Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Without government we climb a ladder to nowhere.

Composite Photoshop of Pueblo Dwelling
in NM and Sumac on the coast of ME
CC Jean Stimmell


25 years of psychological research has proven how easy it is, by the process of suggestion, to get individuals to believe in things that never happened: In these experiments, “we see that people can come to believe that they were lost or that they took a hot air balloon ride or spilled punch on the parents of a bride at a wedding.⁠1 Remarkably, even after being told that the memory is false, participants tend to keep on believing it.

Research shows how even family members growing up together can have different memories of the same event, sometimes radically different. In well-functioning families, dissimilar individual memories become blended into a master narrative that changes over time as circumstances change. Psychologist Coman at Princeton University tells us such memory convergence boosts group cohesion, by empowering self-worth and sense of belonging to a greater whole.⁠2

Governments require the same group cohesion to function well. When I was growing up in the 1950s, our country had this bond: we were united,  proud to be Americans. By saying that, I’m not suggesting that America in the 1950s was necessarily fair or equal, just that a large majority was on the same page. 

Those of us growing up at that time were deeply idealistic. We, of course, became known as the sixties generation, and contrary to an unfair stereotype, loved our country. I remember how affected we were by JFK’s speech, challenging each of us to contribute in some way to the public good: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,”  The turmoil we caused in the 1960s was an expression of that idealism: We protested, not to tear things down but to demand that our government live up to its founding ideals.

Obviously, our nation has lost that optimistic idealism. One big reason is the nature of the news. Back in the day, the media was, for most, a single reality: most families got their news in the evening on one of 3 networks, all basically saying the same thing. Now social media has proliferated like the profusion of dandelions seeds from a single plant floating off into the air, dispersing a vast assortment of progeny, far and wide.

As psychologists have proven, it is so easy, by the power of suggestion, to convince folks that something happened that didn’t. Social media has blossomed to be a major accelerator of this process. If we add to the mix, Trump’s fake news, we have a perfect storm. 

While all politicians sometimes fib, Trump takes the cake, lying at least 30,000 times during his presidency. Before that, when running for president, he bombarded the democrats and Hillary Clinton with fake claims. Reputable sources like Kathleen Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, concludes that the barrage of Trump lies amplified by Russian meddling “very likely” swung the election to him.⁠3

But Trump’s most dangerous lie isn’t his alone but a long-time republican talking point, that is scornful of JFK’s positive view of government.  The turning point came with Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 when he laid down the gauntlet to democrats, declaring that "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." 

The republicans were on a roll. Glover Norquist followed up this offensive against government with this infamous bombshell: “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Considering all the factors I have listed, no wonder we are in disarray, unable to achieve a consensual narrative as to who we are as a nation. Divided into factions, we have become a dysfunctional family, consisting of individual factions like narcissistic children, all vying for control. It can’t last.  Without a functioning government, we climb a ladder to nowhere.

One thing is clear. While we may have many different agendas, we all must support our democratic form of government and work to make it better and stronger – not drown it in a bathtub.



1 https://www.npr.org/transcripts/788422090

2 https://www.nature.com/articles/543168a.pdf

3 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/01/how-russia-helped-to-swing-the-election-for-trump

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Terrible Truth of War


Statue of nurse and soldier, next to the Vietnam War Memorial
 by OZinOH under CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Another war, another debacle, egged on by the usual suspects: the military-industrial complex who got rich from it;  the news media who gained readership from it;  Republicans who flaunted their manhood with it, and Democrats who feared being called ‘wussies’ if they opposed it.

What sheep! Three days after the U.S was attacked on 9/11, Congress adopted a knee-jerk, open-ended authorization to attack terrorists that is still in effect. Barbara Lee was the only lawmaker who dared to vote no, which subjected her to almost universal verbal venom, even physical threats. “People were calling me a traitor, she said, “But I knew then that it was going to set the stage for perpetual war.” And that’s exactly what happened.⁠1 We will go to our graves calling them ‘forever wars.’

Despite spending more on the military than the next 11 countries combined, what good has it done us? We’ve ended up like a carpenter with only a hammer, mistaking every problem as a nail to smash. A day of reckoning is coming. Just look at the last two countries that attempted to maintain an empire through military might. England and The Soviet Union exhausted themselves financially, and worse, their one-pointed obsession with military power depleted their creativity vitality as a nation.

Already pundits are debating “how can we pivot from our fight in Afghanistan to our next war?” 

To break this cycle, we first must recognize what war really is. For a fresh perspective , let’s consult the late, legendary, Jungian psychologist, James Hillman. He said, in essence, war is an aphrodisiac: “where else in human experience, except in the throes of ardor – that strange coupling of love with war – do we find ourselves transported’ to such a mythical place.⁠2

The first step in resisting the rush to war is to understand the irrational nature of this ‘terrible truth:” Because war erupts from a primal state of passion, we must use our cognitive facilities of reason to counteract it. It has worked in the past. Hillman was ‘encouraged by the courage of culture, even in the dark ages, to withstand war…to work to understand it better, delay it longer…”⁠3

How do we build such cultural courage? In other areas, we’ve established a long track record of controlling our passions. All societies, for instance, have learned to establish norms, customs, rituals, and laws to restrain unbridled sexual passion. In our own country, in the last 50 years alone, we have made major strides by passing laws and raising public awareness to reduce sexual victimization by broadening the definition of what constitutes rape, abuse, and sexual harassment.

Yet when it comes to war, our politicians and mass media have done the opposite: loosening prohibitions, even becoming cheerleaders for war. As Hillman observed, ‘War’ is becoming more normalized every day. 

The Afghanistan War is a good example: Things could have been much different if calmer heads had prevailed. Within weeks of starting our intensive bombing campaign in November of 2001, the Taliban’s bravado faded: they became “a spent force” as they fled from Kabul into the mountains. At that point, “[t]he Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,” recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time.⁠4

Mission accomplished, right? Al Qaeda had been driven out and the Taliban defeated. 

Not quite. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, still in the heat of war lust – rather than negotiating a surrender –went in for the kill, vowing to exterminate the Taliban. Toward that end, over the last 20 years, it has cost us over 2 trillion dollars, killed 2400 of our young American servicemen and women, and wounded another 20,000.  To say nothing of countless civilian casualties.

Now we are witnessing, The Taliban – far from being destroyed – marching triumphantly back into Kabul, without a shot being fired. I think there is a lesson in this somehow.



1 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/22/us/as-afghanistan-collapses-a-lament-for-repeating-the-same-mistakes.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20210823&instance_id=38584&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=30753738&segment_id=66983&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

2 A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman, page 9

3 Ibid, page 22

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/23/world/middleeast/afghanistan-taliban-deal-united-states.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20210823&instance_id=38584&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=30753738&segment_id=66983&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Helpless But Not Hopeless


Me solarized in Photoshop

Helpless But Not Hopeless

It’s taken me 75 years to get to this place: Bobbing around in my kayak in the rosy,  luminescent water of Jenness Pond at dusk, my rational mind took flight, merging me with the beating heart of  the Earth. 

During my lifetime, the Earth has taken a terrible beating.  When I was born, the oceans were practically as pure as when the Vikings roamed the seas. Now, plastics pollute the oceans and clog the gullets of the fish and birds the reside there. Each year another 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the ocean. “That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.”⁠1

Experts agree that this “Great Acceleration” started around 1950: that’s when a sudden and dramatic jump in consumption began, followed by a huge rise in global population, and an explosion in the use of plastics. Facing up to what we have done is mortifying. Yet, that is the first step in forging a deeper, more intimate, and sustainable relationship with our home.

Growing up, like most Americans, I thought the Earth was the most solid, unchanging, and boring entity imaginable, immune to human harm: An inexhaustible treasure house, a self-service supermarket for humankind.

My whole life has been a re-education project, prompted by books like Small is Beautiful, Silent Spring, Practice of the Wild, The Spell of the Sensuous – and most recently, Timefulness: How Thinking like a geologist can help save the world by Marcia Bjornerud. She’s opening up my eyes and heart to how sprightly, tempestuous, and turbulent the Earth really is.⁠2

To us in human time, mountains are the embodiment of stability and strength, but, in geologic time, mountains are fluid and fleeting, rising up by volcanic action, eroding away to nothing, and then starting over again, time after time over the eons. Through that and other examples, Bjornerud shows how all of nature is alive, even rocks. That’s why she calls them verbs, not nouns.

This Great Acceleration  has created massive changes to the Earth. Now a single mine in Canada’s tar sands region moves 30 billion tons of sediment annually, double the quantity moved by all the worlds’ rivers combined. The weight of the freshwater we have redistributed has slowed the Earth’s rotation.⁠3 And last week, we learned that the rapid melting of the Greenland icecap is causing the Gulf stream to weaken and the jet stream to wander. 

Scientists tell us that, thanks to our meddling, we can’t predict the future because there are too many imponderables. Uncertainty reigns in the face of enigmatic geologic forces infinitely greater than ourselves. 

Yet we're like narcissistic teenagers living for the moment, insisting on having things our way. Our political ideologies and religions have brainwashed us to believe we are unique, the apex species anointed by our gods to have dominion over the Earth. But now, having tipped the balance too far, we see our vanities and hubris are like an early morning mist about to be blown away by the first breeze.

What can be done? The first step is to admit we have a problem as folks do in AA. The next step is to re-define what it means to be 'helpless', as Kurt Spellmeyer accomplishes with a brilliant juitsu move in the current Tricycle Magazine: He reframes being helpless as a transcendental experience rather than – as our macho society scornfully regards it – 'a moral failure, a cause for shame, or a condition to be over come by heroic acts."

"Not until events escaping their control bring people face-to-face with their helplessness will they discover that they belong to something larger than themselves: an ‘unlimited body,’”⁠4  To my way of thinking, this ‘unlimited body’ is the body of the Earth itself, the entity to whom indigenous people have always bowed down to. 

The turning point won’t happen until we hit rock bottom: when worsening conditions from accelerating climate change render us so  vulnerable and unprotected that we will have no choice but to reach out for assistance and solace  from our neighbors, great and small,  while they, in turn, will be reaching out to us. This collective outpouring of compassion will unleash  a tsunami wave of action powerful enough to save what is left of our home. And, as a side benefit, we will restore meaning and honor back into our lives.

When that happens, Spellmeyer tells us, our feelings of resignation and powerlessness will be transformed by "an embrace" as the world encircles us in its arms and whispers, “relax, you're home." 



1 Ibid.

2 “Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world” by Marcia Bjornerud. Princeton University Press. 2018

3 https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/10/aeon-deep-time/505922/

4 https://tricycle.org/magazine/hope-in-buddhism/

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

A Rant

What is the "The Common Good?"

I take umbrage with Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the NYT,  for having the gall to tell me, a staunch liberal, what I believe. He praises paleoconservative Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, “The Unbroken Thread.”  for giving a "moral voice … against the values of elite liberalism, above all its disdain for limits, from moral taboos tor national borders.”⁠1 

In the real world, when the right and the left fight over freedom versus limits, it’s not a clear-cut matter. As Max Boot recently wrote, conservatives are willing to accept substantial infringements on civil liberties to combat criminals and terrorists. Yet, they insist on dropping our guard against a pandemic that has already killed over 600,0000 Americans. In this case, it is liberals – following a long American tradition that started with George Washington – who want to limit freedom to save lives by mandating vaccinations and mask-wearing.⁠2


Certainly, liberals often have more elastic boundaries than conservatives: We believe that individuals should have the freedom to determine their gender, whom they can love, and how. We don’t like abortions but want the  mother to have the freedom to decide rather than passing a law; we are in favor of rehabilitating folks who break the law, not punish them for being sinners; we would like teachers to teach our children about our complete history, warts and all, in order to do better in the future. We recognize that some problems  like nuclear proliferation, climate change, and Covid-19 can not be solved within single nations and require international cooperation. 

In other areas, we are adamant about enforcing stricter limits than conservatives. We are more conservative than conservatives about not rushing into making humans guinea pigs to genetically modified food, nuclear power plants, pharmaceutical products, and toxic waste dumped into the environment. We favor of conserving our natural resources and protecting the diversity of all life forms on earth.  We  favor of guns for hunting and target shooting but would ban assault rifles with large clips, which facilitate the unhinged to commit  mass murder. We favor zoning laws for reasons of health and safety.  

Many decisions are difficult, finding the sweet spot between too much regulation and not enough. The underlying goal is not freedom at all costs  but what promotes the common good.  Achieving the right balance requires a willingness to come together in good conscience to negotiate a solution we can all live with.

In a manifesto that Ahmari wrote in 2019, he asserted that the new right’s greatest priority was  “to resist efforts by liberals…to oppose the desire voters are expressing for a politics of the common good.”⁠3  On this point,  I agree with him: voters are clamoring for a "politics of the common good."  

Poll after poll shows a substantial majority of voters across party lines view clean water, a quality public education, adequate food, and housing as fundamental human rights that the federal government should secure. More than 7-10 voters across party lines support guaranteed sick days, paid family and medical leave, and increased assistance for low-income people.

Further proof comes from polls that consistently show the  “happiest people in the world” live in countries like Finland and Denmark, where citizens are guaranteed these human rights.  President Biden is now working with Congress to extend more of these rights to all Americans. Yet conservatives oppose this common good. 

Another aspect of conservative thinking has a religious component that goes back to the birth of our nation, based on the Calvinist notion that hard work is a sign an individual will achieve eternal salvation; meanwhile, those less industrious go to hell. Some conservatives still use this as a cudgel to deny aid to the poor and needy, claiming they don't deserve it

One offshoot of this doctrine was made popular in the 1800s by Russell Conwell,  a Baptist minister, who equated poverty with sin and claimed that anyone could become rich through hard work alone, without the need of divine intervention. This notion became known as Muscular Christianity.

Speaking of Muscular Christianity, a recent book, "Jesus and Johne Wayne,"now on the bestseller list, explores why evangelicals' were drawn to our former president. The author argues that their support is not a shocking aberration but a "culmination of evangelicals' long-standing embrace of militant masculinity, presenting the man as protector and  warrior.”⁠4

All of the above makes me question Bret Stephens's assertion that it is the liberals who have rejected all limits and moral taboos. Instead, to  my way of thinking, it is this new breed of conservatives who have abandoned long-standing, conservative doctrine around reason, tradition, and moral principles. Perhaps, as Timothy Snyder has written in the NYT: when conservatives give up on truth, they concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.⁠5 “ 

People like our former president.



1 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/03/opinion/what-should-conservatives-conserve.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20210804&instance_id=37008&nl=todaysheadlines®i_id=30753738&segment_id=65288&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

2 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/10/vaccination-mandates-are-american-apple-pie/?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most&carta-url=https%3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F3460ff8%2F6113f26f9d2fda2f47ef9f59%2F61015b7e9bbc0f0fbeed5be1%2F47%2F72%2F6113f26f9d2fda2f47ef9f59

3 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/20/books/review/the-unbroken-thread-sohrab-ahmari.html

4 https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/07/16/jesus-and-john-wayne-evangelicals-surprise-bestseller/

5 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Pittsfield Epidemic of 1900, Covid-19, and ancient myths that won’t die


"Vertical landscapes of the High Caucasus" 
by CharlesFred is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

One time on the way to Pittsfield with my father when I was a boy, we took an alternate route on an old dirt road.  As we drove along, he pointed to a spot in the woods and announced, “that’s where the old Pest House stood, the place they put people who got sick with smallpox.” My fertile, young mind immediately conjured up scary images of a haunted house.

The smallpox epidemic, my father was referring to, broke out in 1900. According to local historian and author Larry Berkson. Pittsfield responding to it in an impressive manner, compared to our fumbling efforts today against Covid-19: “The infected houses were quarantined as was the practice in those days…Those who became infected were treated in a “special hospital” which immediately became known as the “Pest House.”⁠1

In addition, the Pittsfield School Board placed a notice in the local newspaper declaring that State law required all school children to be vaccinated. The School Board was also charged with enforcing the law and empowered to impose severe penalties on offenders. When it was discovered that some of those quarantined persisted “in going out,” a strict watch was instituted on those premises “day and night by special police officers.” 

I came across this local history while  reading a new book, “Until Proven Safe,” by Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh, an extensive treatise on quarantines. The authors would approve of Pittsfield’s response  because it employs all the elements they say are essential for a quarantine to be successful: good leadership and community support, carried out with compassion and respect. The authors assert that today, it’s imperative to be able to take effective action as Pittsfield did because “Quarantine is the best—sometimes the only—tool we have to protect ourselves against the new and truly alien. It buys us the time and space we need to respond.”⁠2

The stakes grow higher each day with epidemics popping up like weeds: just since the year 2000, the world has been afflicted with SARS, MERS EBOLA, Zika, and now Covid-19. The trend will surely accelerate as time goes on due to increased global travel, climate change, and over-population which leads to logging rain forest interiors and disturbing remote caves.

Twilley and Geoff trace the history of quarantines since the first recorded successful one in 14th century Italy.  Despite technological advances today in areas like testing, tracking, containment, and ventilation, the ability to quarantine is still essential: “it is a question of civility, of a politics and culture of collaboration that allow for awareness of shared responsibility in the face of an unknown disease.” “We will never have public health if we do not think of ourselves as a public.”⁠3

Despite the success of that first quarantine in Venice, old superstitious myths persisted: “Even after the bubonic plague had burned through Europe for nearly a century, there was still no consensus on what caused it or how to prevent its spread.⁠4“ At that time, conspiracy fanatics did not urge folks to drink bleach, but they did promote everything from  unproven medical practices “to acts of genocidal terror, such as slaughtering a city’s entire Jewish population in an attempt to appease the wrath of God.”

 I will close by examining one thread of Twilley and Manaugh’s research: the irrational nature of our human response to alien pathogens.  Specifically, I want to explore a dark history that may explain the recent upsurge in violent attacks against folks of Asian descent – and the likely reason why our former president referred to Covid-19 as the Chinese flu, his voice oozing with loathing.

The authors trace the roots of this behavior to an ancient myth that won’t die, extending back to ancient Greece and Rome. The theme of this folktale is how seemingly harmless strangers turn into monsters.”⁠5   According to the authors, this myth created the idea of the West, defining it as “an act of isolation against a monstrous other that lurked somewhere in Eastern darkness.”⁠6 

This medieval story was repeated so many times that it became accepted as fact, resulting in maps to being redrawn to establish this mythical boundary between West and East. Conveniently they picked the Caucasus Mountains, which, also according to myth, is the origin of the Caucasian race. In short order, “Caucasian” became the name white Europeans adopted to classify themselves in opposition to other races.

The very notion that the West – Europe – came into being in opposition to the “dark” East  reeks of racism. We need  to expose this ancient archetype that lives in our collective unconscious to the cleansing light of day. Otherwise, despots like Trump will continue to resurrect this demon, buried in their followers – and all of us for that matter – for their own nefarious ends.



1 https://suncookvalley.com/pittsfield/2012/12_26_12/

2 Twilley, Nicola; Manaugh, Geoff. Until Proven Safe (p. 17). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

3 Ibid, page 345-5

4 Ibid. page 25

5 Ibid, page 28

6 Ibid, page 30-31