Revolution Misremembered

Oh posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom.  I hope that you will make a good use of it.  It you do not, I will repent in heaven that I took half the pains to preserve it.

So speaks John Adams in the last line of the HBO mini-series inspired by David McCullough’s biography.  Adams knew that our American revolution was precarious, and that its principles were vulnerable to misinterpretation.

The mini-series juxtaposes Adams and Jefferson. We see Adams as a prudent, calculating revolutionary.  For the cause of independence, he leads the Continental Congress with the temperament of a radical.  His revolutionary convictions were shrewd, and genuine.  But as a President he was conservative. Once the revolution was achieved, he was solely determined to preserve the government.  Meanwhile, Jefferson envisioned a perennial revolution, with each generation overthrowing the institutions of the last.

McCullough shows that Adams was uniquely aware of the fragility of the new government and the principles it affirmed.  As he transformed from a revolutionary to a conservative, his reputation faltered.  His efforts in office to protect the delicate union, his preoccupation with its infant weaknesses, lead many in his time to question his true commitment to the revolution—as though revolution, itself, was always virtuous.  He lost the legacy battle to Jefferson, and witnessed firsthand the cold unfairness of history.

Though mocked and unpopular, Adams commented before vacating the Presidency, “Mr. Jefferson is fortunate that I have left him a county at all over which to preside.

It is probably true that part of Adams’ pessimism was partly due to offended disgruntlement.  He clearly resented Jefferson’s popularity.  But there was also something worrying to Adams about the way history embraced Jefferson.  Adams believed completely in the principles of the revolution, and the institutions of the new government, and he knew of their profound importance to the world.  To him, the revolution was real, necessary, and genuine.  To Jefferson, and to many Americans of the time, it was abstract and romantic.  Adams seemed to know that there would be something lost if the realness of the American principles was not appreciated.

In a later scene, the mini-series shows an old, ornery Adams surveying John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Adams tells Trumbull:

Do not let our posterity be diluted with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical licenses…It is a very common observation in Europe that nothing is so false as modern history.  Well I would hasten to add that nothing is so false as modern European history, except modern American history.  In plain English, I consider the true history of the American Revolution to be lost…forever.

Beltway Nationalism

“Lobbyists need something to buy, and legislators need something to sell.” Milton Friedman

Lobbyists have clients who pay them to purchase advantage from legislators who are writing laws that affect them.  Legislators have lobbyists who pay them – in campaign contributions – to create laws that favor specific individuals and businesses that are represented by lobbyists.  Utilizing taxpayer money, both legislators and lobbyists prosper.  And so, Beltway D.C. neighborhoods have become the wealthiest in our nation, and the average Beltway income is directly correlated with the continually increasing number of pages in the federal tax code.   The business value of H.R. Block, the company people pay to figure out their taxes, also correlates with the continually increasing number of pages in the federal tax code.

The Beltway must create, but also hide, the myriad favors and exceptions to special interests that are placed into our federal laws.  And it does.  Congress has become not unlike the Catholic church before the reformation, it sells indulgences –  special exemptions –  from its taxes and laws.  And our politics is transformed. Freedom becomes not freedom from government, but support from government. Opposing taxation becomes suspect.  Special groups are selectively excluded from taxation, while of course still able to vote – we have growing “representation without taxation”.

To satisfy this ‘market’, Congress must continually expand its role.  More and more social issues and inequalities must be conjured and legislated.  And they are.   In this way the nation’s original federalism gives way to a nationalism, a Beltway nationalism. The original Federalists advocated for a national bank, a national currency, a strong chief executive in time of war, and regulation of interstate commerce, but not much more.  They believed in the sovereign power of the states over their local affairs.  The original antifederalists, confusingly named Republicans originally, (and later called Democrats), believed the federalists wanted too much power. They sought to limit federal power, and not just to protect slavery – many of them were against slavery – but their knowledge of european history made them wary of government power.

Today, beltway nationalists, who mostly call themselves Democrats, seek more than a strong central power for defense and commerce, they seek national power in local affairs, too.  They have grown from the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and the Great Society.  Confusingly, today’s federalists – neofederalists? – who mostly call themselves Republicans, are more like the original anti-federalists. They seek to limit national power in local affairs and the economy.  The nationalists have been the most successful.  They have essentially nationalized transportation, public education, food production, medical care, and college education, with the recent nationalization of all college loans.

The Federal Register, the compendium of all federal, bureaucratic rules and regulations, is 20,000 pages long. . . . weekly, and it keeps getting longer.

Old World government, centralized bureaucratic government, has come to the United States.

Modal Consciousness

Zen Mind is described as a state of egolessness, devoid of self consciousness.   One can utilize this state of mind, Zen shows us, in archery, martial arts, and calligraphy.  Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugene Herrigel, is the short classic story of a westerner’s attempt to achieve Zen Mind and become a skilled archer. During the author’s eight years of training he is continuously redirected from trying to hit the target.  The arrow should release itself, you see, like a tree branch that bends to release a load of snow.  One doesn’t aim.  Without ego the arrow finds the target.  Zen Masters blow out candles with their arrows at 80 yards, blindfolded.

The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of LIfe, by Alison Gopnik, reviewed by Michael Greenbergin the New York Review of Books, March 10, 2010, describes what the author has discovered about human consciousness before age 6.  Children this age, she reports, have “lantern” consciousness as opposed to “spotlight” consciousness, which develops soon thereafter.  In “lantern” consciousness one does not have a sense of being a self observer as one is having experience, one is just “taking it all in”, with no intentionally focused attention.  This is likened to what an adult experiences watching a movie, immersed in the unfolding visual and auditory experience, with a suspended sense of self.

In “spotlight” consciousness, after age six, we develop the focused intention of the self-conscious observing self.  We direct our ‘show’.  We have a sense of me looking to see what I seek to see.  We have ego, filtering and directing our experience.

As adults we seem to be able to do both “lantern” and “spotlight” consciousness. This is empowering, and maddening.  Zen shows us that suspending “spotlight” for “lantern” consciousness can take some effort and training – it doesn’t seem natural – but it can be quite beneficial for perceptual and motor tasks.  Having unattached attention, any golf professional will tell you, refines skill and improves ability to perform body kinesthetic and hand-eye movements.

“Lantern” consciousness seems more like animal consciousness.  “Spotlight” consciousness may be uniquely human.  Why did it evolve?   Perhaps “spotlight” consciousness is for social living.  Having me at the center of my perception may be very important for negotiating the interpersonal landscape.  The social environment is every bit as perilous for humans as the predator environment is for animals.  Human survival depends on successful membership in groups.

“Lantern” consciousness may be more effective for acts in the natural world.  Animals hunt, move, and fight very well.

This duality can be maddening.  Our consciousness can shift.  This is not fully manageable.  We choke in sports, freeze on stage, lose our golf swing, suddenly forget what we were going to say.

History of Christianity

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek,  and author of American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House, reviews Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, by Diamond MacCulloch, in the New York Times Book Review, April 4, 2010.

Meacham tells us he is officially sympathetic to christianity.  ” I am an episcopalian who takes the faith of my fathers seriously“,  but then, with qualification: “if unemotionally“.   He notes, too, that MacCulloch is also sympathetic to christianity, but also with qualification:   “I would now describe myself as a candid friend of christianity. I still appreciate the seriousness which a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human experience and I appreciate the solemnity of religious liturgy as a way of confronting these problems” . . yet, “I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.”

So, Religion is OK, but only unemotionally, and don’t forget it is crazy.

Meacham seems to accept that religious faith is necessarily dogmatic, rigid, opposed to critical thinking, and intolerant.  He doesn’t seem to know that what makes religious faith, faith, is that it is a decision held knowingly in the face of known doubt and uncertainty.  And contrary to his concerns, the history of christianity is full of debate and philosophy and disagreement.

Meacham seems also to equate having religious faith with being ‘literalist’ –  taking the words of the Bible as only factual, without metaphor.  In this thinking, one is all or none – the Bible is all factual truth or all metaphor.   Yet he very likely would not deny that the Bible is great literature, written over thousands of years by numerous authors mostly unknown to each other, truly an authentic compilation of human literary effort.  And he would without doubt affirm that there is great truth in literature.  Not one element of profound literary theme or structure is missing from the Bible.

To the religious, the question of the literal truth of the Bible is not a meaningful, or even valid question.  It seems intended to diminish the sophistication of faith, and deserves no answer.  Is not all knowing, all conceptualization, ultimately metaphorical?  Is not story a powerful way to communicate profound truth?

Meacham approves of MacCulloch’s accusation that the Apostle Paul justified slavery.  But this is a weak point.  Paul wisely advised the very fragile early church to avoid radical opposition to the “existing social distinctions.”  This included slavery, which was, in those times, the ubiquitous norm of all civilizations. Meacham seems unaware of the powerlessness of the early christians, despite having read this history.  Their swift demise would have quickly followed any political stance against Roman power.  This, after all, is precisely what happened to Jesus.  A surviving movement was better than no movement at all.

Meacham also notes, approvingly, another MacCulloch opinion:  “For most of its existence, christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths, doing its best to eliminate all competition, with Judaism a qualified exception”. Huh?  Christianity has had its corruptions, and has been an instrument of political power, but what religion has built more hospitals, schools, and universities?  What religion has most fostered the independence of learning and the pluralistic societies of our day?

Men in Combat

“Combat fog obscures your fate…and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between men”

In Sebastian Junger’s War, a book about a company of soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan, we experience war conceptually, and devoid of the cynicism of most war commentary.  Junger doesn’t speak to whether war is good or bad, but what it is. The book is a case study of men in combat, and it illuminates a wonderful aspect of our humanity.

Survival in combat depends on the precise coordination of individuals in a group.  It is the group that moves, acts, responds, not the man.  Alone in a firefight every man would die.  And so, out of necessity men in combat become a network of acute mutual dependence.  It is more powerful than any bond forged in peace.  Like a parent to a child, a man knows that the group depends on him for its survival, and like a child to a parent, he depends on it for his own.

In war, every part of a man’s life becomes devoted to his participation in the network of dependence.  All his decisions of personal organization and conduct affect the web of mutual protection.  He makes sure his boots are laced, or else he is too slow to his gun.  He monitors his supply of water and nutrients, or else he risks exhaustion while on patrol, slowing the group, exposing them to attack. Every daily act has a meaning as profound as life and death.

What is striking is how immediately men adopt the identity of the team: one gets the sense that we are evolved to coordinate and move as a pack.  But men that experience combat invariably have difficulty adjusting to peaceful society.  They struggle to leave the mindset of battle.  Despite the terror, fear, and death, the men in Junger’s unit miss combat—they crave it.  They have become adrenaline junkies (like the soldier that yells “better than crack!” over the roar of gunfire), but strangely, excitement alone fails to explain the feeling of loss felt by a soldier who leaves combat:

“In these hillsides of loose shale and holly trees are where the men feel not the most alive—that you can get skydiving—but the most utilized.  The most necessary.  The most clear and certain and purposeful.”

Junger observes that an act of courage in combat is indistinguishable from an act of love.

It seems we are not meant to live frivolously, leisurely, and lazily, as we do too often when our survival is not threatened.  We have the capacity to live vividly, to experience each personal decision as profoundly important to our survival and the survival of our group.  We seem to move closer to what we are meant to be, when we are forced with every step to consider the well-being of those on whom we mutually depend.

Something or Something else

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Steven Weinberg.

Science seems to have the unspoken goal of finding explanations that have no arbitrary element.   Nothing can be a certain way, when it could as well be another way.  Why it isn’t always has to be explained.   The result is that scientific explanations require that purely random elements somehow build the non-random world we know.

This is proving difficult.  The great mathematician, Kurt Gødel, proved that all logical systems require a ‘given’, an assumption that is unprovable by the logical system itself.  Reality seems so far to be the same.

Sean Carroll, in “From eternity to here“, 2010, tells us that the most important and baffling ‘given’ in our Universe is the unidirectional nature of time.  He traces the irreversibility of time to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy can only stay the same or increase.  Entropy is the measure of disorder of a system.  All of the other fundamental laws of physics seem to be time reversible.  Somehow, time reversible processes create time that is irreversible.  Carroll ventures to explain this.

Changing low entropy into higher entropy is the dynamic that creates our knowable world, the evolution of life, the existence of stars and planets, and galaxies, the unidirection of time.   And so entropy must have started low, but this is very improbable and therefore it must be explained, why didn’t it start high?

From eternity to here” gives us a wonderful tour of the advanced science that is grappling with this question.  We are presented the concepts behind  mathematical equations that have been found to predict the behavior of the universe.  In something like a parlor trick, science theory tells that what exists is what is probable. Anything can exist, however, no matter how improbable, given the immense time and space of the universe.  Infinity solves equations, Infinity has happened, yet the universe is only 14 billion years old. Empty space can have virtual particles that improbably, but actually, pop in and out of existence, and nothing can escape a black hole, except, improbably, something does. Probability helps explain reality, except when it doesn’t.  Cause and effect exists, except when it doesn’t.

Mr. Carroll is left engagingly unable to explain how entropy started low, and time is irreversible.  We seem to be left with a given.

Most people can accept many if not most scientific explanations, but most people, unlike Steven Weinberg, can’t really feel that it is all pointless.  There just seems like there is something when there could have been something else.

The Drama of the Gifted

In the charming movie, Vitus, a young boy is a piano prodigy.  This becomes very important to his parents, so much so that they seem to forget that he is still a young boy.  Too young to understand his gift, he wants to be a young boy.  His parents’ obsession becomes annoying, so he fakes a head injury to seem to lose his talent and free him to do fun things, like learn to fly airplanes with his grandfather.  Eventually he takes flight in a real airplane, and flies to the villa of a famous piano virtuoso, whom he has met before.   She has told him:  “don’t play for them, don’t play for yourself, play for the music“.  He is ready, and he does.

Golf is a ritualized hunt.  The players rendevous with their weapons, then advance, spread out, approach the target, make the kill, and then re-group.   And because success in hunting has been so vital and necessary in our history, hunting skill is highly valued and cultivated.  Skill is doing something with precision, practiced technique, and intelligent efficiency.  Doing more with less.  And so it is also in golf.  The best swing is the most graceful, the most rhythmic, the most simple. The best score is the least number of shots.

We talk about inclusion and equality, but we love competition.  We are driven to seek, promote, and celebrate the best among us.  We create competition to know who is best.  We love sorting out winners and losers, as cruel as it can be for the losers, we are more than willing to tolerate the agony of loss for the losers. We gravitate to excellence, we give it special status, we dislike losers.  We invite winners to feel superior, we encourage them to feel proud, we help them feel entitled.

And then, we call them on it.  They walk the plank.

There is the Drama of the Gifted Child, (Alice Miller 1979).  Over time the gifted are more and more loved for their gift, less and less for themselves as persons. Paradoxically, success becomes more and more diminishing.  The Gift usurps the Self.

Tiger Woods is a prodigy, and a winner.  He has great skill, developed with hard, diligent effort.  Initially, he probably played for his parents, then he played for his fans, and then he played for himself.  Whomever he may have betrayed, he did not betray excellence.  That is a gift for us, and for that he deserves our admiration.

Play for the music.

Neuron History

On Deep History and the Brain, Daniel Lord Smail, 2008.

Does culture evolve  and if so, how?  This is a big question, for if culture evolves and we can change its course, then perhaps we can change our future.  We tend to see cultural history as showing a progression, a direction, and that the accumulation of knowledge is increasing in complexity and power, and is ‘passed on’ in such a manner as to influence successive cultures, for good or ill.

In On Deep History and the Brain,  Danial Lord Smail suggests that the engine and logic of cultural evolution lies in the neurology of the human brain.  In his thinking, biologic evolution is about genes getting what they want, and cultural evolution is about neuron’s getting what they want.  Genes and neurons, however, don’t want the same things, and this may not be good. It has been said that our future would either be like 1984, by George Orwell, or like Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.  Daniel Lord Smail thinks it will be like Brave New World.  Genes, he suggests, want to proliferate, but neurons want soma.

Mr. Smail notes that the ideas and knowledge that ‘take hold’ in the neurons of minds the most avidly, and therefore get passed-on the most powerfully, are those that stimulate body sensations, particularly pleasure, but also fear, excitement, enhanced perception, and feelings of solidarity.  These create mental energy and a sense of virtual experience.  We crave, after all, experience, because we crave learning, and we particularly crave experience and learning that are low cost in energy. Vivid brain stimulation and virtual experience can seem like living and learning “for free” – at low energy cost.

And so, for Mr. Smail, History with a capital H can be seen as a story of seeking, obtaining, and manipulating increasing intensities of mental sensation.   Wars are fought for access to sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and hallucinogenic drugs, and religious rituals are developed for shared ecstatic mood, body excitement, and feelings of unity.  Greater masses of collective organization are sustained.  Dominant elites achieve influence and control and maintain hierarchy, using both the positives of excited ideology and the negatives of threatened and uncertain physical and emotional abuse.  History becomes a story of excitement, propaganda, group enthusiasm, and the control of the many by the few.

Not unlike mass societies, our brain neurons seem to have a heirarchical structure, with reward neurons at the top.  Mental stimulations which activate most effectively the most reward neurons will have the most acceptance and proliferation, and these reward neurons, like pharaoh’s and kings, will drive the lessor neurons to serve their needs. Think rock concerts, multi-media experiance, drugs and alcohol, the passion of political rallies, movies, television, and “Amusing Ourselves to Death“, Neil Postman, 1985.

The direction of culture evolution may not be progress, but intoxication.

Hoping for Spalding Gray

“Tell me a horror story, Daddy”.

“. . . Look around you, son.  . . . What do you see?”

There is the abyss, the secret that life is ultimately empty and meaningless, that none of us really matter.  It is that existential horror of being.  We could dwell on it, but that would make it very hard for us to live.  Life is tragic, it is full of loss, it ends in death, it can be unspeakably cruel. Yet most of us seem to rather easily avoid thinking about it.  Somehow, we keep up optimism, and have a trust that horrible things won’t happen to us.

Some people simply can’t ignore this horror of being, and when they are also exceptionally perceptive and insightful, they can live with a deep and puzzling loneliness of being different, a gnawing sense of being unable to have validation.  They often try, sometimes in charming and creative ways, to reach ‘normal’ people, but they fail and have despair.

Spalding Gray comes to mind.  He invented the creative monologue.  He gave us lively, theatrical expositions of mental journeys, musings, perplexity.  Over and over he portrays deep experience, combined with a sense of missing attachment.  He has some kind of inability to feel comfortable the way everyone else seems to feel comfortable, some kind of disconnection with himself.  He recounts life episodes of failing to act in his own best interests, like when he can’t bring himself to be on the Johnny Carson show.  He is not sure why he is who he is.  “Why don’t I have children?   Was it a decision I made or did it just happen?” He feels lost, and is puzzled that others don’t feel lost also.

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, presents a retrospective of his work, Spalding Gray: Stories to Tell. Actors read poignantly and theatrically from his journal notes. Spalding is delightfully animated with wonder, doubt, and chagrin.  We learn that he was annoyed, indeed obsessed, by his step daughter’s repetitive playing of the bouncy song “I get knocked down, but I get up again da da da da da da da da da”. Spalding mocks this. He derides it.  It is funny, but he is emphatic. He wants us to know about this.  He wants us to know that his song really, really gets to him.

Having children is an element of reprieve for him, but ultimately he can’t go on.

The program ends with a large screen photo of Spalding.  In full view he is there – his puzzled, glint-eyed, emphatic, dramatic, funny, bemused expression.  He makes sense.  There is a sense of relief for him, gratitude, and even joy.  He can be known after all, he is seen.  It is all the more precious as we know he was never sure.

Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges gives a great portrayal, not just of a failing country music artist, but of an alcoholic.

Alcohol chiefly blocks emotional intelligence, not intellectual intelligence.  The alcoholic over time doesn’t know what makes him sad, what makes him happy, what makes him anxious.  We have these emotions for a reason, they teach us what matters to us, what frightens us, what brings satisfaction.  The neurologist, Antonio Damasio, in his book  Descartes’ Error, descirbes how loss of emotional processing leads to profound dysfunction.  The alcoholic, without reliable emotional processing, becomes a baffling mixture of preserved intellectual intelligence but increasing emotional stupidity.  This is Bad Blake, a man of talent and creativity who abandons a son and a wife, can’t write music anymore, and doesn’t know why.

We can explain alcoholism as a charming by-product of creative  genius.  We think of it as enhancing creative powers.  We can be fooled into seeing it as a movingly tragic antidote for gifted peoples’ special pain.  This movie, though, gives us none of that.  Bad Blake was bad because he was a alcoholic, and he became sensible, and talented, when he stopped drinking.  His new woman interest didn’t waver when she saw it clearly. Somehow, she had learned, perhaps the hard way, and she wasn’t going to risk the welfare of her son.

In American Prometheus, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, we find the clearly portrayed – but little acknowledged – martini alcoholism of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the  creator of the atom bomb.  We see that his wife was an alcoholic also, her’s more severe, he an enabler.  Oppenheimer became a frustrating, puzzling mix of mental genius and emotional failure. The man who built the atom bomb eventually lost his security clearance, and his family.  His son went off to live in seclusion in the mountains of New Mexico, working as contractor and carpenter, twice married and divorced.

When his daughter Toni was born, her mother suffered postpartum depression, and was drinking, “a lot”, so she left Toni with a nanny friend, and went away for a number of months. Robert Oppenheimer would periodically visit the child.

It was all very strange.  He would come and sit and chat with me, but he wouldn’t ask to see the baby.  She might as well have been God knows where, but he never asked to see her.”

“Would you like to adopt her?”

No, she reassured him . . . over time he would become “attached” to the baby.

“No, I’m not an attached kind of person”.

After failed marriages, no children, and recurrent unhappiness, Toni hanged herself in the family beach house of Hawksnest Bay, in the Virgin Islands, overlooking where her father’s ashes and urn are submerged.