The Unwashed are Coming

(Moises Castillo/AP)
The fever pitch of election season always brings out the histrionics in us. The way the political right frames it, we now have an “invasion force” coming at us from the south, not carrying guns but.. of all things, flags of their home country! This unusually selected detail was used by a post I saw on social media focusing on the flags (accompanied by an inflated statistic of the size of the group) as solid evidence of an “invasion.” So our President sends 5,200 troops to the border and speculates about “middle easterners” being among the refugees. Simultaneously, our own military files a threat assessment that predicts only 20% (1,400) will actually make it to the border and finds exactly zero middle easterners in the group.
 
We also get to witness the cries from the left of “Nazi!” and Fascist!” which get thrown around at any sign of the exercise of power politics on the part of the ascendant political class. While I am aware of a growing number of cases where rights are abrogated and power is used that has not been designated by democratic representation, it is my opinion that these terms fly about too readily and too unrealistically. I’m sure there is a sociological formula for the average gap in time between mentioning the President’s name on Facebook and the appearance of these words. There are times when we witness true fascistic behavior. And we would be better served to hold those terms in reserve for the times when law enforcement actually aids and abets extremist elements, or acts to deny us our constitutional rights with impunity. 
   
Another word that we hear frequently in this context is “racist.” All indications are that at a bare minimum, the president struggles with a tendency towards racism. But his racism, like most racism, is context driven. A member of another ethnic group is not treated unfairly unless they are a threat, either as a member of a group with a contrary agenda (immigrants, “Jewish bankers”) or as part of an economic underclass. This second type of racism results from a peculiar class awareness that makes associations with being financially well-off the hinge factor. Financial status is the key element that determines whether or not a member of the wide variety of humanity that is not Scotch-Irish is worthy.
 
Max Weber

The great sociologist Max Weber, known for naming and describing the “Protestant work ethic”, had an insight into this classism that has origins in our nation’s puritan background. He examined the pervasive belief in predestination that was central to his own Calvinist upbringing and found powerful threads running from it into capitalism and classism. The idea that our fates are decided beforehand and some of our names are “written in the book of God” became, for early capitalism, an organizing principle.

 
Since predestination was real but only God knew who was pre-selected, the stout and hearty Calvanist took life as an opportunity to demonstrate salvation. Hard work, upright morals, and thrift were salient features that proved a person’s eternal destiny. The notion of thrift in particular acted to fund the store of surplus capital that led directly to institutions of lending at interest and equity markets that we consider natural today. In prior ages, if any money was earned by commoners it was by and large spent as soon after it arrived. 
 
All of this of course is the well-rehearsed underpinning that Weber provided to his theory of the Protestant work ethic fueling capitalism. A lesser known corollary helps clarify our current dilemma over immigration and racism. Weber thought that this demonstration on the earthy plane by God’s “select” (i.e. that they had been predestined by God) became reinforced over time to become an assumption. In other words, the stricture that we do not know the mind of God as regards to who is predestined for glory went by the wayside and those who demonstrated an ethic of hard work and thrift began to assume that they were as a group clearly marked for eternity in heaven.
 
The political philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes a parallel here with the end times teachings about the rapture and those “left behind” who remain after the select enter into heaven. The same principle of “chosen” and “damned” seen in the theology of predestination applies to this formulation. Even the rough percentage holds: 10% matter, 90% don’t. 
 
Inevitably, this led to where we are today. The mere appearance of being financially well off is enough to delineate who is “clean” in the eyes of God and who is “the unwashed.” The feelings of sympathy and comity with the poor become less important and the burden of responsibility and connection to their well-being is lifted. The idea that the poor are responsible for their own fate begins to dominates and any guilt associated with having surplus is allowed to vent.
 
Those who are not currently wealthy but only aspire to be part of this club of the well-to-do buy into this same program. The recognition that the rich have a responsibility to the poor is seen as sentimental hogwash. All of life is reduced to tooth and nail struggle to reach a lifeboat and if that means climbing over your neighbor to save yourself, so be it. That person, by losing out, in effect demonstrates that they were not predestined for glory anyway.
 
Weber had much else to say that we could stand to hear today. He provided insights into political ethics that are as sharply descriptive as they were when he first published his essay “Politics as Vocation” almost a hundred years ago. He argues that political leaders must balance what he calls the “ethic of conviction” with the “ethic of responsibility”. Conviction is doing what you feel is right regardless of the consequences. Responsibility lies in seeing where an action might possibly lead. It takes into account the implications and ramifications.
 
We are more closely being led by political convictions today and they emerge from that bottomless font of political enthusiasm; ideology. It starts with unshakeable premises like “government is bad” and “foreigners are dangerous” and all actions flows from that. Subtlety, nuance, fact sorting and consensus are left begging. And unintended consequences are the result of acting on irresponsible conviction. “Political stunts” (as Barack Obama deftly termed it) like the militaristic overkill at our southern border work more as emotive electioneering engines than practical strategy.  
 
The immigration issue is real and problems regarding refugees, economic inequality and political stability must be addressed. Dividing off and dismissing a group of humans as arbitrarily unworthy is not helpful or humane. 
 
 
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The Wrong Kind of Ticket

(note: this is a work of fiction based on a real bus ride I took back in the day)
 
Years ago I needed to get out west. Back when I was young I had a job waiting for me out in Washington State. After a few years working as a prep chef at a restaurant in Chicago I was itching to get out of the city. So I sent a letter to the boss of a mining camp out there extolling my virtues as a cook and he bought what I was selling. Probably as desperate for help as I was for a reason to leave. Anyway, I needed to get out there in a big hurry. Only problem was money. I didn’t have much. Enough to buy the cheapest ticket on the cheapest form of travel: a Greyhound bus ticket.
 
Greyhound station Chicago in the 1970’s
Being young and unfamiliar with bus travel outside of city buses I had no idea about how this whole cross-country bus thing worked. Just figured you bought a ticket for someplace and they took your there. I was ready for anything in my twenties. No fear and just as much sense.

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Book review: “What is Real”

What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum PhysicsWhat Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This reads like an edge-of-the-seat detective story about quantum physics. I never thought this subject was particularly friendly to being portrayed with this kind of drama. Most reading on sub-atomic physics is a kind of slog; a perfunctory sweat-labor with the objective of obtaining a walking around knowledge of the subject.

This book sets out the characters and the stakes involved with great narrative momentum. The assumptions behind the phenomenally successful equations of quantum physics (known as the “quantum foundations”) are exposed as unresolved philosophical issues. The questions surrounding the measurement problem (“who is doing the measuring”, “what constitutes a ‘measurer’?”, “why does physics insist on a discontinuity between laws ruling the very small and large?”) are still out there. And the fundamental ontological dilemma of exactly what is being measured goes begging.

This detective story never does find its culprit. That could be a problem for some but merely the effort to re-frame the basic assumptions and ask questions that have gone neglected through the power of the “Copenhagen interpretation” to squelch dissent turns this into a delicious peek into the politics of scientific discourse in general and physics in particular.

The book also considers the disaster that is logical positivism and the absolute necessity we face today of moving beyond excuses of solipsism, moral relativism and the primacy of a strictly measurable universe in this time of monumental crisis. The dilemma of living life as fully human and allowing for all humankind to continue to flourish hinges crucially on our ability to see where we have been misled by these pernicious philosophical assumptions.

 

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Annoyed with Naturalism

 
This idea that we are all stardust, part of the cosmic whole, non-dualistic beings ruled only by the same natural forces as matter… is starting to annoy me.
 
Not that I don’t think much of it is true. I am an avowed non-dualist, or at least I used to think so. I certainly have much more of a problem with harshly delineated mind-body or the spiritual-earthly splits. But like so much of what we reject, the rush to embrace the alternative usually involves crude apprehensions and the blunting of subtlety.
 
In reading about this “Spiritual Naturalism” I find much to celebrate and affirm as well as some significant areas of disagreement. The problems lie where all philosophic differences lie, in emphasis. When we become enamored by the notion of all-ness and embrace the blurring of distinction in alliance with some “spiritual” effort to escape mental prisons we forget something basic. Our decision to do this is mental and involves an intellect, and so a person, and so an observer/observed relationship. 
 
Another thing really grates me (this is after all a diatribe and so I’m using my “annoyed” voice here…). The Naturalists make a case for all things emerging for natural forces, including consciousness itself. I cringe when I read a sentence like:
 
“Consciousness, thought, emotion, meaning, value – all these are emergent properties of a particular arrangement of organic chemistry.”
(B.T. Newburg, “The New Copernican Shift: How Science Is Revolutionizing Spirituality” The Spiritual Naturalist Society https://snsociety.org/the-new-copernican-shift-how-science-is-revolutionizing-spirituality/)
 
I really don’t think that is true. First of all, the author is leaning too hard on the phrase “organic chemistry” as if the underlying explanatory powers in the calculations of that discipline serve the purpose of a generalized authority. I could just as easily say they are “emergent properties of math”.
 
The biggest danger we face with our search for meaning and understanding is to make materialist assumptions about matters of consciousness. The conceit of science is that all of this will be quantified and explained in terms of natural processes eventually. But what if consciousness recedes upon approach by these crude tools? What if, like our quantum physics, we will only find ways to measure and calculate probabilities without ever having to say anything about some underlying reality?
 
I’m making assertions here and I understand that. In philosophical discourse it’s always that way with metaphysics. What I never understand is the facile toying with concepts like non-duality and no-self without a experiential foundation. To enter into these things is not an armchair or TED Talk enterprise. The truth is that an encounter with these truths is devastating. 
 
Here is what I think is the case: consciousness precedes physical nature. Consciousness does not “emerge” from some set of arrangements dictated by evolutionary psychology.
 
Whatever consciousness is I’m quite certain it isn’t dependent on operatives like desire for power, or recognition, or survival.
 
Certainly our behavior is shaped by these things. But to make the leap into assumptions about things that are metaphysical using science’s lab tools of cause and effect just does not follow. And it really frosts me.
 
There. I said it. 
 
 
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Book review: “How to Change Your Mind”

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics
Author: Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s nice to have your interest in a subject reinvigorated. My readings of late have rotated around cognitive science and personal transformation. Apparently those keywords must have made this book pop up. Reading it helped me re-connect my experience with psychedelics with who I am today (and probably why I keep adding books like this to my “to read” shelf).

So much of the psychedelic experience lies tantalizingly outside of our ability to form an intelligible narrative about it. This is both its bug and its feature. But the frustrations of communicability regarding my time spent unencumbered by restraints of conventional reality due to the presence of these molecules in my blood system are only the subjective dilemma writ large.

So I really appreciate Michael Pollan’s attempt at this journalism of consciousness. Talk about hard reporting. Some journalists go to war zones and put themselves in range of deadly ordinance in service of getting the story. Pollan chooses to travel to the brain on psychedelics. In both cases the challenge of getting the story is as formidable as the intimations of personal mortality.

The therapeutic benefit of this class of drugs has become a sliver of hope for me in a world that desperately needs transforming. The modern dilemma is one of scaling crisis in the face of an atomized psyche. In order to move towards a context where solutions to environmental, nationalist and even ontological problems can present themselves we will need something that resembles a trans-personal awareness.

So there is reason for hope that these drugs may play a beneficial role. My own take on them is that they can and should. And on personal reflection, having had the experience, the world has now and forever become psychedelicized; less opaque, more imbued with worth, unifying and celebratory. May we all get there in our own way.

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