On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

Farmers conquered the world.

Not that many of us farm. Modern technologies allow us all to be fed even though less than 1% of the population still does the actual work of farming. But the food we eat comes from farms. Without farms, we couldn’t live as we do.

Indeed, the material luxuries of the modern world would make this place seem like a paradise to our ancestors. So much food, so easily procured! Soft warm clothes – you can buy great digs at Goodwill for a few dollars. Oracular pocket computers – my telephone can prophesize way better than ancient gods. I know when it’s going to rain. I know if the rain will be stopping in 35 minutes.

We have indoor plumbing, hot showers, scented candles – that’s awesome! Think about it: Victorian cities smelled so bad!

I mean, sure – with climate change and rising sea levels, sewers in places like New York City will back up more frequently, and I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a moment to be grateful: the stuff we have access to is pretty incredible. All our technologies and toys.

Wow.

Farmers really nailed it, didn’t they?

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But before we reached our fabulous present (please continue to suspend your disbelief for a little longer; I understand that the present moment in history feels decidedly less than fabulous for many people), something strange had to happen.

Hunter-gatherers lived pretty well. They ate good food. They spent ample time socializing and relaxing. As best we can tell, their lives had a lot of potential for happiness.

By way of contrast, it was the pits to be an early farmer! You’d work all day; eat crummy food that left you gassy and bloated; die young. Also, you’d feel small – instead of believing that you were probably just as good as anyone else, you’d know that there were kings and such who lived way better than you.

Every now and then, their ruffians might come calling and haul away your food.

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Just like the recently deposed leader of the United States, ancient kings were big on building walls. But there’s a difference. Because it was so miserable to be an early farmer – a cog in the gearworks of a glorious civilization! – early walls may have been built to keep people in.

In Against the Grain, James Scott writes of early states that, “Do what they might to discourage and punish flight – and the earliest legal codes are filled with such injunctions – archaic states lacked the means to prevent a certain degree of [population loss] under normal circumstances. For China’s Mongol frontier, Owen Lattimore has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions. … Precisely because this practice of going over to the barbarians flies directly in the face of civilization’s “just so” story, it is not a story one will find in the court chronicles and official histories. It is subversive in the most profound sense.

The hunter gatherers had been happy, though! So how did we get from there to here? If early farming was so miserable, why did people do it?

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In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that a select few prehistoric farming communities were less miserable than the rest. Their arguments are based on sparse archaeological data – in the essay “Digging for Utopia,” Kwame Anthony Appiah presents several examples in which Graeber & Wengrow’s interpretations extend beyond the evidence – and yet, their central conclusion is almost certainly correct.

Many, many groups of humans formed distinct communities over the past ten thousand years. That’s a long time. These people didn’t have access to all the historical knowledge that we have, but they were no less intelligent or imaginative than we are. It would be naive to imagine that every single community followed the exact same political system.

Although Appiah’s review ends with a great line – “Never mind the dawn, Rousseau was urging: we will not find our future in our past” – I agree with Graeber & Wengrow that there’s benefit from showing that cooperation and mutual aid were the underpinnings of successful civilizations in the past. We needn’t be shackled by the choices of our ancestors, but it’s still nice to feel inspired by them. Even one single example of a stable ancient civilization organized around mutual aid would give credence to the idea that a radical reworking of contemporary civilization isn’t doomed to failure.

If prehistoric people did have a variety of political systems, though – some happy, some oppressive – why did we end up with a bad version?

Graeber & Wengrow write:

When people talk about ‘early civilizations’ they are mostly referring to [societies like] Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, ancient Greece, or others of a certain scale and monumentality.

All these were deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence, and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice, as we’ve seen, is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilization: the sacrifice of our three basic freedoms, and of life itself, for the sake of something always out of reach – whether that be an ideal or world order, the Mandate of Heaven or blessings from insatiable gods.

Is it any wonder that in some circles the very idea of ‘civilization’ has fallen into disrepute? Something very basic has gone wrong here.

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Presumably, some ancient cultures prioritized happiness (cooperation, sharing, art), while others prioritized growth (acquisition, extraction, war, and work).

I would rather live in the former sort; I assume most people, if given the chance to experience both, would make a similar choice. (Graeber & Wengrow include several examples of well-educated people who experienced both self-interested European-style capitalism and cooperative “savagery” preferring the latter. “By far the most common reasonshad to do with the intensity of social bonds they experienced in Native American communities: qualities of mutual care, love and above all happiness, which they found impossible to replicate once back in European settings. ‘Security’ takes many forms. There is the security of knowing one has a statistically smaller chance of getting shot with an arrow. And then there’s the security of knowing that there are people in the world who will care deeply if one is.”)

But the borders of a political system that prioritizes growth will steadily expand if able. Whenever there’s a meeting between a growth-valuing and a happiness-valuing society, the former is likely to attempt to commandeer the land and resources that had been used to support the latter.

North America was populated before Europeans arrived. The land was intensely managed: Graeber and Wengrow write that “What to a settler’s eye seemed savage, untouched wilderness usually turns out to be landscapes actively managed by indigenous populations for thousands of years through controlled burning, weeding, coppicing, fertilizing and pruning, terracing estuarine plots to extend the habitat of particular wild flora, building clam gardens in intertidal zones to enhance the reproduction of shellfish, creating weirs to catch salmon, bass and sturgeon, and so on. Such procedures were often labour-intensive, and regulated by indigenous laws governing who could access groves, swamps, root beds, grasslands and fishing grounds, and who was entitled to exploit what species at any given time of year.

But the land was being managed according to ideals other than maximum short-term agricultural extraction and population growth. The original human inhabitants of this continent believed that it would be both morally and ethically wrong to extract everything possible from their surroundings – future generations and other animals also held valid claims to the land – and so their civilizations sought to thrive sustainably amid natural abundance.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, as Matt Siegel relates in The Secret History of Food, people “described great migrations of birds so numerous they were forced to roost on top of each other, downing giant oaks from their weight and covering the forest in four inches of droppings. John Audubon later described flocks so dense they eclipsed the sun, and estimated seeing more than a billion pigeons in a three-hour span.

Despite this well-managed abundance, many Europeans still starved to death when they first arrived on this continent. They starved “not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of skill and acquiring it. In unwillingness to heed the advice of the Natives, whom they saw as ‘uncivilized savages.’ Pilgrim John Smith recounts, for example, coming across waters so thick with fish that their heads stuck out above the water, but being unable to catch any for want of nets. ‘We attempted to catch them with a frying pan,’ he writes, ‘but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.’ ”

This sort of extravagant abundance is now gone, because the encroaching civilization prioritized extraction. Enough of the Europeans survived to gain a foothold on this continent, after which natural resources would not be managed, but consumed.

The rivers were sullied; the great flocks of birds were killed.

(The other day, my family was driving near a highway where a flock of perhaps a thousand starlings swelled and tumbled through the air – it looked magical. I cannot imagine what a flock of a billion birds would be like.)

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The standard measure of our economy – the single magical number cited by politicians and talking heads to let us regular TV-watching folks know how our country is doing – is “growth.”

This magic number doesn’t assess how much we have – although politicians occasionally mention “per capita income” or “per capita output,” which could be rough proxies for that, as long as you neglect our slight (ha!) disparities in distribution – nor how happy we are. Instead, we boast or fret over the rate of increase.

But there’s a limit to growth. I loved the game Universal Paperclip, which I’ve discussed previously, because it elegantly depicts what goes wrong when we attempt ceaseless expansion.

We could prioritize something else – happiness, perhaps – but that would require a massive cultural shift. The ideals of growth are ingrained on both sides of our current political spectrum.

In On Freedom, Maggie Nelson discusses climate change and the conflict it presents: the freedom to do what we want now (chop down forests; extract & burn fossil fuels) versus our descendants having the freedom to do what they want later (visit old-growth forests; encounter wild animals; have a stable climate; survive). We now know that we can’t both have these untrammeled freedoms. Someone – either us or our descendants – has to make sacrifices.

Nelson discusses Naomi Klein’s interactions with people who are unwilling to change their current lifestyle: those who demand the freedom to eat lots of meat, crank their air conditioning, purchase & dispose of whatever plastic products they want.

Those people “are right, Klein says, when they say that climate change isn’t really an ‘issue.’ Rather, she says, ‘climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideals are no longer viable.’

These ideals – shared by people on both the right and left, Klein explains – involve a paradigm of civilization based on progress and expansion rather than one based on an apprehension of and respect for natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence, and the material, planetary parameters that make human life possible.

But it does no good for you to personally refrain from extracting & burning fossil fuels if someone else goes ahead and does it. Our planet is interconnected: the politics of Brazil will affect us all. Clever people are prioritizing growth and expansion.

In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that the Earth was already a poor habitat for humanity; if climate change makes our planet less habitable, so be it. He believes that there’s no limit to the growth of knowledge – or, therefore, to the economic growth possible for a knowledge-bearing civilization – so why should we slow down now?

(Despite his background in physics, Deutsch ignores the hard limit imposed by entropy – all processes in our universe consume order and excrete chaos, There will be no possibility for further action – not even thought – once the initial order has been consumed. Believe me, I’m all for scientific research: if the lifespan of our sun is compressed into a twenty-four hour day, the current time is about 10:58 a.m., humans have been around since about 10:57 a.m., and the sun will become too hot and evaporate all our water by 7:36 p.m. For humanity to carry on, our descendants will have to find a way to leave this planet by then – but humanity won’t carry on infinitely. And we’ll be unlikely to carry on at all if we recklessly wreck the planet before 11 a.m. instead of giving ourselves the full day to work on solutions!)

If a subset of our population agrees with Nelson & Klein, and another subset agrees with Deutsch, those who agree with Deutsch will win – win, that is, in the sense of having done what they want to the world. Sprinting ahead during the first minute of what’s likely to be an eight-hour long marathon, overheating, and expiring at the side of the road.

As a running coach, that’s something I generally counsel people not to do.

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Europeans arrived on North America. They prioritized growth. They took land from the previous inhabitants.

The vast flocks of pigeons are gone.

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In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber & Wengrow make a persuasive case that many cultures intentionally avoided the emergence of severe inequality or permanent bureaucracy. “Sometimes indigenous property systems formed the basis for differential access to resources, with the result that something like social classes emerged. Usually, though, this did not happen, because people made sure that it didn’t, much as they made sure chiefs did not develop coercive power.”

Mutual aid and cooperation were intentional goals around which societies were structured.

Unfortunately, although this sort of political structure might be good at producing happiness, it’s inefficient. I volunteer with several organizations that operate on the principle of consensus decision-making; these deliberations can be quite arduous!

Over time, the cultures with more efficient political systems are likely to grow faster – even if they’re less happy – and gradually displace the others. This is the same logic of invasive species: the plants labeled as “invasive” in any habitat tend to begin their growing season earlier and spread more easily, allowing them to replace whatever had been there before.

Capitalism has a lot of flaws, and unfettered capitalism can certainly get stuck with massive inefficiencies through monopoly power or the like, but capitalism is typically more efficient than mutual aid.

Graeber and Wengrow write that:

Both money and administration are based on similar principles of interpersonal equivalence. What we wish to emphasize is how frequently the most violent inequalities seem to arise from such fictions of legal equality.

This equality could be viewed as making people (as well as things) interchangeable, which in turn allowed rulers to make impersonal demands that took no consideration of their subjects’ unique situations.

As anyone knows who has spent time in a rural community, or serving on a municipal or parish council, resolving inequities might require many hours, possibly days of tedious discussion, but almost always a solution will be arrived at that no one finds entirely unfair.

It’s the addition of sovereign power, and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ that allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.

As money is to promises, we might say, state bureaucracy is to the principle of care: in each case we find one of the most fundamental building blocks of social life corrupted by a confluence of maths and violence.

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I would have preferred for Graeber and Wengrow to continue this discussion of efficiency, which helps explain why we inherited a political system that produces less happiness than the cultures of many of our ancestors.

Hunting and gathering yielded ample calories for ancient humans to build stable, complex societies. But in these societies, little would have been interchangeable; people might engage in different activities each day, each season, each year. The food they ate might vary considerably from one day to the next.

(In Against the Grain, Scott writes “Evidence for the relative restriction and impoverishment of early farmers’ diets comes largely from comparisons of skeletal remains of farmers with those of hunter-gatherers living nearby at the same time. The hunter-gatherers were several inches taller on average. This presumably reflected their more varied and abundant diet. It would be hard to exaggerate that variety. Not only might it span several food webs – marine, wetland, forest, savanna, arid – each with its seasonal variation, but even when it came to plant foods, the diversity was, by agricultural standards, staggering. The archaeological site of Abu Hureyra, for example, in its hunter-gatherer phase, yielded remains from 192 different plants, of which 142 could be identified, and of which 118 are known to be consumed by contemporary hunter-gatherers.”)

Farming produces equivalence. A farmer can specialize in a small set of actions, raising a small set of plants and animals. Bushels of wheat can be easily measured. There are definite losses in terms of health, happiness, and leisure time, but farming makes political organization more efficient.

Indiana’s forests are filling up with garlic mustard, not because it’s the best plant, but because it grows efficiently.

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Among the superpowers of the modern world, some have vaguely democratic political systems (although perhaps it’s foolish to lump plutocratic representational systems like the U.S. into this category), and some use dictatorship (like China).

I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces suggesting that the Chinese political system can’t succeed over the long run because it stifles creativity; for instance, an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Why China Can’t Innovate” claims that Ph.D. students in China receive an inadequate training because “the governance structures of China’s state-owned universities still leaves too many decisions to too few people.”

In the long-run, yes, free societies can produce more creative solutions to their problems. Graeber and Wengrow present compelling evidence that the indigenous free peoples of North America created a much greater variety of political systems than the oppressed peoples of Europe.

In the short run, however, dictatorships can be more efficient. (With the obvious possibility that a dictator might decide to do something counterproductive, as Vladimir Putin is demonstrating.)

Civilizations collapse – or devour each other – in the short run.

On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

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So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

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 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On Buddhism, suffering, and Deadpool.

On Buddhism, suffering, and Deadpool.

335px-The_Victory_of_Buddha.jpgSiddhartha was born into luxury.  Wealth wasn’t enough to banish a nagging sense of emptiness, but if Siddhartha hadn’t left the palace, he never would’ve known deprivation.

Instead, he walked.  He met people afflicted with worse ills than his own lack of purpose – bedraggled souls who were poor, and sick, and miserable.  He was horrified by the world we humans have been given.

Seeking a way to improve people’s lives, Siddhartha began to meditate.  He sat beneath a tree and cleared his mind until it effervesced with psychedelic hallucination.

The local gods feared that Siddhartha would gain enlightenment.  Like Yahweh in the Old Testament, these gods believed that knowledge should be the exclusive province of the divine; like white supremacists in the Jim Crow era, they believed that shared access to the fountain would tarnish their own privilege.  And so they sent a storm to disrupt Siddhartha’s concentration.

320px-Muchilinda_Buddha_from_Cambodia,_Angkor_kingdom,_Bayon_style,_12th_century,_sandstone,_HAALike Satan in the Old Testament, a snake came to help.  Mucalinda, a cobra-like naga king, believed in equality – humans too should have access to knowledge.  The cobra’s hood formed a protective bubble around Siddhartha, protecting him from the storm.

Siddhartha gained knowledge.  He now knew that non-attachment would free humans from suffering.  Everything in this world is impermanent – in the very end, each speck of matter will be so far from every other that the entire universe will be dark, empty, and cold – and so our attachments can only bring us pain.  We must recognize that our transitory world will always leave us unsatisfied.  Even our moments of joy will fade – those fleeting bursts of dopamine aren’t enough to sustain lasting happiness.

To be free of suffering, we have to let go.

But I’m an assistant coach for the local cross country team.  I run with the kids.  We suffer – that’s kind of the point.

Attachment brings suffering, but, again – that’s kind of the point.

My favorite superhero right now is Deadpool.  Most heroes have powers that keep them safe from harm – spider sense, super strength, telepathy.  Deadpool’s power is simply the willingness to endure harm.  As though tattooed with the word THOLE down his neck, Deadpool knows that life will hurt and sardonically accepts it.

He briefly considers non-attachment.  When he learns that he has a daughter, he plans to stay away from her.  Distance might keep her safe from Deadpool’s enemies – and would keep him safe from emotional turmoil.

Instead, he lets himself become attached.  He will suffer; so will she.  But he’s decided that the pain is part of life.

When Deadpool meets a young woman who’s so depressed that she’s contemplating suicide, he doesn’t advocate non-attachment.  It’s true that her torments will be temporary, but that’s a Buddhist consolation.  Instead, he tells a joke (he justifies his levity by claiming that his powers came when he was “bitten by a sad radioactive clown”) and takes her to experience more pain and suffering.

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Find the full story in Deadpool (2015) #21.

My own depression has seemed more manageable for similar reasons.  Since I’ve been working with people entrapped in the criminal justice system, I experience more pain.  More horrors are shared with me now.  But that very sharing connects me more clearly to the world.

Those connections – attachment – will bring suffering, but that’s the very stuff of life.  All you can do is endure.  As the chemist Primo Levi wrote in If This Is a Man, his account of time spent in a Holocaust concentration camp (translated by Stuart Woolf), as long as you can resist becoming too absorbed in your tiny experience of the present moment, there is always cause for hope:

It is lucky that it is not windy today.  Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.  It is raining, but it is not windy.  Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening.  Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium – as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom – well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.

You could always kill yourself later, Levi says, so why not see how much more you can bear?

And, yes, Deadpool takes the young woman to the hospital.  When one of my acquaintances needed to go, I took her in as well.  (I was on the phone with my father: “Just lie to her, tell her anything, but get her in.”  I keep the volume on my phone loud enough that she heard everything he said.  At least it was something to laugh about.)

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Hang in there.  The suffering won’t change.  But you might.

On theft and bullying.

On theft and bullying.

We aren’t born equal.

We never have been, not humans or any other animals.  Among species that birth in litters, the baby that leaves the womb largest has a lifelong advantage.  In the modern world, where a baby happens to be born dictates its future prospects to a huge degree.  Maybe it’ll be born in the United States, instantly reaping the benefits of citizenship.  Or maybe it’ll be born into a war-torn nation, amidst strife caused by climate change… which was itself caused by the creation of wealth and prosperity for all those U.S. babies.

And we use our initial advantages to further tilt the scales.  The largest mammal in a litter pushes the others aside and takes the most milk.  The rich get richer.

The same principal holds true in astrophysics.  The more dense a black hole, the better it will be at grabbing additional matter.  Densely-arrayed galaxies will keep their neighbors longest: because empty space expands, the rate at which stars drift away from each other depends upon their initial separation.  The farther away you are, the faster you will recede.  The lonely become lonelier.

But we are blessed.  Through the vagaries of evolution, humans stumbled into complex language.  We can sit and contemplate the world; we can consciously strive to be better than nature.

We can read Calvin and Hobbes and think, “Hey, that’s not fair!”

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It is perfectly natural for Moe to get the truck.  He is bigger, after all.  He is stronger.  In the world’s initial inequalities of distribution, physical prowess determined who would reap plenty and who would starve.  After all, not all territories are equivalently bountiful for hunters or gatherers.  Now we have sheets of paper that ostensibly carve up the world amongst us, but in past eras raw violence would’ve staked claims.  Human mythology brims with accounts of battle to gain access to the best resources… and we humans still slaughter each other whenever insufficient strength seems to back the legitimacy of those papers.

When the threat of contract-enforcing state violence in Syria waned, local murder began.  And we lack an international state threatening violence against individual nations – inspired partly by the desire for resources, George W. Bush initiated a campaign of murder against Iraq.

Except when we’ve banded together to suppress individual violence (the state as Voltron), the strong take from the weak.

At least we know it’s wrong.

We’ve allowed other forms of bullying and theft to slip by.  After all, differing physical prowess is only one of the many ways in which we are born unequal.  If it is wrong for the strongest individual to steal from others, is it also wrong for the most clever to do the same?

weaponsofmathdestructionFrom Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction:

But the real problem came from a nasty feeling I started to have in my stomach.  I had grown accustomed to playing in these oceans of currency, bonds, and equities, the trillions of dollars flowing through international markets.  But unlike the numbers in my academic models, the figures in my models at the hedge fund stood for something.  They were people’s retirement funds and mortgages.  In retrospect, this seems blindingly obvious.  And of course, I knew it all along, but I hadn’t truly appreciated the nature of the nickels, dimes, and quarters that we pried loose with our mathematical tools.  It wasn’t found money, like nuggets from a mine or coins from a sunken Spanish galleon.  This wealth was coming out of people’s pockets.  For hedge funds, the smuggest of the players on Wall Street, this was “dumb money.”

the math was directed against the consumer as a smoke screen.  Its purpose was only to optimize short-term profits for the sellers.  And those sellers trusted that they’d manage to unload the securities before they exploded.  Smart people would win.  And dumber people, the providers of dumb money, would wind up holding billions (or trillions) of unpayable IOUs. … Very few people had the expertise and the information required to know what was actually going on statistically, and most of the people who did lacked the integrity to speak up.

O’Neil was right to feel queasy – after all, she had become Moe.  All the high-frequency traders – who are lauded as brilliant despite often doing no more than intercepting others’ orders, buying desired products a millisecond before anyone else can, and re-selling them at a profit – are simply thieves.  Sometimes they are stealing because they are more clever.  Other times, they are stealing because their pre-existing wealth allows them to buy access to lower-latency computer servers than anyone else.

In any case, Calvin would disapprove.

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Thankfully, O’Neil quit stealing (although she doesn’t mention returning her prior spoils).  After all, that is part of our blessing – we cannot change the past, but…

… and here it’s worth mentioning that Ludwig Wittgenstein was clearly incorrect when he wrote that “One can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief.  If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely’, it would not have any significant first person present indicative.”  Most physicists believe in free will and the mutability of the future, despite also knowing that, according to the laws of physics, their beliefs should be false…

… we can always fix the future.

(As a special treat – here is one of the most beautiful comic strips about opening your eyes to change.)

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On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

On fairness (and how we treat the utility monster).

Life isn’t fair.

Why would it be?  It’s not as though the universe is a fair place.  Some stars get to chug along for years, placidly spewing forth radiation in a fiery inferno of nuclear fission… other stars explode, collapse, or die.

fittestAnd then, among the living?  There’s “survival of the fittest,” which may or may not be fair, exactly, but “survival of the fittest” doesn’t even apply most of the time.  This form of natural selection only works when there’s a large population of individuals bearing a new mutation.  If a new gene is beneficial, the carriers probably survive a little longer or raise a few extra children, and over many generations the gene spreads through the population.

That’s the ideal.  More often, mutations arise in one individual at a time.  Even if a mutation is very beneficial, like a squirrel gene that helps the little critter find and cache 20% more food for winter, there’s a good chance that with one chomp of a roving wolf’s jaws the beneficial mutation disappears.  Evolution relies on a hefty dollop of dumb luck before “survival of the fittest” kicks in.

And yet, most humans are interested in fairness.  Despite being born into a blatantly unfair universe, we strive for better.

defend_equality_poster_croppedBut it’s hard, not least because we have no examples showing us what fairness is.  Moral philosophers… and economists… and warlords, kings, peasants, and voters… have bickered for ages.  Would “fair” mean providing everyone with equal wealth?  Or equal opportunity?  Or equal treatment?

It’s quite clear that we’re not born equal.  We carry different genes.  Our mothers ate differently during pregnancy.  Would it be “fair” to recognize those inherent differences and provide more to those with the “best” genes, that they might flourish?  Or to provide more to those with the least biological advantages, that outcomes could be more equal?

Worse… it’s not clear, when we talk about making the world fair, who even counts.  Should we strive for fairness within our own families?  Our towns?  Our countries?  For all people who speak our language?  Or across the whole planet?

Not even species boundaries are definite things.  Biologists have no foolproof test for whether two creatures belong to the same species – you can’t be quite certain based on appearances, or genetic sequences, or the possibility of producing fertile offspring.  The latter (producing fertile offspring) is often taught in high school biology classes, but there are many instances of animals that biologists declare to be separate species mating and producing fertile offspring.

littleneck_clams_usda96c1862Sometimes you can be pretty confident.  If I walked into a room and saw you, dear reader, sitting beside a clam, I’d assume that you are more similar to me than the clam is.  But the boundaries are fuzzy.  Who is more similar to me, Barack Obama or 45?  Does the answer matter in terms of how each should be treated in a “fair” world?

Is a chimpanzee similar enough to me to deserve a little slice of fairness?  A macaque?  A cat?  A caterpillar?

The answer isn’t out there in the universe, waiting for us.  We have to decide for ourselves.

In economics – especially the conservative Milton-Friedman-esque strains – the goal is to make the world “Pareto optimal.”  This means no one could be made better off without making someone else worse off.  Of course, Pareto optimal distributions of wealth can be blatantly unfair – I’m not keen on the ideas of Milton Friedman.

481px-portrait_of_milton_friedman(One of my professors for graduate macroeconomics loved telling Friedman anecdotes, including a story about Friedman being asked his opinion on tax policy and simply rattling off the theorem “CE is PO.”  Where “CE” means “competitive equilibrium,” i.e. no tax policy at all.  He was joking, but barely.  Whereas all competent economists agree that people behave in wildly undesirable ways unless tax policy is used to balance the costs of negative externalities, i.e. you charge people for dumping pollution into the river.)

If a society has ten dollars and ten citizens, giving each citizen one dollar is Pareto optimal… but giving one person ten dollars and everyone else zero is also Pareto optimal.  The only distributions that aren’t Pareto optimal and the ones in which you forget to hand out all ten dollar bills.  If one person has nine dollars and no one else has any, that is not Pareto optimal.  Toss the last dollar bill at someone – anyone – and the distribution is.

So, okay, economists haven’t solved the fairness game.  Have moral philosophers done better?

One of the stronger (those still irreparably flawed) contenders for a “fair” way to run the world is “utilitarianism.”  This philosophy claims that we should act in a way that maximizes “utility,” i.e. happiness, for the population as a whole.  Which sounds good – who wouldn’t want to make everybody happy?

But… well, we can start simple.  Who should we include in our calculation?  All the presumed Homo sapiens currently living within a country?  Or do we include people living across the entire globe?  Or do we include people who have not yet been born (which makes a huge difference – should we churn through all our non-renewable resources to make everyone alive today as happy as can be, or do we save some happiness for the future)?  Or do we include other species?  Does the happiness of cows matter?  Or the happiness of people who feel sad when they see sad cows?

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To even get started on utilitarianism, you have to answer all those questions.

And then the real headache begins.  Because… how exactly do you calculate how happy someone is?  If I have one small cookie and two children, I can feel pretty confident that either child would be happy to eat it… at which point utilitarianism dictates that I give the cookie to the child who would enjoy it most.

Our capacity to experience joy, after all, is not equal.

This is the logic used for my favorite rebuttal of utilitarianism: the “utility monster” argument.

Utilitarianism imagines we should redistribute goods to make everyone as happy as possible.  Most people experience diminishing returns – a second bowl of ice cream does not make us as happy as the first – but it’s quite possible that my second cookie would bring me 9 units of utility, and your first cookie would bring only 6 units of utility (maybe you’re not fond of chocolate chips, or are diabetic), in which case, if we had two to share, I should get both.

monsterThe hypothetical Utility Monster is a creature so good at feeling happy that we should all sacrifice everything to satiate its desires, enslaving ourselves to its wants.  I might experience a “disutility” of 1,000 from being enslaved (actually, that seems low – would I really trade my freedom for a hundred cookies?), but if the Utility Monster gets a utility of 3,000 from having another slave, utilitarianism would chain me up.

(Worse, if the founding Americans knew that their slaves experienced a disutility of 1,000 from being enslaved, and a bigoted white “owner” gained only 300 from that ownership, utilitarianism would still say to do it if the founders felt that black emotions and experiences were only one fourth as meaningful as their own.  Or, in contemporary times: if a chicken receives a disutility of 1,000 from being treated as a food-production machine, and I receive a utility of only 30 from having eggs, utilitarianism says we should do it if the chicken is only one hundredth as important as a human being.  The weighted sum of utilities becomes my + 30 times 100 balanced by the chicken’s -1,000.  The world as a whole is better off!)

The Utility Monster is clearly an imaginary creature.  But there are people who are better at experiencing pleasure than others.  A human gene variant for nicotine receptors seems to make cigarettes more pleasurable, and the bearers have more trouble than average quitting smoking.  Several human gene variants seem correlated with enjoying food more, and the bearers are more likely to struggle with weight.

I don’t enjoy the taste of common desserts as much as my daughter.  If I had access to a cake and a bowl of hummus, I’d choose mostly chick peas.  Not out of any moral virtue – that’s simply the taste I enjoy more.  Whereas N would eat cake.

vicodinSimilarly, painkillers do not bring all humans the same pleasure.  Most people have been prescribed painkillers at one time or another; most college students have probably swallowed a few Vicodins recreationally.  Personally, I never enjoyed opiates much.  They made my mind feel slow, my skin cold, my movements underwater.  It was peaceful, but some people, like David Foster Wallace wigging out while pampered on a cruise ship, don’t enjoy that sense of peace as much as others.

The Utility Monster, however – a creature so good at feeling pleasure that we should all sacrifice ourselves to make it happy – would get hooked at the first taste.  My own failure to enjoy painkillers protected me from addiction.

In a society when most people try painkillers at one time or another – after wisdom teeth, or a broken arm, or a work-related back injury – those citizens who most resemble the mythical Utility Monster will wind up addicted.  After tasting that pleasure, they’ll do what they can to seek it out again.  Yes, there are costs.  Drugs are illegal.  Habitual drug use wrecks our minds and bodies.  We can’t properly communicate with our friends or families while blinkered on opiates.  But, if the pleasure is great enough (or the withdrawal pain of not using sufficiently severe), people will choose the drugs.

And so we can see what our society thinks of utilitarianism.  This philosophy advocates we sacrifice everything for those most capable of feeling pleasure.  In our world, we lock them in a box.

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On non-violence (part 2): empowering kids to act for equality.

On non-violence (part 2): empowering kids to act for equality.

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Read part 1 of this series here.

The other day I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell about their graphic novel March.  Nice to hear from others who believe in the power of literature to change the world.

And there was a question & answer section, too.  Unsurprisingly, my biggest question about their work was not addressed.  I wouldn’t have chosen it, either, given that there was time for only ten or so questions from an audience of thousands.

Still, it was very strange to me that Congressman John Lewis devoted something like a quarter of his allotted time to speaking about chickens, regaling us about how he’d raised them as a boy, recognized them as unique individuals, and preached to them.  The graphic novel, also, devotes something like a quarter of its total page count to chickens.  The art is grimly violent, showing a bird alarmed and fleeing, a gleaming blade raised into the air, ax-wielding human with flat eyes that mirror those of the brutal white anti-rights aggressors depicted later in the book, then the dead bird seeming anthropomorphically sad & resigned.  The accompanying text spills forth languorous and bleak:

john-lewis-chickens2“Worse, though, was watching my mother or father kill one of the chickens for a special Sunday dinner.  // They would either break its neck with their hands, // spinning it around until the bone snapped // or simply chop the head off. // They would then drain the blood from its body and dip it in boiling water, scalding it to loosen its feathers for plucking. // I was nowhere to be seen at those family meals.”

Then, eleven pages later, he writes that he had no qualms about eating a chicken raised and killed by someone else.

Which seems like a strange arc to include in a book about the civil rights movement. Especially because, in the case of brutality against human out-groups, history has repeatedly shown that we are less able to treat our opposition as mere things to be beaten or excluded after we get to know even one representative personally. This seems to be one reason why the gay rights movement has made such rapid strides recently: as homosexuality became less stigmatized, people were more likely to know that a friend or family member was gay, which made it more difficult to maintain hate. Similarly, I volunteer with a farmed animal sanctuary that lets people interact with members of species that are treated abysmally in human agriculture, with the hope that direct experience will disrupt the cognitive disconnect between living creatures and the slab of flesh cellophaned in a grocery store refrigerated display.

Congressman Lewis would not eat a bird he knew.  But when one he didn’t know was served to him, he “had no problem cleaning [his] plate.”  With chickens he didn’t know, he “wasn’t even bothered by [their] fate.”

Non-Violence by artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd.
Non-Violence (Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd).

It’s especially strange given how forcefully he stressed (in both his book and his lecture) the importance of Nonviolence (“Nonviolence with a capital N”) in all aspects of our lives.  The nonviolent civil rights protests were patterned on Gandhi’s methods, but the Sanskrit that Gandhi used is “satyagraha,” which would be translated into English as something like “truth force.”  The idea being that you behave correctly with such firm insistence that others will eventually realize the error in their own ways.  A nice idea, but it depends on a shared worldview between you and your aggressors — passive rightfulness could easily lead to death and defeat by aggressors who do not accept that their actions are wrong. (See the previous post in this series that considers our country’s history of nonviolent protest here).

In the case of the civil rights movement, even, you could argue that nonviolence in the South would have failed were it not backed by the threat of violent federal reprisal from the North.

3480649264_c4233a63ce_zThe Sanskrit word that best mirrors the English “nonviolence,” though, is not “satyagraha.” It’s “ahimsa.”  The latter emblazons the skin and t-shirts of many vegetarians throughout the United States.  And that parallel makes the chicken story arc in March seem even stranger to me.  The book makes clear how awful the behavior of Southern whites was, but with the chicken story arc, Congressman Lewis announces that he has a similar cognitive disconnect.

I can see why that level of honesty is commendable, but why did he devote so much space in a book about nonviolent civil rights protests to a story about violence against chickens?

CaptureIndeed, this has relevance to a question he did answer.  One of the chosen questions was from an elementary school class that attended the lecture as a group: “What can we, as eight year olds, do for equality?”

(Quick aside: can you see why I was so happy to be there?  What a lovely evening, to be at an event where this sort of question was both posed & answered earnestly.)

Congressman Lewis answered that young people should study the history of the civil rights movement, and that if they see something that isn’t right, if they see someone doing or saying something wrong, they should stand up to that person and let them know.

Which is nice.  And Congressman Lewis’s achievements make clear that he has the authority to give that advice credibly.

Still, I can’t help but think that his advice was only half the answer.  Personally, I think we can fight injustice both externally, trying to correct the bad behavior of others, and internally, trying to ameliorate our own contributions to injustice.

slide_287085_2236745_freeFor a second-grader, pushing back against external injustice is difficult.  There’s a question of access, for one thing — an eight year old might not directly observe major injustices or be able to attend protests.  Even if a eight year old does see a police officer frisk someone inappropriately, I’m not sure the officer would listen to a child saying “That’s not right.”

If that’s the only recommendation children are given, I’d worry that they might feel ineffectual, lose help and stop trying.

But a second-grader, through internal change, is fully capable of pushing back against the major driver of injustice in the world today.  Global climate destabilization is causing huge amounts of suffering to the world’s poor, and this will only increase as temperatures rise, hurricanes become more extreme, and weather patterns become more unpredictable.

Which sounds bleak, sure.  But climate change is driven by the behavior of consumers.  Most people, as individuals, don’t pump much poison into the atmosphere — I assume few first graders are burning garbage in their backyards or slipping out for long, unnecessary nocturnal drives in overweight vehicles.  But corporations don’t act in a vacuum — corporate behavior is motivated by the demands of consumers.  Second-graders, as consumers, can make choices that will contribute less toward climate destabilization.

Our world has other problems, sure — there’s been a lot of hateful language bandied about in the United States recently (see, for instance, the primary, or the “all lives matter” counterprotests), and other parts of the world are even more vicious — but those other problems, xenophobia, exclusion, etc., are exacerbated by economic scarcity.  In times of bounty, it’s easier for people to agree that everyone deserves a fair share… each person’s fair share will be plenty.  But if five people are stuck on a lifeboat with only enough food for three, it’s easier to invent mean-spirited justifications for pushing two people overboard.

Climate destabilization will lead to further economic scarcity.  It’s not unreasonable to expect that it will directly cause people to become more hateful & exclusionary.

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Sampson et al., 2011.

But second-graders can turn off lights that aren’t in use.  They can decrease their meat consumption.  They can play with used toys, and request as much for Christmas and birthday presents.  (I’m a wee bit older than six or seven, but here’s a video by Greg ‘Kingkong’ Eismin of some friends “shopping” for presents on my birthday.)

Those behavioral changes are all within reach of eight year olds and would be a huge effort toward fighting inequality — those changes will make it less likely that their fellow humans will starve in food crises, drown during forced migrations, die battered & bruised in hurricanes.