About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Culture Wars


In the past few decades there has been a conflation of the terms culture and lifestyle.  More specifically, we have frequently been replacing culture with lifestyle.  This shift has both positive and negative consequences; and we are also conflicted about both.

First, I want to define the differences between culture and lifestyle.  Culture is imposed, or perhaps inherited.  Typically, we get our culture from our families, our community, or our heritage.  Sometimes, in the case of "going native," (technically called acculturation) we adopt another culture as our own, but for the most part, we do not choose our culture, it is something we are given.  This process of giving is called enculturation, and it typically enframes our worldview.  No matter how hard you try, you cannot completely escape the snowglobe.

Lifestyle is how we conduct our lives.  It may be a product of our culture, but most of the time, it is something we choose for ourselves.  Most people, at some point in their lives, decide to be liberal or conservative, devout or secular, engages or passive.  The list goes on and on.  Our worldview typically evolves over our lives, but it is always the product of our experiences and decisions. 

Ad agencies claim that they are not selling a product, they are selling a lifestyle, and this is to a large extent true.  Purchasing a Lexus is not typically done in a vacuum, it is part of a larger lifestyle, that often includes a McMansion, a media room, granite counters in the kitchen, and frequently, voting a straight Republican ticket.  I'm not knocking this, I'm just pointing out typical associations.  Purchasing a Prius, often goes hand in hand with a Democratic voting record, environmentalism, and a backyard compost heap.

We assemble our lifestyle from a kit of parts, and more and more, that kit is mad up of the things we buy.  The ad agencies have done an excellent job of making sure your lifestyle is properly branded.  Being a Mac User tells someone vast amounts of information about who you are.  So does the brand of clothing you wear, where you shop, what you drive.  We build our identity from our possessions.

We are a profoundly material culture, dependant on positional goods.  These are the items that indicate your status in society. At the upper end of this spectrum are Veblen Goods, which are things you want more, just because they are more expensive.  Prada shoes and Viking Stoves are classic examples of Veblen Goods.

Further, in less materialistic societies, positional goods are not branded, they just are.  For example in India, social rank can be determined by whether you have indoor plumbing, electricity, and many other things that we in America take for granted, and consequently no longer consider status symbols.

As a result of this, less materialistic societies and communities tend not to have lifestyles, they retain culture as their main guide to life.  This is not to be construed as the same as countries.  In most countries, there are still segments of the population that still function from a Cultural Worldview, for example, the Amish, the Navajos, the Gypsies.   These people live in every country, just as, in most countries, there is at least a small segment of the population that operates from the Lifestyle Worldview.

Now to the conflicts that are arising from all of this.

We want culture to continue, but only if it meets certain specifications.  In America, we want W.A.S.P. culture to persist, and at least on Saint Patrick's day, we all want to assume a (bastardized) Irish culture.  On the other hand, we have no desire to see Mexican immigrants to live their culture, and we actively are attempting to stamp out Muslim cultures.  (Although on this score, the Europeans are going much further than we are, by banning the veil and other outward cultural tokens.)

But at the same time, we condemn lifestyles, again, especially if we disagree with them.  A perfect example of this is the "Gay Lifestyle."  (There are some who call it the "Gay Culture," but given that it is a part of the larger American Culture, at best it could be considered a sub-culture.  Give it a few decades, and there may be a distinct Gay Culture.)

Both sides of the political spectrum condemn the lifestyles of the opposite end.  Most atheists look down on a lifestyle that includes church two times a week, homeschooling, and large numbers of children.  The right is equally condemnatory of people whose lifestyle includes no church, open attitudes towards sex, or having children outside of marriage.

But at the end of the day, most Americans have abandoned culture for lifestyle.  Very few of us maintain all aspects of our cultural heritage.  This is probably an outgrowth of the melting pot that is the United States.  It is very hard for people to maintain their culture, unless they are insulated from others.  It starts slowly, losing fluency in the native tongue, eating foods outside of the ethnicity, abandoning the native dress.  It progresses into moving out of the ethnic neighborhood, going to a new church that is not the faith of your forbearers, and ultimately, building a patchwork of customs and beliefs that bear little, if any, resemblance to your original culture.

This is a slow process, and occurs over generations, typically at least three.  But by the end of the process, culture is subsumed by lifestyle, and you no longer identify by a cultural definition.  You identify by lifestyle markers, like profession, social status, colleges attended, and other things that are part of the common American experience.

On the whole, this is probably a good thing, because if we were still tied to our cultural heritage, our polycultural nation probably couldn't function.  Imagine, for example, if people during World War Two, rather than identifying themselves as American, still thought of themselves as French or German.  There would have likely been open war between neighborhoods.  (Since, in that scenario, people would have continued to live in ethnic enclaves.)

But still, many, especially on the right, decry this move.  Part of this, I'm sure, is because young people often adopt lifestyles that go against the older peoples value structures.  And without the cultural container, they feel freer to abandon the beliefs of their parents.  They don't understand, and therefore are unwilling to accept, things like arranged marriages, attitudes towards homosexuality, or strict orthodox faith.

These lifestyle choices then further undermine culture, and the process becomes a vicious cycle that pulls people even further away from their cultural roots.  And that, in turn inspires the retaliation to try to force people back into their cultural container.

An example of this is the feminist movement.  For most of Western history, we have been profoundly Patriarchal, up to the point of even asking if women were even human.  For the most part, throughout most of American history, women were property.  (You can see this from the fact that, technically, Statutory Rape is a property crime, not a sexual offense.)  This view of women was embedded deeply into most European cultures, and later into American meta-culture. (The overarching national identity, made up of all the subsidiary cultures.)

Then came suffrage, women's lib, double income households, and women dominating the professions in colleges, which will lead to women dominating the professional workforce.  This obliterated the cultural enframement of the role of women, as women chose lifestyles that put them in direct competition with the roles of men.  At this point, gender based roles have more or less ceased to exist, with women being primary bread winners and men being home-makers.  There are still a few gender barriers, for example, women in direct combat, but for the most part, both sexes can do anything they want with their lives.  The cultural containers that proscribed roles evaporated. 

This has upended traditional culture, and the men, at least the conservative ones, didn't like it.

So suddenly, this year, you have a de facto war against women, to try to stuff them back into their culturally defined roles.  You can't do that with a direct assault; you will never get any legislature to pass laws banning women in the workplace, or revoking the rights to vote and go to college.  Pandora's box cannot be closed.

So what do the culture warriors do to circumscribe the roles of women; attempt to ban contraception.  Without reliable and safe birth control, women will have no control over their reproduction, except with abstention.  It will force women to chose between having a career, or having a man in their lives.  (And as I said before, an unintended consequence of this will likely be a dramatic rise in lesbianism, but that's another story.)

With this action, they re-confine women to a classic cultural role of mother, without directly confronting the issue.  Women's careers become collateral damage, at least on the surface.  Suddenly, lifestyle is subsumed by culture.

This is not the only example of this.  You see it in the drive to keep people from attending college, which is a lifestyle factory.  You see it in the push to make this a Christian nation.  You see it in regressive taxation, that profoundly limits economic opportunities for the poor, while expanding them for the rich.  In fact, you see it in most of the far right doctrines.

They are attempting to return us to a culturally based society.  Through the straight-jacket of rigid, conservative culture, they are attempting to circumscribe lifestyle choices.

But the irony of it all is, being a Culture Warrior, is another Lifestyle Choice. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Are We Going To Fight All the Old Battles?

Why now?

For the last two weeks, as the contraception debate has consumed the media, I have been wondering why.  I thought contraception was a settled issue in America.

I guess I was wrong.

At this point, there is not a single Republican candidate for president who supports the use of contraceptives.  In fact in the entire primary cycle, with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman, all of the candidates have opposed it, as in, make it illegal, or at least almost impossible to obtain.

In addition to this, Virginia is on track to be the first state to pass Personhood, which defines life as beginning at the moment of conception.  This has the effect of outlawing all contraception that acts on a fertilized egg, which would include both the morning after pill and the regular birth control pill, both of which prevent a fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall.  This measure is also slated to be on the ballot in a number of states this fall.

Contraception was made basically legal in 1936 when the US Supreme Court ruled that federal law could not prevent a doctor from prescribing contraception.  It continued in 1965 when the Court struck down the last Comstock Law for married couples, allowing them access to contraception.  The process of legalization was completed in 1972 when that ruling was extended to unmarried couples.  Contraception has been legal for my entire life; we were even taught how to use it in fifth grade (Yes, they trusted 10 year olds with that information.)

And now, contraception is under the most sustained assault since 1915 when the architect William Sanger and his wife Margaret were charged under the Comstock Law for spreading information about contraception.  (They won under appeal)

I don't understand this.

Contraception has been pretty much universally accepted for decades.  With the exception of church hierarchies, no one has said much about contraception being morally or ethically wrong.  (There is a difference between the two terms)  In fact, as much as 80% of Catholic women have used contraception at some point in their lives.  The Pill is probably the most prescribed medication in America.  It is also considered the safest.  (And according to medical statistics, far safer than any pregnancy.)

It isn't like abortion, which does have ethical grayness.  I fully support choice, without question, but I also do acknowledge the other side's point.  They do have one, I just feel that the ethics, and honestly, the morals, are on the side of choice.  But, abortion has never been universally settled; it has always been contentious.

But contraception?  How have we come to this.  It is almost like they are attacking abortion from the other side; if contraception is illegal, then abortion must certainly be so.  I cannot imagine a world where abortion would again become the new contraceptive method, as it was before about 1950.

So why now?  Why is this fight at the front and center of American politics?

I know the answer that is out for public consumption is that Obama's ruling on contraception is a frontal assault on religious liberty; that it violates the first amendment.  But this is not a satisfactory explanation.  In actuality, it is a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy on the part of the media. (confusing correlation with causation)  They have enframed the entire discussion of the last two weeks as a result of the Obama initiative, when in actuality, the issue has been brewing for the last couple of years.  The Birth Control Ruling simply correlates with a larger narrative, it did not cause the discussion.  At best it brought it into public awareness.

The assault on reproductive freedom has been going on for the last few years.  You can see it in the Quiverfull movement and in the Personhood Amendments that have joined gay marriage as a staple of right wing ballot initiatives.  But why has this happened?

There are two possible answers, both of which, if true, are absolutely horrifying.  I do not know if what I am proposing is actual fact, so please do not assume that what follows is actually what is going on.  These are just two theories that fit the available data.  Based on my background in anthropology and sociocultural studies, these explanations fit the phenomena very well.  They are also not mutually exclusive, both could be operating concurrently in this movement.

The first draws from the Quiverfull Movement, which promotes large families (a full quiver) and traditional family structures.  This means a father that is the lord of the household, and obedient and subservient wife, and well disciplined, well mannered children.  It preaches homeschooling, devoutness, and Biblical Patriarchy.

In this model, the woman is essentially locked into a homemaker role.  With a dozen children, all homeschooled, how could she be anything but?  Her life, by necessity, must revolve around home and hearth.  In today's disintegrating traditional family, this idea has strong appeal to the traditionalist.  It harkens back to a nostalgic view of the world shown in Father Knows Best, and other sitcoms of the 1950's.  It is a nostalgia for what adherents view as a better America, before mothers works outside of the home, where the dinner was always on the table, there was almost no divorce and there were few problems with out of control children.

But it is an ideology that is never going to have a large number of adherents.  Women today want their careers, they find fulfillment in new roles, and men, more and more, find fulfillment by being an equal in the parenting and homemaking.  I know many men, for example, who do the bulk of the cooking in their house.  In 1952, that would never have happened.

You will never bring back the world of "Father Knows Best" under normal circumstances; culture has moved on.  This is a new world, with new social structures.  So how do you reinstitute the world of the 1950's?  Remove family planning.  If women have to have babies, because there is no way to prevent pregnancy, they will effectively be taken out of the workforce. 

You could never pass a law that would block women from employment, but you could achieve the same end by turning them into forced baby factories.  If they had ten kids, a career would no longer be possible.  With ten kids, I'm not sure that sanity would even be on the table anymore.

I do want to point out, if this is the impetus behind the assault on birth control, it has the possibility of backfiring dramatically.  I predict that if babies again become the punishment for sex, like they were a number of decades ago, you will find women just giving up on marriage and possibly even men.  You might find a dramatic rise in lesbianism, as women who want a career and someone to hold at night, turn to other women to fill those needs, since that would be the only safe sex.  And then, in response to a massive deficit in women, men would have to become "prison gay" out of desperation.  Always remember the law of unintended consequences.

The other possibility of this move to eliminate birth control is far more vile.  I think this may be one of the most offensive things I have ever written, so be warned.

Racism may be at the root of this.  America is poised to become a minority majority country in the next few decades.  The white majority is an endangered species because educated, affluent whites have a far lower birth rate than minorities and immigrants.

I personally think this is a good thing.  I think having a superpower that looks more like the rest of the world means that we might have more in common with them.  I think it is a recipe for peace and an antidote to racism.

But that said, the future does not look good for white people, especially Republican white people, who have built an entire political party on subtle and coded racism.  The demographic shift in America, almost guarantees years of Democratic majorities, unless the Republican party can retool their image to appeal to non-whites.  At this point that seems unlikely as they double down on the "Southern Strategy."

This motive to end birth control is not as wild of speculation as it might seem.   Many times in Savannah, I heard people talking about how the white race was breeding itself out of existence, with low birth rates and interracial marriage.  And this was not coming out of the mouths of people who regularly wear white robes and burn crosses.  They probably do not even think of themselves as actually racist, they just want this country run by people who look like them.

Think of the woman who cried on CNN, "I want my country back."  I would ask, back from who?  The implication is, I want my country to have a white president.  Obama is not an outlier, he is the vanguard of a ethnically diverse, multi-racial society.  In the coming future, we will see the government cease to be the plaything of rich white men.  The same holds true for the stock exchange, the country club, the Ivy League.  We will see a demographic shift where all of these look more like a diverse, multi-cultural America.

And, from what I heard while living in the South, this scares white people.

The only way to stop the demographic shift, short of importing mass quantities of European immigrants, is to dramatically raise the birth rate among white people.  (And that wouldn't necessarily work, because Europe is having the same demographic shift America is.)  Eliminating contraception would have the possible effect of maintaining a white majority, especially when coupled with draconian immigration laws, and could preserve the demographic status quo.

As vile as this is, remember, throughout history, mandated birth rates have been a tool of the majority to maintain their majorities.  The upshot is, eliminating family planning is a tool of abject control.  And as such, we must stand firm for reproductive freedom.  Losing this right is not just the loss of one right, it is be beginning of a cascade that ends in oppression, and totalitarianism.

There is no more important liberty to fight for than the right to control one's own body.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Who Is the Actual Prostitute Here?


I would like to pose a question: who is the true whore, a woman who uses contraception to prevent an unintended pregnancy or a politician who sells out a common liberty just to pander to a very small interest group in order to further their political career?

Today, Foster Friess, a prominent Santorum supporter, said that rather than using contraception, girls in his day just kept their legs shut.  The actual quote is "This contraceptive thing, my gosh, it's so... inexpensive. Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives."   This refers to the idea that in the past, a girl should hold an aspirin between her knees to prevent pregnancy.  If you do that, you can’t have sex, and if you don’t have sex, you are extremely unlikely to get pregnant.  (I’m not even touching the virgin birth issue.)

And later in the day, Santorum went on record supporting him.  Now I’m not going to accuse Santorum of pandering, he is a practicing Catholic, with many children, who has always supported criminalizing contraception.  Even though I disagree strongly with this position, I do respect that it has been his unwavering belief.

But many others on the right have not always held this opinion, but suddenly, ever since Obama came out with his new contraception rules for insurance companies, they have not been able to rise up against birth control fast enough.  Every candidate on the Republican side of the presidential race opposes legal contraception.  (With the possible exception of Ron Paul, who is contrary in almost every belief.  I don’t know where Ron Paul stands on this issue, but he is against abortion, which taints his pure Libertarian image a bit.)

First I want to address the contraception issue.  Women are again being painted, as they have throughout history, as either virgins or whores.  There is no grey area.  If you use contraception, you are a slut, unless of course, you need it for an actual medical problem.  However, things like high probablilities of ectopic pregnancies, which tend to kill both baby and mother, are not considered medical problems, so I’m not sure what they consider to be medically necessary contraception.

But the point is, historically, women have never been trusted with something as important as their own fertility: that was the property of their husbands.  In fact, throughout most of history, the woman herself was her husband’s property.  Even after we ceased race based slavery, gender slavery was the unquestioned norm. 

The consequence of women not being able to control their fertility was a horror where most women died in childbirth.  The stepmother in Cinderella was the norm, and she favored the daughters she had with Cinderella’s father, over the older daughter from the mother who died having her.   Even though the ugly stepsisters are often depicted as older than Cinderella, they would have been younger.  This also means that the bulk of Cinderella’s father’s estate would have passed to Cinderella, since no sons are ever mentioned in the story.  This is why the stepsisters would have hated her.  This story is important, because it depicted the reality of life before contraception.  It resonated because it illustrated a common experience.

Contraception changed that.  First of all, for the first time in history, women began to outlive men.  Before that, it was rare for a woman to live through menopause, unless she had a vastly older husband that died and left her widowed.  A women normally died in early middle age, worn out by childbirth that was too close to the end of her fertility.

Women were free from the chains that bound them.  They suddenly had the right to chose when, or even if, they became pregnant.  Sex could become a pleasure, not a duty, and a child could become a miracle instead of a burden.

The consequences rippled out.  Fewer unwanted babies reduced the crime rates.  (read Freakonomics for a detailed description of this)  Less babies born into poverty reduced starvation and after it was instituted, reduced the amount of welfare.  Fewer children enabled women to have careers, and find fulfillment outside of the home.

And men hated it.

From the start, they fought against birth control.  Countries made it illegal, the church made it a mortal sin, doctors refused to prescribe it, and insurance companies refused to cover it.  And yet, women continued to demand it.  They marched, they rallied, they stood up and refused to back down.  Suffragettes worked for contraception with the same passion that they pursued the right to vote.  And when they got the vote, they voted for people who supported contraception.  (And yes, I know, there were some anti-abortion suffragists, but most supported birth control.)

I read an op-ed from a woman who said birth control was a new device to enslave women, and the pill treated femininity as a disease, but that is a very rare view.  I read a statistic that up to 80% of all women use birth control at some point in their lives.

Babies are no longer a consequence.  This does not make a woman a slut, it gives her power and control over her life, and we must stop denigrating her for this jurisdiction.  There is no sin in her making personal decisions on her own fertility.

Now to contrast this with the actual prostitution: the prostitution of positions for votes.

When you sell something of yourself to another in order to receive compensation, you are a whore.  Whether you are buying a campaign contribution or a vote, you are actually prostituting yourself.

And this is what the Republicans are doing.  In issue after issue, the presidential candidates sell out their previous beliefs for ones that play better to the right wing base.  Whether it is gay marriage, taxes, abortion, contraception, or anything else, their personal beliefs are subject to change with the next poll. 

They pander for right wing votes for the nomination, then pander for independents in the general election.  They have no actual positions, they have focus groups.  They buy their position by selling their souls.

No wonder that Congress has a lower approval rating than some foreign dictators do.  This is not a joke, most Americans feel more positively towards Castro and Chavez than they do toward their own legislature.  How can you trust anyone that bends in the slightest political breeze.

A woman using contraception is standing up for something, her own rights to make choices in her life.  A politician decrying contraception is selling their soul for power.

They have become the Whores of Babylon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Being Happy Requires Hard Work


We live in a world where the concept that sadness is the worst thing that can happen to us; it is worse than even death.  My mentor, Joe Juhasz has written extensively on this concept.  This has lead to the idea that we must always be happy, or something is wrong.  And further, if we are not happy, we need to do something about it, like getting Prozac, rather than reflect and understand why we are not happy.  Sadness has become a disease or a psychiatric disorder.

I blogged about the flip side of this a couple of months ago in the post "The Pursuit ofHappiness," where I addressed the fact that as a society, we do not welcome people finding actual happiness.  These two ideas are more intertwined, and far less contradictory, than they might appear.

The reason for this is happiness is hard work, and as a society, we no longer seem to value hard work where it relates to personal growth. 

I fear that part of the reason for this is personal growth takes work that distracts from your job, which is a 24/7 endeavor in today's society.  You are expected to leave your emotions at the door, even if you are coping with the death of a loved one, a disintegrating relationship, or an unfulfilled spiritual life.  We are expected to be robots on the job, never breaking down or complaining.  And God forbid that we need "personal time," to deal with issues in our lives.

Medication is much easier, and doesn't require time away from the e-mail inbox or completing TPS Reports.

But regardless of the reason, we find it easier to move on and dispose of things in our lives, rather to work on finding happiness.  Everything is disposable: friends, lovers, children, pets, jobs, or anything else that is problematic in our lives.

I do want to say here, that I am not advocating staying in a situation that is fundamentally bad.  I recently left a job because the entire situation was making me a fearful, bitter and angry person.  But I made that move after fully exploring what was making me unhappy, analyzing it, trying to make changes, and finally coming to the realization that there was no fixing the problems, they where systemic and unsolvable. 

This is an example of why finding happiness is hard work, it requires deep knowledge of the self.  You have to work at it.

But today, we dispose of everything in our lives; it is what we are trained to do.  I've addressed this before, as an outgrowth of the need to justify the vast industrial machine that drove the age of American Dominion.  We had to create the ideas of planned obsolescence  and unfashionability to drive consumerism.  Without them, people would still be buying one refrigerator per generation.  (And on that note, apparently, Chihuahuas are no longer in style.  They've moved from a must have to the overstock bargain bin, and socialites all over California are dumping their now unfashionable accessory dogs at shelters.  It is so bad that they are airlifting the surplus out of California.)

And I would like to insert, energy efficiency is the new planned obsolescence.  You go buy a new dryer, refrigerator or exterior windows because of the energy savings.  The bad news of this is, the embodied energy of replacing a dryer that is only a few years old cannot be made up by purchasing a more energy efficient model.  In trying to save electricity, you contribute to the larger problem of resource consumption.

But back to my point, this disposable ideology spills out into other areas; it's called "collateral damage."  Training does not stay contained in nice neat boxes, it ripples through all of our cognitive processes with potentially devastating effects. 

The first ripple is the idea that things can provide happiness.  Retail Therapy is no longer a joke; if you have a bad day, just hit the mall.  "Shopping is a feeling," to quote David Byrne.  We teach people that you can fill the hole in your soul with possessions.  And since things never are as messy to deal with as people (unless you are a hoarder, the new people who love too much) we prefer our stuff to people.

This is especially true with computers.  Our computers, via social media, substitute for real connections.  The computer mediates human interaction, detaches it from reality, and allows us to feel almost nothing for the people we "interact" with on line.  The stuff (an electronic device) simulates, and replaces, human contact.

And again, its easy, which satisfies our lack of desire to work on actual personal development.

The second ripple is the idea that we do not need to fix things that are broken, we just replace them.  Rather than fix your tired relationship, just go buy a new, more exciting one, preferably one fresh off the factory floor.  (And yes, feel free to read into this.  The trophy wife is 20 years younger for a reason, less repairs are needed, maybe just some cosmetic retrofitting.)

We no longer value working on a relationship, or anything else in our life.  If a career is no longer fulfilling, go back to school and try something new; never mind that you spent 20 years in the profession, rather than working to figure out what is not satisfying about the job, just go herd alpacas, start a winery. 

Conversely, there are many people who go into a profession just to earn money, even though it doesn't make them happy, just so they can retire and start the winery, which was always their dream.  Chase the dream from the start, don't dispose of years of your life just to get money.  Accumulation of money is not the purpose of life, no matter what they tell you.

This replaceablity and interchangeability further weakens our drive to actually understand ourselves, and actually figure out what makes us happy.  We have starter wives, starter careers, starter friends, starter lives, all of which are expected to be thrown away for something better in the future.

The final ripple of disposability is that things are easy.  This goes hand in hand with not bothering to fix things.  We value easy, we don't value investment.  We want weight loss drugs that allow us to drop fifty pounds without changing our diet or exercising.  We want love at first sight, with passion that never needs fanning.  We want the miracle cure, the fall into, the quick fix.

And when we can't get it, because it doesn't exist, we become devastated.  We fall into depression, the veil of dispair covers us, and then we don't want to work to fix it.  We pop a Prozac and a Xanex.  We wash it down with a Valium and a beer.  We run away from the unhappiness without actually addressing the causes and trying to actually fix it.  It is so much easier to medicate it away.

We want to dispose of sadness, just like we dispose of everything else.

Just like we have been taught.

But life isn't that easy.  Entire traditions, the Kabala, Alchemy, Masonry, Aesthetic Spirituality, Buddhisim, and many others dwell on the idea of perfecting yourself.  They create the crucible to burn away the impurities of life, in order to find happiness.

But it isn't happiness like we think of it; it is the satisfaction of knowing yourself.  It is the ability to know what you want in life.

And that knowledge gives you the courage to pursue it.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Bread and Circuses

It is once again time for our Great National Distraction to hit it's climax.  Today, in America, is our most holy day, Superbowl Sunday.  But unlike all of the other religious holidays in America, today churches will abbreviate their sermons.  This is so that everyone can go home and transubstantiate their pigs in a blanket and consecrate the beer.  The holy vestments of the football jerseys must be prepared, and the altar of the 72" plasma T.V. must be properly anointed.

I suppose that I shouldn't complain, this is the one holiday a year where people of all faiths assemble together in the Holy Temple of the Sports Bar, and worship the Divine Quarterback in unison.  And yet, I find the entire scenario distasteful.

I have many reasons to complain. 

First, my tax dollars in Denver go to subsidize a private sports stadium, that we were essentially blackmailed into approving (Because Bowlen promised to move the Broncos if we didn't build him one) and that we do not even have the right to name.  The stadium name was sold to a corporation, first Invesco, then when they tanked, now Sports Authority.  Our stadium used to be called Mile High Stadium, now it's just another corporate brand.  Denver isn't unique in this, it is pretty much the norm in all cities now.

Second, in the era of Tebow, the Broncos have been designated God's team.  Apparently, you have to be a Christian to support the Broncos, and further, by implication, if you are a Christian, you must support the Broncos, because everyone knows how persecuted the Christians are in America.  It is only a matter of time until we start throwing them to the lions again.  This is a more local complaint, but I am glad the Broncos didn't make it through the playoffs.  I don't think I could have handled the Smug Cloud that would have descended on Denver.

On a side note, apparently Tim Tebow is the single most sought after endorsement in the Republican presidential race.  Move over Elway, there's a new Republican sports star taking your place, no wonder he is looking at ways to dump Tebow.

Third, I really hate the violence and thuggery associated with sports today, both on and off the field.  We are holding rapists, dog killers, drug addicts, and otherwise vile people up as heroes to society.  They become role models for our children, and then we wonder why the kids behave badly.  I wonder how much ratings would go up if we routinely killed the quarterback of the losing team, in the way that the losing gladiator was killed in Rome.

But those are small complaints compared to the big one; these things are nothing more than bread and circuses, designed to keep us happy and complacent.

The gladiator games of the Roman Empire kept the masses content and distracted, and the spectacle helped preserve the horrifically corrupt and incompetent power structure.  The Colosseum was essentially Vespasian's apology to Rome for Nero.  I would like to note here, the acts that occurred in the during the games were worthy of anything in Caligula's or Nero's courts.  For example, it was considered great sport for men to masturbate during the games, and try to shoot their loads onto the heads of bald men.

Sports today, along with reality T.V., the exploits of talentless heiresses and child actresses, Fox "News," and on-line video gaming contribute to keeping people too distracted to pay attention to what is going on around them.  I'm not commenting on a coarsening of our culture, because culture has always been course.  (Read the example of the Colosseum.)  There will always be lowbrow entertainment, and there is nothing really wrong with that; I like poop jokes as much as anyone.

No, the problem comes from distraction.  Even if the distraction was art museums and religious obligations, it would still be a bad thing.  We would not be paying attention to the things we need to be paying attention to.  Humans are programmed to be distracted by bright shiny things.  When we in the Stone Age this probably served an important purpose, but now, it is being used as a weapon against us.

And all of these circuses keep us distracted from what is really important.  We are facing the very high probability of war Iran, a war that might be nuclear.  We are looking at unprecedented infringements on a free internet, even though SOPA was defeated, there is still ACTA and others out there.  The financial crisis in Europe is not looking good, and we are still losing massive amounts of those high paying, low education manufacturing jobs to China.

The politicians fiddle while the world burns.  And we dance in the streets to their tune.

And yes, I know, Nero didn't even play the fiddle, which wasn't even invented in his day, he played the lyre.  And further, he didn't even do that when Rome burnt, he tried to coordinate the defense against it.  Not that he was a good guy, just that he got some really bad press on that one.

And this bread and circus mentality even bleeds into the political realm.  Rather than discuss substantive issues, we focus on the personal drama and fighting between the candidates.  We love to hear how horrible a president Obama is, or how evil Gingrich is, or how rich Romney is, or how loony Paul is, but we could care less about what their views on ACTA are.

Everything has become a game, and the Superbowl is emblematic of it.  We choose our favorite team, and root for them, and hurl insults at the opposition.  If our team screws up, we make excuses for them.  If the opposing team does something great, we belittle it, no matter how brilliant the play.  We want to win at all costs, even if our opponents have to be carried off the field on a stretcher.  And if there is a little cheating involved, so what?  All that matters is to win.

The cost of that victory is no longer part of the calculation.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Holodeck Will Be Mankind's Last Invention


What goes around, comes around; history is a never ending repeating cycle.  We can look to the horizon and see the work life and economy of Ancient Rome returning.

In the next few decades, humans may revert to a society where the primary occupations are agriculture and food preparation, basic service industry jobs and the manufacture of small scale handcrafted items.  The reason: 3D printers may make large scale manufacturing obsolete.  The Pirate Bayis claiming within 20 years, you will be able to print off a new pair ofsneakers.  When you factor in quantum molecules, there is essentially no limit to what that technology can create, other than organics fit for human consumption.  Creating those is a much harder endeavor.

While I am skeptical of the timeline that they are putting forth (aren't we supposed to have flying cars, robot servants and colonies on the moon by now?) I do not doubt that we will have the technology at some point in the next century.  And once we have it, it will spell the end of our current economy as we know it.

First, we will begin to lose manufacturing.  It will be the simpler products first, like clothing, that has uniform materiality, or the very high tech products, like computers, which already are created primarily by printing processes right now.  Then it will expand to printing objects like car parts (which they are also planning for) and once that happens, how long will it be until entire cars can be printed.

Admittedly, printers on that scale will not be household items, but it could be very possible for you to go to a car dealer in the future and order up your car and then wait for it to be printed out.  Similarly, you go to the contractor, and they haul a building-sized printer out to the building site and print your new house right up for you, furniture included.

And with that, the entire manufacturing industry goes away, except for boutique artisans who handcraft objects for technophobes or iconoclasts who insist on human made products.  Otherwise, all of our hardgoods will come out of the printer's hopper.

Soon you will even see designers begin to disappear as design your own (whatever) software becomes readily available.  These programs are already beginning to cut into home design, as people are bringing in plans they came up with using the design your own home program.

Add to that the idea that the iPhone will have the ability to take blood and saliva samples to diagnoseany illness.   Researchers in South Korea are already beginning to develop this technology.  With robotic surgeons, and digital diagnosis, there will be very little left for doctors to do.

This is the next wave of a revolution that began with the first textile mills, which eliminated the need for hand woven cloth, except, again, for highly specialized artistic or luxury purposes.  The assembly line, the robot, the computer, the self scanning checkout lane, all of them have reduced the need for human labor, and yet at the same time increased the amount of goods to consume.

The unexpected ramifications of this are staggering.  We have had to create a consumer driven economy in order to consume all that we create; our products, our stuff, literally controls our lives.  We have planned obsolesce simply to make people buy replacements of things they already own; if you only needed to buy one refrigerator every generation, there would be no refrigerator industry.  My aunt and uncle had a refrigerator that they purchased when they got married in the 1940's.  That refrigerator was still in their house and working when my aunt sold it in 2003.  You cannot tell me that in 2012, we cannot build a refrigerator that lasts for over 50 years with no repair, given that we were able to do so in 1945.

For the same reason, fashion and design change at lightning pace.  The couch you bought five years ago now looks dated and unstylish, and you need a new one, so that you don't look behind the times.  A couch is harder to make break down, since there are no moving parts, so other strategies to get you to buy a new one have to be employed.  It is all a game to keep the industrial machine humming.

But the side effect of automation in this process is we no longer need very many people to build it, yet we need them to be employed to buy it, hence a service based economy.  When my grandparents were growing up, there were very few restaurants, and most of those existed in conjunction with hotels, to cater to travelers.  My grandmother only ate in a restaurant maybe twenty times in her whole life.  Thirty years ago, when I was a kid, there were only three restaurants in our neighborhood, a McDonalds, a casual diner, and a decent Italian restaurant.  Now there are at least 12, not counting the four Starbucks.  (And you can stand outside of any one of those and see the other three, I'm not joking.)

With fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs, we have had to expand the service industries to pick up the slack.  We've even had to create new services, like personal trainer, massage therapist and dog walker, to compensate for the loss of manufacturing jobs.  And the worst thing is, these jobs will never pay as much as those lost industrial wages.

And this will result in the eventual end of manufacturing, because no one will have enough money to buy the products, at least not on the scale that is necessary to keep the assembly lines humming.  So really the only answer is to eliminate the assembly line and completely automate the process, which is what the 3-D printer revolution will bring about.

But this new revolution will require a radical rethinking of the economy.  There will be no manufacturing jobs, not even running the assembly line, because there won't be an assembly line.  Moreover, a large segment of the cost of goods comes from the overhead of running the factory, and with no factory, there is no overhead, in fact, there isn't even really a company if you make the object in your own house on your own 3-D printer, so the cost of goods will have to drop.  Maybe money can be made from the design, but that is about all.  You might even subscribe to brands like you do to Netflix, with unlimited downloads and printouts.

So really, in this new high tech economy, we might look very much like a low-tech agrarian economy, with the only jobs being in agriculture and service industries.
The only other professions we would need would be all of the copyright lawyers and  digital police to try and stop all of the illegal downloads of Nike shoes.