Friday, July 14, 2017

On Compassion, Part One

We are living in a time when some basic assumptions about the condition of 'being human' are being called into question.  And, in some quarters, qualities that had once been taken pretty much as basic to what makes us 'human' are even being shunned and abandoned.  Foremost among these is the quality referred to as 'compassion'.  Just so we are clear about what the term refers to, here is a dictionary definition:" A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering."

That is pretty straight-forward. It means you care. When you begin to look at the world at large, and political realities in particular, you will notice that this is increasingly uncommon.  It is certainly not an integral part of how people look at the suffering of others in these times.  One might even say it is the stuff of the saintly souls among us, whereas it was once assumed that a person who was lacking compassion was somehow lacking, not complete, not a 'whole' human being. Whatever else they might have, if they didn't have a degree of compassion they were less than human. Compassion has been regarded by some as one of the defining characteristics that indeed makes one human.  The term, 'inhumane' refers to this very deficit.

Perhaps the noticeable retrograde of compassion in our society has something to do with the constant bombardment of the news, and its ever improving ability to put high-definition images of great suffering in front of us...and to do it with 24/7 regularity.  We see clips and photos of starving babies, drowned refugees, innocents being blown-up by militants...and on and on...on a daily basis.  Obviously, there is plenty of suffering--heart-rending, dramatic, violent and mind-numbing--to go around.  We are a species in extremis, by any reasonable definition.  So, it is understandable that we do shut-out much of what is happening.  War, famine and disease, extreme poverty are all happening on a world-wide scale that should tell us that we are not okay, as individuals or as a species.

Then you pile-on the news about what we are doing to our host planet. Unless you are an idiot or an ostrich, you know that the thousands of scientists who are monitoring, analyzing and documenting, the physical state of the planet are not all involved in a grand conspiracy to deceive us.  If you are not a self-deceiver you know that we are well on the way to destroying earth's ability to support life as we know it, and because of our deep dependency on carbon-based energy sources, we are headed for a series of changes that are now widely understood and being referred to as The Sixth Great Extinction.  And, it has the further distinction of being the only such scenario to be created by one of the species that will be extinguished: us.

ASIDE: If you are one of the people who still don't believe that science is 'factual' and that climate change is being caused by human activity....then you are probably not going to agree with or accept anything in this blog, and you might as well stop reading here. If you are inclined to troll me, don't bother; your words will have no audience here. 

On top of all of this, we now look out on a political landscape in which the opposing sides are at each others' throats, and our elected president is being identified by some very authoritative sources as being 'unstable' and even 'mentally ill'.  At the very least, his behavior is bizarre, immature and a source of morbid embarrassment to millions of Americans. So, is it any wonder that people are feeling negative and put upon by the sum total of what they observe around them these days?

Here's the thing, however: the worse things get, the more we need to make conscious decisions about how to conduct our lives.  Otherwise, our most painful complaint will be a feeling of floating down a stream like an autumn leaf...helpless and out of control.  As all of these factors interact to create deepening feelings of insecurity and fear, it becomes critically important to take control of not only our own lives, but to consider how others are getting along in their lives and make decisions about how to be a part of this community of souls we call a society.  If we give in to our inclination to withdraw and to isolate ourselves.....we begin to slowly die inside.  We are social creatures, whether we cop to it or not.  Isolation is a form of punishment, even torture. (And we use it as such in the penal system, don't we?) When we decide--either consciously, or by default--to ignore the suffering of others, and take on the attitude of somebody like Ayn Rand, which says, essentially,  "I've got mine, and it sucks to be you", we have begun the process of creating our own hell.

If you look at situations where pain and suffering were/are extreme and ubiquitous....for example, London during the Blitz in have people not care about each other and just operate on some kind of self-preservation auto-pilot would multiply the misery and deepen the pain of being in such terrible circumstances. To take the position that "I'm okay...and I really don't give a tinker's damn about you." would be unconscionable.  What actually happened in London was the exact opposite: people, with few exceptions, felt like they were all in it together and caring and kindness became commonplace.  I had an aunt who was there with the Red Cross during the Blitz and her dominant memory in later years was of how heroic ordinary people were. Instead of destroying their spirits, it deepened their determination to survive and a part of that was the certainty born of knowing that they were in it together.

So, here we are in 2017, and it's beginning to look like it has the potential to become a Blitz of our own.  Things are pretty good for most people as I write this, but in 2008 we learned that the idea of a stable economy and a predictable and rosy future is ephemeral.  One major terrorist attack, one major financial hiccup, one earth-based disaster....the 'big one', as Californians call it, or a tsunami, or you name it....and all of this apparent stability is gone, gone, gone.  And, as we saw, it can happen almost overnight.

And, despite the absence of some over-arching disaster, there are plenty of people who are already suffering. Do you need me to really explain how it feels to live in an inner-city neighborhood that has nightly gang shootings?  Or what it is like to have a serious illness and not have adequate health care?
Do you want me to tell you how being extremely poor and without hope of changing that for your kids...grinds at your soul, day in and day out?  Do you really want to live in a society where a large segment of the people are just written off as, unworthy of living decent lives....or of LIVING AT ALL?

For a society to succeed in the long term, it needs to have an awareness of itself as a whole. If a small part of it becomes isolated by means of having extreme affluence....and extreme poverty is the condition of an entire population, the formula for self-destruction is in place. Don't take my word for it, read the history books.  When an elite part of society loves only itself and ceases to care about the base of the pyramid....compassion is no longer in the mix, and its counter-part is going to grow strong: hatred, resentment...and eventually violence.  Because people who do not have a sense of meaning in their lives, and who find themselves without HOPE.....will not ever just fade away.  They will not go quietly into the night.

Bastille Day, 2017

Monday, July 10, 2017

Pants on Fire....

Someone said recently that we're living in a 'post fact' world.  That sounds suspiciously like they want it to be okay that lying has become so common that it is now acceptable.

I don't buy it for one second.

So, let's take a look at why telling the truth is not only not obsolete, but one of the key factors in keeping a civil society civil.  For starters, there is our legal system that would become meaningless and unable to function if we no longer have any distinction between truth and falsehood.  When a witness is about to testify in a civil or criminal proceeding, they are required to stipulate under oath that they are about to, "....tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth."  So, imagine if this morphed into something like, "Do you swear to tell the truth only when it is convenient and causes you no difficulty whatsoever, so help you God?"

The entire system breaks down.  Once we embrace the idea that 'truth' is a relative concept, no longer anchored in 'reality', whatever that is, we have no firm ground to establish guilt or innocence, culpability or exoneration.

Here's an example from the real world: a few years ago, my step-son and I were riding motorcycles on a beautiful October day, not far from home.  A sub-contractor was re-building that particular road and had set-up a construction zone.  We knew this and were riding accordingly. As the crew tore-up the original road, into baseball sized chunks of rubble, they created a situation wherein we rode into a 'booby trap'.  The requisite "PAVEMENT ENDS" sign was missing, and the rubble zone began on a curve at the top of a hill.  By the time we could see what was in front of was too late to even slow down and we were only going about 30-35mph,

Long story, short: I crashed.  I was injured and my motorcycle was totaled.  Two years passed before the inevitable law suit came to court, and when a local police officer was asked, under oath, about the absence of the 'PAVEMENT ENDS",  he answered, "I don't recall."  In fact, I had angrily confronted him at the scene with the question: "Where the hell was the 'Pavement Ends' sign?"  But, now he was lying because it served his purpose. Maybe the contractor got to him, or maybe he just didn't want to be known as having taken the side of an 'outsider' against a local business.  I will never know why he lied, but at that moment the case was lost. Truth and, ultimately, justice took a back seat to self-preservation and self-interest that day. Apparently, the fact that this officer of the law was giving sworn testimony meant very little.  He had already given himself permission to lie.

And now we are entering a period in American history where some people, including the president of the United States, want us to believe that this is the new normal. If it suits your own interests, lying is okay, even necessary. The moral imperative to tell the truth has been retired, and, let's be honest, it was just for boy scouts and suckers anyhow, right?  Personal and professional integrity is now an endangered species.

If we are to accept this idea, we are leaving firm ground behind permanently and venturing out onto a vast peat-bog of unknown hazards.  Peat-bogs are famously treacherous and a person can step on a thin spot and go right through, perhaps even disappear completely and not be able to find their way back to the surface. Glub!

But, lying becoming widely accepted as a practice has much, much wider and darker implications than just those for the legal world.  Start to imagine what the overall quality of life becomes when you can no longer trust what anybody says.  Is it even possible to have a society remain livable when trust is gone?  Your doctor could feel justified in lying because he/she just doesn't want to be the bearer of terrible news....or because he/she should have seen the tiny indications of cancer on your imaging results, and knows it was an oversight, i.e. a litigable mistake.

How about relationships?  There has always been a degree of lying between spouses and partners, but it has also always been considered low-life behavior.  So, is it okay now?  Husbands and wives can just lie their asses off and feel fine about it?  This doesn't sound like a solid foundation for any kind of marriage, friendship, partnership or professional relationship.  Once trust is set aside and we have a feeling of not quite trusting anybody or anything we're told.....what is left? It makes me queasy just thinking about living that way.

We are already living in a society that seemingly causes depression. And, that is actually not a very controversial statement.

"From 1999 to 2012 the percentage of Americans on antidepressants increased from 6.8% to 13%, according to a report published this week by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)". And a larger number of children are taking them every year. If you look at what people are dealing with on a daily basis, your reaction might be similar to mine: "Little wonder."  In a country that once prided itself on having inspired ideals and was the gold standard of Freedom, we now have an over-abundance of hatred, venomous invective directed at fellow Americans, much of it racially and socio-economically inspired.  It is becoming more difficult to identify anything one might call 'the meaning of life'.  For many Americans life has indeed become depressing, and stressful. There are many causes of this national malaise, but that is for another day.

And, now we're being pummeled with the idea that we don't need to know 'facts', that we should just accept that because some self-interested Donald Trump...says something, it must be true.

Well, I'm not buying it, and I hope you won't either. A lie is still A LIE. And, invariably, lies are told in order to deceive, and to gain some kind of advantage by that deception. Trump wants us to believe that Russia had nothing to do with his getting elected because it's going to be a big problem for him that they did. So, he lies. It's the easy way forward. And, he has appointed lots of people who are willing to lie for him....about almost anything you can name: health care, taxes, jobs, terrorists, inauguration crowd-size, three million fraudulent voters  and on and on. He lies because that is all he knows how to do. He's been doing it all of his business life and apparently doesn't see the harm in it. If you believe him, he's won. And a large segment of Americans do believe him. And, many of them know he's lying but accept that is just what you have to do to be effective against those who tell a different story.

 For people who accept that lying is a viable strategy for 'getting ahead', or thwarting the opposition, life is not and never was a morality play. It is a reality-tv contest, a lot like Survivor, and you do what you need to do to win.  When Boston Rob was called to task by a fellow contestant who trusted him and was then back-stabbed by him, Boston Rob's response was, "Hey, we're playin' for a million bucks up here."  Lying, cheating, back-stabbing are all okay if that's what it takes to win in today's world. Right?

When one of his 'spinners', Kellyanne Conway, introduced the concept of 'alternative facts' on camera, you could see her wince. She said it as if she half-expected it to be thrown back in her face. And, it has been, time and again. There may be a part of America that is ready to abandon the truth, but there are still legions of us who will never accept that a lie has any value or credibility. The only'value' of a lie is in it's ability to deceive. It's that simple. If you are ready and willing to be deceived then I question your intelligence and your personal integrity.

So, carry-on, America.  If you think we will achieve a level of harmony, peace and LIVABILITY, a society that a sane person would imagine creating and enjoy living in each lying and always trying to gain the upper hand by taking advantage of others, especially those less advantaged, you are just deceiving yourself.  We will NOT get there that way, but if you don't believe that, just keep on doing what you're doing and you'll find out that, hell, that's what they make Ambien and Prozac for.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Dear America.....WTF?

Okay, okay....that was a false start three years ago.  I really did intend to re-start my blog and to do so with a more positive outlook on things in general and our country and its politics in particular.

But, then, reality intervened. As a person who has been observing and caring for over six decades now, I found myself struggling with what is happening to us, as people, as a society and as a planet. There is just no getting around the fact that, regardless of how you look at it.....we're in big trouble. I simply could not find a way to be positive about the fact that we're A) destroying the environment and so many are still in denial about it.  B) becoming less and less compassionate towards others, right down to actually attacking those who don't share our own beliefs. C)  making political choices that seem to indicate we're headed deeper into the swamp, not out of it.



A large segment of the people seem to believe we're in danger of becoming a socialist welfare state in which wealth is 'stolen' away from those who have earned it...uh, amassed it?...and re-distributed to the teeming masses of people who don't deserve it and are unwilling to work for a living. At the same time, another large segment seem to believe that a tiny portion, i.e. .01%, of the people have more wealth than all the rest of us put together.  The safety nets that were put in place by FDR, and LBJ, among others, are in danger of being either stripped away, or being mutated so that they become vehicles for big money to make more profits from them.

Further complicating this scenario is the fact that simple facts are becoming elusive.  The 'truth' is now considered to be--by too many--what any one writer or site or paper says it is at any given moment.  We have been introduced to the novel concept of 'alternative facts' and the idea that there is no such thing as The Truth.  To the people who still want to believe that certain things are simply factual and true, this is an infuriating way of dodging reality. It is also a known and well-proven method of moving a society towards the goal of becoming an autocracy.....yes, a dictatorship.

The actual and factual simple TRUTH is that we are a people divided, and badly so.  It's not just a matter of some feel this way and others feel that way. Oh, no!  It's more like: if you don't believe what I believe, then you are my enemy, and furthermore you are EVIL.  The invective...on both sides of this great chasm....has become so venomous and so hateful that it would be alarming and astonishing, but for the fact that we are now becoming inured to least, a lot of people are.  It is becoming, the 'new normal' and that, in and of itself, should be terribly concerning.  It is paving a formerly faint path and becoming a direct route to the eventuality of violence.

There are now so-called 'alt-right' voices espousing rounding up 'the democrats' and 'getting rid of them'.  This is a form of rhetoric that is so extreme that I had to read it several times before it sank in. What?   So, they want to have concentration camps?  Who are these people?  Are they so mentally aberrant that this is actually a serious contention? This is just one example of parties getting so worked up over the opposing viewpoints of conservatism and liberalism, aka 'right' and 'left' that we are starting to put forward ideas that are stark and would have been unthinkable, just a very short time ago.

These two ideologies are so vehemently in opposition that terms are being routinely used such as, 'the war on the middle-class', or 'the war on black people' or 'the fight for justice'.  We (most of us, anyway...some have been there ongoing) are at the early stages of imagining we might actually accept violence as a way of settling these issues.

 And, we have done this before, haven't we?  It seems odd to me, somehow, that my own great grandfather was in the American Civil War.  In fact, he was a drummer-boy in a Pennsylvania regiment at Gettysburg, and watched Pickett's Charge from Cemetery Hill.  He stared through the pall of gun-smoke at a massive body of troops as they advanced across the open fields.  He watched as cannonballs and grape shot tore gaps in their ranks....and on they came.  We know how it culminated; Pickett's troops made it to the Union positions, but were so decimated that they had to ultimately retreat back across the same blood-soaked fields. William Henry Sayen, was a boy of fifteen, and watched as thousands of Americans killed thousands more Americans that day.  I can only imagine how this must have affected him for the rest of his life.

A 2012 re-calculation of casualties in the Civil War indicated that approximately 750,000 Americans, on both sides, died in the line of duty.  Disease and primitive medical capabilities figured greatly in this number, far more than any other war in our national history.  But, we went to war over a national chasm between ideas....and three-quarters of a million Americans died.

Now, just try to imagine if we somehow manage to talk ourselves into another national conflagration.  Weapons are much more efficient, our population is about ten times what it was in 1860 (31.4 million vs. 321 million in 2015).  If we persist in ramping up the sentiments on both sides of this national rift, to the point that violence really does become a reality....there is a mind-boggling potential for how lethal and cataclysmic it could be.

This is such a terrible thing to contemplate, that most of us...who are not already there....likely consider it to be 'unthinkable'.  But, pause to consider this: we are collectively the most heavily armed populace to ever comprise a modern society....hell, any society.  The rhetoric continues to heat up, both sides are becoming more choleric, more invested in coming out on top, more intolerant of divergent views.  All the ingredients are in place; just add heat and stir.

I majored in the philosophy of ethics in college. My mentor in the phil department at Penn State was Doctor Ernst Hans Freund.  He was a professor emeritus on the verge of retirement, but he took me on because he could see that I was earnestly seeking some answers about 'right' and 'wrong' as they apply to our daily lives and to our society at large.  Dr. Freund was a Quaker.  His family had fled the Nazis and come to the U.S. and he was one of the most reasonable and kind people I have ever met.  Were he alive today, I can imagine him just shaking his head with a sad look as he contemplated what we are doing to ourselves.

The problems we face are not insoluble. Quite the opposite; they are easily solved....but, only if we are willing to pull back from rabidly held positions that consider the opposing views to be evil, wrong, malfeasance on a terrible scale. Perhaps it sounds simplistic to say it, but we do have goals in common.  Both sides, and even the extremes of same, want to be happy, to have a shot at living decent lives, raising their families and taking advantage of the same opportunities as others.  It is only a very small percentage of Americans who really crave being lavishly rich at the expense of others.  Most people just want to feel like their lives are doable, enjoyable and that they have a feeling of optimism and hope about the future.

I cannot believe that most Americans wish ill for others, here or around the planet.  They just want to feel that options are open to them, and that life is not an ever-accelerating treadmill on which " simply must run twice as fast, if you wish to keep up".

There are answers, and it is my intention to explore some of the possibilites in this blog.  Check back and see what those might be.