September 2008

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September 1. Flobots "Handlebars" video. I watched the first minute a couple months ago and thought it was pretentious twee-pop, but you have to watch the whole thing, and then watch it again, to get the full effect. This isn't just a stunning anti-fascism song -- it's a deep and subtle critique of our culture, and it does something you rarely see in music or even in fiction: when you know the end, the beginning takes on a new level of meaning. Here's a page of people analyzing Handlebars lyrics.

September 3. Regarding Sarah Palin: what is it about the Christian right that draws dishonest and selfish people into the top positions? When I think about it, it's obvious: in any culture that teaches unquestioning obedience to authority, positions of authority are psychopath magnets. The psychopaths are not the disease, but the symptom -- or even the cure, because they destabilize and collapse domination systems.

September 9. Dead link: Farmers' Almanac says cold winter ahead. You can't write fiction this good:

The forecasts are prepared by the almanac's reclusive prognosticator Caleb Weatherbee, who uses a secret formula based on sunspots, the position of the planets and the tidal action of the moon.

And again on the subject of weird influences, a study has found that almost all major ancient civilizations appeared at the edges of tectonic plates. There are all kinds of guesses about why, and my guesses are that subtle electromagnetism, or earth energies not yet known to science, affected people's minds.

September 10. Interesting analysis, What makes people vote Republican? The author is smart and makes some good points, but I think he ends up in a middle ground that gives social conservatives too much credit. From the perspective of modern rational liberal individualism, social conservatives are fools. Then if you make an effort to understand them, their perspective starts to make sense: "binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way." But then if you keep going with this line of thinking, through the world of humans to the world of all life on Earth, you see that these "conservatives" are really a radical movement to replace the freedom of nature with hierarchy and repression, and the boundaries of a balanced ecosystem with the transgression of ever-increasing domestication and consumption.

Now, there have been primitive tribes that resemble Bush's America, with a corrupt elite feeding tribal hatred and conflict to justify repression. But there have also been cultures like the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), with strong and stable traditions that included personal autonomy and bottom-up decision making. And if you look at how the agrarian-age fundamentalist mindset is ruining the world, even if it was once useful, it's now dangerously obsolete.

For more evidence that it's obsolete, notice that it has no real representatives among political leaders. Politicians are either liberals, in a broad sense that includes tolerant intellectuals like Obama and classical liberals like Ron Paul, or they're political psychopaths cynically exploiting social conservatives for selfish gain.

September 12. On the issue of why people vote Republican, Nate writes, "You're still stuck in the Democrat partisan mindset."

I deny being partisan! But I do admit to limitations in my mindset: I've never understood why people "want to belong." Even in second grade I saw the Pledge of Allegiance as oppressive, not as a communal bonding ritual. I went to church every Sunday and never liked it. In middle school when we started having sports teams and pep assemblies, I thought it was all ridiculous. And it wasn't because of the influence of urban liberal elites. I come from many generations of small town and rural white people, and I didn't move from Pullman to Seattle until I was 19. And there are a lot of people like me, some who moved to cities and some who stayed in small towns.

This isn't really about urban vs rural. It's about spiritual contractiveness vs expansiveness, and it's easier to stay contractive if you're isolated with your own kind. Agrarian monotheist cultures are like a dark tunnel that humans are passing through, between nature-based pagan cultures and something we're still working on, if we don't go extinct trying.

September 13. Continuing on yesterday's subject, our whole species is struggling with morality. First, we've inherited a biological morality that only works at the tribal level. David Wong wrote a fun essay about it, What is the Monkeysphere? The basic idea is, our brains allow us to see only a limited number of other creatures as people, and we don't care about anyone else.

So, to form big civilizations, we had to invent religions that commanded obedience to unseen authorities, and commanded unselfish behavior toward members of super-sized tribes. Of course, that moral system didn't create utopia, but a tolerable world of warring nations slowly conquering nature.

And now that we're in a global high-tech society, the agrarian-age religions are weak and misguided in a number of ways: A human-shaped sky father deity doesn't fit with science. We have so much destructive power that we need to expand our "tribe" to cover other species and humans of different religions. Central control is terribly inefficient in large nation-states. And we need to stop having so many kids.

But stepping outside monotheistic morality is dangerous, which is why atheists are so much more violent than Christians and Muslims. Ha, I'm joking! They're more peaceful, and they're also more likely to follow political movements toward peace and ecological responsibility. But is atheism the cause, or the effect? Do people behave better by abandoning God, or are people developing a basis for morality that makes God unnecessary? And in either case, what is it that leads atheists to be nice to people they don't know?

I think humans are learning. I don't know if it's on the level of biology or just culture, but we are learning to extend our empathy farther and to more creatures, which probably has something to do with the decline of child abuse throughout history, argued by Lloyd deMause in The History of Childhood. At the same time, we're getting better at rational thought, which is proven by steadily increasing scores on IQ tests. And I think we're combining our emotional empathy and rational thought into something like intellectual empathy, which enables us to do things like recycle and reduce consumption to save forests we've never seen.

Is it enough? Of course not! Industrialized nations are going fascist and the whole world is plunging into eco-catastrophe. But if we're capable of moral evolution, that's good news, and it means that if we don't go extinct, we may someday get it right.

September 15. McCain is now leading for the first time ever in electoral votes. This is not about Republicans over Democrats, because many more voters now identify as Democrats. It's not about rural over urban, because urban voters greatly outnumber rural voters. It's not about cultural issues, because a solid majority of Americans are now in favor of gay rights and abortion rights. And it's not about any mistake by the Obama campaign -- they've been nearly flawless.

It's because a lot of people, including urban liberals, see Sarah Palin and feel (not think) "She's regular folks like us, she's plain-spoken, she'll shake things up, and she'll be nice to look at on TV every night." It doesn't work to tell them that she's a selfish vindictive liar who ruined Wasilla. They won't believe you because they're in love. It doesn't work to say McCain could die, because Palin is now leading the ticket, and voters want her to be president. In their hearts, they want her to be dictator, because you know all it takes is for some ordinary person like us to go in there and cut through all the complicated stuff that we don't understand and we'll be in heaven.

The good news is that key members of the elite are with us on this one. Why else would the big media suddenly switch from coddling the McCain campaign to attacking it? If there's one thing stronger than the elite's desire to make money, it's their fear of an angry mob. When Palin speaks, they see an ignorant hick demagogue stirring up crowds in a time of economic hardship. She awakens their ancestral memories of peasants with pitchforks and torches -- or I hope she does, because if you look at history, when someone like her comes to power in times like these, it leads to piles of skulls.

September 15. Ryan reports from Houston after Hurricane Ike:

I think a million people in this city finally met their neighbors. I had a great weekend. Spent the two days without power at my friend Sid's house with his cousin and parents, very nice people all around. We played a bunch of Scrabble. The neighborhood I was in was worst hit by the hurricane because it was loaded with tall trees. A lot of them were totally uprooted, I even saw one that had cracked at the hilt of the trunk and fallen on someone's roof. Very cool stuff all around. The best part is the city is mostly empty still. I came back to my apt, which has power, and the air is so clean and fresh I can't describe how nice it feels to breathe. All in all a big thumbs up from me to the hurricane. Spending a couple days without power just talking and living with cool people is good for the soul.

September 18. Picking up last weeks subject of "conservative" values, here's a 19 minute video talk by Jonathan Haidt on the difference between liberals and conservatives. Summary: First he points out that liberals are much more open to new experience. Then he defines five "channels" of morality: 1) Harm/care, 2) Fairness/reciprocity, 3) Ingroup/loyalty, 4) Authority/respect, 5) Purity/sanctity. Then he shows graphs in which liberals are just using the first two, while conservatives are using all five. Then he declares that the last three are necessary for a stable society. Then he concludes that liberals are willing to risk some instability by sacrificing the last three, because they're more open to new experience, but that we need both liberals and conservatives for balance.

Haidt is a liberal himself, and I think he made a typical liberal mistake of being too tolerant, plus he made a huge oversight in his argument. First, as I mentioned a week ago, if conservatives are using the last three channels, why aren't their leaders using them? Liberal politicians really do stand for care and fairness. But right wing politicians, at the moment, only stand for ingroup to incite wars so they can get pleasure from bullying and help their friends make money; they only stand for authority when they hold authority so they can take advantage of people's blind trust; and they only stand for purity for other people while breaking the standards themselves.

Next, liberals use the last three channels all the time. They use ingroup/loyalty at the level of the human species or all life on Earth, and they also use it in the culture wars. They use the authority of science to argue against creationism, and the authority of specialists on subjects like energy and taxes, while Republicans cry "elitism" and argue that common people know better. And liberals use purity on a hundred issues from food to green living to genetic engineering. Haidt actually mentions the food thing, then totally fails to run with it.

What's going on here, and what Haidt missed, is that the last three channels can all be easily corrupted. Group loyalty can drive friendly cooperation or it can drive internal repression and external war; authority and respect can be earned or they can be bestowed by crime gangs and domination systems; purity can be applied in areas where "impurity" is seriously harmful or where it's harmless or even helpful.

Some people we call "conservatives" are compulsively circling around in the corrupted versions of the last three moral channels. Liberals also fall into the corrupted versions, but they police each other more harshly than "conservatives" do. More often, liberals overreact to the widespread abuse of the last three channels by rejecting them completely. It also occurs to me that "leftist" repressive states, like the Soviet Union, have managed to corrupt all five channels, even using care and fairness as excuses for criminal behavior. Anyway, whatever we call ourselves, we need to practice using all five channels in the right way.

September 18. The entire financial collapse summarized as a haiku:

The world of money
is all imaginary.
Now everyone knows.

September 24. All signs are pointing to hyperinflation. Just a few years ago people would gaze in awe at the word "trillion", and now they're throwing trillions around like pennies. There's nothing real that can add up to that many zeroes, unless they change what a zero represents. When a loaf of bread costs $500 and the median income is a million a year, then our taxes can (just barely) pay back a multi-trillion dollar debt.

I'm not going to bother with who exactly all this money is being paid to, because if you take a step back, money concentration is just a symbol for power concentration, and power concentration has already reached its practical limits. We fear a society full of police and soldiers telling us what to do, but consider how inefficient that is, compared to a society where we do everything voluntarily. When the control system has to point a gun at you, you know it's almost finished.

September 24-25. On the financial collapse, the point I expect to make over and over is that money is not wealth. The houses are still here. There are still farms to grow food and trucks to haul it to supermarkets. This reddit comment thread raises the same point, asking, Since when does The Economy equal investment banking? I don't see how this crisis changes worker productivity or the amount of food we can grow per acre. The answers mostly come down to the depressing fact that we've built an economy where nobody can do anything with their own money anymore, only with borrowed money.

But the deeper question is: "Why can't we just keep doing all the same stuff we're doing now, but without money changing hands?" This is not a rhetorical question, because obviously we can't do that. It's a serious question asking why exactly we can't. One answer is corporate selfishness. If the farmer went to the seed company, or the trucker to the gas pump, or you to the supermarket, and said, "I don't have any money but I'll just take what I need so we don't starve," the clerk would say, "If it were up to me I'd let you, but I must obey an organization designed to profit." Another answer is human selfishness. Most people really would take only what they needed, but the hyperselfish would take as much as they could, and then they would leverage that advantage into more and more wealth and power... which is how we got into this mess in the first place.

And another answer is that most of the tasks that keep our society going are so unpleasant and meaningless that nobody would do them without being forced. The force is that we can't get anything without money, and we can't get money without doing shitty jobs. Consider the Marxist rule, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." That rule crashed and burned in Soviet Russia, but has worked fine in many primitive societies, because if useful activity is fun, you pity the people who do less than you.

So, with disruptions in the flow of money, the worst jobs, the ones that nobody would do without money and stuff to buy, will shrink, while useful activities that are intrinsically enjoyable and meaningful, like gardening and hunting, will grow. Silly fake needs, like five-bladed razors and high-acceleration cars, will be restricted to the very rich, while the rest of us will fall back to real needs like food and water and shelter. (I hope we get to keep the internet!) And overall, human society will reorder itself to be a little less out of line with human nature.

September 29. I regret using the word "crash". History might look back and find "crash" a useful metaphor, but to us these times will feel nothing like a car crash or an airplane crash. A much better metaphor would be a long sickness. When you get sick, you feel intense discomfort, but you also have lots of free time, and an opportunity to change your habits and priorities.

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