How safe is your daughter?
In 1954, a foreign power gripped by paranoia dashed my country’s hope for democracy and forced me into exile.
Naturally, I have an ax to grind.
But rather than retribution, I seek understanding. How did it happen?
More to the point, how did the Red Scare paranoia of the 1950s infect so many Americans that it blinded them to the fact their government was trampling on their most cherished ideals, in their name, and far away from home?
The Red Scare narrative went more or less like this: an evil ideology, Communism, threatens the American way of life and must be stopped in its tracks.
On April 7, 1954, about to plunge the country into one of its deadliest wars (Vietnam), U.S. President Eisenhower referred to the prevailing Domino Theory: “You have a row of dominoes set up,” he said,“you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty.” This would lead to disintegration in Southeast Asia, with the “loss of Indochina, Burma, Thailand; the Peninsula and Indonesia following.”
Vietnam eventually did fall to communism despite costing $950 billion (in today’s dollars) and the lives of sixty thousand U.S. soldiers and over a million Vietnamese, but the rest of the dominoes – except Laos and Cambodia – didn’t budge. Cambodia later became a constitutional monarchy, and today, Vietnam can hardly be called a communist nation in the proper sense.
The Bogeyman just wasn’t under the bed, just as it wasn’t in my country.
Despite declaring Communism to be contrary to human nature, President Juan Jose Arevalo, who ushered-in a democratic revolution in Guatemala, was repeatedly labeled a communist by the U.S. State Department and survived over thirty coup attempts before finishing his term. Today, proving Arevalo’s assertion, many of the world’s most inspiring rags-to-riches stories come from ‘communist’ China.
The most valuable thing about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen, a distinguished historian once said. But I forget…schools nowadays don’t teach much history.
I sense a new scare spreading across the U.S. today; no longer Red, but Brown.
As I write this, President Trump has deployed thousands of U.S. soldiers to the southern border to stop what he calls a “migrant invasion, funded by liberals,” which contains “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners… very tough fighters,” he adds extra drops of poison for good measure.
Responding to the call, the Texas Minutemen, a vigilante militia group, is sending armed men to the border.
Those that can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.Voltaire
Fox News host Laura Ingraham added her dose of venom by suggesting that the migrant caravan may bring diseases. They are, Laura, and I’ll tell you which: a strong work ethic, solid family values, staunch religious faith, great food and music, and a sense of joy that transcends material well-being. You might want to rush to the border and get infected. While there, cross over to the town of Boquillas del Carmen and have some green chile enchiladas and a few tacos at Jose Falcon’s Restaurant. It might spice-up your life a bit.
Contrary to Trump’s misleading claims, should the ‘invaders’ make it pass the wall, they will also contribute more in tax revenues than they take in government benefits, they’ll offset the declining U.S. birth rate, and take-on jobs Americans won’t and work harder at them. During the twenty years I lived in San Rafael, California, where 30% of the residents are Hispanic, not once did I see a Hispanic panhandling.
Just so we’re clear where I stand: when I say “make it past the wall,” I mean legally.
This ‘Brown Scare’ did have its intended effect on the midterm election. Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate by keeping a tight grip throughout the rural South. Prior the vote, at a Trump campaign rally in North Carolina, a mesmerized, cheering, salivating, and flag-waving Ms. Philpott (white, middle-aged) said: “He wants to protect this country! He wants to keep it safe! Keep it free of invaders and the caravan and everything else that’s going on!”
I suspect that her “everything else that’s going on” is the fear the country has been or will soon be overtaken by_____________ (you may fill-in the blank with your chosen ‘Other,’ or ‘Not like us’). On today’s paranoid menu, the main course is colored brown, like Mole Sauce.
I have news for Ms. Philpott though: Too late, and, in any case, the United States has never been single-anything; neither race, language, or religion. The only thing single about it is a set of revolutionary ideas. That’s the reason Americans are patriots, not blood and soil nationalists. At least should be.
Like the Center for Disease Control warns the public about infectious diseases, and the Environmental Protection Agency on contaminants, my purpose here is to report on this outbreak of Brown Paranoia, its causes, and antidote.
Why are we so tribal?
In Science Magazine, Elizabeth Culotta writes that tribal prejudice stems from deep evolutionary roots, and a universal tendency to form coalitions and favor our own side. Like most, I am sure you think your family is the cat’s meow compared to all the rest and that you’d risk your life to defend it.
Even in arbitrarily-constructed groups with no shared history, psychologists find that people still think those in their ingroup are smarter, better, more moral, and more just than members of outgroups. Think of the times you’ve been partnered with someone when playing a board game.
Outgroup bias is core to our species. It is part of a threat-detection system that allows us to rapidly determine friend from foe, says psychologist Steven Neuberg of ASU Tempe. The problem, he says, is that like smoke detectors, the system is designed to give many false alarms rather than miss a true threat.
In the Implicit Associations Test, for example, people are asked to rapidly categorize objects and faces; the pattern of mistakes and speed shows that people more quickly associate negative words such as “hatred” with outgroup faces than ingroup faces. In disturbing tests using a video game, people looking at a picture of a person carrying an ambiguous object are more likely to mistake a cell phone for a gun and shoot the carrier if he is an outgroup male. Remember George Zimmerman?
Neuberg studied what might turn this detection system up and down. “When you feel threatened,” he reports, “you react to danger more quickly and intensely; people startle more easily in the dark. That’s why prejudice rears its head in a dark alley rather than a well-lit field.”
“Keep your lights burning,” Jesus urged his followers, and, in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, he added: “If one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness.”
The light to which he was referring, is the light of reason.
Trayvon Martin would be alive today had Zimmerman been using his brain.
The Psychology of Extreme Hate
Writing for Psychology Today, Allison Abrams corrects a common misconception. While all racists are prejudiced, Abrams explains, not all prejudices are racist. Prejudice is a human phenomenon involving cognitive structures we all learn early in life. Racism, on the other hand, is prejudice against a particular group of people based on perceived differences, sometimes taken to the extreme. Not all individuals who discriminate against others based on differences are motivated by hatred.
According to cognitive behavioral therapist Marion Rodriguez, hate can be rational, such as when we hate unjust acts. On the other hand, hate of certain ethnic groups, religions, races, or sexual orientations is based on irrational beliefs that lead to hatred of others as well as hate crimes.
Abrams goes on to list the factors behind extreme hate:
2. The need to belong.
4. Emotional incompetence.
“When one race of persons unconsciously feels fear in response to a different race group—fears that their own level of security, importance, or control is being threatened—they will develop defensive thoughts and behaviors,” says psychologist and political advisor Dr.Reneé Carr. (Hate crimes, for example, reached an all-time high in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks). “They will create exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race to justify their actions in [an] attempt to secure their own safety and survival.” (e.g. Fox host Laura Ingraham’s “diseases” claim).
The Need to Belong
Some members of extremist hate groups, explains Abrams, are motivated by the need for love and belonging—a basic survival need. For some, especially those who may have difficulty forming genuine interpersonal connections, identifying with extremists and hate groups is one way to do so.”
Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed “The Blond Beast” by the Nazis, and “Hangman Heydrich” by others, was the leading planner of Hitler’s Final Solution in which the Nazis attempted to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. As a boy, he was a target of schoolyard bullies, teased about his very high pitched voice and his devout Catholicism. He was beaten up by bigger boys and tormented with anti-Jewish slurs amid rumors of Jewish ancestry in his family. At home, Heydrich’s mother believed in the value of harsh discipline and frequent lashings. As a result, Heydrich was a withdrawn, sullen, and unhappy boy. At age 18, Heydrich became a cadet in the small, elite German Navy. Once again, he was teased. Heydrich was by then over six feet tall, a gangly, awkward young man who still had a high, almost falsetto voice. Naval cadets took delight in calling him “Billy Goat” because of his bleating laugh and taunted him with ‘Moses Handel’ because of the aforementioned rumored Jewish ancestry and his passion for classical music.
A bullied, beaten, withdrawn, sullen and unhappy boy was the chief architect of the Holocaust.
In ‘The Human Shadow at War,’ I profiled other atrocities committed by wounded, lonely children…all male, and though FBI hate crime records do not appear to report the offenders’ gender, I’ll bet the vast majority were committed by males.
We men are tribal by nature.
In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted one of the most famous experiments on social psychology. He convinced twenty-two sets of working class parents to let him take their twelve-year old boys off their hands for three weeks. For the first five days,each (11-boy) group thought it was alone. Even still, they set about marking territory and creating tribal identities. A leader emerged in each group by consensus. Norms, songs, rituals, and distinctive identities began to form. Once they became aware of the presence of another group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. Both sides created flags. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s bunks, called each other nasty names, and made weapons.
“The male mind appears to be innately tribal –that is – structured in advance of experience so that boys and men enjoy doing the sorts of things that lead to group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups, in contrast to two-person relationships for girls,” wrote Jonathan Haidt in ‘The Righteous Mind.’
The FBI hate-crime statistics for 2016 do show that 60% of the victims were targeted because of the offenders’ bias against race/ethnicity/ancestry, 20% because of bias against religion, and 17% because of bias against sexual orientation.
“The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders …. Should wild beasts break out of circus cages, a whole city would be mobilized instantly. But depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove America almost at will.”
Those were the paranoid words of FBI Director J Edgar Hoover published in his 1947 article for The American Magazine titled ‘How Safe is your Daughter?’
During the 1950s, Hoover engaged in a maniacal persecution of homosexuals which was later labelled ‘The Lavender Scare.’ He was also widely suspected of being in a secret, same-sex relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson. Oops!
“The things people hate about others are the things that they fear within themselves,” says psychologist Dr. Dana Harron.“Projection is one of our natural defense mechanisms, and it allows us to avoid facing our perceived shortcomings by transferring—or projecting—them onto others.”
Omar Mateen (29) killed fifty people and wounded an equal number at a gay club in Orlando in 2016. He was said to have been frequently angered by the sight of two men kissing. Regulars of the‘Pulse’ reported having seen Omar at the nightclub where “he would go over to a corner and sit and drink by himself.” Mateen is also said to have used a gay dating app. Kevin West, a regular at Pulse, said Mateen messaged him on-and-off for a year before the shooting, using the gay chat and dating app Jack’d. Cord Cedeno also said he saw him on it. “He was open with his picture on the sites, he was easy to recognize,” said Cedeno, who said he was also contacted by Mateen at least a year before on a dating app.
Violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering.Parker Palmer
Hatred and violence can also occur when we feel we’ve lost something precious to us.
During the American Indian Wars, the American Army carried out a number of massacres and forced relocations of indigenous peoples (another ‘Red Paranoia’ if you will).
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, wrote that by 1840 Indian hating had become a “metaphysic” that begins in abstraction and alienation and drapes itself in innocence. The myth of innocence is so attractive because it inverts guilt, says Barry Spector. The settlers became the virgins – captured, tormented, and raped by savages. Between 1682 and 1732 all but one of America’s best-selling books were captive tales.
“Puritans in pre-and post-revolutionary America loathed the natives’ simplicity, serenity, and sensuality,” suggests Spector, “for they were aspects of themselves they had banished. Because of the grief for what they had lost, or found too difficult to recover, they demonized these virtues and proceeded to remove them from view.”
Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.H.L. Mencken
No European who has tasted savage life, Benjamin Franklin once remarked, can afterwards bear to live in our societies.
Might the current ‘Brown Paranoia’ be nothing more than the frustration some white people feel for not knowing how to dance? For having lost touch with their wilder, zanier, and sensual selves?
Beat writer Jack Kerouac poetically captured this feeling:
“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness,music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.”
The essence of the western male mind has been its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world, said author Barbara Ehrenreich.
Low Emotional Intelligence
Loma K. Flowers, M.D. of nonprofit EQDynamics, defines emotional competence as the integration of thinking, feelings, and good judgment before action. This is where the bigots and haters lose their footing (e.g. Zimmermann). It is easier to believe fallacies, she says, than to think and understand yourself. People often swallow racist rhetoric and unspoken assumptions without examining the issues. They may find comfort in a belief in innate superiority and entitlement and be too terrified or satisfied with the status quo to surrender it without a safe alternative. Thinking takes work, lining up facts with feelings, and sorting out how much of your anger is about being laid off from your job and how much of it is about others objecting to Confederate statues erected in the 1920s to symbolize white supremacy. Or how much of it is about the bullying you have endured in your life. The challenge is to link each part of every feeling to the right context. Whether these beliefs are generated internally from feelings of worthlessness and projected onto others and/or learned from teaching or modeling by members of their family and community, they are one of the most destructive manifestations of emotional incompetence (e.g. “Hangman Heydrich”).
Paranoia: American Style
I suppose if I became all-powerful and dominant, and considered myself exceptional, I too would start to feel a bit paranoid about being knocked off my perch, especially when someone starts catching up (e.g. China – the new and growing Yellow Scare).
The United States has a long history of paranoia.
In his exhaustive article for Vox, David Roberts provides a comprehensive list:
In 1692 Puritan settlers were so afraid of the influences of witchcraft upon their Christian society that 150 citizens from across the region were rounded up for suspicious behavior and put on trial for witchcraft in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
During the mid-nineteenth century, immigration was booming in the United States. The majority of immigrants during this time were German, Irish, and practicing Catholics. Native-born Americans generally accepted the Germans since they brought with them sufficient capital and drive to become productive members of American society. But most Nativists resented the Irish and the Catholics. Irish were perceived as drunkards who often clogged up the slums of eastern cities, while Catholics were seen as a threat to the Protestant values and history of the United States.
In 1855 a Texas newspaper article reported: “It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.”
1919: The First Red Scare: Immediately after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, a ‘Red Scare’ swept across the United States. Americans had watched from afar as the Russian Empire succumbed to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and transformed itself in the socialist Soviet Union. Americans feared that a socialist and radical uprising in the United States was imminent and hysteria plagued the nation.
1924: The National Origins Act of 1924: As a result of the [First] Red Scare, the National Origins Act was ratified. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” This drastically cut down on the number of immigrants who were allowed into the United States, especially those who originated in Russia and Eastern Europe. For the next several decades it would be very difficult for an individual to legally migrate to the United States, and America entered into a nearly twenty year long period of isolationism.
1950s: McCarthyism: After the Second World War and during the beginning of the Cold War, the second Red Scare occurred, known as McCarthyism. Senator Joe McCarthy initiated a witch-hunt of sorts to root out Communists and Socialists within the United States government. Even though McCarthy was eventually exposed as being a fraud, the fear he created once again played into America’s apprehension of socialism and communism that was at a height during this time. This second Red Scare was the one responsible for the end of a decade of democracy in my country and the begging of a 30-year civil war which cost the lives of over two-hundred thousand people.
Witches, Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Radicals, the Irish…
Now it’s the Brown People.
I suppose that if I defined my identity on the basis of race, language, religious belief, wealth, my profession, or economic or political ideology, I would also view those outside my “in-group” with suspicion (especially if I did not know how to dance). Were my Emotional IQ as low as Laura Ingraham’s or Donald Trump’s, I would also spit venom. Were I not aware of my shortcomings, or be afraid to confront them, I too would be projecting them onto outsiders. And though solitary by nature, I do recognize the need to belong, but believe it is best found in ideals, not ideologies or superficial and narrow identities.
Imagine the outcome if we replaced the label “White-Christian-Individualist” for “Human-Spiritual-Communitarian”?
In ‘Making America Whole Again,’ I proposed that the country’s identity be grounded solely on the ideals which gave it birth. I further said that groups who wish to remain cohesive require local glue: a set of norms, traditions, institutions, and ideals, sacralized, shared and defended against those who wish to break them apart. But there is a big difference between having a conviction and becoming a conviction. Becoming a conviction leads to cognitive rigidity, which, together with anxiety, predisposes individuals to paranoia.
My gut tells me that those making their way to the southern border are not part of a liberal, secret, international conspiracy to take over the country. Like you and I, they are just human beings who share the ideal of freedom and seek an opportunity to provide a safe and dignified existence for themselves and their families.
In what way are they different from those who arrived on American shores in the early 1600’s or the second wave during the first part of the 19th Century?
They speak Spanish and dance better, that’s all.
I suspect Trump would be leading the welcoming committee if the ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ were white, wealthy Germans or Norwegians.
If I were in his place, instead of terrifying the country with the Brown Mole Bogeyman, I’d be handing the newly-arrived with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and vouchers to learn the English language. I’d be doing my job and using the power of the pulpit to pressure Congress to draft a legal and sensible solution to deal with the issue once and for all. Finally, instead of cutting aid to the countries from which most migrants are coming from – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras (The Northern Triangle) – I’d recognize my country’s complicity in the crisis and create a permanent task force focused on meeting the goals set forth in the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle aimed at creating security, growth, and opportunity in those countries to ease the pressure and reduce the migrant flow into the U.S. It has been done before, after World War II, with the Marshall Plan which benefited both the U.S. and the economies of the nations devastated by the war. A rising tide, after all, lifts all boats.
But it will take time to lift these three countries, and the burden must be borne primarily by their political and business leaders, without which, no amount of U.S. assistance will suffice. They must also accept responsibility for the despair which drives their people to seek better opportunities. In the meantime, the migrants will keep coming, no matter how tall or long the wall. As they continue washing on your shores, I recommend you vaccinate yourself against distrust, hatred, and paranoia by following these steps:
- Confront your fears and insecurities instead of projecting them unto others.
- Disenthrall yourself from the identity myths and tribal narratives you’ve adopted based on external references and define for yourself who you really are or wish to be.
- Strengthen your emotional intelligence by developing emotional granularity, reading more fiction, and learning new emotion words.
- Move out of your encloistered, or virtual world, and engage with the real world, your community.
Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting or having sex.Kapka Kassabova
Read the companion piece: ‘Pink Scare’: Paranoia Latin Style
Join my mailing list to receive future insights
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!
At 54, I realized I was going to Hell.
The hell writer Paulo Coelho said is found twenty seconds before you die; when you look back and discover you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.
I had erred, yes, many times, and been wounded. But the wounds were sustained on a battlefield where I did not belong, wearing ill-fitting armor, and blazoning a coat of arms I had unwittingly assumed was mine. That’s why all my failures had a weird, unsatisfying aftertaste.
I had had enough. I was burned out without having been on fire. Did not want to voice the regrets common to those on their deathbed:
“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
“I wish I would’ve left myself be happier.”
“I wish I would’ve had the courage to express my true self.”
“I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.”
So I quit.
Not surprisingly, most of what I love about my life started then.
My decision was not entirely conscious. Had I given it much thought, I would have never done it. At my age, with little money, no safety net, and few possessions, it seemed reckless. But if I ever was to find my path, I had to set fire to my life and burn the bridges.
“Too late,” some said. “You’re too old.”
How illustrative, this attitude, of the woeful resignation men and women succumb to, wrote Henry Miller. What stays them, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. Even to relinquish their chains seems like a sacrifice.
I was willing to pay the price for a taste of bliss…for a life more abundant. Did not want to be like those middle aged men John Steinbeck wrote about, who:
“…begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. I see so many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. Its bad theater as well as bad living.”
When my time’s up, I thought, I want to leave the stage as Greek writer Kazantzakis says we should, “not like scourged, tearful slaves, but like kings who rise from the table with no further wants, after having eaten and drunk to the full.”
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free! is the epitaph etched on his tomb.
In ‘Report to Greco,’ the account of his life, his art, and spiritual quest, Kazantzakis said that a man’s worth lies not in victory, but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.
The only thing I was certain of when jumping into the void was that I longed to be a writer. I had wanted it since I was eight-years old and felt I had a knack for it. I learned from philosopher William James that I should trust my wants; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of my life and would lead me to issues entirely beyond my present powers of reckoning. He was right.
I also suspected the world would only get something of value from me at that crossing point Aristotle said is the place of our vocation – where our talents intersect with the needs of the world.
A few months into my new life, however, I was paralyzed, which gave way to fear, making me second-guess my decision. Something was holding me back.
On a long, solitary walk, I discovered what it was. I had walked away, yes, but was still shackled by my old chains: my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed.
I had to smash them first. Not an easy thing because I ended up naked and vulnerable as when first born. Not easy, but the only way I found to bring about a rebirth, without which, as Goethe warned, I would remain nothing more than another troubled guest on earth.
I am not yet totally free, like Kazantzakis. I still fear and hope; still a grub, not yet butterfly. But I now blissfully twist and curl inside my true chrysalis and can feel the budding of wings.
The world is a better place to live in, wrote Walter Lippmann, because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. The things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves. In such persons, mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways.
Lippman’s sentiment was echoed by a young writer, Colin Wilson, whose book, ‘The Outsider,’ was partly responsible for my ‘reckless’ decision. Man, he said, is potentially hero and genius; only inertia keeps him mediocre. The “self-surmounter” is never satisfied. He is cursed by a divine dissatisfaction choreographer Martha Graham described as “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”
I am no longer marching towards Hell, and now, for the first time in my life, I feel on fire, doing exactly what I believe I was meant to do.
READ OTHER GREAT ESCAPE STORIES HERE
Two band-aids which might work
In my Sept 14 post, Now that the Buffalo are Gone, I said Americans had lost sight of the ideals that once held the country together and were dangerously fracturing into warring tribes. I then suggested that the demise of old ideas was not necessarily a bad thing if we replaced them with better ones. Caught up in my stubborn idealism and inspired by the image of our little blue planet, I went as far as proposing a new narrative for humankind, transcending country, race, and religion.
I was right, wrong, somewhat right, and ahead of my time…
Read my two simple solutions for how to make America whole again in this exclusive post.
For more bold ideas for a saner world, join my mailing list.
Brave thinkers, tinkerers, and insatiably curious. Nerds, if you will.
Twenty-four hundred years ago, Socrates, infamously known as the gadfly of Athens, was condemned to death for thinking too much and urging his fellow citizens to do so as well.
Fifth Century female scholar and philosopher Hypatia was hunted down by Christian men who brutally stripped off her clothes, beat her with tiles, skinned her alive with oyster shells, then dragged her body through the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, until she died.
The Church forced Italian scientist Galileo to recant his discovery of a heliocentric universe which challenged the notion of the time that humans were at the center of everything.
“The Church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow of the earth on the moon and I have more faith in the Shadow than in the Church.” – Explorer Ferdinand Magellan
Echoes of Galileo’s trial can be heard in the current debate on climate change where today’s Inquisitors dispute the consensus of science on no other ground than their fear of having their cherished notion of progress challenged and not knowing who they would be or what they would do once they give up their toys and recover from their addictions.
In the 1930’s, Nazis conducted a campaign to ceremonially burn books viewed as being subversive or representing ideologies opposed to Nazism.
In the early seventies, Chinese poet Mu Xin was imprisoned and tortured during China’s ‘Cultural’ Revolution that placed intellectuals last in the “Nine Black Categories” (or castes) deemed inferior by the government of Mao Zedong. Mao mobilized high school and university students known as Red Guards to humiliate and torture teachers and scholars. Claiming that “the more knowledge a man had, the more reactionary he would become,” Mao also had millions of ‘educated youth’ sent down to the countryside to receive reeducation from the peasants.
The Killing Fields in Cambodia are lush green, fertilized by the corpses of more than a million people killed from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Many were slain just because they read. Even wearing eyeglasses could cause your death. You Nerd!
The benighted ghost of anti-intellectualism is once again spreading its shadow on the world threatening mankind with a new Dark Age.
It’s raising its ugly head in President Trump’s attack on journalism, his mockery of science and truth, and his allergy to the written word (except Tweets).
It howls through Brexit proponent Michael Gove, U.K. Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary (2015-2016), when saying: “People in this country have had enough of experts!”
It lurks in Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
It perhaps explains why fewer people are reading, preferring television instead.
I understand people’s exasperation with those who perch high-and-mighty on their ivory towers presuming to know the ‘right way’ and who hurl their godlike knowledge down upon us lesser mortals as an indictment on how we live our lives. But to use these condescending windbags to sneer at those whose talents and inclinations happen to be better suited to serve humankind through academia, is foolish and dangerous.
A bit ironic too. For these modern day Inquisitors, these champions of ignorance, will rush to a medical scientist the minute they sneeze; drive to a mechanic to repair their car; trust a nutritionist more than their gut for what to eat or not, or stand in line for hours at an Apple store to have a Geek fix their iPhone.
It was bacteriologist Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin.
British scientist Sir Richard Doll who first linked smoking and lung cancer.
It was geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson who stopped us from being further poisoned by increased lead levels in the environment and our food chain.
Writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson who saved us from the adverse effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides and launched the environmental movement.
The Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome – Epicureans, Skeptics, Stoics – all conceived of philosophy as a way of addressing the most painful problems of human life.
And it was psychologist Linda Caporeal’s curiosity that finally linked an outbreak of rye ergot (a fungus blight that forms hallucinogenic substances in bread altering behavior when consumed) to the odd conduct of 15th Century women in Salem, Massachusetts, which condemned them to the gallows. Too late though.
All brave thinkers, tinkerers, and insatiably curious. Nerds, if you will.
Verbal intelligence, the ability to analyze information and solve problems using language-based reasoning, is linked to open-minded thinking. Close-minded thinking, on the other hand, allows opportunists to manipulate your emotions to control your thoughts and actions. They will, warned Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, make you believe absurdities and so make you commit atrocities, like burning books or hanging ‘witches,’ skinning female scholars, and shooting four-eye nerds. Or its more contemporary versions: mailing pipe bombs and shooting inside places of worship to annihilate those who you are told are the enemy.
Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim and how strongly you should believe it.
Willful or lazy ignorance is an insult to the gift of reason, a danger to democracy, and a grave threat to our survival. Compounding this ignorance with the deprecation of those who do think, is outright contemptible.
If you don’t want to read or think, that’s fine. Your loss. But the next time you see someone reading an actual book inside a coffee shop or walking down the street with a slide-rule, pocket protector, and adjusting his glasses, I suggest you salute him as you would a brave soldier for he might be close to discovering something that will heal or save your life.
For more intellectual stimulation, join my mailing list.
Desperate times call for stealthy measures
The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presents a bleak picture.
Like you-rather-not-know kind of bad.
Barring massive economic mobilization and rapid transition to more efficient technologies, we are in serious trouble.
After I first ranted about this, then followed up with a second one at the peak of the summer’s heat wave, I stuck my head in the sand and ignored any article dealing with this issue because I felt there is nothing I could do.
I’ve also been numbed by fear.
But I can’t turn my back and ignore it, can I? Like you, I hold one share (of 7.5 Billion) in our planetary venture and feel it my duty to do something. If anything, out of gratitude for my luck of living in such a beautiful place.
I don’t know about you, but I really like this little blue planet, which, as far as I know, is the only home we have.
As it is, my carbon footprint is as shallow as Paris Hilton. I like meat, don’t have many devices plugged in, own an iPhone 5 whose battery just ran out…again, don’t own a car, don’t conform to latest fashion, and can’t line-dry my clothes. What to do?
Call a legislator and rant? Write a letter to the United Nations? Pope Francis?
Good luck with that.
From their track record, it is clear that the powers that be are too unwieldy – or spineless – to bring about the rapid transition we need to stave disaster. It’s been twenty years since many of the world’s leaders adopted the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations and here’s what they’ve accomplished:
Pretty grim, I know.
I decided to find out what the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions are, and then figure out what the average Joe can do about it.
Since I cannot afford an electric car nor house on which to install solar panels and double-pane windows, I focused instead on Industry and Electricity which constitute 50% of the problem.
The Industry sector produces the goods and raw materials we use every day and its main emissions are produced by burning fossil fuels for power or heat. So stop buying unnecessary stuff, and don’t upgrade my iPhone5. Check!
The Electricity sector emissions are also released when burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
Burning fossil fuels, then, is the common denominator; the main culprit, and the most carbon intensive fossil fuel out there is coal. In the electricity sector alone, coal accounts for 67 percent of CO2 emissions yet only generates about 30 percent of U.S. electricity.
What now? Call Rob Murray, Coal-Boss of Murray Energy, and rant?
Good luck with that too. Murray is the guy who reportedly presented Trump with a plan to overturn the classification of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
I think I have a better idea.
Instead, let’s contact the person in charge of our 401K or pension plan to instruct him/her to divest our portfolios of anything having to do with coal and switch those investments to companies which are leading the pack in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (Okay, maybe not China).
Retirement accounts and foreign investors – primarily sovereign wealth funds – own close to three-quarters of U.S. corporate stocks. They control the spigots that flow with the capital companies need to invest and grow.
If we all wiped our portfolios clean of coal, we might have a chance.
Desperate times call for stealthy measures.
Once the CEO’s of these companies see their capital flows run dry and stocks plummet, they might wake up and move towards more efficient technologies. After all, they should know that they are not in the coal business per se, but in the energy business. All they need is some imagination and a little push to evolve.
As for those employed in the sector, governments must step-in to ease the transition. A combination of a temporary guaranteed income and intensive retraining should work. The U.S., for example, employs about 80,000 workers in the coal industry. At the country’s median income, the country would need to come up with about $5 billion to cover a year’s worth of salaries. If the U.S. government has $3.1 billion to spare on vacation for federal employees placed on administrative leave, I’m sure it can make this work.
For all other investments in your 401K or pension plan portfolio, make sure the companies you are supporting are aligned with your values by becoming a conscious investor as Vinay Shandal suggests in his humorous TED talk.
Margaret Mead famously said we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 as a warning to the nation about the adverse effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies but spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agriculture, and launched the environmental movement.
In 1965, geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson tried to draw public attention to the problem of increased lead levels in the environment and our food chain. In his effort to ensure that lead was removed from gasoline, Patterson fought against the lobbying power of the Ethyl Corporation and against the lead additive industry as a whole. Following Patterson’s clarion call, he was refused contracts with many research organizations, including the United States Public Health Service. In 1971, he was excluded from a National Research Council panel on atmospheric lead contamination, even though he was the foremost expert on the subject. But he persisted, and by 1975, the United States mandated the use of unleaded gasoline resulting in the phaseout of lead from all automotive gasoline by 1986. Lead levels within the blood of Americans dropped by up to 80% by the late 1990s.
“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything” – Albert Einstein
Inspired by these courageous figures, I have sent my ‘No More Coal’ letter to my pension fund.
It’s my tiny drop in the bucket.
How about adding yours?
Hurry though, because we’re running out of time.
Before you go, join my mailing list to receive more bold ideas.
The dying flame of good imagination.
As an outsider, I have a bird’s-eye advantage of looking down at the fires raging across the American political landscape and the internecine clashes which threaten to tear the “United” States apart.
Being a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, non-partisan, and pledging allegiance to nothing else than the Earth and all living beings, I sit far removed from the circus arena and watch the clowns and carnage while munching on metaphysical popcorn.
A shrill tragicomedy unfolds before my eyes on this Theater of the Absurd.
For several weeks, the main act featured the clash of two puppets, male and female, Kavanaugh and Ford, whose strings were manipulated in shadow by the doctrinaire forces rending the fabric of this nation. Meanwhile, exploitative reporters thronged the front row feeding spectators raw meat and venom which devoured their entrails and made them vomit it back without once passing through the sieve of their intellectual integrity. Thus poisoned, and burning with self-righteous rage, they cast doubt on the testimony of these two players, based not on objective evidence, but in blind allegiance to the dark forces pulling their strings. One side claiming there should be a statute of limitation for wrongdoing, while the other insisting on imposing perfect morals on imperfect beings, they precipitated their judgment, and, like Roman Emperors, lowered their thumbs condemning their despised to death.
Consider drugs as another example. Since 1971, the United States has wasted 1.5 trillion dollars on its “war on drugs,” but done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Why? Because addiction is not a “drug problem” but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the self-destructive manifestation of despair. A country with good imagination would invest its treasure on mental health, not ineffective wars.
What about guns and mass shootings? Here again, this country faces a problem of anguish, one which mostly afflicts young men. Bad imagination would have government confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans or have teachers carry concealed weapons at recess. The good kind would focus attention on the underlying issue.
What about walls? Bad imagination conjures idiotic ideas that immigrants are determined to take over the country or are somehow afflicted with irrepressible wanderlust and must therefore be stopped at the border with ever-higher fortifications. Good imagination understands that most immigrants originate from neighboring countries as yet not sufficiently developed to afford everyone the opportunity to provide a decent living for themselves and their families. “Tough luck!” Bad imagination would say. “Not our problem. Build that Wall!” forgetting that necessity is the mother of invention, so, while laying another row of bricks, the ground beneath their fortress becomes tunnel-riddled like Swiss Cheese. President Truman’s 1949 inaugural speech outlining his vision to assist developing countries is a perfect example of good imagination:
“We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas.”
How those intentions were later translated into action is a perfect example of bad imagination.
Climate change is yet another example, pitting those who insist on wasting time trying to pin the blame on humans against those who deny it, often with such vitriol and vehemence it reminds me of the Spanish Inquisition. To my mind, it is not ultimately a matter of who is responsible, but what we do about it. Whether man-made or not, it is a phenomenon which poses a serious threat to human survival, so we might want to stop splitting hairs and, instead, roll-up our sleeves and get to work before it’s too late.
The forces of bad imagination — preferring strife over compromise, war over healing — now control the United States and threaten to tear it apart. One can only hope that the millions of puppets under their spell will soon wake up from their hypnosis, start thinking for themselves, take back power, and unleash the right kind of imagination on their country.
I’ll still be perched here, munching on metaphysical popcorn, to report on the awakening, or watch in disbelief as Rome continues to burn.