Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Change is driven by the young, not us grizzled elders

Protester at the Vietnam Memorial during
Women's March: Washington D.C.–3/9/86

CC Jean Stimmell

Recently I wrote in this space about how humans are born into this world unfinished, requiring a long childhood to learn the norms and practices of their particular community. For the community to thrive, what we pass on to our children must change in step with societal changes.

This unparalleled ability to change, as psychologist Alison Gopnik tells us, “is the most distinctive and unchanging thing about us.⁠1, allowing us to thrive no matter what challenging circumstances we had to face over our long evolutionary history.

But societal change isn’t driven by our grizzled elders but by our children. As sociologists like Tressie Cottom tell us: “Almost all real change that happens is when a new generation comes along.⁠2” They are the ones able to think outside the box of what is.

We see that happening today with young people who are celebrating diversity by embracing previously marginalized folks and expressing their openness to discussing unsavory aspects of our national past in order to find a better way forward.

On the other hand, Republicans in our legislature are,  on average, old in body and spirit, clinging to the past and resisting change. They remind me of Archie Bunker, the star of that seminal TV sitcom All In The Family, which ran in the 1970s. Archie attempts to indoctrinate his family into his old-school, patriarchal worldview, but his daughter and her boyfriend are having no part of it. Neither are the young today.

This brings me to House Bill 544 which would prohibit educators from teaching about systemic racism and sexism in public schools. It seeks to limit public schools from discussing topics related to racism and sexism; in particular,  it would ban teaching whether we are racist or sexist, either as a state or a country.  As the sponsor, Rep. Keith Ammon, who introduced the bill, explained, “If that’s the assumption we are going to make as a society, then we are never going to get to unity.”⁠3

That sounds to me like something Archie Bunker would say to his family: If you would just shut up and do things my way, we would have unity. Luckily, his children tuned him out and opted instead for diversity: standing up for feminism, civil rights, and against an unjust war in Vietnam. Needless to say, they prevailed. That’s a good illustration of how change was brought about by the young during those turbulent times.

In fact, as Michelle Goldbert writes in the NYT, “Many of the intellectual currents that would become critical race theory emerged in the 1970s out of disappointment with the incomplete work of the civil rights movement.” Understanding that racism is structural rather than just a matter of personal bigotry was ahead of its time back then but is now conventional wisdom, except for flame-throwers on the right.⁠4

Our children are our designated drivers of change, especially crucial resources today as we face unprecedented upheavals in society, technology, and the environment. For the next generation to safely steer us toward a livable and just future, they must be well versed in critical thinking and relational skills, not indoctrinated into the dysfunctional gruel  of the present. The stakes are high if we want to escape the fate of the dodo bird.



1 The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik. Farrar, Straus & Giroux: New York: 2009, Page 7

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/13/podcasts/ezra-klein-podcast-tressie-mcmillan-cottom-transcript.html

3 https://www.concordmonitor.com/Education-bill-would-ban-teaching-racism-sexism-38821767

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/26/opinion/speech-racism-academia.html

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Source of Our Discontent

 "Trump's America" by FotoGrazio is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Conservative media and politicians whip their audiences into a frenzy, crying that the sky is falling: that we are losing our birthright as a nation because “hoards” of dark-skinned “aliens” are invading our country. They accuse liberals of being godless heathens for questioning the “natural order” of things in terms of who is should be in charge, what it means to be a man or a woman, who we can love, the list goes on and on.

In a word, these instigators  are fueling moral panic, pitting us one against another, making us ever more polarized as a nation.. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and prominent public intellectual, has done brilliant work illuminating the root of our discontent.⁠1

It all stems from the categories of thought we use to navigate in the world. The human brain  is limited and can’t cope with the infinite stream of incoming stimuli we receive without establishing some sort of order. The brain does this by establishing categories, defining apples as one category of fruit, oranges as another; women as one category of human, men as another; and so on. It is through these categories that we make sense of the world. They can be interpreted in two ways.

We can view these categories as immutable because they are baked into our biology or passed down from God, or we can see them as more porous and changeable, varying widely between cultures. Conflicts between these two views of reality are often explosive because they can threaten bedrock values. Challenging them can lead to moral panic. That, according to Cottom, is the underlying dynamic driving our polarization and moral outrage.

Liberals tend to view these categories as socially constructed, differentiating over time to include more categories of  folks who previously were marginalized or left out. They see that as progress. Conservatives, however, tend to see these categories as sacrosanct, written in stone, ordained by a  higher power. Changes for them, therefore, are seen as a moral violation threatening their deepest values.

Every person has prejudices and blind spots, whether we admit it or not. Having them outed can be disorientating, shaking us to our very core. At that point, we have a choice: We can either be like ostriches, sticking our heads in the sand by passing laws making it illegal to talk about the source of our distress. Or we can join the conversation by participating in community dialogue, all-inclusive without blame or rancor, to find a way forward to further the American dream.

It can seem comforting to look back with nostalgia for the ‘good ole days,’ But as Cottom reminds us, we usually can only do so by glossing over past inequality and injustice. Watching “Father Know Best” as I did as a child glossed over the unequal treatment of women while completely eliminating people of color. Growing up watching cowboy and Indian shows from the 50s and 60s –as I admit I did with relish – glossed over Native American genocide.

 To me, it is undeniable: We are unfinished beings at birth. We become, in large part, who we are through being socialized into a specific community. That means we are largely socially constructed, woven into exquisite beings of vast complexity by the warp and woof of our evolution. 

For long stretches of our history, things have stayed the same; at other times we experience rapid change. But never before in our evolution have we ever faced, as we do today, such dizzying change in so many realms: social, technological, and environmental. As our national prophet and Nobel Prize winning poet has sung “The Times, They Are A-Changin:” 

And you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone.


1 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/13/podcasts/ezra-klein-podcast-tressie-mcmillan-cottom-transcript.html

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Rediscovering Who We Are

Hampton Beach ©Jean Stimmell

Elementary Forms of Religion

I’ve written about this before in this space: We think we act rationally with the cold logic of a computer, but beneath, we remain mere animals driven by instinct, habit, geography, time, and mystery. Toward that end, there’s even a new book entitled How to Be Animal.

We are not solitary but social animals, though not always the cuddlesome creatures seen on Animal Planet. We can get swept up in the moment and do terrible things, prompted by something sociologists call “social contagion.” There’s a new book about that also, entitled The Delusions of Crowds: Examples include the mass delusion behind the Salem witch trials and the recent mass assault on Congress, back on January 6th.

But all is not lost.

Under most circumstances, our social nature is our savior, driven by an altruistic instinct to promote the welfare of the species. We see this in action when a regular person spontaneously, without thinking, jumps in a raging river to save a child. The extent that altruism is  fundamental to the human condition has recently been proven in experiments by the psychologist Alison Gopnik: her research shows that children are naturally empathetic from birth and tend to exhibit altruism from the age of one.⁠1

Our altruism, I think, is related to the ecstatic sense of wonder we feel by witnessing the emergence of new life or being soothed by the gentle murmurs of an endless sea caressing the land. But, more than just observing, we have a compulsion to share, prompting our forbearers to translate  their sense of awe into breath-taking cave art, found all around the world, thousands of years before communication became written.

Written language is a recent development, originating independently in four places around the world around 5000 years ago, fueling what the civilized world has called progress –  and, indeed, it has bestowed on  us many gifts. But, in a Faustian bargain, it filled our heads with dictionaries, separating us from our most precious birthright: the immediacy and purity that comes from being fully alive in the moment.

While Indigenous folks stand transfixed in the mere presence of Mother Earth, modern westerners stand tongue-tied and impotent, reaching desperately for words that are only crude approximations, sullying  the moment like reading pornography as opposed to making love.

While social contagion has a nasty component like a pack of dogs gone wild, it isn’t always so. Most often, it is positive and restorative, as when we stand silently together with friends experiencing a full moon: That  can be a revelatory epiphany, a mysterious joining together with each other within the embrace of all that is.

Such social solidarity was everpresent in indigenous life, but not so much today. In my opinion, our inability to connect  to  each other and the earth intuitively with deep inner feelings are at the root of what ails us today.  

  Emile Durkheim was a well-known 19th-century sociologist who is a hero of mine. He believes humans hold in common a social consciousness that has evolved within us across our long evolution; while most of it lies beneath our awareness, it determines much of what we do. Most important, it is intimately connected to the divine. Durkheim makes a strong case that the awe and sense of mystery we are capable of feeling is the wellspring of religion before it becomes regimented and institutionalized.

As he writes in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, these collective representations are “the result of an immense cooperation which stretches out not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds have associated, united, and combined their ideas and sentiments; for them, long generations have accumulated their experience and their knowledge...infinitely richer and complexer than that of the individual.⁠2” 

Rather than using words like cudgels to divide us from one another, we need to reconnect to these elementary forms, accruing since the dawn of humankind. “It is only by tapping into these collective social realities that individuals can “understand each other and intelligences grasp each other. They have within them a sort of force or moral ascendancy.”⁠3




1 The Philosophical Baby: What  children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life by Alison Gopnik, 2009.

2 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by E. Durkheim, New York: The Free Press, 1965: page 29

3 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by E. Durkheim, New York: The Free Press, 1965: page 485

Monday, April 12, 2021

Mother Earth's Text

A special stone on my land
CC Jean Stimmell" 4/8/21

A sacred stone talked to me today
in the native tongue of Earth
with groovy glacial alphabet and
shadows of gently swaying branches
in shifting auras of light and dark
nurturing ancient growing lichen –
along with the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Working Class “Woke"

Occupy Wall Street, NYC, 10/8/11
CC Jean Stimmell

"Woke" has become synonymous with political and social awareness among activists in the Black Lives Movement. This innocuous word has become a rallying cry for conservatives, claiming “becoming woke” is part of a sinister plot to privilege blacks and minorities at the expense of white Americans. But it wasn’t always so. Woke used to refer to any class of people who – becoming aware they were given the short end of the stick organized and fought for justice.

I thought about this while reading about Tillie Olsen, an early feminist writer and working-class activist during the Great Depression. She wrote about how life was stacked against working folks, particularly women, whose every hour of the day was consumed with struggling just to survive. They had no time to stop and think, to say nothing about having time and energy to create. As a result, even “the gifted  among women (and men) have remained mute, or never attained full capacity.” She brought to light the vast silence of “those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.”⁠1 

Tillie was writing about the poor and working-class travails amid the great depression when the future of our democracy was increasingly in doubt. An ideological war was raging. It was dawning on the working class that America’s economic and political system wasn’t working for them. Alternative like socialism and communisms started to sound appealing. She was a voice ahead of her times. Today, we could say she had become “woke.”

On the other side, many prominent individuals and business interests were increasingly drawn toward authoritarian models in Europe like fascism: A top-down system that could restore law and order and keep out the riff-raff. One of those prominent Americans was Charles Lindbergh, who became the leading voice of the American first Committee. Does that sound familiar? It was a group that opposed U.S. Intervention in World War II and was characterized by anti-Semitic, pro-fascist rhetoric.

Much like today, rightwing forces considered politics a zero-sum game, blaming blacks, jews, and immigrants for stealing jobs away from white workers. Even though African Americans were already suffering massive unemployment, some Northern cities called for blacks to be fired and replaced with out-of-work whites. Racial violence became more common, particularly in the South, where lynchings surged.

But blaming fellow Americans for our difficulty only made things worse, threatening our very democracy. Into the breach marched Franklin Roosevelt, who held fireside chats to remind us of what we had in common. Rather than divisive rhetoric, he proposed specific remedies to improve our everyday lives. His New Deal lifted the boats of working people and  downtrodden minorities, leading to significant reforms and increased prosperity for most Americans, a trend that continued through the 1960s.

But then, the situation reversed, encapsulated by Ronald Reagan’s declaration that government was not the solution but the problem. Perhaps, by then, government had,  in  some ways, become bloated, but relentless tax cuts, year after year, coupled with deregulating the guard rails on business that protected the public, soon caused the pendulum to swing the other way, back toward the way it was in the 1930s. As working-class lives have become more precarious while the affluent prospered, workers have once again become “woke” demanding change. 

As a consequence, in 2016, we elected a president who promised to address these grievances to make American great again. Unfortunately,  he was not interested in instituting policies promoting economic justice for white working folks, or most anyone else.  Instead, he ruled by pitting us against another to no good effect except to enrich the monied class, reward his cronies, and flatter his ego by preening in front of adoring audiences.. 

Now, finally, we have elected a new president who, like Roosevelt, can heal our divided nation. He understands the root of our  malaise is the same as it was in the 1930s and the stakes are high: once again, our very democracy is at stake. Toward that end, he has come up with a set of practical policies to put wind in all our sails.

Tillie mourned the vast silence of generations of marginalized poor and working folks of all genders and races, who were never able to contribute their creative gifts to the American experience because life was so difficult that just surviving was a triumph. Now that more of us are finding our voices, it is imperative that we support President Biden’s sweeping proposals to lessen the burden on those of us still left out.

It’s time we all woke up.



1 1 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/25/books/review/Tillie-Olsen-tell-me-a-riddle.html

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Advantages of Being Useless


Jenness Pond: A constant companion in my  life
CC Jean Stimmell: 2014

This essay is about learning  how to be useless. As such, it dovetails nicely with a recent piece I wrote on these pages about striving for idleness.  I agreed with Mark Taylor’s Buddhist notion that idleness allows time for the mind to wander to places never before imagined and to return transformed.”⁠1

Being useless, like idleness, is often equated with being old. And, indeed, that is what I am. I spend a lot of time in reverie, which most would call idleness. I have to keep pulling myself back to the present. However, I’m not meditating but practicing what has been called the curse of the old.

I forget where I put my keys. I can’t remember where I left my glasses.  I walk into the kitchen from my office and then stand there perplexed, wondering: what was it I came here to do?

Barry Magid suggests that’s okay in a piece called “Uselessness: The Koan of just sitting.”⁠2 His take is, rather than racking your brain to remember what you you think you’re supposed to be doing, just kick back and enjoy the moment. He writes that feeling useless can be a profound experience that we Americans rarely have. Instead, we feel compelled to keep busy doing things: Racing around earning money, having fun, helping others, whatever it may be.

We are convinced that everything must have a purpose. It doesn’t.

To just be – what modern society calls uselessness – means forgetting what we are doing, or in the words of the artist Robert Irwin, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” According to Magid, this kind of seeing “involves a loss of boundaries” and a letting go of ourselves as separate observers, “placing us within the midst of the the very landscape” we usually feel separate from. Buddhism calls this intermixing of self and world: “being actualized by myriad things.”

By dissolving these boundaries, we become whole, developing a personalized sense of place,  within a community of neighbors, geographical topography, and the more than human world around us. We overcome the curse of our Western heritage that artificially separates our thinking mind from the outside world. That, to me, is the essence of what it means to be alive. Charlene Spretnak in “The Resurgence of the Real,” reinforces this notion, warning us that our hypermodern world  is robbing us of our three most critical birthrights: our bodies, nature,  and our sense of place.⁠3 

As I sit here on my deck writing this, breathing in deeply the almost erotic, earthy scent of spring, I feel one with my body within my sanctuary of place. Meanwhile, so many around me spurn the only flesh and blood body they will ever have, yearning instead for the perfect body projected on the screen of their mind by advertisements and social media. Nature becomes just another accessory, a movie reel backdrop to soap opera lives. Worse yet, as more and more of us scurry around, always looking for the next best place, we are chopping off the roots that make us human.

Indigenous people have always understood that sense of place is the sacred scaffolding upon which one builds a meaningful life. Perhaps, like it  or not, that will be the final rallying cry of us Baby Boomers: To promote the importance of sense of place while perfecting the art of being idle and useless.



1 https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/idleness-waiting-grace/

2 https://tricycle.org/magazine/uselessness/

3 “The Resurgence of the Real” by Charlene Spretnack: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: 1997.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Living in Ghost Land


Memorializing dead barred owl with resin replica of human skull
CC Jean Stimmell: February 2021

I recently got back from two months in San Jose, supporting Russet, whose son, Austin, succumbed to a malevolent brain tumor in January. It has been an extremely taxing, long haul for her, caring for him as he went downhill over the last year.

After returning home, I've been dislocated in time and space, yanked around by a profusion of emotional climates as erratic as the weather, both here and there: From the frigid winter winds blowing across the stark whiteness of Jenness Pond to the feminine softness of mournful, foggy mornings in the Los Gatos mountains.

It didn't help when Coco discovered a dead barred owl behind the house, devoured except for her wings, feet, and head. If owls are prophets, what kind of omen is this?

Then,  stranger yet, walking with Coco along Jenness Pond road, the past and present melded together in a surreal collage. It came to me that what journalist Ella McSweeney recently said about Ireland perfectly described what was happening to me: "we live in ghost-land, marked not by what is around to see and hear, but what is not."⁠1 

Coco and I inspect the ice-fishing houses out on the pond, soon to be endangered species when the ice melts. When the ice froze last December, Austin was still alive, and barred owl still patrolled my land. We walk further by the little graveyard where my grandparents rest. I am named after my grandfather, who wrote letters in triplicate with carbon paper to his sons when they were serving overseas during WWII. 

In one of his letters, Grandfather Jean, who had a gift for words, wrote about Jenness Pond freezing over in December 1942, three years before I was born: "During the night, the Pittsburg Plate Glass Company arrived and laid a solid piece of plate over Jenness Pond, so slick one's eyeballs slide when looking at the pond in the sun…"

Walking along, the dog and I soon come to a beach near where an old colonial used to stand. According to legend, as told by my father, long-ago the farmer who lived there took his two oxen, still yoked together, down to the pond to cool off on a sweltering August day. The cows waded in up to their chests, where they got stuck in quick-sand and sank, in slow motion, to their deaths. According to the story, their bodies were never recovered.

We now pass majestic, dead ash trees, pock-marked by what look like bullet holes fired in a mob boss execution. However, the holes are the handiwork of invasive Emerald Ash Borers, which are pushing the species toward extinction. Sugar maples and hemlocks may soon follow. A new study predicts that in the next 50 years, we will lose one-third of all our animal and plant species.

A little further down the road, we come to a place along the edge of the pond that used to be a gathering spot for local indigenous people in the summer. As kids, we found arrow-heads there. It was also rumored to be the site of an Indian mound, which we could never find. If it still exists, it is now covered up by a palatial new house.

What would these Native Americans think about all the changes the white man has wrought. Could my barred owl be the messenger? According to their legends and myth, the owl is often a symbol of death. In fact, the circles around the eyes of an owl were believed to be made from the fingernails of ghosts.⁠2

Owls were also believed to be messengers from beyond the grave who deliver warnings to people who had broken tribal taboos. I know I have broken taboos my whole life by not living sustainably and in harmony with Mother Earth. Most of us have. We have upset the balance of nature, and now, I'm afraid, we will have to pay the price.

Paraphrasing the refrain from Pete Seeger's acclaimed song about where all the flowers have gone:

"When will we ever learn?"



1 https://orionmagazine.org/issue/spring-2021/?mc_cid=94e56c76a6&mc_eid=577f584203

2 http://www.native-languages.org/legends-owl.htm