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…
–Queen

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.

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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. Read more

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. Read more

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

OBAMA’S BEST SPEECH NEVER
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 (http://politics.theatlantic.com/2009/11/the_best_speech_obamas_given_since_the_inaguruation.php) says:
(blockquote)
“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.”
(/blockquote)
And yes, it’s a moving speech (http://politicalwire.com/archives/2009/11/10/obamas_best_speech_ever.html#032175a), 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.

Read more

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…

Examples?

  • 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!

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