is absolutely the most dangerous aspect of a very dangerous future. It is not just that our global climate is changing in unforeseeable ways, it is not just that our oceans are becoming increasingly polluted with fragments of trash and absorbed carbon dioxide: it is the fact that no governments on earth, even in the most enlightened nations, can bring themselves to take serious measures against these threats, for fear of upsetting major economic interests (which depend in one way or another on continued pollution and waste). And with major political parties (and/or public opinion) in too many nations actively opposed to science, reason and cooperation, and openly preaching hate, violence and war, well-meaning citizens who desire a better world for their children cannot even begin to make progress against such strong political forces in their societies. Our problem is not just that our “advanced civilization” is close to suffocating in our own waste products; our problem is that too many political forces in too many nations insist on ignoring or even aggravating such problems, as long as their selfish interests can remain undisturbed today and tomorrow. And in their selfishness, these retrograde political forces assist the possible destruction of “civilization” by helping prevent ordinary citizens from forming and establishing those smaller, more local relationships of cooperation that might help keep individuals and families alive in times of crisis.

Overcoming and ameliorating the various selfishness behaviors of our political elites, persuading these elites and/or replacing them in search of political persons and structures more inclined towards cooperation and the sustainability of all human beings in our environment, thus becomes a central goal for those who seek to change the world for the better. Developing local citizen networks of information and cooperation, consciously seeking to build a “survivalism” of mutual help and mutual care, must become part of the political goals of all concerned global citizens anxious to see their children live and prosper.

Despite these huge threats to our future happiness, for the time being everyday life will go on in all countries on earth, we will continue to act and think in our ordinary everyday ways, mostly focused on feeding our bellies and nurturing our families, and other “ordinary” activities. In the course of this everyday life, we will inevitably continue to change our psychological structures and personalities in small daily ways (and perhaps in large ways over time), we will continue to evolve and elaborate our explanations and philosophies as we are forced to confront new data, we will continue to adjust our ideas of which persons in our environment deserve honor, status and rank, and we will be constantly adjusting our ideas of economic value, and adjusting our relationships with persons, goods and institutions as we adjust our production and consumption of various economic goods and services. We can’t stop these changes, we can’t determine in advance if these changes will be “beneficial” and “progressive,” or if they will be “harmful” and “regressive” – and of course in the constant chaos of daily life, it is always impossible to know for sure if any particular thought or action will be “beneficial” or “harmful” over time, and such things are always subject to our diverse and changing ideas on what “good” or “bad” may mean in our human stories.

Despite all these obstacles, despite all the pessimism and hopelessness that the parties of selfishness and destruction may be able to “infect” into ordinary citizens who hope for something better, it is necessary for us to continue to try. We must continually and constantly try to improve our governmental structures, no matter how hopeless it may appear. We must continually and constantly try to improve our individual abilities to understand who we wish to respect and honor within our own societies, and we must continually try to improve our abilities to make such choices meaningful within our official governmental structures. It won’t be easy; indeed it will be very difficult to carry out the ideals I voice here. The actual, living, gun-toting parties of selfishness and destruction that do live in each of our lands will be trying to do everything they think they can get away with, in the name of preserving their power, and preventing us silly ordinary people from having any actual voice or choice in our governmental structures.

The prospects for success in improving our governmental structures are preponderantly pessimistic – and that is precisely why we must insist on optimism, despite the odds, defying the structures of selfishness that have captured our politics and government. We do have the power to take new actions, to hold new thoughts, in every moment of our lives. We must make use of these powers, as intelligently and nurturingly and sustainably as possible, to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have a world worth living on.

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The Foundations of Morality, And Where Plato Went Wrong

Author’s note: Readers not familiar with my work might wish to start with this article, the summary of my next book, which explains the basics of my thoughts on human beings and social sciences.  Get yourself a snack and a drink, settle in for some deep reading on your fellow human beings, hopefully I’ll stimulate your own thinking and it will take you hours to get through these two articles.


The Foundations of Morality, and Where Plato Went Wrong

Who makes morality? Where does the concept of “morals” come from? Where does morality exist? Human beings have a very wide range of answers to these questions, ranging from those who say morality is an unalterable quality decreed by “God” or “religion,” to those who say that human beings are creatures whose every behavior is determined by physical causes beyond our control and thus there can be no valid moral judgments that one person can make of another person. The theme of this essay, however, is to reject both these formulations, and to argue how human beings – human beings like you and me! – continually create and re-create our moral values and moral judgments, each and every day, based on the thoughts and moralities that we have taken from our families and our local societies, and further based on our own thoughts, actions and on our own ignorances and omissions, as well.

Where do we begin with such a huge subject? I am willing to accept the proposition that every single human being in world history (excepting a few with severe mental health disabilities) does have a concept of morality in their lives (whether or not they can articulate this, and whether or not they can live according to their concepts). Morality is a concept devised by human beings, morality is a concept held and maintained by human beings, and my studies have revealed no other apparent or logical place for morality to exist, outside of human beings and their conceptualizing abilities. Morality certainly does not exist in the atmosphere, nor does it seem likely to exist in the vacuum of outer space or in the blazing core of the sun. Other terrestrial species such as whales or ants, if we could better understand them, may prove to have their own systems of morality, and if we can ever confirm the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life forms, I believe these will likely have their own systems of morality in their societies. However, in this essay we are going to limit ourselves to human systems of morality.

So if you didn’t notice, I have already plunged into the heart of the controversy over morality, by the statement I made above: “Morality is a concept devised by human beings, morality is a concept held and maintained by human beings, and my studies have revealed no other apparent or logical place for morality to exist, outside of human beings and their conceptualizing abilities.” As you probably know, there are millions and billions of people in our world who do not agree with this. They may be religious people who say that “the Bible” or “God” or “Confucius” or “the Buddha” established rules for morality, rules that “exist” whether or not you or I happen to believe in them. They may be traditional people living in a specific culture in India or Africa or Southeast Asia, who may not have one “religious” authority for their system of morality, they just “know” that “our people have always had these rules for living and have always done things this way.” Or, the people who think that morality is something that exists outside of actual historical human beings may be earnest professors in modern universities, who search diligently for some system of logic, some system of philosophical “first principles,” or perhaps some innate mental/physical structures inside our minds, that can serve as a firm and scientifically provable basis of human morality. At least one scientist has claimed general principles that, in his interpretation, mean there can be no morality.

In popular generalized philosophical terms, all these fashions of seeing a system of morality that is “larger” than individual human beings can be called a type of “Platonism,” the idea that there is an “ideal form” of the typical words and categories that human beings use. This comes from Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave” – an idea that he presented, it should be noted, specifically as an advertisement for why the type of ‘philosophical’ thought that he and his teacher Socrates engaged in with their particular associates in ancient Greece is superior to ‘ordinary’ thoughts that other ancient Greeks, or you or I, might come up with. The allegory of the cave, as Plato told it, is so specific in its fantastical set-up (with humans chained in place all their lives, while being entertained by a superior caste of freer “puppet-masters”) and the conclusion is so lame (resting simply on Plato having his character Socrates say that he, Socrates, did in fact see “deeper ideal forms” that no one else did), that I simply cannot take it very seriously as a comment on more ordinary human lives in known human history.

artist's conception of Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Platos’ Allegory of the Cave – Image borrowed from class blog from St John’s University, no copyright owner found

However the basic idea Plato is trying to sell with this story of the imaginary cave is very important in the story of actual human beings: the idea that there is an “ideal form” of the words and categories and objects that we know in our ordinary lives, and that wisdom is to be found in learning to see and understand the ideal forms of concepts and objects, not in the actual concepts or objects themselves.

This idea of Plato’s has animated much of the progress of Western material science: the search for ideal forms of physical matter has led scientists to elements, and molecules, and atoms and subatomic particles, and to our modern physical sciences of chemistry, biology and physics. And in the realm of studying human beings, the theory of “ideal forms” has led us to some progress in understanding as well. Anthropology is perhaps the best representative, the effort of researchers to understand the “ideal form” of the historical culture of some specific people, for example, in Samoa, or the Ibo or Yoruba peoples of West Africa, have indeed given us a basis to say that “X is a typical behavior in traditional Samoa” or that “Z is considered a highly moral and approved behavior in Yoruba culture.” In other social sciences, however, the picture is not quite so clear, in economics and political science some professors may believe that they can identify clear “ideal forms” of say, “economic satisfaction maximization” or “political party formation,” yet other professors may dispute these, and the situation may even lead to competing “schools” of economists or political scientists promoting differing and contradictory “ideal forms” of economic or political behavior.

Yet overall, I would like to argue here for the proposition that Plato’s “ideal forms” are NOT the best way to understand living, breathing human beings – whether these humans are alive now, or were alive in some past time. Plato’s “ideal forms” bring up 2 major types of errors, when we are trying to understand historical human beings (now or in the past).

First and foremost, they encourage summary judgments and stereotyping, they make it easy to de-humanize actual human beings by treating them as categories or types. This stereotyping and lazy categorization affects not only individual judgment, it affects our collective information-compiling and decision-making on a society-wide basis, as it encourages lazy speakers to make exaggerated and tendentious analyses, and it encourages and supports the mistakes that mediocre scientists may make, when they allow common prejudices to become tangled with more reasoned scientific conclusions. At its worst, this can lead to situations such as the long tradition of European thinkers concluding that African and Asian peoples and cultures are “inferior” to European versions.

The second major type of error that Plato’s concept of “ideal forms” leads both average thinkers and leading scientists towards, is to consider that the abstract concepts which human minds typically use to analyze human affairs – intangible, human-created concepts like morality, justice, intelligence or beauty – are in fact real objects, which can analyzed “logically” – even though actual human beings have hardly ever made “logic” a major component of their decision-making. This problem can be clearly seen in the current state of the academic discipline of philosophy, where respected professors can spend years and years of their own and their student’s time attempting to find a logical basis for “justice” in human affairs – or in other words, using a specific abstract thought process within individual human minds to analyze a more generalized abstract thought process that exists only within individual human minds, in the hopes of finding a scientific certainty! In my humble opinion, that’s just not going to work out well.

To begin, there is most certainly NOT an ‘ideal type’ of who you actually are – there is only the living, breathing you, with all your warts and farts and emotions and assumptions and details of your past experience, and the contradictions among moral choices in behavior you may have struggled with at times. No one else has your memories, no one else has seen what your eyes have seen. You may have within your own mind a vision of yourself as an “ideal type:” “I am a Pakistani student in a large city,” or “I am an Egyptian worker,” or “I am an unemployed American in a southern state.” You may have an “ideal type” as a goal for your personal development: “I can work to become a great soccer player,“ or “I want to become a famous actor,” or “I’d like to get married and have 5 children and live in a modern house.” When it is you yourself thinking these things, this is relatively harmless; in most cases you will not be using categories considered “negative,” “immoral” or “undesirable” for yourself, you will not be using these categories to limit yourself in unusual situations, and in the process of life’s development, you will have plenty of opportunities to re-define, re-arrange or completely start over with the categories that you use to consider your situation.

When, however, it is other people who are making quick summary judgments of you and your life and your situation, and categorizing you in various “boxes” (such as “worker,” “member of a certain political party,” “wife not employed outside the home”), you are, to some extent, necessarily being de-humanized, stereotyped, judged as a member of a group and not given respect for the inimitable individual qualities of you yourself. That’s the whole reason this outside observer is placing you in a category, so that they can consider you ONLY as a worker, ONLY as a member of a certain political party, to make it easy for themselves in their mind, in their philosophical system of analysis. If the person making these judgments to put you in a category then has an unrealistic “ideal form” of the category, that a worker does A, B and C but not D, E, and F, or that there is an Ideal form of a “Pakistani” who holds certain characteristics, then poor conclusions will almost certainly result from poor reasoning.

Now, it is generally a contribution to our knowledge and to our civilization for a concerned, dispassionate professor of social science to focus on a certain group of people and research those people and analyze their thoughts and actions, and I am not saying it is always prejudicial or dehumanizing for a sincere researcher to focus on certain people as being “urban Pakistani workers” or “tenant farmers in the Philippines.” I am the idealist who urges us to try to understand all the thoughts and actions of all individuals, yet I am also extremely aware of how difficult it is to reach that goal; for most scientists and researchers, some level of simplification and categorization is a basic first step in studying people and societies. The point of social science research, however, is to study actual human beings. Studying “Pakistani culture as it existed on March 1, 2012” can be a relatively objective study; trying to study or research to find “an ideal form of Pakistani society that serves as a model for all aspects of Pakistani society over time” will always depend on the subjective judgments of the researcher.

The sincere social science researcher will try to be aware of all the simplifications and difficulties involved in this process: they will know and discuss the problems of defining their categories, and how some people may be arbitrarily included or excluded from the category in the process of trying to define the category. Their research will likely explore and examine the differences among sub-categories within their major category, reflecting the incredible diversity of individuals and social situations among their target population. And they will understand that when they conclude in their scientific study that “urban Pakistani workers” show a particular behavior or tendency of opinion, there will be data to support this conclusion, and the researcher will also point out that there are a greater or lesser number of members of the subject group population who do NOT follow the behavior or tendency of the majority. And hopefully, the researcher will understand that his or her scientific study does not constrain or limit the ability of members of the subject population to be actual individuals with incredible diversity in their everyday experiences and an unlimited potential to change their thoughts and actions in the future.

Yet most of us are not dispassionate professors doing our best to undertake studies that can be considered “objective” by other observers. Even the most intelligent of us will be found thinking and saying things that reduce human beings to types and categories, and these types and categories we use do, very often, carry significant implications, intended conclusions, stereotypes and bias. To discuss a political situation and say “politicians like to do X,” this statement very likely carries a number of assumptions of who “politicians” are, why they do what they do, and why you the speaker are probably unhappy with the situation of “politicians doing X”.

In all modern countries, it is easy to find examples of news reporting that speaks of “Russians” or “Syrians” or “workers” or members of a political party, where these categories are being used as stereotypes, categories that imply a unanimity of thought and behavior and which also imply a favorable or unfavorable judgment on the persons in that category. This is the lazy thinking that makes us as individuals less intelligent, and which prevents us from improving our civilizations, and this practice of lazy thinking is unfortunately encouraged by a shallow understanding of Plato which tells us that there really is an “ideal form” of a Russian, or a Syrian, or a member of a particular party, that we can just say “Russians are this” or “Russians do that” and we will have said something true and useful.

And when this stereotyping is being done by people with no pretense whatever to objectivity, people who have long ago decided (because of their nationality or their politics) that they don’t like Russians and will repeat any bad thing said about a hypothetical “Russian,” then that’s how we get to tragic national conflicts that go on and on for generations, hurting all sorts of actual persons in all sorts of tangible situations. And thus it happens that the “Platonism” of imagining that there are “ideal types” of people who can easily be categorized and whose morals and motives can be assumed from their “types” contributes to hateful and stupid thinking among human beings.

The second type of poor thinking that Platonism contributes to is usually less immediately useful to those who are inclined to stupidity and hatred, however this sort of error is more subtle and more problematical among those who are relatively well educated and articulate. This is the error of thinking that the abstract categories which humans so readily devise inside our minds, have a real identity and significance outside of human minds. Let’s take the category of “beauty” for example – some things do make us happier when we look at them, than others. Most people would rather look at a flower, or a colorful sunset with clouds, than at a muddy ditch full of sewage and petroleum waste. (Yet there’s always a few freaks and contrarians to say otherwise). For the vast majority whose general ideas of “beauty” are generally intelligible to each other, and with the help of mass media that find it easy to fill hot air by obsessive speculation and gossip on popular ideas, it becomes to seem that there is a reality to the idea of “beauty,” that “beauty” really is something that can be captured and measured, something real – something “larger” than the human minds that individually hold the concept of “beauty.”

With all of society talking as if “beauty” was a tangible thing, like a carburetor or a can opener, it is very easy for “beauty” the abstract concept that exists only in the minds of human beings, to become “beauty” the tangible quality that one either possesses or does not possess, a real state that exists in some identifiable place upon the world – whether that place is the minds of the beholders, or in the bone structures of the possessors of “beauty,” or somewhere else entirely – and people will then waste all sorts of time contemplating the ideal qualities that separate “beauty” from ”non-beauty,” or speculating on exactly which qualities are absolutely necessary to “beauty.” Yet all such speculation is ultimately useless, because there is no “beauty” that exists in and of itself, there is no beauty without human beings to define it and proclaim it. There is no “ideal beauty” whose discovery is going to change all our ideas of beauty, there is no “ideal beauty” that exists outside of the brains of people who believe in “ideal beauty” (and who therefore define ideal beauty and think that they know ideal beauty and pronounce some things “beautiful” and other things “ugly.”)

And it’s exactly the same situation for other abstract concepts that regularly occur in human life, which human beings continue to discover in their social and personal lives – there’s something happening, which demands a name; yet giving these concepts names – “beauty,” “justice,” “morality,” “order,” ‘democracy,” “art” — tends to obscure that it is each of us, you and I, continually creating these concepts, continually finding these concepts useful, continually borrowing past versions of these concepts and making them our own, which creates the reality of these concepts. The very process of naming these concepts tends to “Platonize” them, to make them – in our minds — into real, tangible, things that exist on their own, with “ideal” forms that we think we can usefully philosophize about at great length. Which in turn makes it more difficult for some people to see how it is that we, actual human beings in history, are actually the source of these abstract concepts.

Concepts of “morality,” like concepts of “beauty,” are a verifiable reality among human beings. Just as we do find some settings, and some faces, more felicitous to gaze upon than others, we as human beings living in societies of other human beings, do set up systems of social rules and social behaviors that we try to follow, and that we try to enforce upon our neighbors and coworkers to follow as well. And not surprisingly, we do find that these systems “work better” when nearly all members of an identifiable social system share the same systems of morality, and enforce them upon each other. There is a historical reality here that has earned a name; yet again, let’s try to be clear about where “morality” comes from.

While it can be proven that many actual people have consistently claimed that their moral systems came from “God,” the historical reality of moral systems in societies cannot be proved to have come from “God” (except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say that “everything comes from God”). While an influential scientist has published a book making the case, this historical reality of morality as a system within functioning human societies cannot be proved to have come from a physically determined Universe (in which every moment of our lives is predetermined by patterns of spinning atoms, except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say “everything in the universe is predetermined”). And despite various attempts of various researchers to locate morality in some genetic or neurobiological structure, this historical reality of morality cannot be proved to have come from human genetic inheritances from our ancestors (except in the amorphous sense that a believer may say that “everything in our lives comes from our human genetic inheritance from our ancestors”).

The systems of morality that are a part of the recorded history of nearly culture system on earth do seem to be caused by each and every human being, in society, over time, continually creating, re-creating, and selectively borrowing (from previous systems of morality) to build systems of rules for behavior, which are communicated to nearly all members of a society and expected to be followed by nearly all members of the group. This mental process of morality creation is more often than not carried on without being recorded by usual “historical data” and may even appear to occur in an ‘unconscious’ manner in many societies. For the vast majority of people in history, our individual experience of morality is one of being born into a society with a functioning system of morality, and being inculcated into that system as a low-status member of the system. The continuous creation and re-creation of the system of morality that I am speaking of comes with maturity, and the daily decisions of how to behave one’s self, the moment-by-moment calculations one makes of exactly how closely the rules are to be applied in this situation and this next situation, and how to react immediately to the statements and actions of others, and how to consider, over the longer term, the statements and actions of others.

This daily and lifelong process of continual creation, re-creation and re-borrowing of systems of morality incorporates at least two of the basic social science systems that human beings are continually engaged in creating: systems of morality must be part of our philosophies – our explanations of how the world works – and systems of morality must also be part of our politics – our systems of giving respect, honor and status to other human beings in our societies (which long ago institutionalized into governmental systems in more technologically advanced nations).

Systems of morality are nearly universal among human beings in history, because nearly everyone holds explanations of how the world works, and nearly everyone holds ideas of why certain people should receive respect, honor and status in society (and why other people should not receive respect, honor and status in society). And where these two sets of philosophical ideas and political ideas exist, overlapping and simultaneously, and we think we have any basis for setting rules for proper human behavior – and it always just seems to happen that we do think we have the basis to make rules — that’s where morality exists. And so to answer the question of who is making morality, that is indeed each and every human being in world history, you, me and all the rest of us.

When we study the actual history of human beings, in societies not undergoing revolutionary changes of some sort, it does seem that for nearly all people, it’s a matter of adopting/borrowing the same rules of moral behavior that they learned as children, and which is shared by all their neighbors. Within traditional historical societies of the past, and the more stable societies in our modern era, very few people are actually being creative and independent in the major principles of their systems of morality. (I will submit, however, that close observation will show nearly everyone joining in the cultural creation of the small points of morality at the margins, in their minute-by-minute response to life’s diverse and challenging situations.)

In our more modern and modernizing societies, however, which are by definition experiencing significant social change, we more often find ourselves in situations of mixed or even clashing cultures, where there is not one single society-wide pattern of morality being followed, and individuals do more often find themselves in a position to choose between varying moral systems, or even to create their own moral systems. Even in these situations, however, it can often be seen how different “communities” (based on ethnic origins, or on classes and occupations, or even on voluntary affiliation) each keep their own general system of morality within their sub-group of the larger society.

Because morality exists within each person at the junction of their philosophical belief systems and their political belief systems, morality is now, has always been, and likely always will be inherently involved with politics. The whole point of a system which seeks to establish proper rules of human behavior, is to ENFORCE the proper rules on those human beings who are considered as not following the proper rules, to make those people change so that moral rules are seen to be paramount values. In all societies, the use of social power (and institutionalized power) to establish who has the “moral right” to tell others to change their behavior or face punishments is at the core of “political relationships” in that society. The human urges within us (the need to create explanations and the need to create status) that create morality are never happy just having a self-pleasing moral system within our own brains; because morality is inherently political and can never be separated from political judgments and political behavior, systems of moral behavior within a society require a judgment on who will be enforcing what morality on whom.

Thus in traditional historical societies, the morals were in most cases part of the law, and there was no debate or question of that. And any variations in enforcement, that breaking rule X is taken very seriously while breaking rule Y is taken less seriously, or that a certain group is punished less severely for violations of Z than a different group, will generally reflect the moral and political belief systems of the community. And over time, in a stable society, the existence of the discrepancies will help create philosophical explanations and political preferences that will reinforce the variations in morality.

As societies modernize and become more complex, with different ethnic and religious communities co-existing in the same space, or with differing subsets of moral systems coming into being along class or other lines, the enforcement of morality becomes even more complex and diffused: some situations are ignored by the larger society, some situations are left to unorganized social disapproval, and yet other situations may be enforced using more explicitly political actions by authorized persons. These varying systems of enforcement and control become institutionalized; individual and sub-group variations in “moral” behavior generally become more common, and more tolerated, than before, legality becomes separated from morality, moral discrepancies among class structures become more pronounced – “it’s OK for us to do this, but not for them to do it.” And in complex modern societies, when views on the morality of crucial social relationships are undergoing serious long-term forces of social change – for example, in America the transition between a legal regime of “segregation” for our Black citizens in the Southern states to a legal regime of “integration,” between about 1955 and 1975 – the controversies and problems and debates on “morality” that are generated can continue to be political issues of the first order even 40 years later.

Image of Police Using Dogs on Black Demonstrators, Birmingham Ala., May 3, 1963

American racial issues: Birmingham Alabama, May 3, 1963 – Image copyright New York Times

There is simply no fundamental agreement on the question of who in American society can enforce changes of behavior (and attitude) on other members of American society. To take two groups relatively opposed at the edges of opinion, those people today who look at America’s racial situation and see a history and culture of ‘inferior’ Black people, and those other people today who look at America and see a history and culture of White social, political and economic power holding down Blacks in America, certainly do not agree on the facts of the situation, and they certainly do not give any significant respect, honor or status to those who disagree with them; and both of these groups are relative minorities in a larger society that can be simultaneously distracted, apathetic, ignorant, confused, and holding elements of both belief systems at the same time, or holding elements of both belief systems varying according to the last person they talked to. Thus there is, and will continue to be, political conflict over the “morality” of how each camp (of strong belief holders) engages with each other and with the larger overall society; each group will tend to believe that is upholding clear moral values in their political struggles with the other camp.

Now in the early years of the 21st Century, in the modern urban centers of Europe, the Americas and Asia, there seem to exist relatively independent youth cultures that appear almost-completely liberated from traditional systems of morality, and even offering their participants the opportunity to make up one’s own set of moral values, choosing from an almost infinite list of possible rules, and from the principles and reasoning behind those rules. Hopefully, these urban populations will be able to evolve peacefully and cooperatively as they face the challenges that the coming years may throw at us. In my opinion, such groups need to be actively working to establish norms and channels of peaceful conflict resolution, to avoid collapses into selfishness when resources necessary for modern urban life may suddenly become limited; the fundamentally political nature of morality, and morality’s inherent need to apply to the majority of society, will not allow tomorrow’s citizens to “all just get along” just because they have the latest tech devices, and cool profiles on the latest social media.

Whether humanity continues to develop new wrinkles and new subsets of morality systems in use among ever-more-finely distinguished social communities, or whether older, traditional systems of morality make a comeback among large populations in leading nations, the coming very-likely challenges in the economic, environmental and ecological areas of human life in the 21st Century appear to have the potential to test each and every one of us quite severely, forcing us to make very difficult choices: how do I behave in this (unimaginable future) crisis to ensure maximum survival for my own self and those I care for? I personally am NOT looking forward to such future days in human society. (I am as susceptible to selfishness, fear, panic, ignorance and confusion as anyone else, I am not at all confident of maintaining my own moral standards, or of finding satisfactory conclusions to situations in such crises.)

So to summarize what I would most like you to take away as a conclusion to this exercise, no matter how murky the origins and foundations of human systems of morality may appear, I do believe that a close examination of human history will show that human systems of morality are created by individual human beings, and that they are constantly being refined and modified by the actual thoughts and actions of living human beings, interacting in their communities and societies.

Although Plato’s vision of finding scientific truth through the search for “ideal forms” may be useful in the physical sciences, I strongly believe that in the study of human beings it is necessary to focus on the actual thoughts and actions of individual human beings in history to make progress towards scientific understanding. There are not “ideal forms” of individual human beings – we are all capable of both growth and learning, and of regression and refusal to consider new ideas. Although it is possible to engage in a scientific study of the structures and systems of a particular community or culture in a particular place at a particular time, communities and cultures (and their systems of morality) are constantly being modified and adjusted by their members; there are no “ideal forms” for communities and cultures which are always in a process of “evolution” (whether you believe they are moving towards “better” or “worse,” cultures are seldom standing still).

Furthermore, there are no “ideal forms” of the concepts that people make up to categorize their realities, concepts like “beauty,” “art,” “justice,” or “morality.” People made these concepts up; there is no place or time these concepts exist as physical objects that can be isolated and studied; there are no ideal forms of such human-created concepts, and there never can be.

As far as I can tell from my investigations, the human need to create moral systems making rules of proper behavior for members of a community arises from the combination of two of our strongest mental urges: our drive to create “explanations” (of all the fundamentals of our human existence), and our drive to create systems of status, rank and honor within our communities (which, in many nations, long ago became institutionalized into governments and the area of behavior we call “politics.”) Since systems of morality are necessarily about enforcing standards of behavior within society, questions of morality will always and everywhere be “political” in nature: people will be establishing, with their every thought and action in their community, understandings of what behaviors create (or destroy) status, what behaviors are proper to various “ranks” that communities may establish, and what behaviors will be rewarded with social honors and governmental offices and powers. Moral questions will always involve political questions, and political questions will always involve moral questions.

The easiest way out of this, assuming that we can continue to survive as members of advanced civilizations in a diverse and changing modern society, is to see that we can separate our own personal moral standards for how we would PREFER people to behave, from legal/governmental policy standards appropriate for social behavior in a diverse society, and that the two do not have to match for us all to achieve a greater level of happiness. Yet whether our children find a future of new technological wonderlands, or a future of terrible ecological breakdowns (or some mixture of both at once), the whole conundrum of why we think and behave as we do, will continue to be an important part of having a human life – so let’s get used to it, and do what we can to make it better for our children, as humanity faces its continued survival on earth in the 21st Century of the european calendar.

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We Can’t Wait for the Next Mandela

I am not a historian who gives a lot of complimentary adjectives for the accomplishments of the 20th Century, I am not a big fan of “10 Best Lists” or “Greatest This-Or-That.” The standard political-scientific-entertainment figures of the American/European 20th Century did some things well, yet glossed over or never knew their errors and omissions. Nevertheless, I will unreservedly award the adjective” Great” to the three Great Leaders of creative, people-powered “liberation” movements in 20th Century politics, Mahatma Gandhi in India in the 1910s to ’40s, Dr. Martin Luther King in America in the 1950s-60’s, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa in the 1980s-90s.

We are extremely lucky, in our otherwise violent, ruthless, grasping history of so-called civilized nations in the 20th Century of the Christian era, to have had these creative, solution-seeking leaders giving us lessons in moral force, the power of non-violence, and the possibilities of breaking through man-made political/institutional barriers. If we are to be smart in our own coming struggles, we should be studying their challenges and how they overcame them, to be the best we can be when our time of challenge arrives.
Nelson Mandela in 1937
Nelson Mandela in 1937

Yet we must be clear. We can’t wait for the next Nelson Mandela to free us. We can’t wait for the next Mahatma Gandhi, we can’t wait for the next Dr. Martin Luther King. We can’t wait for generations of suffering and protest to “produce” a leader (and always remember that none of our three great leaders was ever known to be a “great leader” at the beginning of their journeys, their greatness was much more apparent in retrospect and from a distance). Our inter-knotted, inter-connected world requires an even more difficult task than producing one creative, non-violent leader, in just one time and place. Our world and our times require that we consciously build a worldwide socio-political culture that unabashedly promotes peace, love and understanding among all peoples, as sappy as that may sound, and it must be, as well, a culture in which we will all be active leaders in creating political and economic systems that will allow us and our children to survive with some health, dignity and values intact.

For me the evidence is very strong: our time of challenge is now, and it is likely to last the rest of our days. Our 20th Century civilization has dumped quite a lot of all types of waste in all the nooks and crannies of the earth’s geologic, aquatic, biological and atmospheric realms, and the atmosphere problem seems quite ready to bite us quite hard, quite soon, in our comfortable political and economic arrangements. No one knows today how, exactly, the crisis of a forthcoming tomorrow will present itself — yet again, it is likely to be something that seriously affects our daily lives, and which requires solutions which are inconceivable to the general cultural understanding of “how things should be.”

If these goals of mine, to “survive with some health, dignity and values intact” seem very modest, yes they are. As 2013 turns to 2014, I find it very hard to see good times ahead — please spare me your fantasies of driverless cars and infinitely productive nanobots, perhaps some of these things may achieve a version of truth in a small area of our global future. I am contemplating the extreme weather already occurring and wondering about future problems of basic food production, I am wondering how and where “people power” might ever emerge when faced with governments that are simultaneously too strong to be opposed by disorganized individuals and yet too elitist, selfish, corrupt and cowardly to allow any changes for the better. The trends are nearly all bad, I do fear unforeseeable breakdowns of current economic systems that will severely affect our current urban life/work cultures in extremely damaging ways, there are just too many “ifs” and worries and “unknowns” to leave me comfortable about the coming years. If anyone needs any more evidence that the very air we breathe is potentially close to becoming our most feared enemy force, Juan Cole and various contributors on his Informed Comment blog have been collecting and summarizing the science (and politics) of climate change, and I personally do support the work of the activist organization 350.org and other activists.

Our challenge is much harder than the challenges faced by the popular movements led by Gandhi, King and Mandela in one important respect. In each of their cases, an identifiable population was being held powerless by another identifiable population group, (which was nationally/ethnically different than the first population). In our case, the population being held powerless is, potentially, the entire future population of the 21st Century and beyond … and the identifiable population group holding them powerless is … ourselves, our current political arrangements and economic institutions. That includes all of us who hold in our heads all the reasons these political and economic arrangements can’t be immediately changed !!

The scientific fact that we are also being held powerless by the sheer volume of waste that has already been dumped into our air and oceans, again by ourselves and our immediate ancestors is yet another complicating, challenging aspect of the struggles we face. The struggles we will face will be a different kind of struggle than Dr. King’s faithful confronting Bull O’Connor’s police lines, and it will require new kinds of tactics and strategies that we will need to invent.

It is very likely that our coming challenges will require us to re-assess basic structures in our most fundamental, personal foundations of our own personalities. It is just about absolutely certain that our coming challenges will require new and better explanations of who we are, what we’re doing here, and why we should keep doing it, than our current sciences, philosophies and religions seem to be providing. And our current political and economic institutions — which I do define widely enough to include everything from the inner conscience that prevents us from running traffic lights even when no one else is around, to the hundreds of personality choices and preferences that define and organize our most basic social actions, like getting up and getting dressed and going to work each day — all our ordinary ways of life will likely be challenged in all sorts of ironic, tragic and completely unforeseeable ways.

Getting our heads around the fact that we can’t do X any more because the biological systems that made X possible have been wiped out by climate change, is fairly certain to be something that affects large portions of our current comfortable habits. The problems of creating organizations that empower people for productive action have still not been totally solved by anyone, and we will have to face these organizational challenges as well. My suggestions for better organization in American political work are here, if we can’t work together for better futures globally and economically as well as in our local politics, our grandchildren likely won’t have many successes.

We can’t wait to get to work on the very many necessary changes, if some type of pleasant human society is to survive for our grandchildren. We have to be our own Gandhi, our own Martin Luther King, our own Nelson Mandela, if we are to change the petroleum industry and the coal industry and the socio-political arrangements that give these industries much more political power than ordinary people seem to have. All the evidence points to very pessimistic conclusions for the health of our grandchildren; the prospect that the morally corrupt oil-industry shill Senator Mary Landrieu will have a controlling power over American energy legislation seems very much like a death sentence to any practical hope for positive change in American energy policies.

Nevertheless, my intellectual life has been dedicated to showing how ordinary people can and do create significant change, in their everyday actions — and as a matter of personal psychology and social balance, it is necessary to keep our optimism strong and unwavering. We have to keep our optimism, if only because giving in to despair makes us part of the problem. Again, there won’t be a Mandela to lead us out of the environmental/political/economic conundrums our wasteful habits have created. We have to be our own leaders for creative change, we have to find a way of creating a global culture of positive change and mutual leadership, and we have to start now.

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Syria As a Mirror to the World

The Syrian nation-state is riven by civil war (exacerbated by external forces), and seems in serious danger of collapse into a state of anarchy so great, that little or nothing of the lives of its inhabitants can saved from destruction, injury and turmoil.

The world civilization that 7 billion people have created on the landscapes of our earth in the year 2013 AD by the Western calendar, is still, in an optimistic view, thriving, yet it is also quite plausible and believable to make a “realistic/pessimistic” case that our present world civilization of nation-states, powerful economic enterprises, and poorly informed masses of “ordinary citizens” is also in great danger of collapse (if on a slightly longer timescale of decades, rather than the years in which a collapse in Syria seems plausible) that will also leave the lives of its inhabitants in various states of destruction, injury and turmoil.

Thus the topic of this essay: what can we learn from considering Syria problem’s as a mirror of the world’s problems?

To begin, however, let’s look at an even more basic question.

What is the most important factor, the most important variable, that determines what you or I see, when we look in a mirror?

It’s not the light waves bouncing about between our face and the mirror – though these do determine what image is visible in the mirror to a hypothetical objective observer. Yet what you or I see in the mirror is determined by our mind, our psychology, our personality, our emotions and presumptions. Our philosophical structures (of explanations we believe in) may also play a role here. And the range of our emotions and presumptions about our appearance in a mirror is so vast, from those who have never or very seldom look in mirrors and don’t know what to expect, and then through all those of us who may expect to see a certain self-image and are either happy or disappointed to see that expected image, or else are either disappointed or happy in seeing something other than the expected image, in all the millions of ways people can be either happy or disappointed.

So let’s be very clear, when we perform an intellectual exercise like this, considering Syria as a mirror to the world, it’s all in our presumptions and prejudices and perceptions of what we think we’re seeing, when we look at complex human historical problems like Syria, or when we consider out current global society’s prospects. There will be vast disagreement according to our personalities, our systems of science, religion and philosophy, our politics and our economic interests, and we just have to live with it and learn to analyze it and love it (see here for much more on my hopes that we can accomplish these goals).

So how do we consider this intellectual exercise, Syria as a mirror to the world?

On a first shallow glancing view, it may be possible to entirely reject the comparison of Syria to the world. Syria’s problems, it might be said, arise from the specific policies of the Assad monarchical dictatorship; the rest of the world does not suffer from this particular patriarchy of despotism, and therefore there is no comparison.

In my view, however, this rejection would be an error. Yes, Syria’s current political problems are centered on the Assad regime that has been in power for over four decades. However many regions of the world, in all times, have had experiences of regimes that are similar to the political regimes “enjoyed” by Syria in its long history. As you may know, I prefer to analyze political behavior in human beings as the creation and (constant re-creation) and distribution of honor, status and rank in human societies, (leading to the tribal and state governmental structures that have elaborated so convincingly in human affairs from their roots in our concepts of status and rank).

Would it be fair to say that nearly all human societies have had their share of giving rank and political power to some of the most unworthy, authoritarian, selfish, deceptive and otherwise despotic men to be found in their societies? (And it has been overwhelmingly and nearly universally a male problem, despite the many tribal structures that have empowered women in various ways, or the more modern kingdoms that have allowed Queens and Empresses to supervise traditional structures of male authority.) Nor will I allow my native USA to wriggle out of this on some claim of liberty-loving constitutional exception, because certainly there have been plenty of local, institutionalized tyrants and abuses of power from political actors and cliques in all eras of our American history, not to mention race riots and lynchings. And how do we rate the current situation of a highly centralized, highly institutionalized national security state apparatus quite literally monitoring all our modern communications at all times and undressing us at airports, which somehow “just grew” (very specifically out of our military structures since 1945) without ever being asked for, voted on by the public, or discussed in any full or free manner in our most visible political or mass media debates/analysis, and which appears to be completely beyond any control by ordinary citizens. So yes, even if you might argue that it’s not fair to say “nearly all,” I do believe that it is fair to say that the vast majority of human societies do have an understanding of selfish, authoritarian political power wielded by those whom they honored, rightly or wrongly, with these ranks and offices.

And let us make no mistake, this is the nature of the problem in Syria, an authoritarian regime which will use any murder, any weapon, any barbarity to maintain its power. And yet the regime survives, primarily because it does have a legitimate population base of civil society – the various non-Sunni-Muslim ethnic groups and communities who find their fears of the prospect of repression and/or massacre by victorious Sunni Muslim insurgents to be greater than the fears induced by continuing the bloody, unproductive Assad regime. These 5 to 10 million people (my guess based on my quick glances at Syrian demographic statistics) are not just going to disappear from the stage of human history in the Eastern Mediterranean region in the 21st Century. They deserve support and protection as much as anyone else, I hope for their sake their fates are not tied to the fate of a regime whose attempts to protect itself seem to engender more and deeper opposition.

And if we take a pessimistic view that humans will not solve the problems of un-sustainability in our present state of civilization, the crisis that will be facing our children and grandchildren will be the problem of entrenched political and business elites who refuse to alter their regimes, no matter the seriousness of the ecological problems confronting us, whether this is the ecology of a relentlessly rising coastline combined with much greater hurricane activity, or a human economic ecological disaster like successfully launching a robotic manufacturing and simple-services economy while refusing to make any basic changes in economic postulates to ensure the survival of hundreds of millions of people now deprived of traditional means of sustaining themselves. So in this instance, the prospects of the world as a whole over the coming decades does mirror the prospects of the Syrian polity over the coming months and years: very poor prospects indeed, in any kind of “realistic” assumptions about human ability to reform political and economic institutions that give undue rewards to small elites while depriving large masses in small, less-than-obvious ways.

Here I would like to take some time to shoot down a notion I saw expressed in comments on a Syrian article on a major press service’s website, to the effect that “we don’t need to care about these quarrelsome little ethnic groups that have been fighting each other for millenia.” Again, I hope my other writings express why we need to care about everybody in world history if we care about ourselves, and our history. And as for the Eastern Mediterranean region in general (in which “Syria” was seen as a vague region within a general Arab-Muslim culture and was not formally defined until the map-making exercises of the victorious Allies of World War I) and traditional and modern Syria in particular, actually the various little ethnic groups (and the predominant Sunni Muslim Arab ethnic group) did a fair job of living and letting their neighboring communities live. There was not a continuous war of community against community, and all the major wars of the region after the establishment of the Islamic hemisphere in the 6-800’s AD represented invasions by Muslim, Mongol or Crusader imperialists arising not from Syria or its immediate neighbors. And the book I pulled from my dated shelves to refresh myself on Syrian history, Howard Sachar’s excellent “Europe Leaves the Middle East, 1936-54″, 1st ed. 1972, starts off by reminding us that the Mongol invasions and epidemic diseases of the 1200-1300’s AD had seriously depopulated and impoverished the region, “ravaged its forests and silted its irrigation canals,” (p. 5), and no regimes until the colonial regimes of the Europeans after World War I had attempted seriously to remedy the situation. Nevertheless, during all this time, the various ruling empires maintained an overall peace, and the various ethnic groups of the Syrian territory did not continually war against each other. And that when the Europeans did come in after 1919, they did so in complete contempt of the Arab majority’s attempt to establish an Arab kingdom in Damascus. And in the overall story of how Syria achieved its full independence of colonialism relatively peacefully in 1946, the relative unity of Syrians in their many strikes, protests and riots against French colonial rule was an important factor.

Indeed, if the conflict in Syria now gives us the horrifying prospect of extreme ideological versions of Sunni and Shi’a Islamic thought locked in mortal conflict – al Qaida and Hezbollah battling over the Syrian landscape, in conventional journalistic shorthand – this must be seen as a reflection in today’s Syria of the grand ideological wars of the 20th Century world in Europe and East Asia, and certainly not as something arising from the political and economic competition of two neighboring communities in the hills southwest of Damascus. The roots and models for this type of ideological conflict lie in London and Paris and Berlin and Moscow and other European capitals in late 1800’s and early 1900’s, in the development of nationalisms and socialism/communism, its ugly reflection in a fundamentally deadly schism in the Islamic world of the early 2100’s is an example of history echoing it previous cries — yet an example that is neither fully appreciable by many as a tragedy, yet cannot be, in any viewpoint, a farce that is pleasant and amusing.

And so, in our intellectual exercise of considering Syria as a mirror to the world, we see how both how the world resembles the Syrian mirror, while Syria reflects the world that interfaces with it. Whether the image that we see of Syria and the world is ugly and pessimistic and doomed to catastrophic collapse, or whether there are possibilities that increased self-education and organization amongst the world’s peoples, and increased success of democratic-progressive tendencies among national and global political bodies, and increased world political/diplomatic cooperation on all types of issues, everywhere, from stronger efforts at caring for refugees and providing food stability and other positive institutions of civil societies, while somehow negotiating a sustainable peace among bitter enemies, whether this can actually occur to really result in positive outcomes in the Syrian situation over the next few years, and whether similar efforts on our part can result in positive outcomes for the world situation over the next few decades, again that is a function of our own psychological structures, our emotions and our presumptions, our cynicisms and pessimisms, or our hopes and efforts to find a viable solution.

Is there any glimmer of hope that can relieve our forebodings over Syria? A few days after this article originally posted, we must praise the Russian-American accord on identifying, controlling and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons — hopefully with the real cooperation of the Syrian government — as a very real step forward by some of the world’s largest political malefactors. True, the actual outcome is still uncertain and these governments have much, more more to accomplish towards actual world peace and progress, yet the situation of an awkward agreement today is still a better outcome than the unilateral American missile strikes that looked likely yesterday.

Yet overall, the global question haunting our futures remains: can our desperate belief that we will somehow maneuver our civilization to survive the crises created by our own waste products (and counting our authoritarian, despotic government actors among the most toxic items in our garbage), will our desperation somehow bring about actual fundamental reforms for long-term viability? All of these dancing images flash across our intellectual mirror as our attitudes and emotions carry on their eternal dance of joy and despair … yet inevitably, our verifiable actions (and our unconscious omissions) will, in their overall sum totals as the 2010’s and the 2020’s and the 2030’s roll along, second by second and minute by minute and hour by inescapable, inexorable hour, these actions and omissions on our part will determine the history and outcome of our human future.

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