Saturday, December 26, 2009

why "free trade" sucks

If you read only read one article this year on the problems of "free trade," read this one: "How the status quo can kill: the example of free trade" by Tony Wikrent over at Corrente. (Hat tip to Ian Welsh for the link). The post is brilliant.

Money quote (on the problems of outsourcing aircraft repair to India):

“Oh, I used to make almost $30 an hour. Same job. But they figured they could do it cheaper overseas. They were sending the airplanes to India for a couple of years. But they were fucking the job up so bad over there, it was taking them a week or more to get it done. We can get ‘em in and get ‘em out in a day and a half. Over there, lots of times, the plane couldn’t even take off. They had to take the whole wing apart again, to find out what was wrong. Just stupid shit. Motors weren’t connected. Positive wires were crossed with negatives. Brackets were missing. We found a wrench in one wing, which had gotten banged around, and kinked a hydraulic line pretty bad. I remember one plane came in, we got the skin off, and there were two bolts left holding the outer flap on.”

Of course I asked. There’s supposed to be eight.

Back in 1992, when the debate over NAFTA was heating up, I found the academic arguments in favor of "free trade" to be compelling. Now 16 years later, it's clear that NAFTA and other "free trade" agreements are a complete disaster that have destroyed our manufacturing base and thrown an entire generation of men-with-only-a-high-school-diploma (and their families) into poverty.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

2 radical questions

Following up on my last post... two of the most radical questions that one can ask another person are:

How are you? (pause)
What do you think? (pause)

When I say, "how are you?" I don't mean the casual NY, "howyadoin'?" Nor do I mean the casual Californian, "Hey, how's is going!?" Those are both rhetorical questions that are not soliciting answers.

The radical act in conversation is to ask "How are you?" and really mean it -- closing one's lips after the question, sitting in silence listening for the reply, signaling clearly that the other person can fill that space however they want. It takes some getting used to. At first, people will brush it off with, 'fine, fine,' and try to move on. But if you persist, "no really, how are you?" radically transformative things can happen.

"What do you think? (pause)" is similar. It acknowledges the other person's agency and subjectivity in the world. It instantly confirms that there are an infinite number of ways of seeing things. It begins a conversation of two people coming to understand each other's worldviews. Some people, particularly poor people or people in oppressive situations can sometime go their entire lifetimes without ever being asked, "What do you think?" Asking, "What do you think?" and pausing for as long as it takes for the other person to realize that the floor really is theirs to do with as they please, is a radical and transforming act.

I traveled in Central America during college on a trip led by a couple of sociology professors. "How are you? (pause)" and "What do you think? (pause)" were two of the tools they relied on in their research and in their teaching. At first I was disappointed that these two professors did not already have all the answers. But as I watched students and indigenous people bloom and come alive when asked these two questions (always with the complete pause at the end) I came to see what a radical act it was. I started using it everywhere -- with taxi cab drivers, hotel housekeepers, host mothers, children, and soldiers. And the world opened in ways I've never experienced before. The crazy thing is, there is always an answer after the question that is more remarkable than anything we could ever guess.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


This is less of a post and more of a plea. And it goes something like this:

How do relationships end? I'm talking about all relationships -- romantic relationships, work relationships, friendships, family relationships -- heck even international relationships between countries. How do they end? It seems to me that most of the time they end when one or both people conclude that the other person has so clearly violated the common sense norms by which we all operate, that he/she must be exiled. And apparently, the best means of exile in our current culture is to stop communicating and walk away.*

But here's the thing, as I touched on in an earlier post, there is no such thing as the one common sense set of rules for anything. We are all walking around with really complex sets of rules in our heads about how things obviously should be -- and no one else is walking around with that same set of rules.

So then the only way that we can ever come to any sort of lasting relationship with another is through extensive on-going dialogue about our respective sets of rules. What are my rules? What are your rules? Where did they come from? What end do they serve?

That conversation is so much harder than it appears for a lot of reasons.
  • For that conversation to work, each person has to realize that his/her ironclad rules are just as arbitrary as the next person's.
  • Because our own internal sets of rules are so hard won over a lifetime of experience, it's difficult to even acknowledge that they exist, let alone hold them loosely or even (gasp!) consider letting them go.
  • Furthermore, to even open up that conversation is to engage not just in a process of sharing, but also in a process of negotiation as to what the new rules will be between two people. Because anytime we start sharing we will see that the two sets of rules don't match and will eventually be in conflict. So most people in a dominant position won't even want to start the conversation for fear of losing power through renegotiation of the rules.
My thinking on this matter has been sparked by starting to read bell hooks' book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. I don't hear about bell hooks as much as I used to, perhaps because I'm running in the wrong circles, perhaps because I'm not in school anymore, perhaps because black feminism has been co-opted by Oprah Winfrey's emphasis on the power of positive thinking (which apparently helps sell lots of consumer products too).

What I take away from reading bell hooks is that only through a continual dialogue about: who makes the rules? what are the rules? why are the rules that way? to what end do these rules serve? what shall the new rules be? says who? based on what values? to what new end? -- can we ever hope to come to any sort of deeper truths as individuals and as a society. It's exhausting, I know. But it is also the path of freedom and liberation I believe. Because really, only through such a dialogue can we ever hope to truly see another, honor another, and find mutuality with another -- which is the basis for love.

[*I should add: sometimes another person really does operate in bad faith, and then ending the relationship and walking away is the best strategy. I just don't think other people operate in bad faith nearly as much as we think.]

Things that seem normal but aren't, part 5

Continuing my occasional series, "Things that seem normal but aren't"...

9. Our cultural fascinating with the concept of "The One." The concept of The One permeates so many areas of culture. Most major religions -- Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all fixated on the concept of The (Chosen) One. Sports commentators call Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or Tiger Woods, The One. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Oprah Winfrey anointed Obama as The One. It seems like any movie which costs over $100 million to make must be focused on The One -- Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Terminator, and Star Wars are all about the search for The One. Furthermore, beauty pageants and reality TV shows like Survivor are designed to identify and crown The One.

But here's what makes all of that so weird -- anything worth doing, anything of lasting value, any truly great accomplishment, is almost ALWAYS a collective effort.
Furthermore, it seems bizarre that the search for The One shows up in religious contexts because it invalidates the concept that we are ALL made in God's image and that the divine resides in ALL of us (in which case, we wouldn't really need to wait around for The One in the first place would we?) My hunch is that the reason our culture is so fascinated with the concept of The One is because secretly we all think we are the one, it's an affirmation and reflection of our own narcissism.

At the end of the day, The One, as a concept is the foundation of theocracy, fascism, monarchism, and hyper-individualism. But as animals, what makes us truly happy is connection with others, interrelationship, and collective experience. Therefore it seems to me that the sooner we abandon the concept of The One and acknowledge our interconnection instead, the happier we will be. Furthermore, it seems that shifting our focus to "the all" and collective approaches to problem solving will better enable us to build things of lasting value -- families, buildings, companies, cities, societies.

As one example, imagine if instead of spending billions of dollars every Saturday on college football (the search for The One national champion and The One Heisman trophy winner) what if every Saturday the people of every major city poured out to build (and improve) houses in the area. I know, it's very Amish, but when you realize that we spend billions of dollars on football while literally walking by people who are homeless, that's the definition of insanity.

10. The fact that apocalyptic thinking shows up in almost every generation. It seems that every time I turn around, there's another blockbuster movie about the end of the world (2012, 28 Days Later, Blindness, anything with Keanu Reeves, etc.). It makes sense to me that any generation growing up since World War I would be infused with a certain level of apocalyptic thinking -- because since then, humans have actually had the capacity to end the world with our own means.

But apocalyptic thinking goes back as far back as recorded history. The people who wrote Revelations weren't predicting the end of the world thousands of years later, they thought it was imminent. Jesus and Paul were certain that the world was about to end. Every generation has its religious gurus who predict the end of the world and it seems that they are usually able to attract a decent-sized following. The persistence of apocalyptic thinking throughout human history seems disproportionate to the size of the threat. So what explains that?

Like the point above, in some ways it seems that perhaps apocalyptic thinking is a reflection of our own narcissism. Apocalyptic thinking gives us a narrative for exploring the fact that, as time-limited mortal creatures, every generation really does experience itself as the last. It's a way to make each generation feel important, chosen if you will, the pinnacle and ultimate expression of humanity. It's a way of overcoming our own insignificance in the face of the relentless march of time.

So just to be clear, to me, the 2012 stuff seems really silly. But as I said above, since WWI we really have had the capacity for our own self-annihilation and global warming seems a credible threat to the future of the planet that merits immediate and comprehensive action.

Finally, a little antidote to the heaviness of this post. In looking for a picture to accompany this post I stumbled upon a blog post titled, "Signs of the Impending Apocalypse." It's pretty funny. [Hint, Heidi and Spencer are sign #4!]

Update #1: Another sign of the impending Apocalypse? The Booty Pop Panties commercials running on MTV right now.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Massively collaborative mathematics: using blog comments to prove math's toughest theorems

As frequent readers of this blog will know, I'm a huge fan of James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. So I was delighted this weekend when I stumbled upon an article titled, Massively Collaborative Mathematics in the NY Times Sunday Magazine. Ironically, for an issue devoted to the "The Ninth Annual Year in Ideas", the online version does not provide easy permalinks or ways to forward to social networks -- so I'll just excerpt the article here:

Massively Collaborative Mathematics

In January, Timothy Gowers, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge and a holder of the Fields Medal, math's highest honor, decided to see if the comment section of his blog could prove a theorem he could not.

In two blog posts — one titled "Is Massively Collaborative Mathematics Possible?" — he proposed an attack on a stubborn math problem called the Density Hales-Jewett Theorem. He encouraged the thousands of readers of his blog to jump in and start proving. Mathematics is a process of generating vast quantities of ideas and rejecting the majority that don't work; maybe, Gowers reasoned, the participation of so many people would speed the sifting.

The resulting comment thread spanned hundreds of thousands of words and drew in dozens of contributors, including Terry Tao, a fellow Fields Medalist, and Jason Dyer, a high-school teacher.

It makes fascinating, if forbiddingly technical, reading. Gowers's goals for the so-called Polymath Project were modest. "I will regard the experiment as a success," he wrote, "if it leads to anything that could count as genuine progress toward an understanding of the problem." Six weeks later, the theorem was proved. The plan is to submit the resulting paper to a top journal, attributed to one D.H.J. Polymath.

By now we're used to the idea that gigantic aggregates of human brains — especially when allowed to communicate nearly instantaneously via the Internet — can carry out fantastically difficult cognitive tasks, like writing an encyclopedia or mapping a social network. But some problems we still jealously guard as the province of individual beautiful minds: writing a novel, choosing a spouse, creating a new mathematical theorem. The Polymath experiment suggests this prejudice may need to be rethought. In the near future, we might talk not only about the wisdom of crowds but also of their genius.

~Jordan Ellenberg, Sunday, Dec. 13, NY Times Sunday Magazine

Massively collaborative mathematics proves Surowiecki's point that:

If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest, that group's decisions will, over time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual, no matter how smart or well-informed he is.

~James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

Increasingly, I think the biggest innovations in ALL fields will come from massively collaborative projects -- massively collaborative psychology, massively collaborative economics, massively collaborative astrophysics, etc.

Book review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

George Monbiot's recent blog post about Ernest Becker, which I wrote about (here), caused me to go back to my book shelf and pull out Ernest Becker's book, The Denial of Death. I bought it a couple years ago after seeing it mentioned on Sam Harris' recommended reading list. But I had only made it half way through before getting sidetracked.

Now, having finished it, I've gotta say it's one of the most extraordinary books ever written (some other folks thought so too -- it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974). We live in an age of so much noise including:
  • extreme sports and extreme cars and extreme soft drinks;
  • lotions and pills and doctors claiming to make us more beautiful;
  • hyper aggression as the model for how we are to behave in the workplace;
  • shelf after shelf of self-help advice;
  • various gurus clamoring for our attention on magazine racks and on TV;
  • competing schools of psychology battling it out to capture one-on-one time with us; and
  • religions and infinite numbers of spin offs of religions all trying to claim they have found the way.
And we're as miserable as ever.

Ernest Becker cuts through all that noise and says, 'look, the reason human beings are such a mess is that we are all freaked out about dying and we all create these ridiculous immortality projects to try to repress our fear of dying. No amount of therapy or advice or repression or distraction is actually going to be able to take that fear away completely. So ultimately, true heroism comes from accepting our ongoing fears of our own mortality and proceeding with our various projects anyway, even in the face of the knowledge that we are all gonna die.'

Of course this will be an alarming thesis to many -- particularly those heavily invested in the repression of their own immortality project. I have experienced an amazing groundedness after reading The Denial of Death. The book enables us to just drop all of the noise. It enables us to see the world as it is -- a place that is terrifying and yet beautiful too. It enables us to drop the false heroism of our shinny immortality projects and embrace the true heroism of proceeding even in the midst of doubt and fear.

Interestingly, Sam Keen does such a great job of summarizing Becker in the foreword to The Denial of Death that I want to quote from Keen first:

Becker's philosophy as it emerges in Denial of Death and Escape from Evil is a braid woven from four strands.

1. The world is terrifying. ...

2. The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. Human beings are naturally anxious because we are ultimately helpless and abandoned in a world where we are fated to die. ...

3. Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious. ...
Society provides a line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market. Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.

4. Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles --my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project. The root of humanly caused evil is not man's animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and achieve a heroic self-image.

--Sam Keen, foreword, The Denial of Death, p. xii - xiii

In the book itself, Becker masterfully updates psychoanalysis by showing that denial of death, not sexuality per se (as Freud argued), is the prime motivating force behind the repressions that create our culture.

Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality. As Rank unfolded in book after book, and as Brown has recently again argued, the new perspective on psychoanalysis is that its crucial concept is the repression of death. This is what is creaturely about humanity, this is the repression on which culture is built, a repression unique to the self-conscious animal. Freud saw the curse and dedicated his life to revealing it with all the power at his command. But he ironically missed the precise scientific reasons for the curse. ...

The psychoanalytic literature remained almost silent on the fear of death until the late 1930's and World War II. And the reason was as Rank revealed: how could psychoanalytic therapy scientifically cure the terror of life and death? But it could cure the problems of sex, which it itself posited. (p. 100)

Becker's thesis is summed up clearly and humbly at the conclusion of his book:

I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever humanity does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved from within the subjective energies of creatures, without deadening, with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow. ...

The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something -- an object or ourselves -- and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force. (p. 284 - 285)

Interestingly, after reading The Denial of Death, I can see where the Landmark Forum sprang from. [Just to be clear, I am NOT recommending that anyone go down that path -- only pointing out what some of the intellectual antecedents to that movement may have been.] The Landmark Forum's message, that life is empty and meaningless -- and that it is empty and meaningless that life is empty and meaningless, so we may as well go on and create something beautiful in this world -- is congruent with Becker's philosophy. Where they differ is that Becker sees a role for God, a Creator, even Christianity, while the Landmark Forum leans in a more atheistic direction. I leave you with this hilarious video (below), Landmark Forum for Cats.

Update #1. Buddhism, monasticism, Stoicism, abstinence, and the Protestant work ethic all make better sense when seen through the writings of Ernest Becker. Each of these paths provides a theology and a set of practices for repressing the body which is a really just an attempt to deny our humanity in service of repressing our fear of death (no body, no humanity=voilà, nothing to take away, nothing to die). It's fascinating then to see attempts to repress the body in religious settings (repression of sex through Catholicism or repression of the body through work in Protestantism for example). Repression of the body in a religion setting seems like a hedge of sorts, a poker tell that the leaders of said religious order may not be so sure about the existence of god themselves (because it would seem that the primary motivation for wanting to repress the fear of death is that one is not 100% sure god has it covered). And it actually suggests that the true function of religion may not be to introduce us to God at all (a short hike in nature does a better job of that anyway). Rather the true function of religion may simply be to provide tools for repressing our fear of death -- and the handiest tool laying around, apparently, is repressing the body. That would make sense from the perspective of evolutionary psychology -- those who best utilize religious practices for blocking out the fear of death probably invest the most energy in immortality projects (homes, careers, winning wars, building families, etc.).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dear President Obama, The beer summit was nice, but how about an autism summit?

Look, I appreciate that President Obama had the July Beer Summit at the White House. A white cop (who may or may not have been a model of cultural diversity and understanding) from Cambridge got to drink a Blue Moon, a distinguished African American Harvard Professor got to drink a Sam Adams Light, someone let Joe Biden in, and President Obama modeled for the whole country how to have an adult conversation about race.

But what President Obama really needs to do is to have a White House summit on autism. Autism is an absolute public health catastrophe right now and it appears to be growing. 1 in 91 children now has autism -- up from just 1 in 10,000 in 1970, and autism is estimated to cost the nation $90 billion per year. President Obama needs to bang some heads together (EPA, CDC, NIH, DOD) and ask the really hard questions and demand answers -- What is causing it? What are ALL the steps we can take immediately to respond? If that means closing every coal-fired power plant in the country tomorrow -- great, let's do it. If it means radically revising our vaccine protocols and instituting a global ban on mercury? Fine, done and done.

President Obama needs to marshal the full force of the federal government to respond to this crisis as if it were Hurricane Katrina itself -- because really at the end of the day it's actually a much much bigger disaster than Katrina (over 1 million Americans have been diagnosed with autism). Said differently, President Obama has shown that he can keep his cool and that he's incredibly skilled at measured, deliberative responses to long-term problems. We love that about him and it is a great skill for foreign policy and diplomacy (and even economic strategy too). But it would also be nice to see President Obama respond to an urgent crisis in an urgent manner and to show, perhaps for the first time, that he understands that the size of the federal response needs to match the size of the problem because thus far, the federal government's response to autism has been slow and insufficient.

To learn more, check out these helpful links from Talk About Curing Autism.

Update #1: "U.S. autism cases show 59% increase" Dec. 18, 2009, from the Palm Beach Post, Health Section. Fascinating note by James Lind in the comments portion after the article:

We have seen a 1500% increase in autism since 1990, the year the CDC ramped up its Hepatitis B antigen vaccination campaign, injecting 1 day old infants with this wicked concoction which (if it did work) only fights a disease caused by multiple sex partners, intravenous drug users and those receiving blood transfusions.

some thoughts on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, part 2

So I want to take one more pass through the political theorem that I laid out in my last post on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This is a slight modification on what I posted earlier, but I think this is where I really wanted to go with it. I think both posts have something valuable to say, but this one also benefits from being more compact and builds nicely upon an earlier post I wrote on trauma. Okay here goes:

1. Oppressed people are not oppressed by accident or oppressed in some abstract sense. They are oppressed through actual violence in the first instance (the Conquest, Colonization, or Middle Passage) and later through a combination of physical and symbolic violence that becomes internalized. [Examples of on-going physical violence -- lynchings, police brutality, structural unemployment, punitive welfare "reform," NAFTA, crumbling schools, and high incarceration rates for minor drug offenses; Examples of on-going symbolic violence -- racist cultural media products including anything from Charles Murray, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Pat Buchanan, etc.; Examples of internalized violence -- depression, addiction, gangs, domestic violence, despair, inaction, cynicism, passivity.]

2. The initial violence causes PTSD in both conqueror and conquered. So of course oppressed people are messed up. And the dysfunction of the initial PTSD is then passed on down to subsequent generations of both oppressed and oppressors (because up until recently, there was no effective treatment for PTSD).

[This is where traditional Marxist analysis totally misses the boat. Marxists analysis too often portrays oppressed people in a retro-romantic way -- as perfect, innocent, well-intentioned folks who could lead the world to peace and prosperity if only the oppressors would stop oppressing them. What that analysis misses is the tremendous dysfunction that is built into every oppressed community as a result of the trauma of the initial oppression (and just built into the fact that human beings are flawed, fallible creatures).

This is not a small point either. Oppressors know about the dysfunction and pathologies in oppressed communities (often because they caused them and continue to benefit from them). And oppressors go to great lengths to point out this dysfunction as justification for why poor people cannot be permitted to gain power. I think we dismantle these critiques by saying that PTSD-like symptoms appear in both oppressor and oppressed communities because the initial violence was an attempt to destroy the humanity of oppressed people -- and ended up dehumanizing both oppressor and oppressed alike.]

3. In order to liberate themselves from oppression, oppressed people need to heal from the initial PTSD and its subsequent impact on individuals, families, and communities of oppressed people across the generations.

4. The way any oppressed people begin to heal from PTSD is through movement, through conversation, through shaking, through roaring, through completing the act of escape, through coming back into their bodies and realizing they are not just object but Subject. And that's really where Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed comes in. It is not only a tool for liberation, unwittingly it is also a tool for healing collective historical PTSD.

5. And that is precisely why white America (and really all oppressors) try to prevent step #4 from happening. Through an elaborate system of cultural messages about what is "proper" and ongoing institutional violence to reinforce that message ('don't talk back, know your place, don't show emotion, for gawd sake don't show anger ever, always show deference -- or you will be unemployed, broke, tazed, jailed, homeless, or killed'), white America tries to suppress any signs, signals, or steps that might lead to a collective shaking off of the trauma of the past. They try to short-circuit this last healing step in oppressed communities because as long as they can prevent it from being completed, they stay in power.

Cell phone radiation look up tool

Another amazing, easy to use tool from the Environmental Working Group is their cell phone radiation look-up tool. Currently, the U.S. government does not require cell phone companies to label their products’ radiation output -- even though recent studies find significantly higher risks for brain and salivary gland tumors among people using cell phones for 10 years or longer. So the EWG created an easy to use online guide to cell phone emissions, covering over 1,000 phones currently on the market.

You type in your cell phone make, model, and wireless provider -- and their widget instantly looks up how much radiation your phone emits. They also then provide a link that lists every phone that emits LESS radiation than your own. Plus they show the 10 best cell phones (lowest radiation) and ten worst cell phones (those that emit the most radiation). It's definitely a helpful resource for making informed decisions about cell phone risks.

The EWG has also conducted a comprehensive, 10-month scientific evaluation of the hazards of cell phone radiation that includes data from more than 200 peer-reviewed studies, government advisories, and industry documents. You can download the full report for free (here).

Finally, check out their 8 Steps to Reduce Cell Phone Radiation Exposure. Some really great safety tips in there.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Easy to use tool to find drinking water test results for your city

The Environmental Working Group has developed an extraordinary, easy to use, nationwide database of drinking water test results. You go to their website, type in your zip code and your water company, and it instantly gives you the water quality test results for your area. And the results will blow your mind. I innocently typed in my zip code and discovered that the tap water I drink every day exceeds the legal limit for Tetrachloroethylene and exceeds the health limit for Trichloroethylene and six other toxic chemicals.

But the EWG doesn't just leave you hanging with bad news, they also provide background information on the chemicals and links to filtration systems you can use to improve water quality in your home. It's a really impressive and helpful tool that I believe, over the long term, will also put a great deal of additional pressure on municipalities to clean up their water supplies. Check it out for yourself.

Some thoughts on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, part 1

I just reread Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and was impressed by how relevant it remains now -- nearly 40 years after it was first published. I was reading the 30th Anniversary Edition and it is actually better than the original because it has now been revised to reflect inclusive language (the tiresome term "man" as a reference to all of humankind has mercifully been replaced by "humanity" or "men and women").

I confess when I first read the book as a 19 year old, much of it was over my head. Even though Freire's genius stems from his insistence on starting with the concrete before moving to the abstract (traditional education usually gets this backwards much to the detriment of students) this is a book of pure pedagogical theory. But now that I've worked in various movements for social change for many years, the words and ideas in Pedagogy of the Oppressed leap off the page and ring true like never before.

One of the things that blew me away about the book is that Freire spends the entire first chapter discussing the phenomenon in which oppressed people often resist their own liberation. This is one of the hardest things and yet also one of the most important things to understand about liberation movements. When the movement begins, the very people who stand the most to gain from the movement will often oppose their own liberation.

This is counter-intuitive to the extreme. If someone has a boot on his/her neck you would think that removing that boot would bring relief and that those who fight to remove the boot would be greeted as heroes. But that is not the case because the oppressed person, in order to feel some sort of control over his/her own life has usually internalized the oppression initially directed from the outside, and because the oppressed person also knows that any oppressor who is willing to use the boot is also willing to extinguish the oppressed person as well -- so the boot then comes to be seen as the better alternative. Frantz Fanon discovered this by studying the anti-colonial movement in Algeria in the 1950s and wrote a whole book about the phenomenon called, The Wretched of the Earth. In many ways then Pedagogy of the Oppressed functions as a sequel to Wretched of the Earth posing the same problem, but answering the question, "so what do we do about it?"

I want to quote extensively from the first chapter of the book and urge you to run out and buy the book or re-read the old tattered copy you have up on your shelf somewhere. It really is as relevant today as ever.

In order to have the continued opportunity to express their "generosity," the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this "generosity," which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. (p. 44)

But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or "sub-oppressors." ... This phenomenon derives from the fact that the oppressed, at a certain moment of their existential experience, adopt an attitude of "adhesion" to the oppressor.
(p. 45)

The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. (p. 47)

However, the oppressed, who have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it, are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom so long as they feel incapable of running the risks it requires. Moreover, their struggle for freedom threatens not only the oppressor, but also their own oppressed comrades who are fearful of still greater repression. (p. 47)

They prefer gregariousness to authentic comradeship; they prefer the security of conformity with their state of unfreedom to the creative communion produce by freedom and even the very pursuit of freedom. (p. 48)

In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their own liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform. (p. 49)

If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master, as Hegel affirms, true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these "beings for another." (p. 49)

Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love. Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors' power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.
(p. 56)

Analysis of existential situations of oppression reveals that their inception lay in an act of violence--initiated by those with power. This violence, as a process, is perpetuated from generation to generation of oppressors, who become its heirs and are shaped in its climate. (p. 58)

The more the oppressors control the oppressed, the more they change them into apparently inanimate "things." This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to "in-animate" everything and everyone it encounters, in it eagerness to possess, unquestionable corresponds with a tendency to sadism. (p. 59)

Under the sway of magic and myth, the oppressed (especially the peasants, who are almost submerged in nature) see their suffering, the fruit of exploitation, as the will of God--as if God were the creator of this "organized disorder." (p. 61-62)

As a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressors and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them. (p. 62)

The oppressed have been destroyed precisely because their situation has reduced them to things. In order to regain their humanity they must cease to be things and fight as men and women. This is a radical requirement. They cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings. (p. 68)

A revolutionary leadership must accordingly practice co-intentional education. Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators. (p. 69)

So all of this got me thinking about how how language and culture work in American society to perpetuate oppression today. Without realizing it, our minds have been colonized by the ideology of oppression, and as Freire points out, it is extremely difficult to break out of it. So here is how I think it works in the U.S. (and even around the world) now:

1. Oppressed people are not oppressed by accident or oppressed in some abstract sense. They are oppressed through actual violence in the first instance (the Conquest, Colonization, or Middle Passage) and later through a combination of physical and symbolic violence that becomes internalized.

2. In order to break out of oppression, oppressed people have to realize that they are oppressed and begin to dismantle the oppressive structures in their own minds as a first step toward making the commitment to transforming the reality around them.

3. [This is where it gets fascinating:] The first signs of the transformation of consciousness, I believe consist of 1.) anger upon recognizing the system of oppression; and 2.) any display that the oppressor no longer gets to make the rules.

Which is why American culture tries to squash any sign of anger, independence, or collective consciousness in oppressed peoples (African Americans mainly but also any person of color, women, and youth).

The Republican Party spent most of their advertising dollars in 2008 trying to convince America that Michelle Obama was an "angry black woman" and then, when that didn't work, they doubled down and tried to argue that Barack Obama was "an angry black man." That's what the whole Rev. Wright thing was about and why that 2 second "god damn America" clip got played several thousand times during the campaign. Every single commentator on Fox News has called Barack Obama an "angry black man." Those code words are intentional. "Angry black man" is a dog whistle to tell white America to go get their pitch forks to suppress the attempt by African Americans to achieve any sort of liberation consciousness. Historically, if Africans Americans in the United States displayed any sign of anger or unwillingness to express deference to white people, they were lynched. White America has always used violence to reinforce the cultural conditioning that keeps them in a position of privilege.

Why the hell do you think we invaded Grenada? Because the Reagan administration could not permit a black former slave colony from becoming a socialist paradise. The Reagan Administration knew that if African Americans in U.S. cities could look to the south and see a successful black socialist nation that it would radically change the political dynamics here in the U.S. The pictures of rich white American medical school students kissing the tarmac upon returning home was symbolic in more ways than one. They had been rescued from their overpriced med school in Grenada and their white privilege was still there waiting for them when they returning home.

Why does white America freak the fuck out anytime an African American player in the NBA or NFL wants to wear a dew rag or corn rows? Allen Iverson is about 3 feet tall and over the last decade has been one of the most successful players in the history of the NBA. But he's never gotten the endorsement deals like Jordan or Tiger. Why? Because he wears corn rows and hip hop fashion -- and that shows that he does not accept the conditions and rules set down by the oppressor culture. White sponsors simply will not permit that "bad attitude" (code words to tell people to ostracize those oppressed people who fail to display deference). God forbid Iverson ever gets angry about playing time -- even after making the All Star team ten times, every sports commentator on TV instantly rushes to the mic to tusk tusk and explain in various coded phrases that Iverson needs to learn his place. Iverson makes his own rules because he is confident in his own proven abilities. White America cringes and tries to force him to STFU because his independence shows that he is breaking free from the cultural mindset imposed by the oppressor.

What is more, there are a whole series of words that no one is permitted to say in polite society in the U.S. without risking instantly ending the debate and being excluded from further conversations. Those words include:
  • nationalize
  • class
  • reparations
  • redistribution
  • Marx
  • any mention of any strategy other than MLK-style nonviolence by progressive.
The common thread among all those words is that they each reveal a burgeoning consciousness and a crumbling of the oppressor mindset that tells us that all policy must be devoted to protecting the rights of capital.

So anyway, if you've read this far, thank you. And please go out read or re-read Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. The life you liberate may be your own.

Update #1. Freire, near the end of the preface to Pedagogy of the Oppressed writes:

From these pages I hope at least the following will endure: my trust in the people, and my faith in men and women, and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love. (p. 40)

It's a fascinating thing to write. His book is about educational theory. But at the end of the day, for Freire, education, revolution, and liberation are really in service of creating a world in which it will be easier to love. I think he has summed it up perfectly. That is the revolutionary project. A society built on systems of domination, distorts and impedes love. As we dismantle systems of domination, we create space for a world in which it will be easier to love.

Update #2: There is so much to say about Pedagogy of the Oppressed that I wrote a part 2 to this post which you can read (here).

a quick thought on culture

I was watching VH1 today and someone said that The Who was the first rock band to smash their equipment on stage -- and that at the time, that was a huge deal.

I took note of that and then remembered seeing Nirvana at the Cow Palace back in 1993. At the end of an extraordinary set, they not only smashed all of their own equipment, but Kurt Cobain climbed up on top of a giant wall of speakers and launched himself through the air into Dave Grohl's massive drum set.

Thus The Who was the first rock band to smash their own equipment on stage and Nirvana was the first rock band to smash their own bodies on stage.

I wonder if this then captures some of the differences between Baby Boomers and Generation X. Baby Boomers directed their rage outwards for the first time, and Generation X directs their rage inward and turns it up to 12.

How Wall Street killed Adam Smith and Milton Friedman

I was a political science major in college when the Berlin Wall fell. It was sort of hilarious because the political science professors, particularly foreign policy experts, just walked around in a daze. As they admitted in class, the standard textbooks on cold war foreign policy were now completely irrelevant. Everything we thought we knew about how the world worked changed in the space of about 6 months. Karl Marx who was already on life support before then, was now widely acknowledged to be officially dead.

But what I hadn't realized until just this morning, is that the collapse of the financial sector in 2008 killed Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. Their ideas should have been dead long ago but they kept hanging around because they provided the cover by which the powerful could continue to enrich themselves (at the expense of everybody else). But the collapse of the entire global financial system in 2008 and the fact that federal governments around the world had to come in and rescue the titans of finance with trillions of taxpayer dollars (and pounds and Euros and Deutsche Marks), definitively shows that Adam Smith and Milton Friedman were just shakedown artists. Rather than being an elegantly self regulating machine in tune with the deepest truths of the universe it turns out that our financial system in criminally corrupt and hopelessly unable to survive without massive government assistance.

And here's the craziest thing in all of this. The financial collapse of 2008, not only killed Smith and Friedman, but it also brought Marxist critiques of capitalism back to life. Well technically speaking, Marx was wrong and Nikolai Kondratiev was correct -- but the fundamental point of both men remains and has now been confirmed: an endless cycles of booms and busts are intrinsic to capitalism and capitalism is an inherently unsustainable system. Furthermore, it is only through a strong state regulatory system that the vicissitudes of capitalism can hope to be controlled.

Furthermore, as Ian Welsh has been pointing out for months, all that Geithner and Summers (and the entire Obama economic team) are doing is trying to re-inflate the housing and finance bubbles. Geithner and Summers thus pose a potentially catastrophic risk to the Democratic Party -- because if the re-inflated bubble bursts right before the 2010 midterm elections or the 2012 Presidential election, it opens up enormous space for a conservative populist candidate like Sarah Palin to run against the Obama economic record. As the one progressive on Obama's economic team, it sure would be nice if Jared Bernstein would start making a lot of noise right now. Furthermore, Obama needs to start listening more to Krugman and Reich and less to Geithner and Summers. Because at the end of the day, Geithner and Summers have a view of markets that is fundamentally incorrect, and basing policy on false assumptions about the way markets really work is a recipe for disaster.

In some ways then we live in a remarkable time with enormous political, economic, and even philosophical instability. Adam Smith and Milton Friedman are dead. And Marx and Kondratiev had prescient critiques of the problems of capitalism, but no solution for an alternative approach that is more sustainable. So for the time being the regulated capitalism of Keynes becomes the big winner. And maybe that's the best that we can do. But it seems to me that there is also a higher synthesis waiting to emerge from this whole crisis -- if we can just figure it out before the gaping abyss of uncertainty causes people to completely freak out.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is violence intrinsic to money?

Recently I stumbled upon a completely fascinating interview with University of Sydney Political Economy Professor Dick Bryan titled "The underlying contradiction of capitalist finance." I want to walk through some of the highlights of the interview and then share some reflections. First, the money quotes (definitely check out the whole article too):

What exactly is "money"?

[I]n most conventional analysis, there is an association of money with the state: indeed, in the tradition of Keynes, there is an understanding that money is ‘state money’, as opposed to ‘commodity money’ such as gold. State money is bits of paper, or entries in a balance sheet that are themselves valueless, but trust in state guarantees gives them effective value; commodity money is valued in itself.
But there are not just two absolute forms of money: there is a spectrum of moneys. There is (generally) safe, low-return money, which is state money in the form of cash or money in the bank. There are also highly liquid assets which are serving money functions, but they are not state money. They are derivative forms of money.

The financial crisis explained:

It seems to me very significant that the first intervention of the governments and central banks was not about shoring up financial institutions directly, it was to say to financiers: bring in your mortgage-backed securities and we will convert them into state money.
It's a signal to me that these securities were indeed being treated like money, in the sense that when their moneyness suddenly disappeared, the state sought to convert them into another money form. The initial response to the crisis of governments and central banks was not to say, as the stock markets fell, 'bring in your shares and we'll convert them to cash.' Nor did they say to banks 'bring in the titles to your properties and we’ll lend to you against your physical assets.' They said 'bring in your securities, and we'll convert them to cash.' It is, to repeat, a signal that the initial liquidity crisis, when securities markets crashed, was about a crisis of money.

Mortgage backed securities and the collapse of the housing bubble:

With mortgage-backed securities, what got sold into the market is not the mortgages, but claims on the income stream from the mortgages. And what is critical about derivatives is that they are financial exposures to an asset without ownership of the underlying asset.
With an oil future, you own exposure to the price of oil, but without owning any oil itself. So it is with mortgage-backed securities: you own exposure to the performance of a bundle of mortgages, but without owning the mortgages themselves.
And that separation is critical, for the mortgages themselves are illiquid – they last for 20 or 30 years, but the securities on the mortgages were highly liquid – they could be repackaged with other sorts of securities, turned into fancy products, and on-sold and re-sold. Further, the derivative dimension – the difference between ownership of the asset and ownership of an exposure to the performance of the asset was precisely what made sub-prime lending so profitable – as long as it lasted. The financial markets could separate out the performance of mortgages from the performance of house prices. They could sell the former, but retain the latter.
That is the reason that mortgage originators could keep lending to people who would buy houses that were expected to increase in value, even though they would almost certainly not repay loans: it was possible to hold the exposure to the prices of houses and sell off the exposure to the repayment of mortgages. It was a smart strategy for capital as long as house prices didn’t fall!

The nature of money (this is the home run in the interview in my opinion):

What's gone wrong in the markets is partly about regulation, a loss of order and morality in markets. Those things are now being widely criticized.
But there is another element here, about the nature of money. What concerns me in left and liberal debate is the strand that says that if we can make markets more efficient, more transparent, more ethical, then markets will not be volatile. That seems to be a basic premise, and it's basically wrong.
Money is itself the expression of a social relation. The concept of value is contested. The concept of equivalence is contested. We see that most starkly in exchange rates. What is one currency is worth in terms of another? There is no real answer. The neo-classical economists want to talk about fundamental value, but we know that doesn't work.
And it's not just at the level of exchange rates. Within a currency, equivalence is a contested concept. As Marxists, we should be pointing that out -- that there is social conflict expressed in the money form.
Any suggestion that once we have better regulation, money will become harmonious as a social unit, and then we can enter into debates about good or bad monetary policy, misses the point that money is always contestable. It has never been objective.
We have played out little social myths to construct money as objective. We had gold. We had Bretton Woods. We have "fundamental value" provided by neo-classical economists. They were all trying to tell us that money is an objective measure, and what we have to learn is that money is not an objective measure. Money is capitalist money, and it is money within capitalism.

Where do we go from here:

And central to that politics is new ways of resistance to the way in which the finance system, for all its fancy trading of risks, has systematically shifted risks onto labor -- until, that is, labor (in the form of house buyers) itself financially imploded, and the risks were suddenly thrown back onto capital. But, of course, it was then passed on to the state, which in turn will pass it back labor, but at a slower pace than was done by financial risk shifting, and in ways where labor’s implosion will not be at the cost of capital.
The point here is to analyze what’s happened so as to clearly identify the risk-shifting process and the best points of resistance to it; not to join the search for a clever set of state regulations which will somehow tame finance and place it at the service of production. ...
The state has always fudged on the issue of "moral hazard" -- of the extent to which the state should intervene to mop up for capital when capital stuffs up, and whether such mopping-up puts bad incentives into the market.
In all the financial sector reforms, and not just in the financial sector, there has always been a fudge about the question of whether there will be bail-outs. We've found something out. We've found that the state will always bail out big capital, in particular big banks. ...

What becomes most interesting in this is, how much of a watershed is this in the concept of markets, and how the states regulate markets? The moral hazard issue, historically framed as a dilemma, is now solved. What does that say about the virtue of profitability and entrepreneurship -- those moral virtues of the market, let people enjoy success because they also face the threat of failure? If that threat of failure is now going to be qualified, what is the constraint of the upside? If we are to have the carrot of profit, but not the stick of loss, how is that going to play out in wider social circles?

Okay so a few thoughts from all of this:

First, a bit of a tangent: It's interesting to watch (and participate in) the political debate in the U.S. since the invention of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Now it is so much easier for new ideas from any part of the world to enter the debate. And what's really striking to me is that Naomi Klein and Ian Welsh are almost always correct and both usually about 2 to 3 years ahead of the curve. They are like goddamn Nostradamus in predicting how political decisions will play out and in understanding exactly where the economy is going (and who the likely economic winners and losers will be).

It's like Klein and Welsh are looking into a crystal ball that none of the rest of us have. And in fact they are. What I realized is that they are both Canadian and they both still read marxist economic analysis. Thus the reason Klein and Welsh are so consistently correct is that they both have access to a set of analytical tools that most Americans have lost the ability to use. The range of the political debate in the U.S. is so insanely small -- we argue over corporatism (Obama) vs. more corporatism (the Republican Party) as if that were any choice at all. Even on a good day, the most informed Americans are only exposed to half of the debate -- completely ignoring labor, class, poverty, race, gender, sex, ecology, and any discussion of power. So then when someone like Naomi Klein, Ian Welsh, or Dick Bryan comes along it completely blows our minds because we have been conditioned and mentally colonized to ignore those facets of the debate.

Okay but here's the larger idea I want to rap down:

It seems to me that the analysis put forward above by Bryan actually points us to a startling political theorem that goes something like this:


1. The state issues money;
2. Trust in state guarantees gives money its effective value;
3. Trust in state guarantees is only as strong as our trust in the state's ability to remain solvent;
4. In order to remain solvent, the state must be able to withstand threats from within and without -- usually through military power;
5. In order to remain solvent, the state also must balance its books (or come close);
6. Low prices of foreign inputs and high prices of domestic outputs help to balance the state's books;
7. It appears that violence is INTRINSIC to money.

Said differently: if money is always the expression of a social relation and the concept of value is always contested; then, it seems from the evidence of history that the way that that (hierarchical) social order is maintained and the way that contested values (particularly currencies) are negotiated and resolved is through military force.

Now at first glance that theorem seems absurd. But play out the argument for a minute and I think you'll find it's not as absurd as it seems at first blush:

[Just to be clear, I would be HAPPY to be wrong about this. Furthermore, I am NOT saying this is a good thing -- but rather that this is a realpolitik look at the way things are.]

Imagine if you will that worldwide, workers in all coffee plantations suddenly joined the United Farmer Workers Union and went on strike for better wages. Overnight coffee prices double, Starbucks franchises go out of business, stocks of coffee and restaurant companies plummet and drag the wider stock market index down with them. But in the U.S. this would not play out as a debate about workers rights in the third world. In the U.S. we would never even see a single coffee picker on TV or hear any of their legitimate requests for fair compensation -- but we would see endless interviews with hot baristas who had just lost their jobs. The Wall Street Journal would editorialize on the "Specter of Inflation." Political pundits on cable T.V. would cluck cluck on how "the President looks weak and ineffective." Republicans would rush to the floor of Congress to make speeches about how the President "has lost control of the economy." Debates about inflation in particular but also debates about masculinity and the "health" of the economy (read the health of the Dow Jones Industrial Average) are all smoke screens to put pressure on elected officials to use violence to maintain our wealth.

So the U.S. (over the last 200 years) [and European countries over the last 500 years] have maintained a policy of proactive violence to maintain the value of their money.
  • Banana workers want a raise in Guatemala? We overthrow the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. (1954)
  • Chile wants to nationalize copper mines that the U.S. relies on for cheap bullets to fight the Vietnam War and cheap phone cables to fund ITT's global expansion? We overthrown the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. (1973)
  • Coffee workers and manufacturing workers in Colombia want a raise, the U.S. (and Dole Fruit) fund death squads that have killed 2,500 union leaders in that country since 1986.
In every case, the violence committed by the U.S. (and U.S. taxpayer-funded mercenaries) has helped to keep U.S. inflation down and the value of the U.S. dollar up. And the craziest fucking part of all this is that we are all complicit in this without realizing it, just by virtue of the fact that we will throw out our own government the moment our purchasing power or our living standards decline.

It's always been a little strange to me that so-called "rich" nations -- the U.S., and Europe also have a long history of violence and genocide. Indeed as Eduardo Galeano shows in Open Veins of Latin America (and as Eric Williams shows in Capitalism & Slavery) it is precisely the violence of Europe and the U.S. that produced the enormous capital accumulation that fueled the industrial revolution and further enriched those nations. And it is precisely the permanent state of preemptive violence, that we are loath to acknowledge, that reinforces our trust in the state guarantees of U.S. paper money and gives our currency continued value over time.

Update #1: I just want to add a quick note about the mechanics by which the U.S. makes the decision to overthrow a democratically elected government (or any other government for that matter). I don't necessary think anyone in the Nixon White House for example, necessarily made it their mission to figure out how to hold down wages in other countries per se (although there may have been some who thought like that). For the most part, I think the decision-making process is so much more subtle than that. It's more likely that the head of ITT or the global conglomerate that owned the copper mines in Chile went to college with Kissinger or other senior administration officials. They were roommates, buddies, they had dinner in the dining hall together and now they vacation together and their kids are growing up together.

When Allende announces he's going to nationalize the phone company, the head of ITT feels like something important is being stolen from him personally. So he gets on the phone with the highest ranking buddy he can find in the administration and says, 'Hey, you've really got to help me out, the crazy President of Chile is trying to steal my company from me.' And so the senior administration official makes some calls to help out his friend and they find some military planners who never did like the democratically elected government down there in the first place and they call the political folks who know for sure that they don't want Nixon 'to look soft on communism' (because that never plays well with the base) and it all just snowballs from there. Politics isn't rational, it's tribal -- it's about groups of friends looking out for each other. But the net effect of elites looking out for each other (and using military force to do it) is the perpetuation of a system of injustice that has existed for over 500 years.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

the river

Now for something a little different...

I once read somewhere that that if it were ever possible to be inside another person's head, we would instantly think we had gone insane because the other person's way of thinking would be so different than our own. [Imagine the movie Being John Malkovich and not just seeing what he sees but also being able to witness every thought that he thinks too.]

With that in mind... I'm continually amazed, even though I should not be, that most people have no idea what "the river" is and live, instead, entirely in the conventional world. I'm surprised because basically every decision I make -- about careers, relationships, what to write, what to read, my measure of all religious practice, my experience of nature, everything that I do that I consider important -- is made in reference to my experience of "the river." The river contains all the good stuff in the universe, all the stuff really worth doing, and you know you are in the river when you feel it. The physical experience of the river is the closest thing I have to any sort of spiritual/religious experience.

I'll explain.

Basically I'm a Platonist. But I don't believe in Plato's forms [Plato's argument is that the reason we are able to recognize a beautiful rose is because there exists a divine perfect "form" of the rose and we all carry that universal form around in our heads.] Instead of "forms" my experience of consciousness is that there is this river that we all have access to. (I know I should have written "a river we all have access to" but it isn't just any old river, it's the river, this river, there is only one in my experience, in the same way that there is onelove that people talk about.) When our actions are in tune with the universe, we know it because we can feel the sensation of getting closer to the river, or even being part of the river. The river does not produce the sensation of cold or wetness like a usual river. Rather, the river produces a sensation of harmony and attunement with one's deeper purpose and the deeper purpose of the universe (and it does have a sense of movement -- so in that way I guess it's like an earthly river). I definitely know when I've moved closer to the river because I can feel it -- it's an actual bodily sensation.

In some ways, my concept of the river is similar to
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's concept of "flow." But it's really more than that, because it's not just about being immersed in a task -- it's about being immersed in a task that is in harmony with the deeper purpose of the universe. So I can be in flow playing a video game, but never experience the river. But if I'm at a protest march and the protest march is making a difference and reducing suffering in the world, then I'm more likely to experience the river.

I should add that the river flows according to its own purposes. It shows up when it wants to show up, we can't call it to us. The best that we can hope to do is to work consistently day in and day out to do the right thing and, if we are lucky, occasionally the river will show up of its own accord. (As my favorite soccer coach used to say, "luck is the residue of careful planning" so doing the right thing helps but there is no direct cause and effect that one can count on). So in that way, sadly it creates an ethic somewhat akin to the protestant work ethic. But at the same time, it's not just a restatement of Protestantism because it also has lots of space for passion and desire and love. Furthermore, the hallmark of the river is an actual physical experience -- to which Calvinists are usually immune.

The concept of the river is so core to how I think and how I experience the world that for the longest time (most of my life) I just assumed that everyone else must know about the river too. But then when I actually describe the river to friends or lovers, it usually turns out that they have a completely different framework through which they make sense of the world and make decisions. So I guess this is just a helpful reminder that there is an extraordinary diversity of worldviews and interior experiences out there and that it's really helpful to inquire further about another person's interiors without making the assumption that we are all operating in the same way (which should go without saying but sometimes is worth repeating I suppose).

the menace of mercury

I was doing some research yesterday on the dangers of mercury and I stumbled upon a few resources I want to pass along.

The first is an amazing video from the University of Calgary, Faculty of Medicine. Using actual brain neurons from snails, they show exactly how mercury damages brain neurons. It's extraordinary:

The U.S. coal industry emits 96,000 pounds of mercury into the air each year. Watching the video it's easy to understand why those emissions are so catastrophic for human health. What is more, the fact that drug companies continue to use mercury as a preservative in vaccines (including the flu vaccine) is absolutely fucking insane.

Next, I stumbled upon a fascinating article in the Times Online (UK): 'Green' lightbulbs poison workers: Hundreds of factory staff are being made ill by mercury used in bulbs destined for the West. Money quote:

Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs. A surge in foreign demand, set off by a European Union directive making these bulbs compulsory within three years, has also led to the reopening of mercury mines that have ruined the environment.

Over a year ago I wrote a post arguing that the environmental movement was being played when it came to compact fluorescent light bulbs and increasingly it appears that I was correct. It is not a complicated argument to say that using nuclear power or mercury in lightbulbs in order to reduce CO2 emissions is a bad trade off. I'm hoping that within a year a two that organic light-emitting diode lightbulbs (OLED) will come down sufficiently in price so as to make CFL's obsolete. Related to the issue of CFLs, check out this brilliant article by Derrick Jensen on the limits of consumer choice as a tool for environmental protection.

Finally, I just ordered the book, Diagnosis Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison by Dr. Jane Hightower and hope to have a review of it soon.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Tea parties show that Lyndon LaRouche has taken over GOP

For me the most fascinating aspect of the tea party phenomenon that we have witnessed in 2009 is the degree to which it shows that Lyndon LaRouche has taken over the modern Republican Party.

The Republican party is an extremely hierarchical organization -- a pyramid with one leader at the top who cannot be questioned or challenged. And after eight years of being led by a shell of a man, the GOP was simply a shell of a party. No leadership had been developed within the party in over eight years so they were forced to nominate a septuagenarian and a glorified cocktail waitress for president. Furthermore not since Reagan has the party had any idea of how to mobilize people -- contracting that out to the NRA, talk radio, and the Christian Coalition.

By 2009, with the complete absence of any leadership at the head of the party, Lyndon LaRouche was able to walk right in and take over the Republican party without firing a shot. Because, as crazy as he is, LaRouche still knows how to mobilize a few (whacked out, paranoid) people. Make no mistake about it, the tea parties that we witnessed this year are pure Lyndon LaRouche and his gang of crazies. The photos of bodies piled at Dachau, the chaotic rallies with an infinite number of conflicting complaints all presented at the same time, the complete lack of any cohesive rational narrative, the obsessive focus on demonstrating just pure crazy paranoid anger -- that's all signature Lyndon LaRouche mobilization.

So when Michele Bachmann invites the LaRouche crowd to descend on DC -- and the rest of the Republican political establishment gets pulled into doing their bidding, it's really a remarkable statement about the complete collapse of a once proud American political party. The fact that traditional beltway media (and the RNC itself) doesn't realize it's been played by LaRouche shows what a disaster our political pundit class has become as well.

Photo of LaRouche supporters from back in 2007 -- before they took over the Republican Party. The telltale sign of a LaRouche protest is that they always make sure to coat everything they say or do with just a little extra dose of crazy.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Did Marya Hornbacher kill the "pain-and-suffering-memoir" genre and if so, is that a bad thing?

The pain-and-suffering-memoir genre has been hot in publishing for much of the last 15 years.

Susanna Kaysen seemed to jump start the modern pain-and-suffering-memoir craze in 1993 with her brilliant account of her experience in a mental institution, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, in Girl, Interrupted. (BTW if you have the chance, read the book, but don't watch the movie -- they are very very different.)

In 1994, Elizabeth Wurtzel came out Prozac Nation, an astonishingly beautiful memoir of living with depression which became a national bestseller.

Then in 1998, Marya Hornbacher came out with Wasted: a Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. Wasted is a masterpiece, a work of literature so poignant and searing that I imagine people will be reading it 50 or 100 years from now in the same way that we now read Sylvia Plath.

So last year (2008) I was surprised to see that Marya Hornbacher had a new memoir out called Madness: a Bipolar Life. My head tilted like Scooby Doo realizing, ruh roh, something was not right here. There were no loose ends at the conclusion of Wasted -- Hornbacher had triumphed over the most severe case of anorexia imaginable and fallen in love and married a wonderful guy. There was no need for a sequel. In fact, putting out a second pain-and-suffering memoir seemed to violate the #1 rule of the pain-and-suffering-memoir genre which is: You only get to write one! And yet here, in my hand, at the local bookstore was Marya Hornbacher's new pain-and-suffering-memoir, Madness, exactly 10 years after Wasted had been published.

Naturally I bought it took it home and read it in one sitting. Now Hornbacher writes that she had likely been suffering from bipolar disorder all along and anorexia was merely a symptom of this larger disorder (which makes sense of course). In the course of Madness she bounces from one disaster to another -- severe cutting, alcoholism, sabotaging relationships with friends and family, multiple trips in and out of mental institutions -- with such frequency that she starts to appear self indulgent. The writing in Madness lacks the insight and power of Wasted -- perhaps the result of memory loss from multiple electro-convulsive ("shock") therapy treatments (which she recounts in Madness). In Wasted, Hornbacher, for all of her setbacks, was still always the subject of her own destiny. In Madness, Hornbacher has become pure object buffeted by the relentless waves of misery.

Wasted was perhaps the singular achievement in the pain-and-suffering-memoir genre. And Madness feels like the work of an aging championship boxer coming back into the ring long after he should have retired. After 15 years of one-upsmanship in the pain-and-suffering-memoir genre, with one extremely talented author after another showing that she (usually it's a she) could survive (and even thrive! amidst) the most severe hardships imaginable, it is as if Marya Hornbacher turned in the ultimate piece of performance art, going all in against all comers in the game of misery poker to show that no matter what, she will always have the winning hand. Madness feels like the end of an era in publishing, the curtain coming down on an era of self disclosure as a form of self help.

But I wonder if, in the process, Marya Hornbacher also gave us a great gift and opened up space for new forms of storytelling to emerge. Because there was always something disingenuous about the pain-and-suffering-memoir genre. The stories were always told as a "Hero's Journey" and seemed to follow the same script -- an earnest well-intentioned young woman (or man) is beset by some evil affliction (disease, abuse, injury, or accident) that is not understood by western medicine and perhaps is caused by our modern era itself. Through trials and tribulations the author figures out how to smote the evil affliction and lives happily ever after and then sends us all a note about how she did it so that we might be aided in our own journeys. (Of course that is putting too fine a point on it, one could also make a compelling case that these authors were merely trying to narrate their own experience and illuminate the human condition and had no intention of telling a Hero's Journey sort of tale.)

The only problem with the hero's journey structure is that, particularly with mental health challenges, it rarely works out as neat and tidy as all that in real life (and memoirs after all are supposed to be an account of real life). For example, Elizabeth Wurtzel went on from the success of Prozac Nation to write a self help advice book for women, The Secret of Life: Commonsense Advice for the Uncommon Woman. But in order to complete that advice book she started taking speed and in the process became a meth addict -- which then led to her next memoir More Now Again: a Memoir of Addiction. [Kaysen, to her credit, ends Girl, Interrupted decidedly unsure -- unsure whether she was ever sick, unsure of whether she will ever be considered what society calls "well." The movie of Girl, Interrupted on the other hand presents a Hero's Journey that runs counter to the ambivalence portrayed so effectively in the book.]

In some ways then, Madness: a Bipolar Life functions like Richard Wright's masterpiece Native Son (although obviously the pathologies in Madness are much much less severe than those depicted in Native Son). Do you remember reading Native Son in high school? In the book, Wright creates a sort of anti-hero in his character Bigger Thomas. An review states:

Other books had focused on the experience of growing up black in America -- including Wright's own highly successful Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of five stories that focused on the victimization of blacks who transgressed the code of racial segregation. But they suffered from what he saw as a kind of lyrical idealism, setting up sympathetic black characters in oppressive situations and evoking the reader's pity. In Native Son, Wright was aiming at something more. In Bigger, he created a character so damaged by racism and poverty, with dreams so perverted, and with human sensibilities so eroded, that he has no claim on the reader's compassion. ... Wright's genius was that, in preventing us from feeling pity for Bigger, he forced us to confront the hopelessness, misery, and injustice of the society that gave birth to him. --Andrew Himes

I think finally that's what Hornbacher does with Madness. She smashes the pain-and-suffering-memoir genre and in the process smashes the Hero's Journey form of story telling. She creates in herself a character whose extremes of self destructive behavior are so far beyond the norm that she no longer makes a claim on the reader's sympathies. She seems to be saying 'here I am, fucked up, beyond repair, beyond happily ever after, that is my experience of life, can you bear to look at it? can you stand it if life does not come wrapped in a bow?' In the process, I think she opens up space for us to once again see the world as it is with all of its light and darkness. Madness thus opens up space for stories that go beyond the Hero's Journey, into the depth of the human experience.

Update #1: this post is slightly modified from an earlier version.