Ego and Awe – Practical Mysticism #002

Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)
– me, part #001

I guess the key word in that was ‘maybe’:-)

There are three interconnected concepts that frame up the story I want to tell. In rough terms, they are ego, instinct, and awe. All feel connected to me as ideas circling around something that might be called access to a bigger self. But, also to potential groundings of identity.

(This is not to be confused with the Bigger Us that connects outward to what ML King calls a ‘blessed community.’)

As per usual, I’m having trouble unbraiding and crisping up my three framing concepts–a great case in point of why it takes me forever to get something written. The issue: crisping up any of these, impacts my understanding and formulation of the others, which in turn, feeds back and alters the starting point. Rinse and repeat. Until I throw in the towel and hit publish.

Well, I’m going to throw in the towel right off the bat. Brother Skip once told me he was convinced all the bolts were there…but that they were only on hand tight. I like that. I’ve vowed to use the blog to write more casually and let the ideas mature as we go. Hopefully, I’ll get the bolts on hand tight. Lord knows how many more passes it will take from there.

We’ll start with Ego.

A good enough theory of ego

  • Starting with ego means we start with the Freuds, Sigmund then Anna. Ego is pretty much defined by its defenses which are mostly a response to unavoidable childhood sexual trauma. An example of an ego defense is projection, i.e., discomfort in one’s unacknowledged dark traits is projected out as dislike or irritation with someone else who seems to exhibit those traits. The unconscious, of course, is where all the scary stuff lives.
  • Jung’s unconscious can be much less fraught than Freud’s. It’s the repository of the excluded, the inferior, and the undeveloped– things you are bad at, ashamed of, etc., and not just trauma. Also, sex isn’t the main driver, and trauma isn’t a given.
  • Jung adds a second big component. The ego creates directable energy and attention by walling off the ebb and flow of unconscious reactions, which can unfocus and distract us. (Look, squirrels!)
  • Further, the paradigm of classical Jungian thought is that this ability not to be taken over by whatever stray impulse arises has been gained relatively recently, i.e., subsequent to us becoming anatomically homo sapiens. Humans accomplished this by developing a psychic structure that provides a barrier against the unconscious. The classic paradigm further states that the barrier mechanisms have become too rigid, and the task now is reconnecting with the unconscious.*1
  • Last, I think I should also throw in a concept that I identify with Buddhism: ego’s fear of annihilation: that white-knuckle fear that makes even a little ego loss or loss of control feel like death.

Okay, that was a long way around to a ‘good enough’ theory of ego.

In summary, we have a psychological structure that acts to include things in and exclude other things out (all the things are us, of course); that maintains barriers and defenses to make that happen; and that can too rigid to our detriment.

Expanded self

My thesis here is that awe and wonder are a small ‘pop’ that expands our acknowledged self. Something that was ‘outside’ egoland is now ‘inside.’ Further, this same mechanism leads into the mystic, as it were. Or rather, wonder is a bit of the mystic touching down in everyday life.

We can use Zen koans as an additional example. They pose a problem not solvable with everyday tools and are traditionally solved with a pop that signifies a change in the student, not the correct answer per se.

Even our well-known ability to solve problems by sleeping on them is relevant. The ego is relaxed to a bit player, more of us is brought to bear, something that was outside is now inside, and the self is just a tiny bit bigger.

Containers

It occurs to me now that we need another component if we talking about awe/wonder in the context of the wider sweep of ‘non-ordinary states’*2 and ego. As framed up by our ‘good enough theory of ego’, the core concept is sidestepping the walls ego built. But the ego has a purpose. We need to get past ego without obliterating it or freaking it the fuck out.

The protocol for psychedelic sessions beginning with Grof and Leary and continuing through contemporary John Hopkins mushroom sessions, is to emphasize set (mental state/expectations) and setting (the physical space and guide.)

That’s missing a piece I call ‘container.’ In the above, the container is the assumption that your guide is competent and benign. Container is the wider envelope. Sangha can be the container. Growing up in a culture that gives 15-year-olds monastic experience is a container. For me, movement in nature is itself a container, along with community and music.

Next up (maybe): a good enough theory of instinct.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share this.

Feedback

I had some interesting discussions as a result of the last post in this series…in particular with Paula, my running buddy on much of this whether she’s aware of that or not. Here are some resources as a result.

footnotes

*1 – More: this classical Jungian story holds that ego development arose at the same time as the patriarchies and that the ego is experienced as masculine while the excluded is thus seen as feminine This part is a little sketchy in a Joseph Campbell ‘all heroes are male’ sort of way. Both Jung and Campbell use a pattern of myth called the ‘night sea hero’…Jung as a story of individual maturation, and Campbell as a story of cultural advancement. The use of gender here is highly debatable, but, on the other hand, it is easy to argue that patriarchal thinking is a pathology. Might be worth a future discussion.

*2 – ‘Non-ordinary’ has become the standard description of non-ego-centered mental states. I don’t like it. First, many of these states are more ordinary than assumed…they just don’t have much acknowledgment in our culture. Second, the objective here is to make them ordinary. Third, by most definitions of nonordinary states, there is a very common ordinary one caused by alcohol consumption–which might become less common if a better one came along.

We Need a Smaller Them – pt 1

Blogging!

In case you missed the announcement, I’m shifting my base of operation from Medium back to this blog. Rather than working for weeks and kicking out biggish posts there, I’m going to publish small chunks here. Occasionally, the chunks will coalesce into longer articles that will go back out to Medium.

Emotional Truth and Political Lies

What’s below is not part of the new approach in that it’s part of a longer article that’s already in progress. I’ve got the early part written and am only fine-tuning. The last parts are still a word salad. As things get firmed up, I’ll post them here.

This excerpt is a recap of a dozen or so articles written between 2016 and today. It’s also the counterweight to a repeating theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us! We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.

Here is a draft of the first sections. Please kibitz. First, an overall outline.

  • Intro (draft included here)
  • Decentered Identity (draft included here)
  • Grounding (draft included here)
  • Emotion Truth / Political Lies Touchstones (this and subsequent sections to follow)
    • Setting the Stage
    • Those that Work and Those That Don’t
    • Deaths of Despair
    • Betrayal
    • Exploitation
  • A Smaller Them
  • Wrap Up

We Need a Smaller Them

Emotional Truth, Political Lies — Our Plot So Far

There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.
Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021)

The neoliberal project was focused on designing institutions — not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy.
-Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (2018)

On November 6th, 2016, I was jolted out of my assumptions about our political landscape. My hijacked attention has been focused on the contradictions of our weird political culture ever since. I’ve been reading and thinking, hoping to internalize the contradictions and write my way out. I’m part way there. This is my interim report.

I have elsewhere presented the case that, to survive, we need a bigger Us. This presents the corollary: we need a smaller, more focused Them.

Decentered Identity 

Something odd is going on. Folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum have been consistently acting against their own interests — or so it seems to me. Clearly, they don’t see it that way.

In my six-year journey to try and understand the dynamics of US politics, I have come to believe that it’s, in fact, “identity politics” at the core — but not in the way the term is commonly used. 

The destruction of working-class jobs unmoored working-class* identities (particularly among older White males) and left a big chunk of the population adrift generating death and pain, some serious craziness, and a lot of cold-hearted political exploitation. 

(*The term working class is a bit misleading since the blast zone includes not just warehouse, factory, and service workers but farmers, shopkeepers, tradespeople of various types, and so on…mostly, but not exclusively, the folks working for hourly wages unbuffered by employer-supplied health insurance and retirement benefits. I’m not sure a working-class/middle-class distinction has meaning currently.)

We commonly believe that our identity is something deeply personal, idiosyncratic, and tucked away ‘inside,’ but that isn’t accurate. Identity is how we feel, true, and what we do and think. Critically, it’s also how people respond to us. It’s the stories we hear about who we are and the stories we can tell about who we are. And it’s a lot more generic than we like to believe.

Identity is often significantly based on jobs; catastrophic job losses over the last 60 year has resulted in the widespread destruction of working-class identity. A large segment of the population has been cut adrift, economically for sure, but also in terms of self-respect and a grounded identity — in short, exiled from key pillars of a meaningful life. These concerns have not been adequately addressed by either political party. Exploited, yes. Addressed, no.

The mix of engendered emotions — rage, outrage, despair, feelings of betrayal, ‘paranoia’ —  is inherently dangerous to the established power structure and needs to be redirected to prevent effective action…something that might reverse the ongoing shift of income and resources from the lower 80% to the upper 20% of our population. It doesn’t matter whether this shift has been deliberate (oh, no, conspiracy) or enacted through mindless machinations of capitalism’s push toward monopoly and regulatory capture. The results remain.

To restate, folks are miserable as a result of their systematic immiseration. They have done nothing wrong, yet they’re steadily losing ground. That’s genuinely a pisser, and they’re pissed — if not in a spiral of despair —  and looking for clues as to who might be responsible.

I’ve found some tools that I think are key to understanding how this is playing out and hopefully pointers to things that might help counter it. They follow in as compressed a form as I can manage. This summarizes a series I call Emotional Truth and Political Lies.

Before We Start, a Bit of Grounding

…analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
Testing Theories of` American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens , Gilens and Page (2014)

Gilens and Page’s study analyzed the policy preferences of different groups and compared them to actual policy outcomes in 1779 policy cases. 

They found that economic elites and business interest groups have a disproportionate amount of influence on policy decisions and argue that this influence can be attributed to a variety of factors: primarily the role of money in politics, the limited access that average citizens have to policymakers, and the influence of the media. 

The tax code, regulatory environment, and funded services have been shaped primarily by the economic elite. If that aligns with the needs of everyday people, it’s a happy accident.

What’s the takeaway? 

  1. If you want to blame someone for how things are, it might make sense to target the folks actually controlling it! If the ‘Deep State’ is a group of actors controlling the system from the shadows, then big donors are the actual Deep State.
Gilens and Page — a tiny sliver of the US population makes the rules

2. It is important not to conflate the targeted semi-mythical ‘urban elites’ with actual economic elites. 

Gilens and Page define the economic elite as the top 1%. The top 1% represents about 1.3 million households who roughly make more than $500,000 a year out of a total of 128 million households in the US. Of the 128M, there are 108M urban households (versus 20M rural) — which gives us 106.7M urban non-elites. (See chart above.) And that assumes that all economic elites should be subtracted from the urban column — clearly not the case.

3. A PS, it’s unlikely that many of the people making things worse for almost everyone else are conscious of that. They might make good neighbors. (There are, of course, a few evil geniuses.) As a result, an ‘are they good people?’ analysis is not up to the task.

…to be continued…

Awe Shucks – Practical Mysticism #001

Wikipedia: A peak experience is an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, often achieved by self-actualizing individuals. The concept was originally developed by Abraham Maslow in 1964, who describes peak experiences as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” There are several unique characteristics of a peak experience, but each element is perceived together in a holistic manner that creates the moment of reaching one’s full potential.

Peak Experience

Back in the early 70s, inspired by Maslow’s work, I was interviewing almost everyone I knew for a psychology research paper. (Psychology was my college major.) I’d read to my ‘subjects’ Maslow’s description of peak experiences, then ask a series of questions about whether they’d had such experiences, how they viewed them, and whether that had led to any noticeable behavioral changes.

Watch out. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable time: right after you’ve been saved!

The whole thing was tremendous fun. I had fascinating conversations. Best, I became a go-to person for discussions of intense, weird, and/or transformative experiences.

One Monday, I received reports from two friends who both attended weekend events that triggered a ‘classic’ white light experience. Their descriptions were pretty much identical: white light, bliss, doubt being lifted, ‘heart strangely warmed.’

Both had then dedicated themselves to the event organizer’s practice and suggested rather urgently that I check it out!

The kicker: one had gone to an evangelical Christian rally…one of the early Jesus Freaks events… and the other an event  with the Guru Maharaj Ji.

My conclusions after all this:

  • Watch out. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable time: right after you’ve been saved!
  • Awe and ‘mystical’ experiences are human birthrights whether you view them as biochemistry or the grace of God or both.
  • But, also, based on reading Maslow and, more so, others like Evelyn Underhill, William James, and Aldous Huxley, there are mystic traditions that can provide some conceptual grounding when the going gets weird. Things often get a bit unhinged otherwise.

I Fart Therefore I Am

Quite honestly, I chose the psychology major because it required no courses that met before 1:15 pm. I was very interested in psychology, but this was the heyday of BF Skinner and various flavors of behaviorism, and that’s a lot of what they were teaching. Not all that engaging.

Luckily the Religion Department was teaching Jung (along with Buddhism and Taoism), and the Philosophy Department included a bit of Freud in the mix along with the opportunity to read folks like Husserl. Both, in other words, studied folks that were asking the type of questions I was asking.

The questions?

All were the result of a bit of an identity crisis. My questions started with ‘What is a meaningful grounding for action despite the risk of unintended negative consequences?’ and progressed to ‘How is meaning generated?’ and ‘What’s at the root of needing meaning, anyway?’

In other words, what is this ‘meaning’ of which you speak:-)?

Quite honestly the Western classic, ‘I think therefore I am’ seemed like a particularly lame place to start building an answer. My counter-example, probably cribbed from somewhere, is why not ‘I fart therefore I am.’ Or any one of a near-endless set of parallel formulations.

Very long story made very short, I ended up with, ‘There is awareness therefore I am’. Thinking has no special privilege. But where does this realization get us?

Awe and ‘mystical’ experiences are human birthrights…

First, if you take awareness instead of thinking as the irreducible root of further philosophy, the project shifts towards something Hindu philosophers and their offspring, followers of the Buddha, have been working on for a few millennia in both abstract and concrete terms. (Husserl ends up starting somewhere similar but lacks the millennia of subsequent development.) There are a whole lot of systems of thought to scaffold up from there…but again, where does that get us?

Second, that is where awe comes in. My answer is that there needs to be something in awareness itself, rather than in some configuration of ideas about awareness, that can make it a ground for meaning. Awe adds an emotional, some would say spiritual component.

This is a good stopping point. These blog posts are intended to be short. There’s a lot more that could be said, but I’ll save that for future articles. I do have a long discussion of what I believe are the underlying dynamics of awe and its bigger sisters on Medium.

Cheap Awe

Scientific third-party research was sparked by Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ and, in large part, debunked it–particularly as a hierarchy where some needs have to be met in order to enable others. Research on peaks, on the other hand, languished along with research into psychedelics. Both are now undergoing a reboot. A major influence in the study of awe is UC Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and his Greater Good Science Center. (See The Science of Awe, 2018.)

This story, “Awe might be our most undervalued emotion. Here’s how to help children find it”, from the Washington Post is actually a primer on accessing the experience regardless of age.

Awe and nature are my jam. Here’s a formula that works for me.

  • Go outside in nature. A tree-lined street might do.
  • Walk around.
  • Pay attention. Try not to daydream too much; that’s the tough part:-)

Even if you don’t trip over into awe, it’s good for you.

Science’s Newest Miracle Drug Is Free

Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)

To get longer articles every other month or so, Subscribe on Medium.

Sign up to get posts. I’m using MailChimp.

Thanks for reading!

Spring 2023 Newsletter

Hi all,

It’s been a while.

Short version: wife Wendy took an abrupt fall (the result of an unrecognized Lisfranc injury), and, between acting as a home health aide and dodging storms then making repairs, I spent 3 months with no time to write. Even with much healing and the end to a series of atmospheric rivers, time was tight. Now Wendy is highly mobile again, and it’s a glorious spring. Time to get active.

Uprooted trees in Point Reyes National Seashore after numerous storms during winter 2022/23
Pt Reyes Natl Seashore: after months of rain, even deeply rooted trees started blowing over

But hold on a minute.

The interruption gave me yet another opportunity to try and decide what I want to be when I grow up. I’m nearing the end of a series I call Emotional Truth / Political Lies written in order to think things through. (More of that below.) I used Medium as a platform because it makes writing look good and held out the promise of helping find readers/kibitzers.

Blooming wild irises at Pt Reyes National Seashore
Spring!

Here’s the problem.

First, it has become clear to me that folks that get read a lot on Medium, write a lot on Medium. Like every week. Some daily! I’m not capable of that. I’m using writing to think; that’s a slow process. I can get something out every month or two if I’m pushing it. So no big rush of new readers.

Second, the wtf demon that’s had me since 2016 is releasing its grip.

I’m finishing up the analysis phase of the Truth/Lies series. There will be a summary of thoughts so far, and I do need to write something about the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church. But I’m nearing a natural transition point.

So here’s what I’m going to do.

A piece on Medium by Cory Doctorow pointed to a way to solve my ‘slow but unsteady’ approach to writing:
“…interesting stuff that crosses my path gets turned into a blog post
where it rubs up against other interesting stuff and crystallizes into
longer, more considered pieces”
I’m going to try that. Pieces here will be short, tentative, and likely awkward. Things will appear on Medium as they mature or in the unlikely event that I end up writing something quick and fun (could happen, right?).

If you want to see the long stuff, you could Subscribe on Medium.

The latest piece and the first in 6 months is Drake’s Equation and You. If you think you’ve Subscribed but didn’t see it, then either it went to spam, or you Followed me rather than Subscribed.

(If you want to see all work by a writer on Medium remember: Follow bad; Subscribe good. Their system is confusing.)

Photo of Fermi
Fermi’s question = If there are so many stars where are the aliens? Drake took it from there.

I’ll add a teaser to the current work in progress below. See it here as sections get roughed out.

Thanks for reading,
Al

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We Need a Smaller Them

Emotional Truth, Political Lies — Our Plot So Far

There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.
Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021)

The neoliberal project was focused on designing institutions — not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy.
-Quinn Slobodian, Globalists (2018)

I have elsewhere presented the case that, to survive, we need a bigger Us. This presents the corollary: we need a smaller, more focused Them.

Intro

On November 6th, 2016, I was jolted out of my assumptions about our political landscape. Now hijacked, my attention has been focused on the contradictions of our weird political culture ever since. I’ve been reading and thinking, hoping to internalize the contradictions and write my way out. I’m part way there. This is my interim report.

Decentered Identity 

Something odd is going on. Folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum have been consistently acting against their own interests — or so it seems to me. Clearly, they don’t see it that way.

In my six-year journey to try and understand the dynamics of US politics, I have come to believe that it’s, in fact, “identity politics” at the core — but not in the way the term is commonly used. 

…to be continued…

Fall 2022 Newsletter

Hello all,

Here are free links to things I’ve written over the last quarter. I always appreciate your thoughts and getting a critique of mine…best if you leave them on Medium but whatever works.

I’ve sorted them by topic. They are, alas, weighted towards political coverage. That was not my plan when I started writing on Medium but the topics won’t let me go. Things are just two effing weird. Someday we’ll get back to quantum theory, evolutionary biology, Carl Jung, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Lighter stuff, you know.

Thanks for reading,
Al

PS, Medium is weird. You can Follow me and it does pretty much nothing. Subscribe to get a note when I publish. That’ll be about once a month averaged out. Also, the Medium Clap button is not like Like. If you Clap, please hold it down and turn it up to 11!

PSS, I add a few folks from my address book whenever I’m about to send a Newsletter out. You might be one of those folks. If you don’t want to receive these, note the Unsubscribe at the bottom or just reply and I’ll remove you.

Main Current

Coming Together

Cultivating Joy and Connection (In Search of the Lost Word)

With a shout out to my Scandahoovian brothers and sisters.

(Should you want a fuller explanation of why I think the above is necessary, here’s  an older piece: We Need a Bigger Boat (Add a Bigger Us to the Long Now and a Wider Here.))

Falling Apart

image from Naven 2nd Edition

Schismogenesis (MAGA for a day — or here’s how you can really own the Libs)

Gregory Bateson’s defining ethnography looks at a fractured society and how they managed the schism.

Just for fun / short features

Taxes Are Hate (Unless they’re taxes on you)
3 min read

Two words: Elon Musk.

Wordle-Ku (Group fun with Wordle)
3 min read

A haiku modification based on the daily Wordle always adds sparkle to my day.

Tables of Contents

For everything.
For only the  slow-rolling political research (2016 to present).

Summer 2022 Newletter

  • What follows are free links to recent writing and an excerpt from the most recent. I’m very happy with how it evolved, btw. 

But first, a note about Medium:

  • Subscribe good; Follow bad.
  • If you Subscribe then you’ll get a few paragraphs and a link when I hit publish. If that hasn’t happened blame Follow

Links

After a few years of wallowing in the problems, I’m starting to see the vague outline of solutions. That starts with this one:

We Need a Bigger Boat:
Add a Bigger Us to the Long Now and a Wider Here

Jaws — PR Photo & “Great white shark” by Gussy (Luke) is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Longer Now, Wider Here, Bigger Us

The Concept

In 2003, Brian Eno explained the insight behind the name of the Long Now Foundation.

After noting that he liked to move around, see the shops, and meet people in any neighborhood he lived in, he described going to a house-warming party in New York in the late ’70s.

The taxi delivered him to an address in a bad neighborhood. He suspected he was at the wrong address until, arriving at the top floor, he found himself in a “multi-million dollar palace.” He asked the host if she liked the neighborhood? The reply: “Oh, the neighborhood? Well, that’s outside.”

Read More

Hope it’s okay if I’ve added a few of you to my quarterly newsletter. I’ve very much appreciate the feedback you all have been providing.
Thanks for reading!

Al



S22-PS: low hanging Medium fog

Hi all,

I’ve had a bunch of folks tell me they’ve signed up to see what I write.

But they haven’t.

Medium’s options are confusing.

Subscribe 🙂

Follow 🙁

  • Follow is like Following someone on Facebook.
  • You’ll see their content if you go to Medium. Maybe. Sometimes.
  • You’ll see their content if you sign up for a daily digest. Maybe. Sometimes.
  • Most folks tell me they have Subscribed but they have, instead, Followed.

Sorry to break my ‘only once every 3 months’ Newsletter rule but the 10th confused friendly reader was the one that took me over the edge.

Al

PS – last two stories:
We Feared My Mother-in-Law Was in a Cult – then we figured out she was running one
Oxytocin — the Love Drug’s Double Nature: Hans Gets Thrown Under the Bus

Spring 2022 Newletter

Or if you can’t spam your friends, who can you spam?

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
– Joan Didion, Why I Write

When asked in college to visualize what I wanted to do after graduation, I had a clear image.

I wanted to sit, read, stare into space, think, make little notes…perhaps write things up now and then…all on a sunny hillside at tree line overlooking a wild meadow of tall grass.

The image was clear.

How that would allow me to keep body and soul together, not so much.

Forty-plus years later, retired and off the leash, I’m able to make it a full-time gig. I’ve now noticed a few things:

Discovery #1 – writing is not one component among many but central to it all, as Didion points out. It forces one to articulate musings and then presents them back to allow a critical look. Ideas that feel well-dressed turn out to be threadbare.

(I do need to add reading and research as key components of the discovery process, but it’s writing that puts it all together.)

Discovery #2 – writing is hard work.

Not for some, maybe, but for me, it’s a slow painful extrusion of text. A big challenge: even when one of those musings can be pinned to the mat, they then have to be linearized. There’s no way to write in bubbles from the center out. I’ve tried it.

Discovery #3 – having done all the work of writing, I like to get read.

Part of that is ego, of course. But more than that, it’s about joining what might be called the community of ideas. It’s about comments, discussions, and dialog (both online and face-to-face.) As an inveterate reader, I want to join the flow.

So here we are.

To get read I need to come to people’s attention and you all, my natural community, are the most likely source of comments, dialog, and discussion. You’re who I have in my mind’s eye when I try to get something clearly expressed.

There should likely be a Discovery #4.

I end up writing long shaggy pieces that work through some composite of interrelated ideas. These are not quick reads but they are central to the process.

What I’m going to be doing is using longer pieces as an anchor and breaking out key components into short stand-alone reads. That should make it more workable.

On to spam. I’m using both Medium and MailChimp

  • Both will send articles. MailChimp does this by integrating with WordPress.
  • MailChimp/Wordpress is what I’ve been using. I’m going to switch and use that for a Quarterly Newsletter instead, eg this.
  • The articles will go out directly from Medium
  • An advantage of MailChimp and Medium is that they have an easy unsubscribe. You can tell me to pipe down without it getting personal.
  • On the other hand, if you read something you like, please share it.
  • The challenge on Medium is working the paywall. I get a ‘Friends Link’ that ducks it and will try to use that wherever possible. Second, I think I’ve got it set up so you’ll see full articles in email and won’t have to go there at all.
  • But if you do, a secondary goal is to surface things on Medium for that community. Medium is weird. Don’t just Clap once if you like something: hold the Clap button down.
  • Also, if you are not a Medium member and start finding stuff of interest there, join using my link. I get money every month. It will go in the beer and burrito fund. We’ll share it! Maybe after a hike.

Where’s this all heading? The intent is to determine the most effective points to alter the situation.

Thanks for reading,
Al

Newsletter December 2021

Hi all,

Rather than sending out stories in full like in the past, I’m going instead to send out a quarterly newsletter with a link to things I’ve written.

I’ll be providing the free links so you can duck the Medium paywall.

As a replacement, Medium will now send stories directly when I publish. I’m planning on adding you (yes, you) to that list. Yell now if you don’t want that to happen!!

My assumption is that since you’re on this list, you’re okay with being on that list. It’s only for my writing.

Here’s recent work:

Emotional Truths, Political Lies #01 — political lies are expensive but can be a profit center.

———————————

Shootout at the OK Corral — An American Ecstasy: Emotional Truth, Political Lies #02 — violence and cosplay revolution.

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Overcoming Political Polarization -Emotional Truth; Political Lies #03 
— “How could they be so stupid?” A response.
…and a companion article: Am I Part of a Secret White Guy Death Cult?

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Shootout at the OK Corral — An American Ecstasy

Emotional Truth, Political Lies #02

You can read a prettier version of this on Medium.
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Fascism sees its salvation in giving people not their rights, but instead a chance to express themselves.
— Walter Benjamin

Richard Boone is one bad hombre

As a kid, I loved Westerns.

When I stayed with my grandparents, the big treat was being allowed to stay up and watch them. They featured exciting heroes doing manly deeds in a bland world of Laurence Welk variety shows and Father Knows Best sitcoms. In addition, as adult fare, they were shown past my official bedtime, and (bonus!) my mom didn’t like them. (Not sure why…probably her instinct against semi-toxic nonsense.)

Each show was a slow build to a quick resolution.

The Bad Guys telegraphed their Evil nature early, generally by bullying townspeople and disrespecting women, and then the show proceeded to reveal deeper menace and a counterforce of reaction and resistance with each character claiming their spot on the Good-To-Evil Continuum.The climax was always a Shootout in which Good triumphed, Evil received its due (death!), and the morally compromised were wounded or died heroically throwing in with Good in The End.

I’m certainly not in favor of bullying townspeople or disrespecting women but there are some problems with The Shootout as a template for conflict resolution or political action. Nonetheless, it seems to be one — as American as apple pie.

Smart and Stupid

This is part 2 in a series on American Politics that starts with Emotional Truths, Political Lies #01 in Politically Speaking. The thread through this series of articles will be an exploration of just how we got so stupid and who spent what to get us here.

The objective of this piece is to work towards an operational definition of ‘smart’ and ‘stupid’. We’ll get philosophical about that in a bit.

We are in a crisis where great need seems to lead to stupid rather than smart action — as if we’re striving to break some surface but can’t tell up from down.

In this article, I will be analyzing one way things go astray — how emotional truth can become ensnared in political nonsense.

Ecstasy

Before it became a drug name, the term ecstasy referred to an emotional state with religious overtones. An online definition, ‘powered by Oxford’, is “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

Religious authors frequently reframe the word into ‘ex-stasis’ highlighting the break of stepping out of one’s static self and returning changed.This resolution of conflict through cinematic violence is a peculiarly American ecstasy. It embodies an archetype of change or conversion through a story of ‘action adventure’ in which a stand-out ‘liminal’ moment of violence resolves the conflict and gives all their due.

We see the same story pattern repeated in comics, movies, TV, idle fantasy, and, alas, political action. The pattern of slow build with a climactic resolution is what Jane McGonigal views as the grail of video gaming: the epic win.

It’s an apocalypse that delivers utopia in a blaze of glory.

Revolution Is No Tea Party

Albrecht Dürer — The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals, from The Apocalypse c. 1497

Norman Cohen, in his classic The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, traces the appearance and development of ‘revolutionary millenarianism’ in the 14th century when the common people were set adrift by the crumbling authority of the Church in a world ravaged by the plague and famine.Millenarianism can be defined as a movement powered by the vision of a new order — specifically an egalitarian utopia — and the belief that there can be a glorious and immediate transformation to that state. (Cohen draws out some important distinctions between the different types of revolts and insurrections. We’ll return to that below.)I remember being puzzled when I first read Cohen some decades ago by the frequent jumps from imagined utopia to inter-communal violence. The egalitarian utopia wasn’t going to be equally distributed. Apparently, the route to a better future leads through the murder of Jews, or of a different variant of Christians, or the nobles, or some other flavor of not-us.

Time has clarified this for me. It’s central to the whole impulse:

  • Things are bad.
  • Someone must be responsible.
  • We are good people; we’re acting right; our intentions are pure.
  • Therefore (part 1), since the someone responsible isn’t Us. It must therefore be Them acting as a poison to the body politic.
  • Therefore (part 2), if we purge the poison, there will be a dramatic, sudden transformation to the good.

The psychodynamics and biochemistry of this are interesting and we’ll dig into that more in a future article. For now, we’ve pretty much described the underlying mental architecture of QAnon and the Capitol Insurrection: utopia delivered in an ecstasy of violence.

Tyler Merbler from USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Back to Amerika

But before we go further, I’ll have to admit to having more than just a theoretical knowledge of this type of thinking.

From 1974’s PRAIRIE FIRE: The politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism; Political Statement of the Weather Underground.

Set the Wayback Machine to 1970: we’re in a world where our amazing planet is being destroyed by a system built on the systematic exploitation of everyday people and rooted in the genocide of First Peoples and the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. We are being fed into the grinder in a war to satisfy some sort of tit-for-tat fantasy of Henry Kissenger’s. The deep state has infiltrated and disrupted resistance movements…even lowly food coops. Our leaders are being assassinated by lone gunmen or police raids. Our compatriots have been killed at Jackson State and Kent State. Old men posture with nuclear weapons when their use would clearly be insane in a “we found it necessary to destroy this village in order to save it” sort of way.

By Oliver Atkins (Jiang -original uploader on en wiki) — http://www.gmu.edu/library/specialcollections/acsrmn2_9_1f.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=516178

From this perspective, a small but intensely committed subset of the 60s/70s American left argued for acts of violence — not primarily because they would themselves have an impact but because they would crystalize awareness, show that resistance is possible, and lead to a mass uprising. This manifesto from the Weather Underground is worth a quick scan if only to note what has changed and what hasn’t: Prairie Fire (sds-1960s.org.)

Not everyone agreed that violence made sense, but the intensity of emotion created a pounding demand for some sort of action…not endless talk or compromise with the effing Hubert Humphrey liberals! Our lives were on the line. Things had to change. Now!

Creative Commons Mark 1.0

Hence, the idea of slow and steady progress seemed a slow and steady path to nowhere. Revolution seemed the only answer. Okay, Stalin was a bit iffy but Che or Lenin provided a beacon. And then along came Mao talking of ‘permanent revolution’. What could be cooler than that!Like John Lennon, you could count me out (and in) but the intent here is not to argue strategy. Certainly, uprisings and rebellions have led to progressive change and, certainly, they have backfired horribly.What I want to highlight, though, is the strong fantasy undercurrent of Revolution as the zipless fuck of progress. Transformations are quick; impact is unambiguous; consequences are as intended; evil is dispatched and good ascends. This constellation of ideas is a strange attractor in American politics.

That brings us to the modern American right.

What Were They Thinking

Followers of QAnon…believe that there is an imminent event known as the “Storm” when thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested and possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay prison or to face military tribunals, and the U.S. military will brutally take over the country. The result will be salvation and utopia on earth
– WikipediaI’m now officially the dumbest guy in my whole family
-QAnon follower on 1/21/21

There’s been enough ink on QAnon. QAnon’s theory in short: an evil deep-state cabal controls the country; Trump will lead a massive reset; time was running out so it had to happen on Inauguration Day, 2021.

If you’ve been out of the loop for the last 6 years, Wikipedia has it detailed for your reading enjoyment.

Since it involves less than a dozen specific well-chronicled individuals, the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitman provides better grist for analysis. In short: the Wolverine Watchmen Militia consisting of less than a dozen members, meeting in secret at Adam Fox’s temporary living quarters in the cellar of the Vac Shack vacuum shop, planned to kidnap the Governor (because?), blow up a bridge to delay police pursuit (until?), and hole up somewhere (and?).

From there it gets a little vague:-) Missing were specific demands or a manifesto or a political program or tactics to connect the kidnapping to any sort of change. Various members railed against everything from gun laws (gun laws?— some of Wolverines had already shown up at the State Capitol with legal assault weapons), to COVID precautions, to deep state control, to motor vehicle laws. (Reform the DMV or the Governor gets it!)

Wikipedia is again a good source of details.

Booking Photos — Wisconsin Wolverine Militia Members

As the reports of the plot continued to come in, I could only shake my head and keep asking, ”What were they thinking?”

Let’s see what one of the leaders of the Wolverine Watchman, Adam Fox, had to say (source Wikipedia):

In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude…. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back

Snatch and grab, man. Grab the fuckin’ Governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.

Smart vs Stupid: Party Like It’s 1299

Norman Cohen pointed out a critical distinction between ineffective and effective social movements:

It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless. A social struggle is seen not as a struggle for specific, limited objectives, but as an event of unique importance, different in kind from all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed.

… in contrast…

How did the movements we have been considering stand in relation to other social movements? They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful. It frequently happened that the tough, shrewd rebelliousness of the common people stood them in excellent stead, compelling concessions, bringing solid gains in prosperity and privilege.

Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One key indicator of the difference is the ‘atemporality’ of misguided solutions. The aims are ‘boundless’ and the solution is a ‘cataclysm’ from which the world emerges ‘totally transformed and redeemed.’

A second indicator: there is no ambiguity. The vision is pure and complete; unintended consequences will be non-existent.

Thus, making change is not a process that unfolds like growing crops, or building a house, or baking a pie. It doesn’t require domain knowledge, or trial and error, or sustained focused work over months or years. We ‘ex-stasis’ out of a complicated world of brick-by-brick construction and fix it all in ‘cataclysm’ of ‘redemption.’As a story, this resonates. As a strategy, it fails spectacularly.

It’s worth noting that, since we’re working with myth, that we’re in some weird variant of the hero‘s story. The Wisconsin Wolverines clearly felt themselves to be defenders and protectors. But where Hercules had his dozen labors or, as Joeseph Campbell describes, a hero goes through stages of progressive struggle through time, here the whole story is collapsed. Everything gets fixed in a ‘blaze of glory.’

And that, in a sense, is what this series is all about: the disconnect between a deeply felt emotional impulse and an effective political program.

Emotional truth; political lies.

The Economic Truth

Life flows along the commonplace.
– Carl Jung

Our current economy seems defined by the loss of a ‘meaningful commonplace’ for a huge swath of the population.

After Trump’s election, I did a deep dive into popular and academic literature trying to understand what had driven a result I did not understand…particularly the voting patterns in the upper Midwest and particularly where Obama voters that had become Trump voters.There are lots of ‘sufficient’ explanations for why Trump won. Many of them are correct. The result was ‘overdetermined’ — any of a variety of factors could explain the few votes that swung the election. Even non-voting by regular voters…the relative proportion of those too turned off to vote in this election but not in the previous…was enough to explain the result.

This doesn’t ignore the impact of evangelicals or the baleful influence of misogyny or White supremacy, but a few vote switches in just a very few states would have taken the election in a different direction. There were sufficient non-evangelical, non-misogynist, non-supremacist Trump voters to make the difference.

What was driving people? What caused them to cast what looked to me like a ‘Jesse Ventura vote’ — basically a vote to monkey-wrench a system that they viewed as hopelessly rigged against them.Donald Trump and the White Working Class1. Painalantabor.medium.com

My finding: it wasn’t all that complicated. By and large, we’re fairly simple creatures. What folks wanted could be summarized pretty easily: a decent life — agency, respect, and a fair shake. Fifty years ago much of the White working-class could obtain that in the combination of occupation and their social capital rooted in their relationships in the church, club, union, etc.This good-enough commonplace has been steadily disrupted by the loss of jobs that might support a family and increasing economic polarization and disdain for those excluded from an economy that steadily distributes wealth upward. This has been exacerbated by disruptive technologies, globalization, and ever-accelerating ‘future shock’.

As in the times described by Norman Cohen, times of economic uncertainty, plague, and the collapse of normal meaning generation are steadily tightening the screws on everyday people. People suffer with increasingly lethal consequences. As a result, people can get a little crazy.

The Political Lies

But that craziness is being shaped and shaped in a way that directly mitigates against changing the conditions causing it. Instead of a meaningful program for change, we get ‘cosplay revolution with real bullets’. Neither the Capitol Insurrection nor kidnapping Gov Whitmer had a plan that would have created good jobs or a more inclusive economy. Our distress has been short-circuited into theater.

The call to action from the political podium, the pulpit, and Fox News ups emotional intensity but blurs focus on the material processes that underly our distress so that folks are tipped into a strange attractor of self-referential cathartic but ineffective action.

The number one factor breaking families is money…economics…but try telling that to Focus on the Family.

True and False; Smart and Stupid

Post-truth is pre-fascism…. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.
– Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History, Yale

In part 1 of this series, we started to tally up what’s being spent to make us stupid. Here we define stupid operationally and quite simply.

Smart works toward an effective solution. Stupid action produces a non-solution or even mitigates against effective action.Telling them apart is occasionally difficult but sometimes simple. If you have a flat tire and you’re looking under the hood or you’re on a jihad to discover the evildoer who cursed your car, you’re going nowhere.

I’ll argue stupid action is clearly stupid if it has all 3 elements:

1) There’s a disconnect from facts on the ground.

One clue: an accurate analysis of any biological system, human behavior included, is always complicated. A story that refuses ambiguity or counter-evidence is at the very least incomplete.

You can’t easily jack yourself up to crazy action if there’s a chance your story might be wrong. A storyteller that gets more and more insistent without introducing additional analysis or evidence is likely heading down some rabbit hole (or running a con).

2) There’s a disconnect from effective action.

This can be caused by a misunderstanding or refusal of facts or simple political naivety. Without an informed political program, you’re simply flailing. Atemporal blaze-of-glory solutions with ‘boundless’ objectives are an invariant red flag.

3) There’s a call to action that highlights self-referential emotion release. In the cases we’re looking at here, that consists of a call to violence as transformative catharsis.

Gimee Some Truth

After decades of thinking about evolution, cognitive psychology, a few strains of philosophy, and the history of science, I increasingly believe that the closest we can get to Truth is the ability to take an action and have it achieve the predicted result.

Our politics is collapsing through the lack of it.

Effective action grounds itself in connection to what is actually there.

Make It Glow

Like a moth to the flame, Adam Fox had an image in his head. 100% intense; 100% ineffective. Emotional truth; political nonsense.

He didn’t arrive there by accident.

I don’t know that the path that led him astray was mapped in advance. Trump, for example, would fish for emotional responses and then build his narrative through iteration at repeated rallies.

A story just had to be ‘good enough’ to achieve the desired result: to tip us from effective action that might alter the current structures of power and oppression into an ineffective self-referential fugue.

Our stories of shootouts — violent cathartic transformations — provide archetypal draw… a strange-attractor into which an unmoored Adam Fox can be tipped to his and all our detriment.

Photo credits above

Thanks for reading.

My mailing list and various projects can be found at altabor.org.

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