Losing the Soul

I’m currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I haven’t finished it yet, but I came across an argument in it the other night and I want to make sure I understand it.

Harari argues that there are three elements that universalize all of human culture. The first is money; the second is empire; and the third is the belief in a superhuman order:

Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs. them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers.

He then devotes the next three chapters to the elucidation of these assertions, and I highly recommend that you read them, but that’s not the part of his argument I want to explore.

In the chapter on the universal belief in a superhuman order, Harari categorizes natural-law ideologies as forms of religion, putting humanism  in the same category as Christianity and Zoroastrianism. He argues that humanism is the worship of humanity, much as Islam is the worship of God. According to Harari, humanists believe there is a “unique and sacred nature” to our humanity, and that this is the most important thing in the world, and that therefore, “the supreme good is the good of Homo Sapiens.”

He goes on to divide humanism into three main sects: liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism, with each sect differing on its definition of humanity.

For liberals, “humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of humans is therefore sacrosanct.” For socialists, “humanity is collective rather than individualistic…[and therefore it] seeks equality between all humans.”

Both of these interpretations spring from faith in a kind of secular soul, with liberals defending the unique liberty of each soul and socialists defending the common essence shared by all souls.

But I want to explore Harari’s characterization of the third sect: evolutionary humanism. He writes that evolutionary humanism is “the only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism.” He then concludes this assertion by writing that evolutionary humanism’s “most famous representatives are the Nazis.”

What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman.

What’s interesting is that Harari seems most persuasive when he’s discussing this particular dogma. He goes on to characterize the Nazis’ arguments and actions as an attempt “to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution.” He then shows that this mission was not outside of the mainstream in the early twentieth century, with white supremacy playing a significant and proudly proclaimed role in the governments of both the United States and Australia well into the 1960s and 70s.

“The Nazis,” Harari writes, “did not loathe humanity.” They just defined it differently from liberals and socialists. According to the Nazis, if the fates of the fittest examples of humanity were not defended and promoted, they “would inevitably drown in a sea of unfit degenerates.”

With the lessons of evolution guiding their way, the Nazis proclaimed that “the supreme law of nature is that all beings are locked in a remorseless struggle for survival,” which is why they educated their people to “steel [their] wills to live and fight according to these laws.”

Harari ends the chapter by making what I find to be a persuasive argument in favor of evolutionary humanism. If liberalism and communism require the sanctity of the human soul, and science continues to find no evidence of said soul, it seems clear that the only true laws are the ones we find in nature, the ones that show us more and more that what we think of as consciousness and free will can better be defined in terms of “hormones, genes, and synapses.” Homo Sapiens are no more immune to these laws than any other species evolving on Earth.

And if all of that is true, then, indeed, evolutionary humanism makes the most sense, and we must acknowledge that humans too are subjects to the laws of nature. This does not mean that we must all become Nazis. The science of genetics, which did not really exist when the Nazis formed their racist theories, debunks much of what they believed about the evolution of the species.

But that also doesn’t mean that people in the vanguard aren’t already using the science of genetics and the theory of evolution to improve the fitness of their offspring. People choose sperm donors based on their intelligence. They abort fetuses based on the clinical detection of a birth defect. They choose the sex of their baby to prevent the spread of a sex-linked genetic disorder. In addition, hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists are, at this very moment, developing lines of research that could lead to the creation of a species whose fitness for future environments may very well exceed our own.

In a world where all of this is true, evolutionary humanism does make the most sense, but agreeing to evolutionary humanism erases the human soul from existence and denies sanctity to pretty much everything.

This follows from what Harari argues about money and empires as well. The universalizing aspect of money denies sanctity to other systems of value — if something can’t be converted to money, its value will always remain suspect. The universalizing aspect of empires, meanwhile, denies sanctity to cultural difference, bridging the gap between “us” and “them” through military, economic, and cultural conquest, followed by years of subjugation, and concluding in a syncretic assimilation that channels parts of the conquered culture back into the culture of the conqueror, until even their myths entangle and encompass each other and the truth of what they might have been slips forever into the darkness of their history.

In the story of Homo Sapiens as told by Harari, our distinct values are denied, our distinct cultures are denied, and finally our distinct souls are denied. Until all we are left with is…

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that one yet. As I said, I’m still reading the book.

Nora’s Story (The Remix)

After my daughter went to bed last night, I decided to write a second draft of her story. Enjoy!

The Lila-takers drive down the center of a well-lit road at midnight. Closed shops line the sidewalk, and streetlights illuminate small patches of drunken fog. The passenger sticks his head out of the window like a dog with its tongue lolling. He looks up: the streetlights block the stars. A man stands dead center in the bed of the pickup, a baseball bat hanging at his side, as if the truck were his chariot and the baseball bat his faith.

Mice scatter along the curbs. A police car hides in an alley, and its officers, waiting for speedsters, watch the Lila-takers pass. They exchange a look, and turn their eyes to their coffee cups, ashamed of what they’ve become. The driver puts the car in reverse, and with headlights off, the police back farther into the alley.

Lila celebrates the success of her cat’s eye surgery with her cousins. They dance to pop music and drink sparkling lemonade. As she twirls beneath the ceiling fan in the living room with her cousin Maddie, she doesn’t know there are such things in the world as Lila-takers.

A second car, a deep purple, refurbished sedan, pulls out of a sidestreet and alongside the pickup; the drivers don’t acknowledge each other. In the passenger seat of the sedan, a woman with long purple hair and small purple sunglasses stares straight ahead, her right hand curled around the doorhandle, tensed and ready. The sedan and the truck drive on, together, a motorcycle now pulling up fast behind them, its overweight driver dressed in baggy black, her rounded black helmet hiding her identity, a baseball bat strapped to the side of the gas tank. She revs the engine, pulls along the other side of the truck, and all three vehicles exit the city.

Lila’s cousin, Caleb, takes her onto the patio to look at the stars. Out here in the country, the stars sing to her, a choir of light calling her to attention: look up!, they sing, look up! Caleb taps her shoulder. She turns, and she follows his finger up toward the North Star. It feels like home, calling her forward, calling her upward — ascend!, ascend! She takes a step.

The Lila-takers turn down a long dirt road, their headlights like scarecrows crawling across the night. A bump lurches the truck upwards, its wheels caroming off the ground, exposing its shocks. The man in the center of the bed bends his knees, adjusts his balance; his feet don’t move. He taps the baseball bat against his thigh, always hitting the same space just above his knee, a dead-eyed tap with no logic or rhythm, a slow motion twitch, deliberate in intent, illogic in manner. The truck rolls on; the sedan and motorcycle follow.

The edge of the wood surprises her. Caleb calls out somewhere behind her, a distant voice in the darkness. She looks over her shoulder. The house lights hurt her eyes, and she shields them with her hand. Caleb calls out again, and she sees him, his silohuette on the edge of the patio, calling toward the other side of the lawn, unaware of where she might be. She turns back to the wood. Above her head, the stars shimmer through the shadows of the branches, sing to her through the blanket of black leaves. Caleb calls out again. She takes another step, not caring how she got here.

The Lila-takers stand at the end of the driveway, their engines quiet, their headlights off, their baseball bats in hand. The overweight woman dressed all in black pulls a coiled rope from the saddle of her motorcycle and walks toward the house. The man who’d stood in the center of the truck nods to the others, and they fan out behind her, all except him: the last line of defense.

Lila reaches her hand toward the next limb and pulls herself higher into the tree. The North Star doesn’t come any closer, but the stars sing stronger now, each individual melody sung in harmony with its neighbors, and behind it all, the crackling white noise of the North Star, calling her with its intelligence. Her hands and feet find the limbs without her having to give them her attention. Her head dodges around this branch, her shoulders swoop under that branch, her path twists around the trunk. She climbs with the ease of an experienced roofman ascending a ladder, unconscious and trusting, up and up and up.

Her cousins cower in the corner. The man who stood in the bed of the truck enters the living room. His eyes scan the work of his Lila-takers: the overthrown sofa, the smashed window in the patio door, the plants ripped from their pots and thrown against the wall, the overturned cat tree. One of them, the oldest one, glances toward the patio door, looks back at him to make sure he sees, and glances back at the patio door. The man turns and walks across the back of the living room, over the smashed glass of the mounted television, and out the door. He looks up into the night sky. The North Star. He calls out to his crew and charges north across the lawn. This one will not get away.

Her head pushes through the canopy, and she pulls herself into the crown of the tree. She finds her balance, one foot on the tallest nub of the trunk, the other resting gently on the middle of the highest, youngest branch. She feels the tree surging beneath her feet, pushing her higher and higher still, each moment struggling to channel its energy into, through, and beyond its tallest nub, its highest young branch, its Lila. Her arms outstretched, she feels the entire Earth cycle itself into, through, and beyond her, surging up one side of her body, cresting out of the crown of her head, then splashing back into her and surging down the other side of her body, back into, through, and beyond the roots of the tree, surging out through the dark soil and back into the oceans, where it dissipates into a crackling cloud before coming back together on the other side of the waters with so much tremendous force that it thunders through the continental shelf, over the desert, under the mountains, back into the soil, up the roots of the tree, into her right foot, and back out of her head, cresting over and over in waves, pushing her, pushing, until she finally looks down and sees that the tree is far beneath her, and she’s riding upwards on an umbrella of light. She turns her eyes heavenward, and sails toward the North Star: ascend, ascend, ascend.

The Lila-takers stand at the bottom of the tree, their bats at their side. “Fine,” says the man who stood in the bed of the pickup. He turns toward the house. “If we can’t take her, let’s take her dog.”

Nora’s First Published Fiction

My four-year-old daughter and I are seated at my desk. She’s curled up in a comfortable chair with a warm blanket on top of her. I’m at the keyboard. We’ve decided to write a story together,

“What should it be called?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“I should name it The Doggy Who Was Lost in the Forest.”

“That sounds good,” I say. “So how does it begin?”

“Okay. I’m just writing in the letters here.” She scratches with a red marker on a piece of paper she’s holding. The paper is on a clipboard. “There,” she says. “I’ve got it dad.

“Beginning that day,” she continues, “everybody was at the celebration. We were all there, except Lila. She was always coming for dinners, but this day, she was all lost. But her dog was also lost in the forest. She knowed nothing to do, but she knowed a friend.  But all that day, it grew dark. And everybody in the world happened to be scared, except Lila. It was so dark and so stormy. She saw a creature called the Lila-taker, and that monster, her name was that because she wanted to take every kid whose name was Lila in the city. And it grew darker, and darker, and darker. All that day — once a year, every year they would all gather around the Lila tree to taste…”

“Don’t start telling the story of Trolls,” I say.

“It’s a little like,” she answers. “They wanted to taste true happiness.”

“No, not like Trolls. We’re not gonna tell the Trolls story. Let’s back up. So it grew darker and darker… Maybe you want to talk about her dog.”

“I don’t know how to make up any dog parts.”

“So what’s the dog’s name?”

“John,” she answers. “Yeah, I like this. You ask me questions about the dog, and then I’ll do it. Okay?”

“Okay. John is lost in the woods. What does he see?”

“He doesn’t see anything. He’s dead.”

“He’s dead?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Okaaaaay,” I say. “Tell me about the kitty that you mentioned at dinnertime.”

“Ask me questions about it.”

“What’s the kitty’s name?” I ask.

“Mmmm…Stuart.”

“And where is Stuart?” I ask.

“At home.”

“What’s he doing?”

“Sleeping.”

“How does he figure into the story?”

“What does that mean?” she says.

“Well, you have Lila lost in the woods…”

“Lila’s not lost in the woods. She’s at the celebration.”

“Oh, right,” I answer. “Okay…soooo…you have Lila at the celebration, her dog is lost in the woods, and Stuart is sleeping at home, and there are Lila-takers….where are the Lila-takers?”

“In the truck.”

“In a truck?”

“In a truck with dogs.”

“Okay,” I say. “So what does Lila want?”

“Umm…a party.”

“But she’s at a party.”

“No,” she corrects me, “She’s at a celebration.”

“Who else is at the celebration?”

“Um…Lila’s parents, her cousins, Jayden…um…Maddie and Caleb.”

“And those are her cousins?” I ask.

“And Caleb, yeah.”

“What are they celebrating?”

“Don’t know exactly how to tell you this. Hmmm. A kitty.”

“Stuart?”

“They’re celebrating Stuart,” she says.

“Okay. So, you’ve Lila celebrating…is Stuart her kitty?”

“Stuart is Lila’s kitty.”

“And where are the Lila-takers?”

“I told you!,” she says. “In a truck! I already told you. Did you not know that?”

“I forgot. Sorry. So what happens in the story?”

“So the Lila-takers, they’re in a phone patch.”

“A phone patch?”

“Uh-huh. So they’re inside a phone.”

“Okay,” I say.

“And they all deserve to hug. To eat, to taste, and hug.”

“Is this Trolls again?”

“Nooooo!”

“Okay, so what happens next?”

“They all…want…lots of Lilas, but there’s only just one Lila.”

“And then what?” I ask.

“Because…they…they…I mean…want Lilas and they really like Lilas.”

“So what do they do about it?”

“They kind of just hug. Do what do about what?”

“So we have the Lila-takers, Lila…”

“Monsters.”

“Aren’t the Lila-takers monsters?” I ask.

“There are monster Lila-takers and there are human Lila-takers. And dada?”

“Yep.”

“What did I just say?”

“You said…um…we have Lila-takers that are monsters and that are not monsters…”

“Daddy?”

“Yeah.”

“Can we write a song too?”

“Sure.”

“Right now?”

“Sure.”

“That was the whole story. That’s a long story right? Now we can write a song, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Um…I don’t…” She stands up and climbs onto my lap. “Dad, you have to erase all of that.”

“No.”

“You have to! I didn’t mean that! It wasn’t in the story! Daddy, no!”

And that was the end of that.

 

They Can’t Get No…

I’m trying to figure out what a person needs to be satisfied. I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, because I know several people who are not satisfied in their lives and they’ve come to me for help, and two, because we have a problem in this world with our wealthy class seemingly not being able to feel that enough is ever enough, and I’d like to understand why.

Generally speaking, I’m a very happy man.

What contributes to my happiness? First and foremost, of course, is my family. My wife truly is my best friend, and while we annoy each other to no end and snipe at each other about household chores as much as any other married couple, we also love to have intellectually and emotionally stimulating conversations that help each of us grow together as human beings.

My four-year-old daughter, obviously, makes me happy.

I also have good relationships with my extended family. The fact that I live in a different state from them helps — as George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family living in another city.” I love all of them with all my heart, and I enjoy spending time with them whenever we get the chance, but I also enjoy not having to deal with the daily drama that would come from all of us being together for too long.

The second thing that contributes to my happiness is my job. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into the details, but from a general perspective, what makes the job so satisfying is that it is deeply and authentically meaningful to me. My company has a mission that speaks to my passions, and my input on the best way to achieve that mission is truly valued by my employer and my peers. Virtually any responsibility or task I want to take on is made available to me, allowing me to improve my skills and my understanding, and if things become too overwhelming, my colleagues are willing to let me adjust as necessary.

Could my wife and I make more money? Of course, but if we didn’t have our student loans and weren’t concerned about retirement or our daughter’s college tuition, we’d basically be making as much money as we’d need, so I don’t have much room to complain.

The third thing is my community. I live in a rural village of about 3,500 people. My wife works in the public middle school, so she knows virtually everyone, and we’ve lived in town going on 15 years, so essentially every face is a familiar face. It’s also a community where our friends are consciously thinking about and acting out the very concept of community — i.e., most of them are academics (even if not in an official sense) whose fields of interest somehow relate to the idea of creating a vibrant local ecology, human or otherwise — which means they try their best to stay connected to one another, to spend quality time with one another, and to support and inspire one another.

Family, career, and community. That’s what makes me such a satisfied person. My friends who are unsatisfied often find one of them is lacking. The challenge comes when the pursuit of satisfaction in one of those areas risks your satisfaction in the others. For example, if you don’t find meaning in your job but your family loves your community, do you take the risk of accepting a more fulfilling job someplace else?

When it comes to the 1%, however, I’m completely at a loss.

There’s a book I haven’t read yet (but is now on my “to read” list) called The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic ThinkersWhile researching for this post, I found an interesting selection from it, which reads:

The idea of gain, the idea that each working person not only may, but should, constantly strive to better his or her material lot, is an idea that was quite foreign to the great lower and middle strata of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and medieval cultures, only scattered throughout Renaissance and Reformation times; and largely absent in the majority of Eastern civilizations. As an ubiquitous characteristic of society, it is as modern an invention as printing.

Apparently (according the author anyway), until the rise of the market economy in the 18th century, the vast majority of human beings did not even consider the possibility that through discipline and hard work they could improve their material lives, which would make sense given the feudal nature of the economy and a pervasive religious dogma that valued striving for success in the afterlife rather than success in the here and now.

It’s not until the market economy comes along that people start to get the sense that they can actually improve their lot in life, provided they can put in the time and effort to do so.

I’m not going to talk here about the flaws in this particular theory, neither the part that says people didn’t strive to improve their lives prior to the market economy nor with the part that suggests that all it takes to become wealthy is a healthy dose of Protestant work ethic.

What I will do is talk about the natural desire of homo sapiens to protect what they think is theirs and to pursue what they think could be, both of which prioritize the future over the present. In the future, we want to keep what we already have. And in the future, we want to get what, by all rights, can be gotten.

But when do we stop looking over our shoulder to see what might be coming for us and stop looking at the horizon to see what we might be approaching, and instead look our lives up and down to see if everything we already have is actually all we’ll ever need?

In other words, what drives a billionaire like Donald Trump to do yet another “big deal” that will net him millions of dollars? What drives bankers to screw over millions of homeowners just to put more money in their already overly filled pockets? What drives a company like ExxonMobil — which (even with a recent 50% drop in profits) still generates more profits than virtually every other company in human history — what drives them to choose their financial bottom line over and above their social and environmental ones? What drives a Russian oligarch who already has billions of dollars to rob his fellow citizens of whatever wealth they can generate? What motivates a sitting member of Congress (most of whom are millionaires) to sell out his or her constituents to the highest bidder?

One of the world’s richest richest men, Carlos Slim, told Larry King that his motivation was not to make money, but to fulfill his vocation for numbers. He said, “When you have a vocation for numbers, you have many activities, and you will develop yourself professionally…I like investments, creation of investments and economic activities that come with investments.” The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, said that, “You’ve got to enjoy what you do every day, and for me that’s working with very smart people, it’s working with new problems.” The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote recently that what motivates him and his team is “developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

Are we to understand that the wealthy continue to generate wealth because they’re passionate about something whose byproduct is wealth? That might be true for some.

But how does that explain an already wealthy political leader who knowingly does harm through his or her actions just to put more money in his or her pocket? How does that explain billionaires such as the Koch brothers actively working to destroy the environment for the sake of their bottom line? How does that explain a billionaire in Texas lobbying for six years for the right to store nuclear waste on top of a number of aquifers?

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to understand people like that.

Expect Resistance

In the last week or so, there’s been a story going on in Vermont that, I’m told, has stirred a bit of national debate. Vermont Public Radio even dedicated over an hour of virtually uninterrupted discussion to it yesterday (including a re-run of the show in the evening), which was when I was told that its become a national story.

Last week, Middlebury College’s American Enterprise club (which is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute) invited a political scientist named Dr. Charles Murray to speak at the college. They reasoned that, with all of the conversations about how President Trump was elected because of the grievances of the country’s white males, it would be interesting to bring to campus the author of a recently published book about class divisions within that white demographic. However, the author of said book has been accused of “using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to the fight against racism and intolerance in all its forms and a recognized leader when it comes to keeping data on both local and national hate mongers. Due to the author’s designation (not to mention the published words that led to said designation), a sizable number of students and professors at Middlebury College challenged whether he should even be invited to campus, let alone given a stage and a microphone from which to disseminate his ideas.

It sounds as if reasonable efforts were made by the college to address the grievances of the protestors. The Political Science department that sponsored the invitation fully intended to prepare their students to understand the controversies surrounding Dr. Murray and to help them develop the skills to challenge the man’s ideas in public. It seems they even disseminated pamphlets on every chair in the auditorium to help the students speak their mind during the event, and when the President of the College introduced him, she stated that she “profoundly disagreed” with the man.

The Political Science department also prepared one of their colleagues to serve as a moderator during the talk, giving her specific instructions to challenge the speaker to his face.

Staff members throughout the college discussed the controversy in their classrooms in the week leading up the event and redesigned their syllabuses to give their students time before and after the visit to process their ideas and their feelings surrounding Dr. Murray’s talk.

On the day of the event, the protestors planned and staged an organize response. Just as Dr. Murray began to speak, students throughout the auditorium stood up in unison, turned their backs, and began to chant, and not in a “Hey hey, ho ho, Dr. Murray’s got to go”  kind of way (though some kind of similar chant did occur later), but rather, in a monotonous, considered, and dead-eyed kind of way, the product of what must have been at least half a dozen planning sessions in the days and hours leading up the event, including at least one or two full on rehearsals (please note that I’m making assumptions here).

Dr. Murray eventually left the stage. He and the moderator tried to continue the discussion in another room, sharing it with the audience via livestream, but the protestors began to act a little more chaotic at that point. It seems they may not have imagined that the event’s planners would develop a tactical response to their coordinated protest, and so, as will happen with a crowd, a lot of people had a lot of different ideas on what to do next .

The end result was that after the interview was finished, the college tried to escort Dr. Murray, the faculty moderator, and some others to an awaiting car, but the protestors wouldn’t let them pass, and push literally came to shove before Dr. Murray and the others could get into the car and drive away. In the scrum, the moderator was injured enough to go to the hospital and come out with a neck brace. And Dr. Murray, who is an elderly man, told the Boston Globe that he feared for his life.

It became a national story for the same reason Milo Yiannopoulos became a story when Berkley protesters prevented him from speaking on campus: the students of a highly reputable liberal college forcefully prevented a conservative voice from finding a safe space on their campus. It’s a story rife with irony, due to liberal stances regarding the sanctity of education and the sanctity of free speech.

If you believe that education is, first and foremost, about the development of a student’s critical thinking skills (as most liberals ultimately do), then why shield them from the real world’s marketplace of ideas, which includes millions of ideas that they will find offensive?

If you believe(as most liberals seem to) that words and ideas are the only things that should change the world (rather than, say, guns and money), then why respond violently when faced with words and ideas that offend you?

Both sides of the issue had strong points. I’m an absolutist when it comes to free speech, which means I completely believe Dr. Murray  had the right to speak, but it also means that I believe the protestors had the right to respond with whatever words they saw fit. In addition, Middlebury College has the right to invite whomever it wants to its campus, and the students of Middlebury College have the right to disagree with the college’s decisions.

With that being said, one of the guests made an interesting point. He is a sociology professor who was invited onto the radio show to defend the protestors. When the show’s moderator asked him some question that implied that every viewpoint deserves equal access, the professor remarked that the college already doesn’t provide equal access to all viewpoints because not everyone has the same amount of money to invite speakers to campus, and hence some voices are never heard simply because of differences in economic class.

This is the same as the argument behind campaign finance reform. If money = speech, then those who have more money have more speech; and if in a democracy, speech = the right to vote, then more money means more votes.

I don’t know a ton about the inner budgeting processes of private Vermont colleges, but what I’ve seen makes me think that the Political Science department at Middlebury College probably receives better funding than its Sociology department, if only because political science majors probably make more money than their sociology counterparts (which goes for those of both types who later go on to teach at a college). [But again, I’m making a lot of assumptions here].

According to the representatives on the radio, one of the things the protestors would have preferred about the event was for someone else to be standing on the stage who had equal footing with Dr. Murray, someone who was there with every endorsement of the college to challenge Dr. Murray’s ideas and teach the students some of his or her own — to stage the evening not as a moderated lecture, followed by questions (challenging or not), but as a debate between equals, and challenging all the way.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way, and what went down went down.

But what intrigues me about it is that — at least in the way its become a national story — it’s all about the concept of a safe space.

Conservatives claim that liberal colleges no longer provide a safe space for the expression of conservative ideas; liberals, meanwhile, claim that conservative speech offends them, and they ought to have the right to protect and defend themselves from any more violence (spoken or otherwise) coming at them from conservative quarters.

In other words: Conservatives want colleges to be a safe space, while liberals want the individual mind to be a safe space.

I agree with both of them. The trouble is that, for many liberals, college is where the mind first meets the road. They’re no longer protected by their parents or guardians, and they have to negotiate whatever comes at them on their own. That’s the whole point of thing.

But they’re also kids, and they’re gonna screw up once in a while, and sometimes when they do, someone’s going to get hurt and come out of the hospital wearing a neck brace. That’s what happens when kids screw up.

What’s important is what happens next. How do the adults around them model  what they could have done instead?

It sounds to me like both the protestors (staff and students) and the event planners (staff and students) handled the pre-game perfectly. They discussed the controversy with each other in a rational manner, and when they saw they would never persuade the other to do exactly what they wanted, they made plans for a potential conflict. The protestors considered the situation and decided a combination of “simultaneous dialogue” (i.e., using their numbers to speak over Dr. Murray) and general protests would be best. The event planners anticipated the protestors’ moves (to some extent) and reacted accordingly, hiring outside security and preparing alternative ways for Dr. Murray’s speech to continue (retiring to a quieter room and broadcasting his words to the audience via livestream).

This is where character and leadership comes in. The Middlebury protestors, like the Berkley protestors before them, are trying to convince the media that “outside agitators” started the violence. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I suspect in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. I’m sure at least one Middlebury student partook in the violence, as I’m sure at least one person who is not a student at Middlebury partook in the violence.

Regardless, the protestors claim this because they want to believe that they have character, that Middlebury students wouldn’t resort to violence when they find themselves as part of mob. Again, this may or may not be true.

But it provides the college with an opportunity to have the students practice the art of remaining an individual when standing in the middle of a mob, and then the art of leading that mob to achieve positive ends in a positive way. What should a Middlebury student have done when the protest grew beyond its planning committee’s control?

With the Internet and social media, mobs move too fast for anyone to control them. That’s how you get the Arab Spring. That’s how you get Ferguson.

I think liberals everywhere would agree that the Arab Spring and Ferguson definitely needed to happen. And that more of them need to and will happen in the future.

But how can tomorrow’s liberal leaders thrive in such an incredibly dynamic environment, where for every organized march on Washington, there’s three dozen half-organized, mob-overrun affairs?

The next generation must be able to navigate the grassroots world they’re moving into, a world where even the President of the United States bypasses traditional channels of communication in favor of Twitter. It may be true that, unless you’ve got millions of dollars (not necessarily your own), you can’t stand at a podium and have a microphone all to yourself; but its also true that for a few dozen bucks a month, you can stand with your smart phone and have a microphone the size of the Internet.

But in that world, how does someone lead when everyone is talking at once?

That’s what our youth activists need to learn, and that’s what our colleges need to teach them (interestingly, the sociology professor who was invited to defend the protestors on the radio dedicates at least part of his research to “exploring how anarchists organize online”).

Should Dr. Murray have been invited to speak on Middlebury’s campus? Should the protestors have been able to outshout him? Those questions are beside the point.

The question is: what should they have done next? The event planners planned to face resistance. In the future, youth activists should plan to face it too.

On The Mind, Body, & (Not So Much) on the Soul.

A couple of nights ago, I was doing some creative writing around the concept of democracy. This wasn’t for a blog post, but for something else I’m working on.

So that’s the first thing. Stick a pin it.

The second thing is that, earlier today, I was talking with two of my students about the problems we face as a world, global problems such as climate change, poverty, disease, war and other forms of systemic violence, etc. After we differentiated between global problems and more localized problems, I asked the students to choose one problem that we could focus on. They selected “equal access to personal growth” and “equal rights.”

I then asked each of them to design their own superheroes, ones who could take on the global problem of equality. Each student had to decide not only on a name and superpower,  but also on a costume, weapon, motto, attitude, and day job (i.e., Clark Kent being a reporter).

One of the students called out her superpower right away: “I want to give people empathy.”

Boom. Done. Yes. Go. Run with that.

My other student had a more difficult time. Part of his hesitation may have been because he seemed to be feeling a little more down today than usual, but the other part was because these are really serious problems and there are no easy answers.

He finally said, after some back and forth,”I think my superhero would be considered a super villain.” His idea was that he would make everybody become part of a hive mind. His weapon would be that he would open his mouth and these little bugs would come flying out; the bugs would crawl into everyone’s brain and hook them into the hive mind.

He said that this would solve the problem because everyone in the world would pull together and strive for the exact same thing (in this case, equal rights and equal access). No one would stand in the way. No one would be the enemy. There’d be no racists, no sexists, no classists, etc., and hence no racism, no sexism, no classism, etc.

But he was hesitant because he thought this would be seen as a bad thing. We tend to believe in the sanctity of the individual, and he recognized that this superpower would rob people of their individuality by forcing them into the hive mind. Even though the hive mind would be striving for something good, the theft of their individuality would be seen as too much of an evil for the end goal to be worth it, and thus his super hero would be seen as a super villain.

So that’s the second thing.

The third thing is another class I’m teaching. I’ve spoken about this one before: my class on the Philosophy of Death. The students’ homework is to write a 500-word essay about the difference between the mind and the soul. Their answers have to come from them directly; this is not a research paper. As a class, they’d already agreed that there is a difference between the mind and the soul, but because class ended just as we came to that conclusion, I asked them to take their idea a little deeper in the form of a short essay. We’d then discuss their answers in class. I have to facilitate that discussion in just a few hours, and I’m wondering myself what my own answer would be.

So those are the three things: democracy, theories of mind, and the difference between the mind and the soul. Now let’s get on with it.

First, I don’t think I really believe in the mind, or at least, not in the mind per se. I think the mind is more like an ephemeral document, a record of a discussion written in fading ink.

To connect it to what I said earlier: the mind is the product of a democracy. The inputs — the voters — are all the parts of my physical body getting a say in whatever it is that my body does next. My Vision department (and make no mistake, the experience of vision is the result of a large consortium of cells in your body, much like the formal recommendation of the State department are the results of thousands of individual people passing their ideas up the chain to the Secretary of State) — anyway, my Vision department reports that such and such a thing is the most important aspect of the world to be aware of at the moment, but my Hearing department suggests something else. My Touch department can’t agree where to focus, so all of the various stakeholders shout out their own reports (itch in elbow!, pressure in jaw!, ache in neck!). My Taste and Smell departments, who often caucus together, continue to do so, and for the moment, they both remain silent. Meanwhile, messengers from the Memory Banks and anxious clerks from my Neuroses division constantly interrupt the conversation, and paranoia leaking negative messages from somewhere deep in my Intelligence agency.

Finally, miraculously, a decision gets made: enough votes are cast by all the stakeholders to focus on….whatever…say this, do that, veg out, etc., and then an action is taken in the world (actually, the real process is that, usually, an action is taken in the world, and then someone reports back on that action, leaving the congress to ask, “How can we rationalize that?”)

Anyway, the mind is not the process of that democratic moment (not the rationalization), nor is it the action taken in the world. It is, instead, like the law itself, something that seems to have more spirit than body, and like the law itself, powerless to stop anyone or anything that has the ability to act.

That’s why we have heart attacks, why we get cancer, why we say things that are hurtful when we know it is wrong to say them, and why we don’t get up and go to the gym. It’s because there’s no one really in control.

The law can say that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” but that won’t stop some citizens of a state from preventing people of color from reaching the voting booth on any given voting day in any given district, whether through armed guards at the door or through “voter I.D.” laws that disenfranchise citizens who are not able to, for whatever reason, satisfy the list of onerous requirements developed by that state in congress.

Because the law, as itself, has no power, much as the mind, as itself, has no power. Power is reserved to the people, just as it is reserved to your sensory neurons and motor neurons,  your muscles and bones.

So I don’t believe in the mind. Instead, I believe in the body’s attention and intention, created by the body and enacted by the body.

If the mind exists, it is only in the spirit of the law.

Both of my students had interesting superpower-driven solutions to the problems of equal rights and equal access. Both of them understood that the problems require people to change their minds. My first student wanted to give people a sense of empathy, to make them connect with other people’s minds, to understand, intimately, their interests and experiences, and to share, if only for a few moments, their subjectivity.

My second student wanted to take control of everyone’s mind — not in a greedy way, mind you (pun!), but in a way that forces everyone’s mind to act in concert, to act in union.

To return to my metaphor: both students wanted to add more inputs to the process of an individual’s democracy. My first wanted everyone to honestly and respectfully consider the subjective interests of the other before reaching any decision; my second wanted to insert a kind of dictatorial overlord over the congress, an overlord that is not an individual, but rather, the consensus of the all. 

I think both of their answers are terrific. Hers because, yes, of course empathy is the answer to the problems of equality, and we should all be mad that we didn’t see it sooner. And his because, essentially, his superpower (to spit out bugs that go into people’s ears and change their minds) is a metaphor for persuasive argument, which yes, of course, is the only ethical way to change people’s minds, since violence and compulsion enact the tyranny of one over the other.

But even (for arguments sake) we agree that all of that is true, where does “the mind as democracy leave us in regards to the soul?

I’m not sure. And for the moment, I’m okay with that.

(For a different but related take on all of this, see Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained).

Trying to Make Sense of the Russian Thing

There’s something knocking me out about this story that Rachel Maddow blew open on Monday. If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch the video, let me recap it for you.

Deutsche Bank was fined $425m last month by the Federal government for helping Russian oligarchs (and members of Putin’s family) launder $10b out of Russia. They did it through branches in Moscow, New York, and Cyprus.

Now, the current chairman of the Bank of Cyprus is the previous chairman of Deutsche Bank, a man who left his job under a cloud of allegations.  After he left Deutsche, he was made chairman of the Bank of Cyprus by its major shareholders, one of whom is a close personal friend of Putin’s.

Another major shareholder is known as the King of Fertilizer and is among the richest men in Russia. As Maddow makes clear, this man’s divorce (the most expensive divorce in history, by the way) caused him to hide aspects of his vast fortune from his soon-to-be ex-wife. One of the ways he did this was to purchase incredibly expensive real estate, including an incredibly gaudy mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. Its seller? Donald Trump. Trump sold it to the Russian oligarch for $100m, the most ever paid for a private estate in the U.S. at the time. Trump had purchased the mansion at auction just two years prior for $40m. Trump did not move into the mansion, and it stayed empty for two years. Then he sold it at a $60m profit to the Russian King of Fertilizer.

This Russian billionaire, as Maddow says, “does not have much of an American profile, but he does have one important American connection.” Remember, he is among the largest shareholders of the Bank of Cyprus. The two vice-chairmen of that bank, the ones who put the former chairman of Deutsche Bank in charge, are the close personal friend of Putin I mentioned above and an American named Wilbur Ross, who the single largest shareholder of the Bank of Cyprus.

Let’s make this clear for a moment. Wilbur Ross is the single largest shareholder of a bank whose other major shareholders include close personal friends and former KGB associates of Putin’s and a chairman who came from a bank that our Federal government just fined for more than half a billion dollars for helping Russian billionaires smuggle money out of Russia. Joining Ross and Putin’s friends and former KGB associates at the Bank of Cyprus is the Russian King of Fertilizer, “who did this inexplicable deal that Donald Trump miraculously stumbled into, that netted [Trump] $60m for doing basically nothing.”

Wilbur Ross is a major connection between President Trump and a whole slew of Russian oligarchs, including former members of the KGB and close, personal friends of Putin’s.

And Wilbur Ross was confirmed Monday night as our new Commerce Secretary.

One more note: At the same time as this “inexplicable deal” for $60m fell into Donald Trump’s lap, he was in debt to Deutsche Bank for $40m.

Again — follow this: Donald Trump owes Deutsche Bank $40m, which means Deutsche Bank needs $40m. Where are they going to get that money from? From Trump. But where is Trump going to get that money? If only they both knew someone who could give Trump $40m, someone who was looking to hide a lot of money somewhere and who could do it without Trump having to do anything for it.

But honestly, can anyone get $40m without having to do anything? And can anyone get $40m from a Russian oligarch without having to do anything, Russian oligarchs being essentially the world’s scariest loan sharks?

Now connect this to what we learned from that infamous dossier back in January, the non-salacious elements of which — “that the Russians had been ‘cultivating, supporting, and assisting’ Trump for years” — seem to be checking out. The New Yorker claims that, “Some officials believe that one reason the Russians compiled information on Trump…was that he was meeting with Russian oligarchs who might be stashing money abroad.”

Okay, that’s all incredible, right? It’s the exact link people have been looking for  between Trump and the Russians; Wilbur Ross, our new Commerce Secretary and an old friend of Trump’s, is the nexus.

But what Maddow’s story seems to imply is that this is all about money. Trump finds himself in massive debt to a Russian oligarch — a debt that has been laundered as a real-estate transaction, but debt nonetheless. From there though, it seems a bit of a jump to say that, partly in order to pay back that debt, Donald Trump got himself elected President of the United States, from whose perch he could repay that debt a thousand times over (which actually, now that I think about it, is probably the kind of interest that a Russian oligarch would charge, right?).

But why? What’s the point from the oligarch’s perspective? What does Russia actually expect to get for its money? Is it just more money?

Three days ago, Glenn Greenwald published a story on his websiteThe Intercept. The story is a deep read of the New Yorker article I linked to above, whose author, by the way, was the first guest Maddow spoke to after her segment.

Greenwald is an incredible journalist. He is the person Edward Snow contacted when he wanted to be assured of reaching an ethical and independent journalist, and the work he accomplished with Snowden resulted in him being given a George Polk Award for National Security Reporting.

In his recent article, Greenwald highlights “five uncomfortable truths about U.S. and Russia.”

First, Hillary Clinton promoted a much more aggressive stance toward Russia than Obama did, and “Russian experts…feared that Clinton…was so eager for escalated U.S. military action in Syria…that a military conflict with Russia was a real possibility.”

This is not simply to say that Hillary was more willing to fight Russia than Obama was. It’s also to say that “the leading accommodationist of Putin was named Barack Obama.” Clinton agreed with virtually all of the Republican candidates that the United States should be more aggressive towards Russia, to the point that Clinton was willing to put our Air Force into direct conflict with Russian airplanes, via the establishment of a No-Fly Zone in Syria.

Second, the relationship between Russia and the United States is at its lowest point in my lifetime. I was raised in the era of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, and I came of age during Yeltsin’s free for all. Putin has been in power for close to twenty years, and while it hasn’t been a great relationship, it’s never been as bad as it is today.

What I love about Greenwald is that he refuses to accept “the singular message of the U.S. Patriotic Media,” and so in his article, he embeds a long monologue from Noam Chomsky, who explains that, from Russia’s perspective, it’s the West who has been acting aggressively since the end of the Cold War, expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders, despite Presidents Reagan & Bush having told Gorbachev that it wouldn’t do so. Remember,  Russia had spent much of the twentieth century defending itself from German invasions, so it’s probably not keen on having NATO (of which Germany is now a member) butting right up against it.

Remember the Ukraine? This is a country that NATO was actively trying to recruit into its orbit. It’s also a country that is geopolitically important to Russia. Not only does the Ukraine offer Moscow a pipeline to the southern seas, but it also serves as a physical buffer between Russia and the West. If the Russians allowed Ukraine to join NATO, they’d lose a major chunk of their own great wall.

In the monologue, Chomsky also notes that President Obama recently placed “a missile defense system” in Romania. He explains that strategic analysts on all sides believe that what’s called “missile defense” is really an offensive weapon. The U.S. placing missles in Romania is like the Russians placing missiles in Cuba: a highly aggressive action.

In short, things are not good between the U.S. and Russia, and not all of it is Russia’s fault.

Third, Greenwald points out that the American media refuses to ask the question of whether the U.S. tries “to manipulate Russian politics [in] the way Russia now stands accused of…”. He notes how openly proud American advisors were after helping Boris Yeltsin get elected President back in 1996, and he questions why more American journalists don’t follow this particular lead in their reporting. What is it that holds them back?

Fourth, Greenwald notes that “the U.S. government still has provided no evidence of its theories about Russian hacking.” Greenwald is not saying that this evidence does not exist, but given the stakes, he believes that the American public ought to be more skeptical of any claim that pushes two nuclear powers closer to armed conflict with one another.

He also notes that the information we’re receiving about virtually all of this is coming from anonymous officials in the “agenda-driven, disinformation-dispensing intelligence community,” the same community that was hijacked by Republican elites to make the U.S. invade Iraq more than a decade ago.

Fifth, “fixating on Russia continues to be used to distract from systemic failures of U.S. elites.”

This is where it gets damning for the Democrats.

First, by arguing that Trump’s rise to power in the United States is only due to his connections with Russian oligarchs, Democratic elites (made up of the mainstream corporate media, their friends in the financial sector, and the politicians they all pay for) call into question Trump’s right to call himself an American, just as Trump did to Obama.

But the elites aren’t doing it just to be ironic. By calling Trump’s loyalty into question, they call into question the loyalty and intelligence of all the people who voted for him, millions of whom who were moved to vote on the off-chance that President Crazy would bring some kind of — any kind of — radical change to the “neoliberal policies [that] destroyed [their] economic security and future…”

If the Democratic elites can discredit Trump’s loyalty and focus our attention on the foreign scapegoat of Russia (much like the Republicans tried to discredit Obama’s loyalty and focus our attention on the foreign scapegoat of ISIS), then they won’t have to address the systemic failures of their own economic policies.

So where does that leave us?

Maddow’s report connects at least one solid strand (or as she calls it, a thick rope) between President Trump and the oligarchs of Russia. But Greenwald’s analysis wants us to question why we should even care in the first place.

What’s really at stake here?

Is it something as simple as money? If the elites can distract us with a foreign scapegoat, then they can continue to distribute the wealth of our nations upward. If they can drive our two powers into a second Cold War, then all of them — especially the intelligence officials and weapons manufacturers — can continue to have jobs and continue to afford their houses and swimming pools. And if they can succeed at actually defeating Russia somehow, then they can secure its oil for use in the ever-coming age of global scarcity or in their ever-coming war with the underclass.

Russia, meanwhile, gets a U.S. President (however they got him) who will work to counteract the aggression plainly espoused by the anointed leader of the Democratic elites (and plainly disavowed by her upstart challenger on the left). If they can fight off the Western elite, then the Russian oligarchs can continue distributing the wealth of their nation into their bank accounts in Cyprus. But to do that, they need to make sure the United States lifts its sanctions and protects the secrecy of its dealings so that Western businesses (such as Exxon) can continue to funnel Western money into Russia. They also need to make sure that the United States has someone else on whom it can focus its natural aggression (aggression caused by its economic pain), someone such as ISIS, “the terrorists,” and/or Muslim and Hispanic immigrants.

What does Trump get out of it, though? He gets to have the biggest name in the entire world, have everyone on the entire planet constantly be talking about him , and get easy access to some of the finest looking women money can buy; oh, and he can also get paid while doing it.

But what’s blowing my mind after connecting all these dots is how much it doesn’t fucking matter. Oh, it matters in the sense that it could lead to the destruction of everything and everyone I love, whether through a nuclear war with Russia, the deconstruction of every environmental gain of the past forty years, or the loss of fundamental legal rights and protections. Of course it matters; of course it does.

But it doesn’t matter in the sense that both of those fucking jokers we could have elected in November were representatives of a class of human beings whose daily experiences are so different from the rest of us in the 99%.

Trump represents Russian oligarchs; Clinton represented American ones.

Either way, we were getting robbed.

Fuck, I miss Bernie.