Category Archives: Other Thoughts
My latest at Eclectica.org. How we keep expecting the change that never comes and life keeps repeating itself.
“If the film actually did somehow manage to end in a different way from what you had earlier witnessed you might be surprised but probably not shocked as long as the lovers got together and peace and justice again prevailed in the land. Anything was possible once the usher had torn your ticket in half in that popcorn-scented lobby and handed you back the other half as a kind of talisman and three-hour visa into a world of happy endings….”
I supported Bernie Sanders, but then, like almost everyone else, I assumed Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump. I was surprised by the actual outcome but was amazed and then shocked by the strength and quality of the reaction to his election by those who had supported HRC. Like other middle-class “liberals,” I had viewed my side as the more reasonable one, or at least not the one that would descend into vicious personal attacks on the opposition candidate, up to and including a hope for his assassination. In 2008 I had watched right-wing Republicans call Obama a foreign-born, Muslim terrorist who only sought the presidency so he could use it to destroy the nation, pledging that they, the opposition, would do everything they could to frustrate him at every turn and make him a failed president. Now I am seeing liberal Democrats behave the same way, calling for immediate impeachment, believing every accusation made about the president-elect, declaring – as had their right-wing counterparts – that he would not be their president. A university education and middle-class income is apparently no match for deep outrage.
I have learned a great deal about my fellow Americans as a result of this election. I have learned perhaps even more about the continuity of human nature across all classes and economic levels of humanity. And, thanks to the history I had been reading previous to and since November 8, 2016, I think I understand better how ordinary people can come to tolerate or even condone the persecution of their neighbors over ideological or religious differences. I see how they can care more about their own prejudices and injured feelings than they do about the future of their nation or their own offspring.
It ain’t pretty.
The obvious answer to that question is that they’re the group who are neither rich nor poor but are sandwiched in between those two, a kind of stabilizing alternative to which the poor or “working class” can aspire to rise to and a safety net for those who have lost greater wealth so they need not fall all the way into poverty. We like to believe a middle class is essential to a democracy because it is they who make up the bulk of a prosperous and supposedly well-educated majority capable of making the kinds of decisions a well-ordered republic requires.
But what is the purpose of such a class beyond the maintenance of a national myth of political rule by a rational majority? Other cultures speak of a bourgeoisie, or more properly a petite bourgeoisie. To Marxists the former is likely to be synonymous with “capitalists,” the class we in American associate with the upper class, the latter with our own middle class. But other societies are also more class-conscious than our own, even rigidly so. Our way of ranking our population is much less fixed, open to free movement certainly in the economic sense and to a much larger extent than other societies in the social sense too.
The original idea of who deserves to be in the ruling, i.e. the bulk, of the voting class was seen in a very different way by the framers of our constitution than it is today. Back then it was exclusively free white landholding men. Today it is any citizen, rich or poor or in-between. But has the function of that voting class, mostly middle-class, changed from the one it served for Madison and Hamilton? And what is its function, if it has any beyond just a sociological and economic designation?
I see historical evidence that shows the purpose of a middle class like our own is crucial to maintaining a buffer between those who hold most of the nation’s wealth and those who possess very little of it. Without such a class the so-called one percent would have to rely upon brute force to keep in line and protect themselves from the so-called lower classes. With the disintegration of our middle class we can see a tendency toward more and more oppressive rule with the militarization of the police and with incarceration on a scale not practiced by any other nation on earth – a lurch toward a new feudalism.
The fact that the police and other governmental agencies obviously protect the privileges of the middle class does not mean they are not there ultimately to protect the interests of the upper class. It’s a function the middle class has performed wherever it has been constituted and allowed to prosper, not just in America. Consider the situation in the slave states of the Caribbean. Without a substantial white population to rely on to keep the large slave population in line, the ruling class had to resort to creating a middle class out of free blacks to serve as a buffer between themselves and those in chains. This is why West Indians tend to be better educated and more self-confident than our own African Americans. More than two hundred years ago Black West Indian men were already receiving the kinds of educations and professional opportunities we have not yet provided for our own descendants of slavery. Even West Indian women could become solid members of the middle class by opening shops and other small businesses.
A similar effort was made in the South to form a buffer, middle class of European-Americans between landowners and African-American indentured servants after the two had repeatedly combined forces against their owners. Only, promises of freedom, land and “whiteness” made to rebellious European-Americans in exchange for their acting as police to previous comrades of African and mixed descent never fully materialized, consigning them permanently to a landless state of poverty with only their “whiteness” to console them. Even so, they remained faithful to their new “race,” protecting their previous masters’ interests as if those interests were their own.
Almost a century ago Walter Lippmann published a well-thought-out book about the American political scene in which he concludes that public opinion – by which he meant the opinion of those that vote – needed to be carefully manipulated by those with the best understanding of what was best for the nation. The possibility of such manipulation, though not new, was at the time greatly enhanced by the advent of the public relations/advertising industry that had just come into its own during the Wilson WWI administration. “Manufacturing consent” has since became part and parcel of how the powerful elite have co-opted the middle class into accepting their, the elite’s, political agenda. Until recently no oppressive security force was required to effect this control as it has been in other nations. The media does the job virtually without coercion from outside, automatically.
The result has been a perfect pas de deux between upper-class moneyed interests and middle-class willingness to serve their masters as long as they are themselves guaranteed a comfortable living standard and access to unlimited upward mobility. If this requires the impoverishment of one-sixth of the population who typically don’t vote in the same percentages as their betters, that’s a trade-off the guilt for which can be ameliorated by token welfare policies or simply by blaming the victims.
(From my Salon piece in the October/November issue of Eclectica)
I’ve remarked more than once in print and in personal conversation that maybe our societies should be run by primatologists. I can’t remember ever getting a response to this remark. Presumably it’s taken as a joke or at least as a dismissible exaggeration. When I verbalize the idea in person it inevitably draws a blank stare.
I wonder sometimes what those reactions, or lack thereof, imply. Is my suggestion, always expressed in the context of a discussion of human behavior and the restraints we expect ourselves to exert over it, just not taken seriously? Is it beyond the pale of permissible thought that we who share so much with other primates genetically, socially and, if the recent science is any indication, cognitively, ought to investigate ourselves with the same objectivity we study chimpanzees?…
I still marvel at how my mind-brain works. I’m convinced each brain is different and that there is no such thing as a “normal” brain. But you would think after so many years my own would at least be familiar to me.
Not so. It still perplexes, sometimes seems downright alien. The difference in my more mature years (my mother said Hubschman men mature late, but this is ridiculous), is that I do marvel or at least am bemused rather than angered or depressed by its fickleness.
What I’m talking about is the way I seem to experience one kind of mind for a period of time – a few days or a week – and then pass on, quite unexpectedly, to a different one with all the appetites and aversions a new mentality involves.
It’s tempting to say what I experience is a matter of one side of my brain taking over for a while, then losing interest and yielding to the other side. What puzzles me is why this happens. Why am I enthusiastic for a new piece of writing I’ve just started, thinking about it the last thing before I go to sleep and the first thing after I wake up in the morning, and then suddenly become apathetic about it? How can I spend a day busily taken up with that new project and wake to find it may as well be something someone else is writing and about a topic in which I have no particular interest?
What do I do when this happens? Well, apart from the self-recriminations I used to plague myself with, what I did in my younger years was listen to music. And not just listen, but listen. I would find my mind as eager, as hungry for musical sounds as it had been for the written word. I devoured one symphony after another. I found pleasure in jazz performances that used to leave me cold.
This would go on for a few days, and then something would switch off in my gray matter and the next day another part of that organ would switch on. I’d be back to making sentences, or at least rewriting them, and taking pleasure once again in reading someone else’s.
The difference is that nowadays, since I’ve taken up the piano, instead of just listening to other people’s performances I make music myself – sort of. I experience that delicious feeling thatresults from hearing Chopin or Brahms come out of the tips of my fingers and then reach deep inside and massage my soul the way nothing else can. Then, in a few days, I’m back to making sentences again.
Does my right (or is left?) brain just get tired of words, overdose on them, and turn off in favor of the left side the way it yields up consciousness to a different state when it has had enough of the real world for while? And then does the left side feel glutted and switch off in favor of its other half?
These alternating brain functions obviously have a restorative function. Ideas for a story work themselves through even as my pencil (virtual or otherwise) lies dormant and I worry it will never rise again. And despite the old saw about the need to practice every day, I find after a couple days away from the piano (also virtual) I not only remember better the few pieces I can play than if I had taken no time off, I play them with more understanding and deeper feeling.
I know, of course, there’s nothing unique to me about any of this. I have friends whose habits are not as up-and-down as my own, who do the same work each day without any loss of will as far as I can see. And I know almost everyone has their ups and downs, their periods of enthusiasm and despondency. My own alternations simply occur in areas of activity that are easily identifiable and open to theorizing (in words, of course).
To put a positive spin on it, my brain may just belong to a subset typical of artists. No doubt it served a function in the evolution of the species, as has the brain of my neighbor whose apartment is never clean enough or clutter-free enough to suit him.
Hopefully, it still does.
Thoughts on the heightened sensitivity that comes with age. My latest, in the new issue of Eclectica.
America has changed less radically in the last 80 years than has Germany, but it has changed nonetheless and in essential ways. We no longer legally discriminate. But we have not allowed those who wear our own version of the yellow star, those whose skin color makes them “black” ( a word that means different things to different people, the only common thread being ancestry from “dark-skinned” Africans), to entirely take it off.
Read my essay in the current Eclectica. Let me know what you think.
The longer I live on this planet the more it seems to me we’ve got it wrong about the sort of critters we really are. Even though we’re more or less willing to give up the idea we’re immortal spirits trapped in physical bodies — a notion David Hume saw through almost two hundred years ago — we cling to our reason and consciousness as setting us apart from the rest of creation like members of a middling caste that can at least feel superior to those below it on the social scale.
I’m not even talking about the revelations (science now provides “revelations,” a function once exclusive to holy writ) that our free will is as predictable as a crossing light if you apply electrodes to the right parts of the cranium. Rather, I’m referring to mind itself, the thing we experience on a moment-by-moment basis, the thing we like to think is separate from, if not entirely free of, our feelings or emotions. Hence we speculate on the possibility of a computer achieving something like human consciousness. No one but Hollywood script writers assume cyber-consciousness would be accompanied by emotion. Mind, reason, we like to think, can function by itself given the right algorithms and sufficient chip speed. Emotion is something left over from our more primitive days before the great evolutionary leap forward that gave our prefrontal lobes command and control.
It ain’t so. We are feeling animals, not thinking ones, or at least not as thinking as we like to believe we are. Other animals think. Probably all of them do. You could even say that plants think. One of mine recently outfoxed me when I tried to prevent its putting forth a powerful-smelling flower in order to reproduce itself. It got wise to my trick in the past of cutting off the shoot before it could fully bloom and stink up the room. This time it put forth the shoot hidden in the back of the plant where I didn’t notice it, and it did so entirely out of season in the autumn when the daylight was waning instead of in the spring when it had previously bloomed. And the clever little bugger almost succeeded. I smelled something but didn’t immediately recognize what it was until the shoot was almost in full flower and only then after skeptically searching through the dense leaves and discovered it sequestered deep down in the dark recesses of the plant. Tell me this isn’t intelligence, if not exactly conscious thought.
I don’t know what kind of affective life that plant has, though I worry when I cut off its withered leaves. But I do know so-called animals have a very rich emotional life. Yet, we have denied animals, even cats, dogs, horses and other domestic animals, the possibility of having true feelings and have treated them more or less the way we would treat a vegetable or a stone. In the real world, though, we and they are identical in this respect, whatever our specific and superficial differences. A dog doesn’t think as I do, he thinks as a dog. But he seems to feel pretty much the same things I feel, and it’s his feelings, not his thoughts, that make him who he is, just as mine do me.
My consciousness gives me the illusion of operating at a distance from my emotions, those dark, animal chemical states left over from a deep past which other species have not been able to break free of. This sense of separation between emotion and consciousness is an illusion, but it’s a powerful illusion, and it must have been given a great boost when the mutation that took place tens of thousands of years ago changed us into the sort of people we are today. It made possible art, philosophy, science and, of course, language, the latter being our distinguishing attribute, or so our wise men and women keep telling us.
But just as we were wrong for so long about the mind’s being a spirit, we are just as wrong about its being the essence of what makes us human. And we are probably just as wrong about the quality of the so-called animals’ interior states.
We can see this same failure on our part to recognize other species’ likeness to ourselves if we look at the way we view human civilizations that have not had the same tools for recording themselves as our own have. Unless a people has left behind a written, architectural or some other discoverable proof of their intelligent life we assume they had none, or none comparable to our own. Until a couple hundred years ago the civilizations that lay beneath the sands of Mesopotamia were mere backdrop to the high achievements we accorded ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures, firstly and especially because the Greek and Hebrew cultures form the bases for our own but also because until fairly recently we had nothing from any other that compared with the Bible or the Homeric epics.
Now we know that the Bible is largely a product derived from those buried civilizations, that ancient Israel, which disappeared as a state about 750 BCE, and Judea, which only came into its own after the sixth century BCE, were, like every other culture, products of contact with the great civilizations surrounding them plus their own local contributions to those derivations. For millennia we lived without any major literary text that predated the stories in the collection of Hebrew texts we call the Bible, until in the mid-19th century the epic tale of Gilgamesh emerged from beneath the sands covering the ancient city of Nineveh. Yet, Gilgamesh, like the Book of Genesis, is itself a compilation of tales put together from material dating all the way back to the Sumerians many centuries earlier, predating either the Bible or the Iliad by a thousand years.
My point being that it’s only because we can express ourselves, put into literary or some other artful, recordable form our thoughts and feelings, that we claim a priority for our own or other recorded civilizations in what used to be called the Great Chain of Being. We write, paint, build, invent, compute…therefore we are. If it were only thought that proved our existence as human beings, the great majority of human beings who have occupied this planet could not be considered existential human beings, because they left behind no record of themselves, any more than a dog or a cat does. The peoples (we dare not call them “civilizations” if they left no sophisticated records) who have lived without acquiring the art of writing and built no monuments to themselves we dismiss as irrelevant to human history. An oral culture may in fact surpass that of one that is literate or at least one that has a scribal class (all cultures have been 95% illiterate for much of their development, the ancient Greeks being the first to achieve something like 10% literacy), but we have no way of knowing such a civilization apart from the artifacts it created and so discount it as “primitive.”
An oral culture that dies out or is subsumed by one that either incorporates or rejects its body of oral art becomes a non-culture. In effect, it never existed. It is the literate cultures, in the West the Greek and Hebrew, that we see as the great achievers because, like us, they not only produced significant art and thought but, more importantly, they recorded themselves. If other cultures also recorded themselves, as did the one that produced that version of Gilgamesh that lay buried for so long under the sands of Nineveh, but remained unknown or underexplored because we believed we had all the art and literature of the ancient world that mattered, they may as well have not existed at all, even if, as in the case of the Sumerians, they were seminal to all the civilizations that followed them in that part of the world. We already had the intellect of the Greeks and the revealed Truth of the ancient Jews, so why go digging in the desert to see what may or may not turn up when we had such low expectations of finding anything comparable there?
But all peoples in every age have led full, rich emotional lives whether they had the means to express those feelings or not. Less “civilized” societies must have also been less encumbered by the illusion of a disembodied consciousness and lived in their bodies more comfortably, or at least without the fantasy that they were essentially different from the other living things around them. The notion of a separate entity — call it “soul” or “spirit” — marks the beginning of our ignorance about our true nature and even about how we live on a moment-to-moment basis. Art is our best way of expressing this life, what it means to be human/mammalian. Art is accessible to the consciousness but cannot be experienced except in a much deeper part of ourselves. Do other animals also express themselves in some similar way? For the most part we have worked hard to prove they do not, and that unwillingness to share a common life with our fellow creatures has hobbled even our most rigorous scientific efforts. After all, it’s only in the last century that some parts of the world have admitted the female sex to humanity. We have a lot of catching-up to do with our more furred and feathered brethren, especially the domestic, edible versions for whom, in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “every day is Treblinka.”
Descartes should have written, “I feel, therefore I am,” but he was victim to more than two thousand years of Western hubris. And, by “feel” of course I’m talking about the very rich and complex total state which we subdivide at our peril into “consciousness,” “subconsciousness,” “emotion,” etc. Even Descartes, when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” was really describing an experiential rather than a purely rational state. That’s why the proposition he stated seems self-evident: it’s compelling, like the experience of free will, and the experience of a compelling notion is hardly something that can be called abstract or purely rational. We exist because we experience existence. We have free will because we experience choice. In that we are not a whit different from any other creature with a brain. We just prefer to believe we are. But, then, I suppose if dogs or cats could express themselves in a way we could understand as language they would also claim preeminence over every other species.