Sunday, July 26, 2020

Our Freedom Extends as Far as the Reach of Our Possessions

Pushing All He Owns    
CC Jean Stmmell 2017 in SF
Our Freedom Only Extends as Far as Our Possessions Reach

Edward Burmila recently wrote an insightful piece in the Nation linking economic status with how free we are: People are only as free as they can afford to be. “For Americans, lacking guaranteed access to basic necessities like housing, food, health care”…this is a constant dilemma.”⁠1

As a result of stagnant wages coupled with the ever-rising cost of living, working folks are often stuck in stultifying jobs they hate, in order to keep health insurance coverage for their family. Many struggle on a precarious treadmill, living one step from disaster, lacking the savings to pay for even a $400 car repair: if you lose your job, you lose everything.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that some Americans cling to the only shard of individualism they have left, even if it is pointless and performative. 

Burmila says it is these workers, the ones with diminished economic freedom, who are the most likely to refuse to buckle their seatbelt or wear face masks. They are striking a blow for freedom, the only way they can, like a high school student burning rubber out of the parking lot, after being told by the principal to tuck in his shirt.

I have been engaged in a deeper examination of freedom and the individual, after reading some of the work by feminist political theorist Jennifer Nedelsky.⁠2 She digs down to find the reason why we emphasize individual rights to such an extent in western democracies and explores why we persist in believing that we are “self-made and self-making?”

If we stop and think for a moment, the idea of such radical autonomy is impossible. The myth of the rugged individual contradicts both science and common sense. Quite the opposite: we are not separate atoms but social organisms. It is our particular social context we are born into that defines who we are.

“Some of our most essential characteristics, such as our capacity for language and the conceptual framework through which we see the world, are not made by us, but given to us (or developed in us) through our interactions with others.”⁠3

Nedelsky says that our radically separate notion of autonomy remains so ingrained within us because of the way our laws are written: autonomy reigns supreme because it is protected by our legal framework, which has erected a wall of rights between the individual and those around them.

Going further, she asserts that this legal wall of protection, built around the individual, is built out of property rights. Property is the central element and the glue that holds together our rationale for rugged individualism: it “literally and figuratively provides the necessary walls.” The more property you own,  the more you security you have. But that has come at a heavy cost:

“This vision of the autonomous individual as one securely isolated from his threatening fellows seems to me to be a pathology that has profoundly affected western societies for several centuries."⁠4

The greater the gap between those with property and those without, the greater the inequality. Those left out, lose freedom: Without access to essential goods and services, it’s difficult to live a meaningful life with dignity. At the low end of the scale, individuals become wage-slaves or homeless – and in extreme cases, forced into literal slavery, like Afro-Americans before the civil war.

Today we see the greatest inequality in wealth in America since the Gilded Age: The three richest Americans now own more than the bottom 50% of us. As a direct consequence, more and more of us are losing the economic means to control our destiny.

If we want to aspire to a fairer and more just society, we must reject the myth of the self-made individual. We need to disassociate autonomy from property rights. Thinking outside the box, Jennifer Nedelsky provides an alternative model that’s difficult to argue with:

“The answer is not isolation, but relationships-with parents, teachers, friends, loved ones – that provide the support and guidance necessary for the development and experience of autonomy. I think, therefore, that the most promising model, symbol, or metaphor for autonomy is not property, but childrearing.”⁠5

2 who was highlighted in  a recent, excellent piece in the Monitor by Sindiso Mnisi Weeks:
3 Yale Journal of Law and Feminism [Vol. 1: 7. Page 8
4 Ibid. page 12
5 Ibid. page 12

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Are we headed back to the Middle Ages?

I photographed this petroglyph in a remote canyon on a private ranch near Abiquiu, NM. It was carved over 1000 years ago by the Anasazi, a Navajo word for ‘the ancient ones.   “The Spiral is known as an ancient symbol of evolution. One of the oldest symbols of human spirituality in existence, the spiral has been found carved into cave dwellings, rocks and tombs all over the world. It is said to symbolize the evolution of the universe, the never-ending cycles of growth, change and eternal life as well as the cycles of the seasons.”

As Americans, we view time as a one-way street where things are always getting better: We call this progress. But philosophers and sociologists see things differently, viewing our idea of progress as culture-bound, specific only to the modern western world.

 It turns out our belief in endless progress grew out of the Enlightenment, a reaction against the medieval belief that God’s will determines our destiny. Over time, the notion of progress has replaced the dogma of divine providence and has become itself, like a religion: A fundamental entity like the air we breathe.

Throughout history, most human societies have had a different take on how the world works: they saw history repeating itself, like the annual cycle of our seasons or how day follows night. 

Rather than assuming continual progress, let’s hypothesize that we are repeating the cycle by returning to the Middle Ages. We can find ample evidence to suggest this might be the case.

 In Europe’s history, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century, while the real “dark ages” occurred between 350-550 as the Roman Empire split apart.  As a result of the collapse of centralized authority, cities dwindled as folks fled to the countryside, disease spread, and the economy had major setbacks, all triggering mass migrations.

This may be in our future if polarization and the plague split our nation apart. 

Jose Gouvea writes, “When we talk about the "loss of knowledge" that occurred during the Middle Ages, we must understand that it happened… as a result of Roman decadence, Christian intolerance, and wars. But most of it was because of Christian intolerance.⁠1

Christians mounted vicious assaults against Islam. Toward the end of the 11th century, the Catholic Church began to authorize military expeditions, or Crusades, to expel Muslim “infidels” from the Holy Land.  

Today, what is often forgotten is how Christians went out of their way to pillage and slaughter Jews in settlements they encountered on the way to the crusades. Regrettably, once again, Jews are increasingly under attack around the world.

No one “won” the Crusades; in fact, many thousands of people from both sides lost their lives – much like the endless wars we are fighting in the Middle East today. As in the dark ages, republicans today have begun to equate governing with conquest cloaked in religious morality.

Before invading the Middle East, President Bush, senior, called the operation “a crusade” to “to rid the world of “evil-doers.”  13 years later, his son declared, This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil” before invading the Middle East again. 

We often read about the wholesale burning of books during the Middle Ages. Much of it did not happen but this did: When we invaded Iraq in 2003, we carefully guarded the oil wells but ignored repeated pleas to protect their renowned National Museum, resulting in one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times. “The scale of the looting was staggering,” but the Bush administration’s response was only that “stuff happens.”⁠2

During the middle ages, folks believed in witchcraft, attempted to exterminate all black cats because they represented the devil, and lived in fear that their children would be stolen and replaced with a demonic “changelings.” Today we have the QAnon conspiracy theory, peddling Trump’s alleged secret plan to expose Washington elites engaged in everything from pedophilia to child sex trafficking.  QAnon continues to gain followers, with no disavowal from  Trump and his supporters who retweet their messages.

And, of course, we have the pandemic, just one of the many commonalities between then and now, but the one presently starring us in the face. Some health experts are predicting that Covid-19 will end up killing half a million of us, largely as a result of political polarization and bumbling mismanagement.

I make these comparisons not to scare people but as a cautionary tale. Even if history does repeat itself, it does not follow that the cycle is shifting right now. But it does mean, quoting George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The first step is so simple:

The time has come for all of us to stand up together, acting in unison, to practice all CDC guidelines. If we do so, our actions will quickly bring Covid-19 to its knees. If not, it will bring us to our knees – threatening not only our individual survival but that of our nation.


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Garlic to the Rescue

Above is a recent photo from my garden, featuring garlic scapes, the flower stalk a garlic bulb sends up about three weeks before the bulb can be harvested. Garlic has a long history, even stranger than its convoluted scape shapes.

According to old Christian myths, garlic is demonic, springing from Satan’s left footprint, upon his first step on earth after being kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  Being left-handed, I take umbrage that the left side is associated with the devil. The meaning derives from Latin where “sin” is related to both the left side and being evil.

Eastern European folklore, on the other hand, had the opposite view, believing garlic gave them protection against evil spirits.  This stance carried over into vampire lore, where garlic was used to ward off werewolves and dastardly bloodsuckers.

In one Korean foundation myth, a female bear, after eating nothing but 20 cloves of garlic and Korean mugwort for 21 days, was transformed into a woman. She gave birth to a son who founded the nation of Korea.

According to  Pliny, garlic and onions were invoked as deities by the Egyptians They also fed their slaves, building the pyramids, garlic on a daily basis to ward off illness and increase strength and endurance. The slaves were true believers in garlic’s restorative power, even going on strike to get their daily ration increased.

The slaves weren’t alone. For thousands of years, people have touted garlic for its health properties. As a performance enhancer, ancient Greek athletes would take copious amounts of garlic before a competition. Roman soldiers ate garlic to inspire them and give them courage. The traditional Palestinian bridegroom wore a clove of garlic in his buttonhole to ensure good luck in the bedroom on his wedding night.

Cultures around the world, since the beginning of recorded history, have touted garlic for its medicinal properties, using it to treat many conditions. Sanskrit records show its medicinal use 5000 years ago, and China, for at least 3000 years.

It can be no coincidence that hundreds of cultures over thousands of years, many with no contact with one another, all came to similar conclusions about the beneficial role that garlic plays in treating disease, particularly for pulmonary and respiratory complaints. Research today is tending to validate those claims.

In addition, garlic has long been promoted to fight infections. It was observed that garlic merchants, during outbreaks of bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, died less often. In response, people wore masks as we are doing again today – but soaked theirs in garlic steeped vinegar.

 In 1858, Louis Pasteur came up with a plausible explanation, when he discovered that garlic contains an antibiotic oil called allicin that could have boosted the immune system against the bacterium that caused the plague.

After that in Europe, garlic’s antiseptic property was claimed to help control outbreaks of cholera, typhoid fever, and diphtheria. And in this country, for protection during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, individuals wore necklaces of garlic, when going out in public.

President Trump is a champion of unorthodox cures. Since he won’t wear a mask, perhaps he would be willing to replace his extra-long tie with a garlic necklace, the highly regarded accoutrement during our last pandemic.

It would likely be more efficacious than the hydroxychloroquine cure he tried to foist on us.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Science first made us arrogant, now it humbles us

This photo shows a 4-hour sequence of star trails captured from the Nature Park 
of Noudar in Portugal's Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve.(Image: © Miguel Claro)

Science first made us arrogant,
now it humbles us

For most of human evolution, the cosmic forces of the universe were magical, beyond our feeble understanding. We were humble and kept our heads down, acutely aware that we were the lowest denominator in a vast galactic mystery. 

But as of late, over the last few hundred years, we have become smug and arrogant, coming to believe, because of our rudimentary knowledge of science, that we know everything – or soon will.

We are like the three blind men, in the ancient Indian parable, exploring an elephant, each absolutely sure he ts right. The first feels the trunk and declares the elephant is a snake, the second feels an ear and claims it is a fan, and the third feels a leg and says it a tree trunk.

Like the three blind men, the conclusions scientists draw are only valid within their particular focus, not necessarily reflecting larger reality.

Forever, we thought the earth was flat until Galilei proved it was round. Since then, we have become to rely more and more on science, discarding all the ancient ways of knowing.

After Galileo came classical physics, pioneered by Newton, who was able to plot the clock-like orbits of all the planets. This breakthrough was momentous, changing the way we thought about ourselves. It gave us big heads: After all, if the universe was like a giant clock, then we could figure it out and unravel all the secrets of life. God and mystery flew out the window.

While classical physics works perfectly for large objects, it does not work with extremely small particles, like electrons, moving at high speeds. To make sense of these subatomic particles, a new theory, quantum mechanics was developed with the help of Einstein.

In the quantum world, events are unpredictable: small particles do not make predictable transitions like large objects: instead, they jump from one state to another in a seemingly random manner, called quantum leaps. This leads to spooky behavior. 

Examples include counter-intuitive phenomena that defy common sense: like light which can be either a wave or a particle; particles that can exist – or not exist – at the same time; and quantum laboratory experiments, where what the scientist is thinking affects the physical outcome.

Such weirdness has caused many people to consider quantum physics to be pure science fiction or too abstract to be practical.. But they would be wrong. Without advances made possible by quantum physics, we would not have computers. lasers, MRIs, cellphones, or many other accoutrements of modern life.

This leads us to something really weird: quantum entanglement, perhaps, the strangest and most unbelievable aspect of this young science. According to this theory, once two particles, such as electrons, interact with one another, they will forever be entangled: Continuing to act in unison, even if, in the future, they separated by vast distances.

But guess what: spooky as it is, now there is proof! According to a recent article in the journal Nature,  scientists in China were able to send messages between a satellite and two ground stations using quantum entanglement.

As the NYT describes it: Tickle one particle here, by measuring one of its properties — its position, momentum or “spin” — and its partner should dance, instantaneously, no matter how far away the second particle has traveled.⁠1

No longer a bizarre theory, it’s fast becoming fact. 

How far out is that! And, in my opinion, invigorating, helping to restore mystery to our lives by challenging our know-it-all attitude. Even with all we’ve learned, we are still in the stone age: still, small bits of protoplasm totally enmeshed within a glorious universe that defies human understanding.

But wait! There’s more:  String theory, developed to reconcile classical physics with quantum physics, hypothesizes that what we think of as one universe is actually very small strings that vibrate in 10 dimensions. In other words, we may be living simultaneously in up to 10 parallel worlds, 9 of which we can’t see. 

Ain’t life grand!


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Nature's Equanimity

These camouflaged, wild ducks I photographed yesterday, symbolize to me what Buddha meant by equanimity:
A mind filled with radiance and warmth of being, loving and compassionate, without hostility or ill-will.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

When the fuse is lit: Vietnam and Now

                                                                         Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Nixon talking to protesters on the National Mall, May 9, 1970

When the Fuse is Lit: Vietnam and Now

Some times, despite grave injustice, nothing happens for what feels like forever until one day, a fuse is lit, explosively releasing society’s pent up emotion. Based on my history, I’m thinking of Vietnam and now.

When I returned from Vietnam in February 1968 to start classes at UNH, the war was already in its second decade – with no end in sight.  Amazingly, the campus still seemed more like the 1950s than the 1960s. Hair was still relatively, short,  dress conventional, and no general outrage about the war. 

But that soon changed after a succession of signal events. Increasing opposition to the war prompted LBJ to not seek a second term.  MLK was assassinated. Then RFK. Riots and police brutality were the main event at the 1968 democratic convention. Anti-war protests blossomed.

 But the fuse wasn’t lit until May of 1970 when Nixon announced that he had invaded Cambodia, expanding the war that he had pledged to end. In an explosion of anger, young people took to the streets everywhere.  Within days, the Ohio National Guard responded by shooting for peaceful protesters and wounding nine others at Kent State.

Earlier that spring before the fuse was lit,  I had become demoralized and exhausted, like many black and brown folks today, from years of seeing no progress, only hearing upgraded body counts each day on the news.  

At the beginning of 1968, 20,000 of my brothers and sisters had been killed in Vietnam; another 38,000 would have to die before it was over.⁠1 Throwing up our hands, a group of my friends and I  dropped out of classes and secluded ourselves in a remote farmhouse in Northwood. 

That is until Nixon’s speech galvanized us into action.  With no social media or even a phone, as by osmosis or some herd instinct, we piled into my rusty car and rushed to UNH, where we joined a rising throng of outrage. 

We held a rally outside the Chancellor’s residence and then begun marching around the campus, chanting “Strike!, Strike! Strike!” Students flocked out of dormitories to join us. We occupied the Memorial Union Building. Within days, we had shut down the university, joining in solidarity with hundreds of colleges across the nation. We got nation-wide attention when Abby Hoffman, Dave Dellinger, and Jerry Rubins accepted our invitation to visit the campus, causing much gnashing of the teeth by the Manchester Union.

 I then headed to Washington D.C., for a rally on May 9th, hitchhiking there with a large black fist stenciled on the back of my shirt. Indeed, it was a major protest with a heavy presence of National Guard troops dispensing tear gas. But one aspect of that night is pertinent to what happened recently.

We kept hearing a crazy rumor that Nixon was out on the National Mall: it turned out to be true. The president, on the spur of the moment, walked out of the White House that night, alone except for his valet, to talk with protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. That’s a much different scenario than Trump’s recent action, clearing away peaceful protesters with tear gas before feeling safe to leave the White House.

While we young people adamantly believed we were changing the world, the rest of the country was not on board. A Gallup poll in the wake of the Kent State shootings found that 58% of Americans blamed the students for the deaths, while only 11% blamed the National Guard. 

Nixon saw this as a political opportunity to consolidate his hold on the “silent majority,” enabling him to win re-election in a landslide. And in a footnote to that election, here’s some paranoia potentially applicable to events unfolding today.

Nixon, like Trump, was obsessed with the idea that outside agitators were behind the student protests. J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon’s equivalent to Attorney General Barr, did a thorough investigation but could find no evidence to support this. 

Undeterred, Nixon created his own surveillance force, the so-called plumbers who were caught breaking into the Democratic Nation Committee headquarters; this, in turn, leads to the Watergate scandal, resulting in him resigning in disgrace.

The fuse has been lit again.  In 1970, it was the escalation of the Vietnam war; this time it is the murder of George Floyd, who has become the face of police violence against blacks, while exposing, at a deeper level, the extreme level of income inequality that exists today, poisoning the well of our democracy.

But make no mistake: things are different this time. As Obama has pointed out, the outpouring of protest today is not just young people or people of color but a broad cross-section of society: every race, gender, age, and class.

This time around we are the majority –no longer silent – standing up to a blustering narcissist who delights in dividing us by appealing to our baser instincts while mocking all the higher values we hold in common that has made us a great nation.

Like Nixon, Trump’s overreach has greased the skids of his downfall. 


Sunday, May 31, 2020

The ground of all existence

Northwood Sacred Ox: 5/30/20
Jean Stimmell©2020
To Buddhists, the ox symbolizes the ultimate, undivided reality, which is the ground of all existence.