Things Fall Apart: Why We Think Everything’s Getting Worse

Most Americans, year after year, continue to think that the country is on the wrong track. The older you are (i.e, the more experienced you are, and the more of history you’ve seen), the more likely you are to think everything is falling apart. And it’s not just in America: worldwide, people tend to think things are getting worse. And it’s undeniable that the world is facing horrible problems: climate change, pollution, terrorism, income inequality, racism, sexism, etc., etc., etc.

Maybe you’ve noticed the same thing in your own life. I don’t mean to be depressing here… but how many times have you failed to change a habit, or break an addiction? How many of your jobs have fallen through? How many times have you had to move away from your home? How many pets have you lost? How many of your friendships and relationships have failed, or faded away in distance or time? How many people you’ve loved are gone forever?

Almost all of us have tragic answers to those questions. The things we love in our lives always end; the patterns we love endlessly unravel.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

In nature, things unravel, too. But there, something else is always raveling up to take its place. Trees die, but their tall standing snags — monuments to themselves — are colonized by armies of insects, fungi, and other critters, which in turn become feasts for woodpeckers and other animals. And when the snags finally fall, they become nurse logs for the next generation of trees, nourishing a richer, more diverse forest.

A tree’s death is a catastrophe, but it’s also what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe: a sort of deus ex machina, except that instead of a god swooping in from on high at the last minute to save everything, it’s a sudden unexpected change in fortune that’s consistent with the established framework of the milieu. It’s a miraculous redemption that arises inevitably from the world itself.

Oftentimes, a eucatastrophe is the result of the efforts of many, many individuals (humans, bugs, plants… doesn’t matter), each working for their own benefit or the benefit of their local community. Individually, each effort is barely noticeable, but when they’re added up, profound changes take place. Since these small efforts are self-directed, it can be extremely difficult to see what the final aggregate result will be, and whether it will, in the end, be good or bad.

Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. – Elrond, in the Fellowship of the Ring

So perhaps things look like they’re unraveling simply because we don’t have the complete picture. We as a species are young, and our vision is limited. We sometimes glimpse things that might happen, but for the most part, we only see the present and the past. It’s no wonder that most of what we see seems to be dying or dead.

The core of the problem, really, is that we can so rarely see patterns before they emerge. And so the world seems to be falling into disorder, and our lives seem to be full of endings, with precious few new beginnings.

It is an illusion, though. A new order is rising up, but we can’t see it. This is why eucatastrophes are surprising.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Oftentimes we can see the re-raveling only in hindsight. Human history is littered with dire disasters and intractable problems: the ‘population bomb’, the end of oil, war, the nuclear holocaust, monarchy, illiteracy, slavery… But it’s an undeniable fact that most of these problems have gotten better over the last few hundred years. Not solved — not by a long shot; even one person enslaved is a terrible tragedy. But better. Most problems, like human rights violations and non-renewable energy, have been improved through long years of thankless toil. Many others, like slavery in the US, cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Some, like the falling rates of crime and warfare worldwide, have just been slowly eroding away, though no one really knows why. And a few, like the hegemonic Soviet Union, have ended in a completely unexpected eucatastrophe.

This happens in one’s own life as well. I’ve left behind friends in six different cities, lost three jobs, lost a marriage… Many of these changes left me wondering whether everything I’d worked and struggled for was gone forever. But of course, I made friends in the seventh city, scored that fourth job, and found a true soul partner. After 40+ years of life I’m finally starting to glimpse the larger tapestry sometimes. There are still problems and tragedies I struggle with, but someday — sooner, perhaps, than I can see — they will pass, too.

Seeing the Raveling

How can we get better at seeing patterns before they’re fully formed?

First, practice. Look for the raveling. Too often we focus only on what is going wrong, or what we fear will go wrong. This is instinctive. As embodied beings, it’s natural to be wary, to watch for danger. But take time to look for what is going right, or what might go right, and focus on that as well. The old saying is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst; and both parts of that are important.

Also, study history. Look at how eucatastrophes happened. Most people were surprised when the Soviet Union collapsed, when monarchies ended, and so on — but the writing was on the wall for decades. What writing is on the wall now?

Trust your gut. Your conscious mind has access to only a small part of your complete consciousness. Your subconscious is always looking for patterns, and usually sees the big changes coming. Meditation, and talking to guides, can help.

And finally, have some faith. One of the things I struggle with personally, as a Druid, is what Alison calls the ‘Problem of Justice’. Just as Christians wonder why God permits evil in the world, we who follow a nature-based spirituality wonder what is natural and what is unnatural, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good. When you see an oil spill or a huge parking lot and you feel a visceral revulsion or sorrow, your body is telling you that it is unnatural, wrong, evil — especially when compared with a forest or pristine river. But obviously humans are part of the natural world, and what we do is natural; so in a sense, an oil spill or parking lot is natural too. So why are we always tearing things down, causing mass extinctions, and fouling the waters? How can these things be “natural”, how can they be “good”?

And it’s not just humanity. When beavers flood a forest, felling and drowning dozens of trees, or when wolves disembowel an encroaching coyote and defecate around its body as a warning to the others, we have the same problem:

Many earth-centered spiritualities look to the relationships, patterns and laws of nature for insight into the ways we might live a just and ethical life — yet, within nature are myriad examples of suffering, destruction, violence, injustice, even cruelty and maliciousness… How should we respond to them? — Alison Leigh Lilly

The resolution of these paradoxes (both the Druid paradox and the Christian one) may, in part, lie in our limited human understanding. Maybe we just can’t yet see how the evils of the world will be woven into the larger pattern of beauty. In nature, always, there is a subtle, organic order at work. Problems turn out to be blessings; tragedies plant the seeds of triumphs. Even in truly awful situations — such as a forest fire — there is a hidden raveling. Underbrush is cleared out, soil is renewed, seeds are germinated, diversity is increased, and diseases are cleared away. Forests periodically burn as naturally as the cycle of the seasons. Maybe what we see today as injustice is part of a great invisible cycle.

It can be hard to have faith, to believe in rebirth, when all you can see is death. But something wonderful is being born, right now. Study, sit in silence, and wait, and you will see it.

Hummingbird on a snowy branch

Big Data Will Blind You

Not all of us are scientists, but all of us today are consumers of science. And I mean science, not technology. When we want to lose weight, or make more money, or find that perfect someone, we don’t go to gurus, and we don’t go with our guts. We look at the latest studies.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailIt’s been said that Generation X has a deep need for data. Certainly a lot of people my age long ago lost our last vestiges of idealism, and are most interested in knowing, as pragmatically as possible, exactly what works and what doesn’t. We no longer believe in Dr. Spock’s intuitions or Oprah’s platitudes. We want to see what science says. We’re only interested in practical, proven methods. We haven’t given up trying to explain the world, but we’ve stopped trying to make beautiful, abstract theories workable. In the same vein, companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are proud to call themselves ‘data-driven’: they make no claim to being led by ‘visionaries’, but act based on rigorous analysis of consumer activity. (Of course, there are a minority of companies, such as Apple, which do claim to be led by visionaries, but these are the exception, and their stock prices are more volatile.)

Part of this zeitgeist is the modern tech industry excitement about the possibilities of ‘Big Data’, a rapidly-emerging state in which we’ll have so much data on so many people and so many financial transactions that we’ll cross some kind of singularity into perfect knowledge, a threshold beyond which we’ll find new markets, new products, and vast new vistas of profit.

Maybe so. But there’s a big pitfall that comes with Big Data. If you’re given a big pile of facts, you start to imagine that you know more than you did before; that you can just crunch some equations and run some statistics, and the numbers will tell you what to do. You’re tempted to believe that you don’t need to get the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things, as long as you have enough ‘what’.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But knowledge without understanding is even more dangerous. Here’s some examples of why.[Continue Reading…]

The Toxic Society

I stumbled on an old, ignored piece of news the other day, which struck me powerfully. Apparently crime rates in the United States continue to plummet, despite the ongoing recession. While I had assumed that the drop in crime rate was related to our insanely high rate of incarceration, apparently that doesn’t really explain it. First off, most of the rise in prison population comes from non-violent offenders, and violent crime has dropped even faster than non-violent crime. Second, there are lots of other places around the world where crime has been dropping, and the incarceration rates there haven’t changed. Sociologists are either at a loss, or they have conflicting ideas, or they say it’s a combination of factors.

But a little-known economist, Rick Nevin, has a theory: a drop in lead poisoning. He applied a statistical model which tracked violent crime rates and lead poisoning in nine different countries over the course of the 20th century. Lead is a neurotoxin that reduces the ability of people to control their impulses.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…

Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.

“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”…

Nevin’s work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.

“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.

If this is true, it raises a lot of questions. Most obviously: what’s the best way to lower the crime rate? Maybe we should reduce funding for police forces, incarceration, etc., and concentrate everything we have on anti-lead environmental legislation. After all, it was just a few years ago that lead was found in toys imported from China; and lead has leeched into the earth and groundwater from underground gas canisters all over the country. And not just lead — it is an especially widespread neurotoxin, but it’s not the only one. What other poisons are we eating, drinking, and breathing?

Another question is: should we, as a society, regulate lead? The obvious answer is yes, but how, exactly? Should it be regulated on a state-by-state basis, or by the EPA? Or should there be international standards set by the UN? Or should there be a set of class-action lawsuits brought by states and individuals against lead-producing industries? Remember, the issue here is not so much whether such laws would be moral or just, but what would be the quickest, most effective way to eliminate lead poisoning. Outright bans are simple in theory, but they quickly get complex in practice, and they don’t always work.

But for me the most interesting question is: what does this say about the philosophical foundations of a free society? Because, since the time of Locke, it’s been assumed that individuals are independent agents with free will. Tyrants, dictators, and even philosopher-kings are morally wrong, because every human has the inalienable right to liberty. While we may be persuaded or dissuaded or coerced, ultimately all our decisions are our own responsibility; and thus we can vote as we wish, establish laws as we wish, speak as we wish, and so on. And if we break the laws of our society, whether because we feel they are wrong (civil disobedience) or for any other reason, we alone hold the responsibility for that decision and we alone must pay the consequences.

But all of this is clearly false. A child born into a lead-infused home, exposed to neurotoxins from birth, has been poisoned, and cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. In effect, their crimes are the result not of poor character, but of environmentally-induced mild insanity; and the solution is not incarceration, deterrence, or punishment, but treatment (if possible). Left untreated, should such a person be allowed to own or operate a gun? Should they be in any position of responsibility such as military or political service? Should they be allowed to vote? In other words, if they are not fully sane, can they really fulfill the social contract that a free society requires?

It would seem not. But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us are, in fact, suffering from environmentally-induced mild insanity? I myself grew up in the late 70’s, before most of the laws against lead in gasoline and paint went into effect. I have never committed a crime, but nor have I ever wanted to — I have different issues with impulse control. Of course, most people do. But maybe most people have been poisioned, to various degrees. Do we even know what a normal person would be like, anymore?

Maybe we really have all gone slightly crazy. How would we know?…

Gaus: Freedom, Morality, and the State

Ok, here’s another book I desperately want to have (and while I’m wishing, it sure would be great to have the time to read it as well): The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus. It’s about large-scale human societies — how they arose, how they work (to the extent that they do), and how they ought to work.

Now, everybody and her brother has their own ideas about what’s wrong with the government, and what should be done to fix it. For a while, it was thought that that emperors and kings were either gods, or representatives of God on Earth. This idea became less popular as it became more and more clear that emperors and kings were, by and large, greedy psychopathic killers. Then it was thought that government was a sort of “social contract” that existed because, in the deeps of time, Man was in a State of Nature and everyone was a greedy psychopathic killer, and eventually it was decided that someone should be made a policeman and thereby keep the peace. This idea fell out of favor as anthropologists discovered that non-state societies (such as indigenous tribes) were, by and large, peaceful, content, and sane; and as archaeologists found that the first city-states actually arose because some minority group (such as a priesthood) gained monopolistic control of some essential resource (such as an irrigation system) and starting lording it over everyone else. And once you have a state in one place, then the neighboring villages and tribes start gathering into states of their own, if only for mutual defense. So it would seem that a government is an evil that’s only necessary if there are other governments around.

Photo © Alison Lilly 2012

And yet the modern large-scale state has some definite advantages. Of course, it defends its citizens against other states. But beyond that, it provides a free-trade zone, and an area of consistent laws about education, taxation, health care, and so on, which serves to both enrich its citizens and provide for jurisprudence and the rule of law. So how did the (relatively) moral, just modern nation-state arise out of the barbarity of its ancestry? And is it possible to make it even better?

This is what Gaus’s book is about. He has apparently drawn together many of the most recent strands of philosophy, game theory, and social science into a coherent whole — a theory of how a society can be free, moral, and just — and he’s gotten some rave reviews. I’m an optimistic fellow (or at least, I’d like to be) and it would be great to think that something that started out as common banditry and blackmail would inexorably develop, over time, organically, into something wonderful, even beautiful. We don’t often think of human nature working like that, but human nature is just nature. And changing excrement into flowers is the way nature works, isn’t it?

The Cat Cure: Animal Husbandry and Human Civilization

I do love my cat. Gods, do I love my cat. Cu Gwyn is his name, meaning “White Dog” in Welsh; we chose it for him because he’s a black cat, and that’s the kind of sense of humor we have.

Cu wanders the house at random, mostly sleeping or looking out the window or playing with his toys. Sometimes he comes over to us for pets. Sometimes he stalks us and attacks us. And sometimes he does things we just don’t understand. For example, he watches the birds intently, and makes odd little chirping noises, as if he were trying to sing with them. He brings his stuffed tiger to us, mewing plaintively for no reason we can see.

Cu Gwyn, Best Cat Ever

We feed him in the morning, and he thanks us by purring and rubbing his head against our hands. We pick him up and cuddle him until he gets fed up and wiggles free. We play with him, throwing his ball so that he can chase it up and down the stairs. He sleeps in our bed sometimes. He follows us from room to room — not to get attention, or to watch us, but simply to be near us. He also likes his stuffed tiger toy, although it’s a little confusing whether, in Cu’s universe, Tiger is a sibling, a friend, or maybe… something more. (But Cu doesn’t get too “involved” with Tiger, because Cu has been to the vet.)

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Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!


Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

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The Tie that Binds: a Meditation on Love and War

Why are people violent?

Years ago, during a visualization meditation on physical violence (I wanted to try and get at the root of it, to understand where it came from), I found myself on a path edged with tall, tangled bushes. Their branches were bowed with huge blossoms and masses of matted leaves. The air was hot and heavy with humidity, and the sun was high and blistering. Up ahead, around a corner, I could hear voices shouting in anger.

People say that humans are violent because it’s just in our nature to be so, but for me that isn’t a satisfying answer (and there is recent evidence against it). Even if it’s true, it doesn’t explain why it’s in our nature; and it offers no solutions for preventing or mitigating violence.

Something that also puzzled me was the high incidence of violence in European culture. Europeans and European-derived cultures have become much more peaceful in the last couple of hundred years, but for a long time we were among the most violent on earth. The histories of China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas are not bloodless by a long shot, but compared to the history of Europe, they’re like pacifistic fairy-tales. Of course there were wars in these areas, but they tended to be either brief periods of intense violence followed by long years of peace, or else millennia of small-scale, ritualistic tribal struggles. But from the end of Pax Romana to the World Wars, Europe has almost always been at war. You can get a visual, visceral view of this at this site, which maps all the wars and battles of human history on a single Google map.

It’s particularly odd because the religion of Europe during those two thousand years was Christianity, which preaches peace and love quite insistently. What’s going on here?

[Continue Reading…]

Nature and Social Insanity

I’ve been talking with Alison a lot over the past week about insanity — particularly insanity in societies. Obviously individual people can be insane — usually broadly defined as mental or emotional distress that interferes with functioning normally in society. But what would it mean for a whole community to be insane? Is that even possible?

Alison recently wrote a post on this over at Pagan+Politics, with some thoughts on the recent shooting in Tuscon. I’m not going to repeat everything she said there, but to summarize, some recent thinking suggests that aggregates of people can indeed collectively suffer from mental illness. In such a situation, the sane person is one who experiences mental or emotional distress.

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At Death’s Door: Thoughts on Immortality and Spirituality

A few months ago there was another breakthrough in geriatrics. This time, scientists were actually able to reverse aging in mice.

draftimgTruthThe very thought of reversing aging has been considered insane for most of the history of science. Getting old happens — to animals, plants, buildings, planets, and stars. Bodies, like everything else, just wears out, and there isn’t much you could do about it. Sure, you could slow aging, you could keep healthy and avoid microbes and so on, and maybe double your lifespan. But reversing aging? Living forever? That’s crazy talk.

There’s no chance for us
Its all decided for us
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us

Who wants to live forever
Who wants to live forever? …
Who dares to love forever?
When love must die…

Humans have been ambivalent about immortality for a long, long, time. You can see it in our myths. People who want to live forever are almost always portrayed as shallow fools who end up living forever old, or mourning the deaths of their friends, or committing suicide, or similarly unhappy. The moral: quality of life is more important than quantity.

But by the time my grandchildren are born, I might be able to go to the doctor and get started on a simple drug regimen that would make me biologically younger than I am right now. I might have a lot of quality and quantity of life.

Imagine you were given that choice. Would you? Should you? It’s worth thinking about, because regardless of your own choice, some people certainly will.

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Year 2010

Year is originally from way back in Proto-Indo-European, yer, meaning “doer”, i.e. one who does something or makes something.  It became jæram in Proto-Germanic, and gear in Old English, before softening to year in modern English.  Energetically, year packs a lot of punch; it’s a forceful, powerful, high-strung burst.

tolkientarotiii2009 definitely packed a punch.  A lot of folks I know had a pretty rotten 2009 — losing jobs, losing marriages, losing family.  2009, as a doer, seems to have done a lot of people wrong.  I had a great year myself, but certainly I went through a lot of changes, not all of them easy.

Overall, our species is in quite a fix:  the world economy continues to sputter, the world environment is under constant and accelerating attack, and people just keep on going to war, and murdering each other.  On the other hand, the chances for improvement have never been better — so many of us are connected to each other, and committed to change, and believe change is possible…

But we need more than connection, commitment, and belief.  We need maturity.  And it’s going to be hard to get.

[Continue Reading…]

Man vs. Machine: John Henry, Science Fiction, and the March of Progress

There are only two kinds of plots in true science fiction:  Science is a Hero, and Science is a Villain.

250px-John_Henry-27527In Science is a Hero, there is some problem or other — an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, the Galactic Empire is falling, there’s a Plague IN SPACE!! — and the heroic characters unabashedly use Science to deflect the asteroid, restore Galactic civilization, cure the plague, and, not infrequently, have sex in zero-G.  Ain’t Science great?

In Science is a Villain, Science itself is the problem.  Science unleashes dinosaurs, Frankenstein monsters, unstoppable robot armies, murderous computers, super-soldiers, atomic horror, etc., and humanity has to fight them off.  Sometimes humanity barely wins, at great cost.  Other times we lose.  Science makes a nasty Villain.  Moral:  Science sure can be dangerous, kids!

These two kinds of stories echo our ambivalent attitude towards technology, of course.  Real life science has cured countless social ills and brought previously-unimaginable wonders, but it has also caused social upheaval and brought previously-unimaginable horrors. It’s no surprise that the stories that are most famous, the ones that keep us up at night, are the villain ones:  HAL 9000, velociraptors, Terminator, the Matrix…  The villains, the nightmares,  echo most closely the demons we’re wrestling.[Continue Reading…]

On Grief and Connection: A Response to the Fort Hood Deaths

A Guest Post by Ali, of Meadowsweet & Myrrh

Jeff’s last post illustrated very well the kind of divisive rhetoric utilized in most political speeches these days, language that takes for granted an implicit superiority of American citizens and soldiery, and that rejects understanding, compassion and forgiveness for fear that such things will lead to acceptance of and complicity in violence (that is, those forms of violence deemed unacceptable by the State). His post, by reversing the target of this rhetoric, raised a lot of hackles and provoked a lot of feedback, through comments and email, about the basic immorality of justifying violence and excusing killers. Now, with his gracious permission, I would like to try my hand at rewriting Obama’s speech, not by reversing its aim, but by turning the rhetoric itself on its head, and speaking in terms of inclusion rather than exclusion, connection instead division. This is the speech I wish Obama had given, though for reasons that will become obvious, it is not one I ever expect any political leader in this country to give.

A tragedy like the one that claimed the lives of thirteen people at Fort Hood, indeed any tragedy of sudden and senseless death, challenges us to reevaluate our priorities, as individuals, as a community, and as a nation. In our grief, we reach out for meaning, for reassurance and comfort, and for a sense of peace and goodness in the world. During such times, it would be so easy to turn like those before us have done, to familiar words of patriotism and national pride. It would be easy to give these deaths the meaning of noble sacrifice in a greater cause — and to name that cause with words like “freedom” that we have claimed as exclusively our own, though truly such things belong to all people, inalienably, as the founders of this country knew so well.[Continue Reading…]

Obama’s Best Speech Never: What the President Should Have Said

Obama’s speech at Ft. Hood, honoring the dead in the recent shooting, is being hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric.  Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic ( says:
“I guarantee: they’ll be teaching this one in rhetoric classes. It was that good. My gloss won’t do it justice. Yes, I’m having a Chris Matthews-chill-running-up-my-leg moment, but sometimes, the man, the moment and the words come together and meet the challenge. Obama had to lead a nation’s grieving; he had to try and address the thorny issues of Islam and terrorism; to be firm; to express the spirit of America, using familiar, comforting tropes in a way that didn’t sound trite.”
And yes, it’s a moving speech (, worthy of recognition alongside some of the best ever given by American presidents.  For me the strongest parallel is with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, not only in its power but in its aim:  to soothe the pain, to give meaning and context to the senseless killing, to re-energize the nation to continue the work.
And just like Lincoln’s address, the speech is full of obfuscations, distortions, spin, and propaganda.
So I offer below an alternative speech:  the speech Obama should have given.
* * *
We come together filled with sorrow for the fourteen souls that we have lost; with gratitude for the lives that they led; and with a determination to honor them — not by carrying on their work, but by setting it aside.
America has been at war almost continuously since its birth, even though it has not been attacked by military arms for fifty years, and no foreign soldier has set foot on this land for two hundred years.  Still, these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, in the heartland of the American community, on American soil — soil bought dearly with the blood of American Indians.  Perhaps we should not be surprised that war sometimes manages to follow us home.  But for those who believe in American greatness and beneficence, the fact that they died in America’s heartland makes the tragedy even more painful and even more incomprehensible.
Today I am called to soothe that pain and give meaning to that meaninglessness.  But I will not do so.
For those families who have lost a loved one, no words can fill the void that has been left. You knew these men and women as mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; sisters and brothers.
But what is their true legacy?  Here is what you must also know: their life’s work is the freedom that America’s rich and powerful too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town far from the field of battle; every night that predator drones rain fire on innocent marriage parties; every dawn that a flag is unfurled over a conquered land; every moment that a rich, powerful American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that is their legacy.
Neither this empire – nor the capitalist values that it is founded upon – could exist without men and women like these fourteen Americans. And that is why we must pay tribute to their stories.
It is traditional, in times like these, to speak of the dead in as if they were called to a great sacrifice, as if America’s freedom were some vengeful goddess that demands the blood of our sons and daughters.  I could speak, for example, of Staff Sergeant Justin DeCrow, who joined the Army right after high school, married his high school sweetheart, and had served as a light wheeled mechanic and Satellite Communications Operator. I could say that he was known as an optimist, a mentor, and a loving husband and father.  Speaking of him in this way would hide the fact that he only joined up because he was poor and had few other options; that he and his wife dreamed of retiring from the military and teaching children to ride horses; that he had sought medical discharge due to difficulty sleeping; and he was only there at Fort Hood because his paperwork was tied up in a bureaucratic snarl.
Lincoln said, of the drafted soldiers lying in the bloody mud of Gettysburg, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”, even though they had been drafted and had no choice.  And he said, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain … that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” even though the United States was never in any danger of being conquered by the South.  Lincoln drafted them to his cause in death, even as he did so in life.
I will not do this.  I will not stand here today and enlist the dead, who cannot speak in their own defense, who cannot tell their own stories.
But I will speak of the fourteenth man, Major Nidal Hasan, who joined the military right after high school.  Though his body lives, I will honor him here as one of the fallen.  His spirit was battered by the strain of prejudice against his Muslim background.  His heart was strained by the stress of trying to give psychological help to soldiers returning from battle, to help them deal with the murders they had witnessed and committed, to reload them and return them to kill again.  He tried to leave the military; he tried to escape our “volunteer” army, as his conscience called him to do; but he could not get discharged — he was little more than a slave to the American military.  At some point his spirit broke, and he committed a horrible act of violence.  His body lives, but the state of his soul is unknown.
For those who believe that America is a force for good in the world, it may be hard to comprehend the simple logic that led to this tragedy. But the blame lies squarely upon our military.  And nothing justifies our murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. And for what we have done, we know that we will be met with justice – in this world, and the next.
These are expansive times for our military. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we continue to prop up our commercial interests, while endangering innocent Afghans and Pakistanis. In Iraq, we still have not ended a war that is beneficial for our oil companies, and we continue to deny the Iraqi people the independence that they have sacrificed so much for.
Some would say that the stories of those at Fort Hood reaffirm the core values that we are fighting for.  We claim that our military is a call of service, responsibility, and duty.  But they were not answering a call of service; they were driven to the military by propaganda, fear, social pressure, or poverty.  They do not embody responsibility.  They do not call us to come together.  They were simply people, trying to live as well as they knew how, killed as a side effect of our imperial greed.
We claim to be a nation that endures because of the courage of those who defend it. But our nation endures simply because we are not under attack.  It is the military, the empire, which needs defending.
We claim to be a nation of laws — but the laws do not apply equally to all.  We will treat a gunman and give him due process, and we will see that he pays for his crimes.  But the warmongers and capitalists who ground down his soul and would not let him live a life of peace — these live by a private law, and they will recieve no due process, and give no payment.
We claim to be a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal. We claim to see it in the varied backgrounds of those we lay to rest today. Yet who among them was a rich man?  Who among them were executives, lawyers, stockbrokers, politicians?  We claim to be on the side of liberty and equality, while our military engages in slavery and prejudice. That is who we are as a people.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day, marking the end of the War to End All Wars, and marking the beginning of all the wars that came after. Our military takes this day to pause, and to pay lip service – for students to learn of the wars and aggression that preceded them; for families to mourn the military murders of parents and grandparents; for citizens to reflect upon the blood that we have spilled in the name of “a more perfect union”.
Our empire’s official history is filled with heroes. We are asked to remember the stories of a grandfather who marched across Europe, but not remember the firebombs that killed so many German children.  We are asked to remember an uncle who fought in Vietnam, but not the innocent people killed by our bombers and chemicals.  We are asked to remember a sister who served in the Gulf, but not the craven greed of our oil companies.
Are we to honor this generation, too?  This generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen are are part of the deadliest fighting force that the world has ever known. They have killed again and again in distant, different and difficult places. They have stood watch over our business interests in blinding deserts and on snowy mountains. They are man and woman; white, black, and brown; of all faiths and stations – all people our military has duped, cajoled, bribed, and herded together to protect our standard of living, while denying others half a world away the chance to lead a better life.
Here, at Fort Hood, we pay tribute to fourteen men and women who were not able to escape the horror of our wars, even in the comfort of home.
Let us not honor them by claiming that one day the fighting will be finished.  Let us not gild their memory by saying that they persevered not just when it was easy, but when it was hard; or that they paid the price and bore the burden to secure this nation, or that they stood up for the values that live in the hearts of all free peoples.  For they persevered despite their better judgement, and often against their will.  They paid the price and bore the burden to secure nothing more than our business interests.  They turned against the values that live in the hearts of all peoples — peace, freedom, justice.
Instead, as we say goodbye to those who now belong to eternity, let us set aside this mindless pursuit of war.  In their names, let us call home all our troops.  In the name of honor and justice, let us disband and disarm.  In the name of peace and friendship, let us turn away from violence.  In the name of God, let us stand down.  And may God bless us all.

Obama’s speech at Ft. Hood, honoring the dead in the recent shooting, is being hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric.  Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic says:

“I guarantee: they’ll be teaching this one in rhetoric classes. It was that good. My gloss won’t do it justice. Yes, I’m having a Chris Matthews-chill-running-up-my-leg moment, but sometimes, the man, the moment and the words come together and meet the challenge. Obama had to lead a nation’s grieving; he had to try and address the thorny issues of Islam and terrorism; to be firm; to express the spirit of America, using familiar, comforting tropes in a way that didn’t sound trite.”

And yes, it’s a moving speech, worthy of recognition alongside some of the best ever given by American presidents.  For me the strongest parallel is with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, not only in its power but in its aim:  to soothe the pain, to give meaning and context to the senseless killing, to re-energize the nation to continue the work.

And just like Lincoln’s address, the speech is full of obfuscations, distortions, spin, and propaganda.

So I offer below an alternative speech:  the speech Obama should have given.

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The Myth of Modern Mythlessness

I don’t usually have posts that do nothing but link elsewhere, but I couldn’t resist pointing you over to Ali’s latest, The Group of Twenty and the Mythology of the Market. Ali’s thesis is that myths are not just stories that our ancestors believed back when the human race was young and full of childlike innocence, but are alive and well today.  We don’t recognize them as myths because we think they’re true, and everyone knows that myths are false. Right?…

But if you step back and take a serious look, you can see that there are certain pervasive modern beliefs that have the same structure, function, and emotional punch that the myths of our ancestors did. They provide a meaningful worldview, giving our society a place in the universe, and holding up examples of heroes and villains to guide individuals toward ethical action.  They even have “gods” and “priests” and “prophets” and “blood sacrifices”, though they’re not called that any longer…


  • America the Free.  This one comes complete with Creation Myth (the Revolution, with Washington taking the place of Zeus as he battles the insane Titan-like George III), prophets (Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln), high priests (presidents and other military commanders, pundits and politicians), idols (The Statue of Liberty, the Flag) and even human sacrifice (young people sent off to “die for freedom”).
  • Science the Savior.  Ironically enough, in this Creation Myth, Science the Savior conquers Myth itself to give order to the world and society, just like Zeus vs. the Titans, Odin vs. the Jotuns, and George Washington vs. George III.  Prophets include Alhazen, Bacon, Descartes, and Mill; modern priests include Dawkins and P. Z. Myers.  The Cult of Science does not generally demand human sacrifice, but it does demand animal sacrifice — in laboratories, by the millions.
  • Humanity Rules the Earth.  Read Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.  No, really — read it.
  • The Omniscient, Omnipotent Market.  But this one is the subject of Ali’s excellent post.  So get on over there and read it already!


Barack Obama: A Reading

On November 4th, 2008, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, and the stars noticed.

astrologyAncientAndModernOn that very day, the Earth was placed directly between Saturn and Uranus, creating an apparent opposition between the two planets. Astrologically, this planetary opposition indicated a conflict between an established authority and the forces of necessary change and upheaval. That was definitely a theme of the election. But this drama isn’t over yet: Earth will slide back between these planets four more times — on February 5th and September 15th of 2009, and then again on April 26 and July 26 of 2010. (Then it won’t happen again for 40 years.) Mark your calendars!

Actually, as an aside, this is part of a 20 year cycle of disruption. Twenty years ago, when Saturn and Uranus were conjoined, communism collapsed. Twenty years before that, when Saturn and Uranus were in opposition, it was 1968, an infamous year of assassinations, escalating war worldwide, etc. Twenty years before that, when Saturn and Uranus were conjoined, fascism came to an end; and twenty years before that was the beginning of the great worldwide depression…

So Obama will be president in very interesting times, and since time and custom and ambitious men have endowed the office of the presidency with powers far beyond what any one person can wield easily, it’s worthwhile looking at Obama’s name and astrological chart. What manner of man is he, and will he be up to the task?

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