America’s culture of fear – in a photo (3rd and last)

I’ve been discussing (here and here) a very destructive syndrome that continues to unfold in our culture. As each decade and perhaps even year goes by, we find ourselves becoming more and more the slave of fear. Of both individual fears – which steadily multiply – and fear itself, fear as a way of life. By now I don’t think we even realize how far down the road we have travelled, but increasingly simply take it all for granted.

Fear has a thoroughly crippling effect upon freedom of thought and activity. It distorts reality by forcing it through its own unacknowledged filters. Of course, when a particular manifestation of fear is sufficiently powerful it achieves the status of taboo. At that point, we can no longer rely on a straightforward rational approach to relating to it. Instead, we find ourselves needing protection from the protection, as it were – ie, since creating any kind of rational protection requires looking into the fear, and we’re unable to do this, we need an additional layer for distance. But sometimes even that isn’t enough, and we end up with a whole construct, each layer distorting the actual nature of things more and more, stifling more and more human autonomy.

The recent revelations about Orwellian NSA activity are one prominent demonstration of this, but the syndrome is endemic now. It can be seen perhaps at its most expansive and fully hysterical in the realm of sex and relationship more generally, but that requires its own series of posts at another time. For now, I decided to focus on a simpler, more compact topic to illustrate the dynamic, namely our laws regarding the purchase and consumption of alcohol (please see previous posts).

Here is the next layer we’ve created – and this is where it gets rather interesting. Again, we’ve already raised the age, nationally, at which we might purchase even so much as a glass of beer, to five years beyond the age at which we are allowed to drive a car. And we are one of the very few countries in the world with a drinking age so high (the vast majority have set 18). One would have thought it sufficient then, with such a high age to begin with, that enforcement involve a straightforward assessment of whether or not a prospective purchaser of alcohol indeed seems to be at least 21.

In other words: a liquor store employee simply has a look at the person who has next approached the counter (while warmly greeting them, it goes without saying…), and if it appears as though they might be under 21, she/he requests proof of age. Easy, right?

Well, it doesn’t appear so. Because we seem to have lost any discretion here whatsoever. Someone who looks 21 might actually be a mere 20, or 19, or at a pinch 18 even! And how dare such a person, who is trusted with driving an extremely dangerous vehicle, trusted to marry and raise children, trusted with the ability to vote for their political representatives, trusted with the option of joining the military of their country where they might have to make genuine life-and-death decisions, and as it happens trusted in virtually every other country of the world to decide what they would like to drink – how dare somebody so terribly young conceive of buying an alcoholic beverage! Now if only they were a mere day over 21, all would be fine. But a day under? Better that all possible danger of mistake be eliminated than that one … single … person under that literally magical number ever succeed in … purchasing a couple of beers.

So here’s what we now do: in virtually every store I’ve been to that sells alcohol, there is a house policy – often posted – of requiring anyone who appears as if they might not be over 30 to prove their age. Now think about what this is really saying for a moment. An employee of a liquor store takes a look at someone and thinks: “ah, that person’s definitely old enough to drink, he looks 30, 32 or something.”

But then they stop and ponder: “although, come to think of it, they might actually be more like 29, or even 27. And in fact, despite their looks, it’s at least conceivable that they might be 24, 23.” So, because the employee’s best guess is 30 or 32, that’s not good enough, because that person might just – one time in 50 or so – be ten or twelve years off.

And if they’re wrong, that one person in however many might just be someone who not only drinks that night but also drinks to impairment and then drives a car. Forget about the inconvenient fact that the next person in line, a completely acceptable 22, might well do the same thing of course. No, all we care about is that absolutely nobody, at no time and in no place, noways and never, who is a single day under the magic Number, ever evades that almighty number and gets to … buy a drink.

Again, I can’t even be sure I’m being understood here because we have gone so far down this particular road. But in any event now let’s continue even further down this path of reductio ad absurdum. I would argue we’ve already reached it with such a policy, but clearly even this isn’t good enough, because in a large number of stores which sell alcohol I have seen signs which state that anyone appearing to be under 40 will be asked to prove their age. Forty! Is there, honestly, a single human being in this country who genuinely appears to be 38 or 39 but is actually 19 or 20? A single one? Well, who knows, just maybe there are one or two, but…

So we can see what has happened. The penalties against having served a “minor” are so crippling to a small business that they have decided all discretion has to go out the window, and we are left with a hysterical policy that has left all common sense behind. Again, remember, the law itself is only indirectly connected to drunk driving in the first place. Drunk driving requires three components: alcohol, enough alcohol to cause impairment, and then the act of driving. The original law was passed to reduce a percentage of a percentage. A certain percentage of all people will combine those three components – and we can’t do anything about it if someone decides to do so. So we simply raise the drinking age as a measure far more politically acceptable than raising the driving age.

Finally, three times now I have come across 50 given as the arbitrary cutoff point – as per my photo in the previous two posts. And you know what? If there actually does exist a single human being in this country who appears to be just barely under 50 but is in fact 19 or 20 … then please give that person a drink! Just do it, on the house, absolutely! Because clearly they’ve been through way, way too much…

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (2)

In the previous post I suggested that the capacity to be at least a little bit curious about an object of fear is essential to maintaining our humanity. Fear has a ravenous nature; if unchecked it simply keeps expanding. Over time multiple layers of protection can solidify around a core fear, like the concentric circles of an onion. We can’t even name the fear itself at that point, can’t even access it. But each of those additional layers cuts us off more and more from reality and creates various kinds of scapegoats we are unable to acknowledge. Each increasingly distorts our perception and diminishes our personal autonomy. It’s not hard to see that this syndrome has now pervaded our entire culture.

America’s current approach to alcohol is a straightforward illustration of this, and I’d like in this post to try and identify the core fear or fears – the center of the onion – lying behind it. In the following post on this subject I will then build up the onion, as it were, showing how we get from the core fear … to this (a photo I took last summer at a convenience store in upstate New York):


So, what is behind our de facto national prohibition of alcohol to those under the age of 21? (Note: with the exception of those Muslim countries in which alcohol is entirely illegal, only a handful of countries in the world have a drinking age above 18. Some have set 16, a number of others don’t legislate on the basis of age at all. So, we are in the draconian bottom 5-10%.) Our first thought is likely to be: the desire to reduce incidences of injury and death resulting from drunk driving. After all, this was the stated aim of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) at its founding in 1980 by Candace Lightner, who had lost her young daughter in this way.

With the help of then-Senator Frank Lautenberg (D, New Jersey), MADD succeeded in getting the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed in 1984, which, through financial pressure on the states, resulted in every state raising their drinking age to 21 by 1988. Since then, having achieved its objective, the organization has gone on to lobby for further toughening of existing laws and additional measures, most controversially the creation of frequent sobriety checkpoints on roads and the raising of excise taxes on beer to match that on spirits. (Candace Lightner herself moved away from the organization in the mid-’80s, stating in a Washington Times article from 2002: “”It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”)

We need to take a step back at this point and look more closely at what is going on. What are the components of the problem as such? There are three, and they are inseparable: alcohol, drinking too much, and driving. If any of these three are absent, we don’t have drunk driving, period. Notice also that age as such is irrelevant here. When a person of whatever age a) drinks alcohol, b) drinks to the point of impairment, and c) gets behind the wheel of a car, then and only then do you have a situation of risk.

(It’s important also to note that what constitutes “too much” does in fact vary from person to person, day to day, and even hour to hour, especially at lower levels of consumption. But in a scientistic culture where, more and more, mind is being collapsed into brain, these kinds of empirical truths increasingly can no longer be seen. All that matters is whatever magic number is called into service. It’s also crucial to remember that “impairment” occurs in lots of other ways too, via any form of inattention, whether it be texting, taking too long to change the radio station, turning to stare at a beautiful guy/girl, tiredness, or whatever it might be. Any of these scenarios can and do cause accidents, and most in the long run are simply impervious to legislation.)

So: why not just maintain a law against, well … drunk driving, and leave it at that? This is the entire point, after all.

The argument given is that raising the drinking age can be correlated with fewer incidences of drunk driving, and this can’t help but be true. (Much of the decrease surely also can be correlated with greater public exposure of the problem.) But if this is our logic, then why stop at 21? Raising the drinking age to 25 would save even more lives. Going back to Prohibition – even more. And in fact, of the three necessary components to drunk driving I pointed to above, driving is actually the most proximate cause of all, because it’s the vehicle which directly brings about the harm. So why not simply raise the driving age to 21, which would bring about all sorts of additional benefits?

And it is this last option I think which points to what is going on at a deeper level here. Even though raising the driving age to 21 would be even more effective at reducing car-related deaths than raising the drinking age, no one would dream of seriously suggesting it. And why not? Because despite the fact that car accidents are one of our leading causes of death, and have brought about all kinds of other negative environmental, social, and health effects, greater mobility is seen as a pure, innocent, necessary good. Intoxication of any kind, however, the heightening of ordinary, functional consciousness? Suspicious, always, in this culture. Especially in “the young.”

And let’s go one step further. Why is heightened or altered consciousness suspect? Simply because it moves in the direction of the previously unknown and the less certain. It threatens inertia, the purely habitual. It is a catalyst of new perceptions, can enable new ways of seeing.

Therefore we have a driving age of 16 and a drinking age of 21. And this says it all. At 16 we are deemed responsible enough to operate an extremely powerful and dangerous machine, but not responsible enough to have a beer or glass of wine – or, heaven forbid, sometimes several!

I don’t want to diminish the power of alcohol either. As we know it plays a part in a high percentage of instances of violence in our culture, and there will always be a relatively small minority for whom it will become a very destructive problem. But it seems that when it comes to the realms of bodily enjoyment and mental expansiveness we have lost all sense of balance. This feature of our core collective fear is so deeply buried that automatic suspicion has become the norm. We really don’t trust ourselves to navigate our own bodies and minds, so we relinquish responsibility to an abstraction called the law, which removes more and more of our individual discretion.

I’m leaving aside the question of enforceability here, though it’s not insignificant. An 18-year-old leaving home for the first time to enter a university environment where they will be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other students their age is going to drink if they want to, regardless of the law. Any college student can testify that such a prohibition is easily, regularly, and almost universally flouted.

Mainly what I’m trying to show at this first level of response is that it is a purely pragmatic measure that has been elevated to moral crisis. Our culture treats this number as a moral principle in itself, as witnessed for example by the portentous – and infantilizing – tones of any number of public service advertisements on the subject over the years. Someone a single day over that magic number of 21 can purchase and drink as much alcohol as they like; someone who is younger by a mere two days is treated as having a “criminal mind” if they attempt to do the same. Many 16-year-olds are perfectly capable of drinking responsibly; many who are 26, or 36, or 56 are not.

A number will never make for a moral argument. Our culture worships numbers, however, partly because we don’t trust ourselves to make intelligent discretionary decisions, partly because we have come as a society to value safety and risk-aversion above almost everything else. So: more and more and more laws aiming to create a perfectly safe world which … can never come. Hence – as I’ll touch upon in the third and last post – a process that is hysterically out of control.

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (1)


I took this photo last summer. The sign appears in the window of a service station/convenience store in upstate New York and provides, I think, an especially compact illustration of an entire story that can be told about our collective psyche these days.

Before telling it in my next post, a few words as introduction:

It’s not hard to see that fears have a kind of self-propagating or self-aggrandizing power. They are ravenous, ever-expanding, until we can begin to examine them. This is so because fear designates precisely that which is beyond the pale, unencounterable, for what cannot be faced becomes to that extent inescapable. Ordinarily we see this most clearly in nightmares, when we are at the mercy of our mind’s projections. Within the nightmare we are bodiless and so running away doesn’t – can’t – succeed: we are attempting, impossibly, to flee ourselves.

The Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa taught that becoming a “warrior” (in the sense of a spiritual warrior) does not mean being free of fear or cultivating a tough exterior. Rather, it arises out of a very different quality, which is the capacity to open fully to the world, to allow the world with all its phenomena in, so that we can actually be touched by it. He suggested that when we do so its effect is to soften us, and that out of this “tender heart of sadness,” as he called it, our long-cultivated dualities of Self and Other can begin to soften too. The Berlin Walls in our minds become more permeable.

A glimpse of genuine fearlessness can arise out of this experience because in that moment we are not trying to protect ourselves and our territory in quite the same way. Ultimately, we fear anything which threatens our belief in a separate, independent, unchanging Self. It naturally follows that allowing our habitual defences to soften, “letting the world tickle our raw and beautiful heart,” as Trungpa so wonderfully put it, fosters the birth of true warriorship.

(From this standpoint an American president once said something truly profound – who’d have thought?!: “the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.”)

Returning to nightmares in this context, I’ve been told by more than one person that if, when confronted by a monster in a dream, we can stay with it, face it, ideally even take a step in its direction, it will lose its power over us, even dissolve or turn into a harmless- or sad-looking cartoon character. Best of all is when the dreamer is able to feel a sense of compassion towards it.

So then, what happens when we do the opposite, when instead of trying to take a step forward, even a tiny one, or at least not running away, we … slowly back up, in rising panic. Or just turn round and run for the hills. Does the fear go away?

Well, how can it? We’ve only shored it up, made it even more solid. From this standpoint “fear itself” is nothing other than the duality we continuously strengthen. It resides in and arises from precisely that ultimately non-existent gap between self and projection. But the more powerful we allow it to become, the more layers of protection we will find ourselves creating. The whole thing becomes tighter and tighter. And more and more demons have to be invented too – scapegoats we sacrifice to keep the nature of reality at bay.

A metaphor that comes to me often in thinking about this is that of an onion. If the core of the onion represents a fear we cannot even look at, we create a layer around it as opaque as possible. But if for various reasons the fear is so strong that one layer isn’t enough, we add a second – we put something in place which protects us from our initial barrier that we realize is not 100% strong enough. And then sometimes we need a third layer if we sense the second itself may be a bit fragile. So that when something becomes so taboo that we are incapable of looking at it at all, incapable of any kind of reasoned response, the end result is hysteria – and loss of humanity.

In the next two posts I try and deconstruct, fairly thoroughly, the quite numerous layers of that onion of fear which are embedded in the photo above. And suggest that in America today this approach has become our routine, automatic, indeed pathological response to insecurity and uncertainty of all kinds.

magnificent speech by Glenn Greenwald on civil liberties

In my previous post I discussed certain unhealthy effects of our current highly politicized culture, and my own relationship to these. I ended by mentioning one particular question I do happen to be (somewhat) following, this being the progressive abridgement of the core civil liberties which are at the heart of the American enterprise.

In the embedded video below filmed at Brown University in 2011, Glenn Greenwald gives an exceptionally clear and eloquent presentation (using no notes!) of the subject. Here is a brief summary:

He begins by enumerating four features of our Bill of Rights often forgotten today:

1) It is meant to be understood in an absolute sense. Other aspects of our political system involve compromise, necessarily; but this was explicitly placed beyond that realm. To be a defender of the Bill of Rights is perforce to be a civil liberties “extremist,” as it were;

2) It was intentionally set up to be anti-democratic, to protect against the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority.” The example Greenwald gives is that of Fred Phelps. As he says, pretty much no one likes Fred Phelps, or at least what he has to say, but all the same that 99.9% majority is not allowed to curtail his self-expression;

3) It makes no distinction between wartime and peacetime, contrary to what is often asserted. Certain other aspects of the Constitution mention war powers, but the Bill of Rights is not so delimited. (Greenwald acknowledges that precise meanings of the enumerated rights are up for discussion – for example, what an “unreasonable” search and seizure is – but not their absolute status.);

4) It simply makes no distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

He goes on to make three points about why we should all care, and care deeply, about the health of the Bill of Rights, even if we think we are “the good guys” who could never be affected by current developments:

1) History makes very clear that abridgements of liberty, while they may begin as narrowly defined, inevitably broaden out to encompass larger groups of people;

2) More immediately, said abridgments create a climate of fear which over time ends up actually changing the culture. Greenwald gives several concrete examples of this: he speaks of how innumerable people have said or written to him that they support what Wikileaks does and would like to donate to it (freedom of association), but are afraid they might end up on a government list somewhere and so have refrained. Furthermore, that nearly all of the European members of Wikileaks he knows of have either already left the organization or are contemplating doing so, not because of fears related to their own governments but rather that the United States might find a way to bring them back one day, where they will have no guarantees of due process, might end up tortured, in a cage in solitary confinement for months or years without being convicted of anything at all – like Bradley Manning – or in permanent limbo in a place like Guantanamo.

The world today knows that the US – in tragically flagrant violation of the document that is its soul – asserts limitless power over anyone they simply claim to be somehow involved in “terrorism.” And this generalized climate of fear then creates a situation of increasing self-censorship, a degraded and very dangerous state of affairs.

3) Finally, I can do no better than simply to transcribe Greenwald here (I have emphasized certain points):

The last point I want to make about why civil liberty infringements are crucial to care about even if you’re not being directly targeted by them or if you think that the only people who are are people who deserve it, is that there’s one proposition that I think history demonstrates fairly conclusively – I would even say indisputably – which is that there really is no such thing as “legitimate certainty.” By which I mean that it’s always the case in every single society that there are certain opinions, certain propositions that are deemed to be unquestionably true, and then there are other propositions that are always deemed to be unquestionably false. And the ones that are deemed unquestionably false are the ones that you’re simply not permitted to express and that have traditionally been punished if they have been expressed.

And what always happens – not sometimes, not usually, not most of the time, what always happens to every society – is that certain opinions that they believe to be indisputably correct turn out to be completely erroneous, even evil. And certain opinions that they believe to be indisputably erroneous and pernicious turn out to be absolutely right. And nobody, as a result, should be so hubristic that they believe that certainty is warranted or legitimate when it comes to empowering the government: empowering the government to ban certain opinions, empowering the government to imprison certain people who just seem definitely guilty, without due process. This certainty is completely unwarranted by even a casual review of history. And that is ultimately what civil liberties are about, is preventing the government from exerting power without checks: checks that are necessary to prevent these kinds of errors.

So we accepted the idea that it was okay to put huge numbers of Muslims into cages without due process because even those of us who kind of thought it wasn’t the right thing to do deep down believed that these people were probably guilty, because where there’s smoke there’s fire. That we didn’t just pluck them off the street randomly, that they probably, if not being the kind of terrorist mastermind that they might have been accused of being, probably on some level were kind of guilty of something and therefore belong there. And it may be objectionable in theory, but not really passionately wrong that they were being imprisoned without due process. And yet as it turns out, the vast majority of them, people who spent time in Guantanamo, have turned out to be guilty of absolutely nothing. Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson said that not only were the majority of them guilty of nothing but the Bush administration knew they were guilty of nothing but kept them there anyway to prevent the realization that they were imprisoning innocent people and to prevent people at Guantanamo from publicizing what had been done to them.

And ever since the Supreme Court in 2008 said that Guantanamo detainees have the right to habeas corpus review, the right to get into a court and ask a court to review the circumstances and validity of their detention, the Obama administration went in in each one of these cases and told the court, “we have overwhelming evidence that these people are terrorists and that they belong in Guantanamo.” The Obama administration announced, just like the Bush administration announced, that there’s no reason to worry about the lack of due process at Guantanamo – these are the worst of the worst. And yet when courts finally were allowed to review the actual so-called evidence against the people who were there, the evidence justifying the accusations, the courts found in 75% of the cases – that’s the current statistic – that there was no credible evidence to justify their detention. And many of them had been in prison for 5, 6, 7, and 8 years with what our own courts found were no credible evidence. And these are the people about whom the government was saying are the absolutely clearly, unquestionably guilty ones, the worst of the worst.

Certainty is not something that anybody should believe exists. That’s why all people, but especially people with power, and the more power the more this is true, need checks, need scrutiny, need accountability. And ultimately that’s what civil liberties are designed to do. So even if you think the government is acting correctly in a certain case and are therefore willing to acquiesce to the transgression of civil liberties, the mere fact that certainty is never warranted by itself ought to lead you to find that objectionable.

Greenwald went on to document how the Obama administration not only has not rolled back the civil liberties violations of the Bush administration but in certain respects has expanded them.

The remaining 45 minutes or so are a Q-and-A.

the tyranny of the political

I intentionally don’t engage in “politics” as such in this journal, at least in the more usual, narrow sense of that word. In part this is because I don’t follow the subject. I never look at newspapers, don’t own a TV, and try as best I can to bypass “news” as such online – for example by avoiding those day-to-day, minute-by-minute kinds of news sites as much as possible. In spite of this, such is the state of things that I always seem to know most of what is “going on.”

Many would say this is a good thing, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the practical inability to avoid all kinds of news, much of which is quite disturbing and most of which we are powerless to affect, does not make for a healthy environment in which to live our lives. An inherent bias towards negative news, reported negatively, certainly is an important part of this.

I submit that we humans don’t thrive very well in a climate drenched in the political. “Politics” should only ever have been a somewhat peripheral concern: the process of coming to communal decisions of various kinds. It’s everything else that is really the point of it all: the cultivation of health; the taming and training of mind; the expansion of the heart; the nurturing of others; the study of life and human culture; and creative expression of all kinds. Even the “communal decisions” I referred to oughtn’t to be different in kind from all other forms of personal relationship we maintain.

Today, however, the political seems to have swallowed up our culture. Not only has everything become politicized, but this has occurred within the context of extreme polarization and thus stagnation. When a realm of human experience gets politicized, it’s often the case that everything colorful and multi-dimensional and cool about it gets sucked out, its inner life papered over in predictable patterns of grey. Beyond this, I experience never-ending “news” as an attempt to draw my mind through a sieve leading to blinkered, tiny vision and a permanent state of agitation and panic.

So I prefer to engage with these kinds of “political” questions at one remove, by not following the unfolding of events day-by-day or even necessarily week-by-week but rather waiting until we have some kind of larger perspective on the more important of these. And even then, I choose to pay attention only to those “issues” which I can relate to deeper concerns of mine, ones which I feel capable of thinking through properly and communicating something about which hopefully has some kind of clarity.

One of these happens to be very much in the forefront at the present time: the question of civil liberties and their serious abridgement in the name of a seemingly never-ending “war.” A subject for the next post.

Jon Stewart in Egypt, talking satire

I found this interview between Jon Stewart and his Egyptian counterpart of sorts, Bassem Youssef, somehow a little encouraging. One of the remarkable things about Jon is his ability to make substantive points in areas and venues where most others would founder. Part of this stems from the disarming capacity of good comedy, but obviously this isn’t enough. Genuineness is needed too, and sharp intelligence, and together they produce his mastery of tone and tact, in evidence here for instance at 10:26:

I’ll tell you this: it [satire] doesn’t get me into the kind of trouble it gets you into. I get in trouble, but nowhere near what happens to you. … I do Bassem’s job in a country that has carved out already – it is settled law, satire is settled law. Governments have realized that … if your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime. [wild applause]

Because … you have to be able to handle anything – a joke is a joke. You may say that is an insult, and they say, you know, there’s an expression – I don’t know if you have it – “adding insult to injury.” Yes, maybe it is an insult, but it is not an injury. A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas into a group of people in a park. It’s just talk. [applause]

So … what Bassem is doing, and this is what is so inspiring to me – [to Bassem] and I know you don’t like it when I talk like this – he is showing that satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves. Because that’s all democracy is, is the ability to express yourself and be heard. You won’t always win, but you can’t confuse tyranny with losing elections. It’s just the opportunity to be heard, and for the majority to respect the minority, whatever they may say, however they may do it. [applause] This is what you do.

Just after this, Bassem brings up his experience of living in America and becoming acquainted with Fox News: “I was wondering in which pit of hell they do their editorials…. The amount of hate, and stereotyping, and profiling …”

But Jon interrupts, saying: “But I always see it as fear. I always see it for what it is…. It’s fear. Everything is conspiracy, there [are] monsters around every corner.”

And I think this in fact is one of his secrets, why so many public figures far from him in political views enjoy coming onto his show: he maintains a fundamental, genuine respect for people he disagrees with. Being able, for example, to see the fear beneath manifestations of aggression or even hatred, he protects himself from falling into aggression and hatred in turn. Instead, you can see in such interactions some kind of basic empathy still operating, which he uses to explore further where such negative thoughts and actions are coming from. This is one of the things that really sets Jon Stewart apart for me.

All of which enables, too, the heartwarming moment when the Jewish Stewart is praised by Bassem Youssef, on Egyptian television, for being known as a defender of the human rights of Muslims.

Milan Kundera on the totalitarian mind

I’ve been rereading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, in the back of which is an interview with Kundera from the late ’70s/early ’80s, given by Philip Roth.

His words here seem as important as ever. These days, grand utopian visions as such may be a little thin on the ground, but the impulses he references take other forms as well. In particular, I think they should remind us of that perennial delusion of omnipotent security so many of us seem to subscribe to, borne, of course, by fear. We really are True Believers in power: the power of science and technology ultimately to solve all human problems, the power of military strength to create a world free of anger and violence, the power of punishment to generate goodness.

Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise – the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. André Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.

Referencing the poet Paul Éluard, who publicly turned on his friend Závis Kalandra when the latter, in 1950, was sentenced to death by “the rulers of paradise,” he goes on:

People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The devil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarian poesy which leads to the gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Eluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre, while the smoke of Kalandra’s body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney.

bottom of the barrel

The more I’ve learned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their dangers, the more convinced I am that their prime promoter and beneficiary – Monsanto – has got to be reckoned one of the most recklessly, fiendishly destructive entities on the face of the earth.

I read Seeds of Deception, by Jeffrey M. Smith, shortly after it came out, along with a couple of other shorter books on the subject. I’d already had a great deal of skepticism on the subject from my understanding of how thoroughly interdependent are all phenomena and how cataclysmically powerful and dangerous human manipulation of the natural world can be (cf. nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; a great many pharmaceuticals; pollutants of all kinds). The argument that genetic engineering is just another form of what nature itself has done all along has never washed with me: nature is simply not capable of forcing genetic material from a salmon into tomato DNA. (Or spider into goat, jellyfish into pig, human into corn and rice, hepatitis into corn…)

But as a non-scientist, the study of scientific papers takes me a great deal of time. It’s not very cost-efficient, as it were, and furthermore – at least in the case of real “science” science as opposed to social “science” – I simply lack a deep enough background to feel comfortable, much of the time at least, forming fairly certain conclusions. (What I am capable of doing, as is anyone with the interest, is asking the larger philosophical questions about scientific paradigms of one sort or the other. And querying certain more general assumptions, aspects of design and methodology, and the basic health and integrity of scientific culture today.)

Taking all of this into account, my judgment has been that GMOs have already been shown unsafe in at least several important respects to both humans and other species, along with the earth as a whole, with much more evidence of further danger likely to come over time. Leaving all this aside, it’s been incomprehensible to me how the US still doesn’t have GMO labelling laws in place, given the newness of this technology, with all of its long-term unknowns.

But gradually, also, I have been forced to conclude that the Monsanto Corporation is more-or-less at the bottom of the barrel. They have already given us Agent Orange and DDT, and for decades now have been producing more and more of our food, promising complete safety in their technology, yet exercising all kinds of veto power over research into this (see the 2009 Scientific American editorial reprinted here).

There is a wealth of important information on GMO health risks here (see in particular the eye-opening articles under the headings “GMO Education” and “Fraud.”)

According to the ETC Group, Monsanto owns 23% of the global proprietary seed market, far and away the largest share (DuPont is second with 15%; Syngenta, another chemicals company, is third with 9%) – the article is here).

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our government believes Monsanto’s assurances every time, despite a mountain of evidence of serious health risk and ecological danger in this technology.

I can’t think of any issue more important than the very integrity of our food. A good starting point to understanding what is at stake is this FAQ page.

subu: a Georgian case-study in drugs policy

There is an interesting piece by Graeme Wood over at The New Republic on how Georgia dealt with the sudden epidemic in opiate use that began around the year 2000.

A drug called buprenorphine or Subutex (“subu” on the street) entered the country via France, where, in the mid-90s, it had become the most widely used substance in drug-substitution programs – ie for weaning addicts off of heroin. Evidently it is far superior to methadone in this regard: a mere 5% of the 2000 Georgians currently in a methadone program will ever come off successfully, according to a clinic director cited in the article. And methadone is dangerous too, building up in the body and causing an estimated 5000 deaths in the US each year. Subutex, on the other hand, appears to be much safer, several times longer-lasting than heroin (a single dose will reach 12-24 hours), and mellower, enabling users to function at a job quite normally for the most part.

So the drug arrived in Georgia, and at a time of high unemployment its popularity rapidly soared, to the point where some 1 in 20 Georgians, according to the article, were using “hard drugs.” Syringes littered the parks, tunnels, and alleys of Tbilisi.

What happened next makes for an interesting case-study in drug policy. Georgia’s new president at the time, the Columbia Law School-educated Mikheil Saakashvili, chose a US-style zero-tolerance policy – and then some – to stamp out the Subutex epidemic. Anyone at any time – 53,000 in 2007 – could simply be stopped on the street and forced to give a urine sample. First-offenders were fined, second-offenders imprisoned, causing the Georgian prison population to triple between 2004 and 2010.

According to the article, there have been two results of this extremely energetic and draconian set of policies, one perhaps surprising, the other depressingly familiar.

The surprising result is that, apparently, Subutex scarcely exists in Georgia today. From that standpoint, the policy was successful. But then, what has happened to all those addicted to it? Have they suddenly all gone drug-free? Well, some have, and a great many haven’t. The difference is that those who haven’t are now in greater danger.

Wood spent time interviewing “Pavel,” a law school graduate unable to find work in his field who operates a market stall and has been shooting up one thing or another for more than 15 years. After his release from prison, with no more of the relatively safe and controllable Subutex around, he turned to a horrifying concoction known as krokodil, consisting of codeine, toilet-cleaner, red phosphorus, and lighter fluid, which is as health- and soul-destroying as you would imagine it could be.

Now he is in a methadone program – with, again, a 5% chance of success, and at greater risk than when Subutex had been available.

One of Wood’s main points is that drug policies always create unexpected and mixed results even at the best of times. He notes that where – as in Ohio in 2012 – the smuggling trade in OxyContin has been broken up, heroin has a tendency simply to come in and fill the void.

Surely there are few public policy spectacles more depressing than the “drugs war,” which seems completely immune to all common sense and compassion. It’s hard to guess how much longer it will take before we recognize that criminalizing the profoundly human desire for intoxicants – found in all times and places – simply cannot succeed. Building a fundamentally saner, more nurturing and uplifted society would seem to be the only way that the more destructive forms of intoxication can diminish in attractiveness.

Far easier, however, to condemn those whose circumstances and history led them to a substance that happens to be different from one’s own…

New Zealand sings a love song

And despite myself I am moved, actually…

As spotted on The Dish, after the vote for marriage equality was announced in the New Zealand parliament today, the chamber erupted in applause, and then all the members of the packed gallery suddenly turned themselves into a chorus, belting out the old Maori love song Pokarekare Ana, as the presumed sponsor of the bill joyfully hugged all her supporters.

Why do I say “despite myself?” Well, while some form of civil union should of course, as an urgent matter of humanity, be available to all couples whatever their gendered configuration, the battles specifically surrounding marriage haven’t been ones I can muster a lot of passion about.

This is so for several reasons about which I may write another time. But all that aside: a beautiful moment down there in Middle-Earth…

“Oh my beloved, come back to me, my heart is breaking for love of you…”

the humanities make us human

Over a long period of time now, without even particularly realizing it, our culture has been increasingly devaluing the practice and study of the humanities. Whenever the President gets up and talks about education, the areas he mentions which need greater funding and promotion are always specifically “science and technology.” These areas do, it goes without saying, need sufficient support.

But what we’ve forgotten is that it is in fact the humanities which give value in the first place to everything else, very much including science and technology. The humanities contain the purviews, set the parameters, point to what is needed – and what is not. What is sane and nourishing, and what is not.

Recently I came across Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which paints a sad picture of the state of things now and even more so of the direction everything is going. Her book was written as an urgent warning call, and it’s hard to argue with its basic view.

Our dilemma is that a secular culture still needs a source and foundation of values, of wisdom, and science and technology simply can’t provide these. It is the humanities and the arts which do so.

The study of language, philosophy, and religion teaches us how to think clearly and how to assess what is important, and why.

History is among other things a vast set of teachings on the million ways human beings can deceive themselves and cause unspeakable harm, as well as on how progress too arises in the world.

Literature and the arts open the mind and heart; generate greater empathy and understanding of other people and ourselves; teach us how to see more expansively and profoundly; bring all kinds of beauty and new human possibility into the world; and also … make everything else easier to bear.

But as Nussbaum shows, all over the world we are to varying degrees devaluing these the very sources of value itself. In favor of measurable economic growth, pure instrumentality, efficiency.

In so doing we’re losing our way and losing our soul.

the Dalai Lama’s letter to President Obama

“Please accept my congratulations on your re-election to the presidency of the United States.

“When you were elected in 2008, you inspired the world with a call to take responsibility for the problems we face as global citizens. Since then, you have made earnest efforts to live up to that great hope and trust placed in you by the American public. I believe you have been re-elected now in recognition of that effort.

“When you first took office, I remember writing to you that the world places great hope in the democratic vision and leadership of the United States and that I hoped you would be able to shape a more peaceful world, bearing in mind the poverty, injustice and deprivation suffered by billions of people. The need to address these issues remains pressing today.

“As you know, it is over a year since I handed over all my political authority to the elected Tibetan leadership, but as just one among the six million Tibetans I want to thank you for your steady encouragement of our efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the problems in Tibet. I am very appreciative of your support for our Middle Way Approach, which I continue to believe is the best way for us to ensure a solution that is beneficial for both Tibetans and Chinese. Given the recently deteriorating situation in Tibet, of which the tragic series of self-immolations is a stark symptom, I hope your Administration will be able to take further steps to encourage a mutually acceptable solution.

“I am presently on a visit to Japan, and am pleased to send my prayers and good wishes for every success in your second term.”

nice one America

I feel more uplifted with regard to the election results than I assumed I would. Yes, at a federal level we have only vestigial democracy in this country. The electoral system is broken and almost totally corrupted by money, as is the federal government itself in various ways. Media discourse is deeply debased, barbaric even. The platform of one of our two major parties has gradually become more and more dogmatically and frighteningly reactionary.

And yet… I couldn’t help but be moved by the president’s victory speech last night – its graciousness, humility, inclusiveness. This man – in character and temperament, in intelligence – is probably the best we will get for a very long time. And there is some real vindication of this in the fact that he ultimately prevailed against an endless barrage, from Day One of his presidency, of not only intransigent opposition but disinformation and slander, at times crude and ugly beyond belief.

I guess what’s also contributing to this feeling is seeing the 18-29 age group increase its voting percentage this time around, which was unexpected, and the black and latina/o turnout, despite all the efforts of suppression. And of course watching our appallingly destructive “war on drugs” finally get a couple of real, solid blows. And seeing New Hampshire end up with its four-person congressional delegation, plus governor, being all women. That’s truly, truly awesome… And Obama winning even Virginia and – it looks like – Florida too.

Somehow, in spite of myself and everything I know about the state of the country and world, about how nothing has really changed congressionally or – with regard to the system as a whole – structurally, I’m kind of a little bit moved today. Note the disclaimers! – we’re a right mess, no doubt about it. We don’t recognize the reality of complete interdependence, and because of this we get everything – to one degree or another – wrong. We can’t (yet) see our way through to a world without scapegoats and enemies, beyond war mentality.

Obama too is not free of this vision, not free of imperfections in judgment and policy. But I appreciate his gentleness and thoughtfulness, his genuine respect for others and openness to different perspectives, and his extraordinary calm, qualities positively required in his job these days as we look towards a number of exceptional challenges.

Nobody should have the amount of responsibility on their shoulders that he has. But since it seems that he does, I can only hope that more and more of those who over the past four years have sought nothing other than to tear him down, regardless of the cost, will recognize how much of a moderate the president truly is. His heart, I believe, is progressive, but by temperament and style he is rather conservative, and this is actually a pretty ideal combo in a US president for these times.

Maybe, just maybe, this election result can bring about a little less rigidity of view. I know I know, hard to imagine these days. But I think most people really long for that. With just a bit of non-partisan, good-faith support, some fine things could yet be accomplished.

for what it’s worth…

Somehow or other I came across this survey, a series of questions designed to place you with regard to current political party platforms and presidential candidates. I almost never take things like this since I always find many of the questions unanswerable as stated. And in general don’t feel they accomplish much.

But I took this one, sitting around one day. There were 40 questions in 8 categories. A number of these I had to leave blank – most of those in the economic section as I simply don’t know enough to have a view, and a few in the foreign policy section (ditto, or because possible answers were too conditional).

This one seemed slightly different in one respect in that it had an answer for each question called “choose another stance,” which when clicked brought up several other possible responses. Also, part of the question involved ranking your sense of its significance (how the algorithm works for all this is of course always one of the crucial aspects).

I took it twice in fact, the second time trying to answer a few more questions. The first time, my results were as follows. They are listed as a percentage of how much I apparently agree with the views, those asked about anyway (more on this later) of the respective candidates.

Stein (Green Party): 98%
Anderson (Justice): 87% [never even heard of this party…]
Johnson (Libertarian): 62%
Obama (Democrat): 57%
Romney (Republican): 0% [hmm]

The second time I took it, with no more than a few added responses, the results were:

Stein: 94%
Johnson: 75%
Anderson: 73%
Obama: 68%
Romney: 1%

Also, apparently I agree with Vermont voters 51% of the time on these questions and American voters 50% of the time.

Lessons to be learned in a subsequent post. But for now, it’s worth pointing out that, in fact, there are definitely “conservative” (in the deeper, older sense of the word) aspects to my political profile. A preference for slower, organic change, whenever remotely possible. A cherishing of the Constitution. A lack of enthusiasm for identity politics. And plenty of others, none of which, it seems ever get measured by these sorts of surveys.