Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Longer View

These days, the days events support the feeling that we are spiraling down rapidly into madness and a new Dark Age.  The medium term view--when people my age look back several decades--provides some solace, but not much.  Back in the 60s we sang a song with the refrain "when will they ever learn?" and it seems just about everyday we get the answer, "Probably never, or at least, not yet."  For example, the GOPer madness of a Clinton impeachment repeated on a smaller scale (so far) with the GOPer House committee's contempt citation against Attorney General Eric Holder.  Rachel Maddow argued persuasively that this is yet another scary example of GOPer Rabid Right madness (fixating on guns), while I doubt I'm alone is seeing the racist component: in a time when a new GOP racist treatment of President Obama arises somewhere nearly every day, GOPers try to take down the first black Attorney General of the first black President.  

But maybe there is some solace in the longer view.  At least that's according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who makes the case that over the centuries, violence of all kind has decreased.  I wouldn't entertain what he says without pairing it with psychologist James Hillman's views in his book, The Terrible Love of War, which looks at the archetypal needs that war addresses, but there is some common ground: I think both would agree that institutionalizing  non-lethal ways of addressing those needs is both possible and desirable--or frankly, necessary.

It seems to me that Pinker very ably sums up his thesis in the first two answers, the first two paragraphs of his interview with The European:   

The European: Your current book addresses the question of violence. What is the focus of your argument?
Pinker: That violence has declined over the course of history on multiple scales of magnitude and time. Homicide, war, genocide, rape, corporal and capital punishments, and the harsh treatment of children and animals have all become less frequent. It’s not that human nature has changed during these transitions. But human nature is a complex system with many parts. Some tempt us towards violence – exploitation, dominance, revenge – and others can inhibit us from being violent – self-control, empathy, moral norms and reason. My goal was to identify the historical forces that have increasingly favored “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln called them.

The European: What historical forces can be causally linked to a decline in violence?
Pinker: A major one is the rise of effective government, which helped to pacify society, just as Thomas Hobbes had predicted in his theory of the “Leviathan.” Governments removed the incentives for exploitative violence on one side, and thereby reduced the temptation for pre-emptive attack and for violent retaliation on the other. Another force was the expansion of trade and commerce, which made it cheaper to buy things than to steal them, and meant that other people were worth more alive than dead. A third was the rise of cosmopolitan forces like literacy and travel, which expanded people’s circle of empathy. At the same time, reason and free speech were enhanced, which encouraged people to become cleverer to treat violence as a problem to be solved."

The GOPer threat to effective government is a clear and present danger, and this suggests what one result might well be if they succeed.  Two other trends seem likely to continue as long as civilization does: trade and commerce, literacy and travel (if you include storytelling by any form in the "literacy" category.)  Reason and free speech are always threatened, and today the internal threat is coming from the overthrow of consciousness by the raging unconscious of way too many Americans. 

The point here--which actually comports with my medium term view--is that positive trends that are supported by institutions and partly through them by culture can make a difference in what aspects of human nature are emphasized more often and with greater, wider effect.  And therein lies the hope of the future: through individuals certainly, their consciousness of themselves and their commitments to the kind of person they want to be and the kind of society they want to support.  By also through the norms supported by the important institutions of the time, over time, beyond the medium term of one individual life into the long term. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Cristina Saralegui is the "Latina Oprah."  The post linked suggests that Romney needs to win the vast majority of white voters to make up for the groups he is badly losing.  

Also in election news...
It's easy to get impatient with all the fundraising emails, especially the manipulative ones.  But one I got today provides some perspective: one billionaire, Sheldon Adelson (formerly Newt's notorious Vegas backer) says he may pour as much as $100 million into the campaign against President Obama.  That's what the Obama campaign raises over several months from small donors, and Adled is but one billionaire bankrolling Romney.   Adelson is worth $20 billion, so the Obama campaign estimates that even if he does part with $100 million, that's the equivalent for him of a $40 contribution by a middle class family.

That's what this country is up against this year.  A candidate who lies virtually every time he opens his mouth, running a deceptive and otherwise ugly and unhinged campaign, with the capacity to blanket the electorate with deceptive, ugly and unhinged ads--and pay for the on-the-ground organizing that the Romney campaign and the GOP don't even bother trying to produce.

It's crossed the mind of E.J. Dionne among others that some superrich people may see that they need to be willing to spend for Dems if anything like a level playing field is to occur.  He concludes: "It’s preposterous that our system has handed over so much power to those with large fortunes that the only way to get matters under control is to have one group of rich people check the power of another group of rich people. Maybe the absurdity of it all will finally force the Supreme Court and Congress to bring us back to something more reasonable. It’s called democracy. "

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Night gives us permission to hope, to wish, to dream, to be whomever we wish."

Christopher Dewdney
Acquainted with the Night
photo: Milky Way Lake Superior by  Shawn Malone

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Missing Links

Time to clean up bookmarked links that for one reason or another I didn't blog about:

A persuasive piece on getting rid of the filibuster at

Fellow boomers take note: how psychedelic drugs can help face death.  (Or you can just keep drinking a lot of coffee.)

Also for boomers as well as others: an interview with Harold Reingold on his book about Internet literacies.

An intriguing poll finding: "independent" voters want President Obama to keep pressure on the big banks. 

A sharp look into today's higher education, with particular interest to fellow English majors in American Scholar.  

The possible--and sadly believable--truth about the fate of Amelia Earhart.

Some expert opinion that today's total polarization is not only politically and socially damaging but also psychologically.

Possibly the strangest political story of a typically insanely strange week: the Romney campaign is criticized as being financed by foreign money--by John McCain.

Plus two stories I probably will write about, though probably on another blog:

The Justice Department is investigating the cable television industry, and it's about time.

Movie theaters are still getting away with dimly projecting the images on their screens--one of the main reasons I seldom go to movies anymore.  At last I find I'm not the only one who notices. Roger Ebert for one.

Finally a link to the most brilliant essay I've read this year on several topics, which I do hope to write about soon. (Ignore the pedestrian beginning.) (Note: the top illustration is from this article in The Baffler.)


A little story with an ominous warning: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a speaking engagement warns of the "sharp disagreement rate" on the Court going up in the big decisions to be announced in the next few weeks, including the Affordable Care Act decision.

If that isn't a hint, could this be?  She spoke of the value of dissenting opinions in influencing future legislative changes.