Thoughts on the Fourth of July

PatriotI’m not very big on saluting the flag, or flying one at my house. To a lot of people, that would probably spell a serious lack of patriotism.

But my view of America is probably different from yours. To me, America isn’t about a flag, or soldiers marching in parades, or posts on Facebook about “Support the Troops.” It isn’t even a country. It’s this whole other thing, something you can’t see or point to or wave overhead.

America is a body of ideas. As such, it can be anywhere. It’s the idea of freedom of speech. The idea of a free press. The guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to a speedy, public trial. It’s about freedom from slavery, and the right of women to take full, fair part in all aspects of public life. It’s about the right to bear arms. And yes, it’s about freedom of religion, but it’s also about this much greater religious right, the hidden one, the right we have yet to really understand or embrace, freedom FROM religion.

It’s this one more idea, to me — something you won’t find in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

It’s The Idea of Something Better. A better life. A better chance. A better range of possibilities for yourself and your kids. THAT is what drew — and draws — immigrants from all over the world.

And the thing is, once you adopt that idea, in that moment you become an American. You might be a homeless El Salvadorean, an uneducated African, or a Syrian refugee with literally nothing more than the clothes on your back, but the minute you set foot on the road toward the U.S., the road to Something Better, you’re an American IN THAT MINUTE.

I do expect the people who come here to aim for something more than their home country and home culture provided. Frankly, I expect them to learn English — not because I hate the poor immigrants, but because I know their BEST chance of succeeding here is to speak the language, and speak it well. I don’t begrudge them the right to honor their home culture, if they choose, but I also darned sure expect them to learn all these OTHER values and ideas that make up America.

But frankly, I’m not too worried about immigrants. And though I don’t like or respect Islam, I’m also not all that afraid of it. Hey, if you have to threaten your own people with death in order to keep them, what does that say about you? It’s a crappy second-rater on the world stage, and all the second- and third-generation Muslims in the U.S., whatever their parents were, are probably going to be ordinary American kids.

The heart of America, to me, isn’t soldiers and guns. It’s ideas. As such, my heroes — the REAL heroes of America — are librarians and teachers. My heroes are scientists and thinkers, writers and reporters and yes, even protesters and whistle-blowers — the warriors of conscience who fight in their own ways for The Idea of Something Better.

So don’t expect me to salute when you drive by with a flag on your truck. I’m less impressed with the mere symbols of America, when I can see, and partake in, the real SUBSTANCE of America all around me.

I wish you a happy Fourth of July.

Bear People, Wolf People, People People

Image courtesy
Image courtesy

I’ve been thinking about that gorilla that just got shot to death at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The outpouring of sympathy for the poor, poor mother who only looked away for a few seconds, the tearful “You people just don’t know what it’s like being a mother!” is only one of the annoying mass responses.

Meanwhile, here’s this innocent gorilla, killed with no second thought, the moment a human child plops down in his enclosure.

Something I’ve said on social media:

What bothers me is that we’re framing the incident in this simplistic homocentric manner — the life of a human baby against that of a Dangerous Wild Animal — even though the issue is MUCH larger and more important.

The thing is, if we can’t keep ourselves from shooting to death an endangered animal WHICH IS ALREADY IN A CAGE and which is breeding stock to keep the species alive, we can’t keep ourselves from killing anything and everything. Which means, inevitably, WE WILL.

EVERY time the life of a human — or the appetite, or comfort, or property — of a human comes up against the life of an animal, we will kill the animal.

The calmer and more forgiving we are about that, the faster it will happen.

I have to imagine Native Americans — Stone Age people everywhere — thought of birds and animals in a dramatically different way than we do. Living with and among them day by day, they saw and understood things about them we modern people almost never even notice.

The modern idea is one of separation, differentness. They’re not US. We have nothing in common with THEM.

But living among them — living WITHIN nature rather than on the edge of it as we do today — depending on observing and coexisting with them, Native Americans would have seen those in-common things that really are there. Would have used them in their daily thinking. Would have felt closer to everything around them in a deep and profound way that we today are normally incapable of imagining.

I try to picture what that might have been like, and I think I have a handle on it with a simple linguistic transform that redefines the word “people” to mean a bit more than we normally allow it.

Currently we define it to mean US. To recreate something of our earlier commonality and connection, the word could be expanded to mean — well, still “us,” but an “us” larger than the human species.

Maybe we’d add an extra tag to each descriptive use of the word, identifying the species referred to. Thus humans would become “human people.” Likewise, dogs would be “dog people,” and the individual dog would be a “dog person.”

Extending it outwards, bears become bear people, or perhaps Bear People. Around us in the natural world there would be Bird People, Wolf People, Coyote People, Elephant People. Lion People. Mouse People.

It wouldn’t extend to everything. I’d include only those things that had brains and shared our common sensory and possibly emotional experience. (And undoubtedly, we would not like all of them. I don’t have any great fellow-feeling for alligators, for instance; I’m willing to see them as real, still don’t want them in my neighborhood swimming hole.)

But it would build a bridge for us to explore from our side, looking to understand — to FEEL — the commonality.

Without actually using the word “people,” a lot of us already have the strong feeling of connection contained within it when we think of our dogs. I have friends who see their horses and mules that way. But using the words out in public would send that message to others: There’s something here, a new viewpoint, worth thinking about.

We’ve spent several thousand years with the idea that they’re separate and lesser than us, and it’s freed us to kill and poison them, to level their habitat, to drive them out, to casually extinct them. Or to breed them down to defenseless and helpless forms that become permanent prisoners of whatever indignities we choose to heap on them.

Those people with small dogs, I’m often convinced they have no concept of what they have. They have in their heads some silly image of a disposable entertainment device, a toy, a comical baby — Oh, he’s so KYOOOT!! — and it never really occurs to them they have a BEING in their care, something, someONE, who would much rather run and swim and wallow in mud rather than spend time dressed in a costume, propped grossly overweight and gasping on a pillow, or imprisoned in a purse.)

We see them as inferior THINGS — either useful or annoying — rather than co-equal SELVES. The average city-dweller has zero respect for animals. (Hell, they have little enough of it even for their fellow humans.) But if we’re going to keep the world alive around us, we have to feel more than ownership for it and the things in it. We have to have fellowship.

I expect there will be plenty of people who won’t get it.

No doubt some will interpret what I’m proposing in that icky-sticky, bosom-clutching “animal spirits” way. “Ooh, yes, we’re all SPIRITS together, we and the little animals! We should go out into the forest and show them our love!”

Others will soundly reject the concept, crying “But they’re different! They’re not people! They’re nothing like us.”

But they are like us in so many ways, not least that they have our same feelings, the same sense of self, the same desire to live their lives. Anyone who works closely with horses, or elephants, or so many other critters, knows it. They’re People.

So the next time you see me, yes, I’m going to be using it. I’m going to speak to your dog, “Hello Dog Person!”, to your cat “Hey there, Cat Person!”

Hey, I might even manage to notice YOU. —Because that’s just the kind of People Person I am.

Random Stuff I’ve Learned

COE Square•  Dogs like icewater in the summer, just like people do.
•  The burger you get at the counter has no resemblance to the picture of the burger on the poster.
•  If they tell you it’s “for your own good” or “to serve you better” … it isn’t.
•  Once you lose half your hair, the pressure’s off.
•  Everything mouse-sized and bigger has feelings.
•  The death of a loved one makes everything else small change.
•  Most everybody else is too busy dancing to watch how good or bad your dancing is. But you probably do suck at it. On the the other hand, the point of dancing isn’t to impress others.
•  Charity is cheaper if you do it directly.
•  You can’t wait for real life to start at some nebulous future date. Life has to be enjoyed every day. Get on with it.
•  I can overlook a lot of your peccadilloes as long as you’re self-supporting.
•  Never lie to a child or a dog for any reason.
•  The thing is, nobody really knows how things are supposed to be. As long as you don’t hurt anybody, including yourself, do the stuff that makes you happy.
•  In playing with your dog, let him win. Every time.
•  Little people think the way to be big is to hurt or control other people. Big people want power FOR people, rather than OVER them.
•  One of the nicest things about children is that they give adults an excuse to blow bubbles again.
•  Someday you’re going to be dead. Might as well make the best of the situation while you wait.
•  In court, bigger and better and higher-priced liars almost always win out over simple honesty and good faith.
•  Not all beliefs and cultures deserve respect. If you believe in treating women as property, your culture is an inferior pile of doodoo. I don’t need to respect you. You need to change.
•  Talk to children as if they were adults. Expect adults to sometimes act like children.
•  The brains of die-hard smokers are incapable of imagining cigarette butts and litter can be the same thing.
•  Human beings often go to war over their differences, despite being 99.99 percent the same.
•  Nobody outside Texas knows what real barbecue is.
•  Cats look a lot smarter than they really are.
•  Pretty much everybody is a well-meaning doofus. Including you and me.
•  Step in and put your hands on. Every person should know how to build things, how to create things, how to fix things. No sitting back playing helpless.
•  Some large fraction of what passes as acceptable business practice is purely predatory on the customer-victims.
•  No animal on earth smells worse than an unwashed human. Whatever else is happening in your life, if you’re not showering regularly, I’m not sitting next to you.
•  If you ask for a favor in a way that assumes I can’t say no, I’m saying no. If it’s obligatory, it’s not a favor.
•  Not only are you not the boss of me, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even hire you as a consultant.
•  Fame is a cheat, because it depends more on what other people think of you than on what you think of yourself.
•  Not every member of a downtrodden social class is an innocent fluffy bunny. Some of the people cops shoot actually deserve it.
•  There is no place you can get to in life, however low and helpless, that there isn’t somebody who’s figured out a way to suck just a teeny bit more life out of you. Sometimes that method is called “state lottery.”
•  If you turn your car stereo up to 10 and then go into a store with it blasting, it’s not about your love of music.
•  There are artists and there are people who say they’re artists. If you tell them you don’t understand their work and they retort that there must be something wrong with YOU, they’re probably the second type.
•  If you’re going to have a pet, don’t complain about a little fur on the furniture.
•  If they “deserve” it, you can do anything to them, including torturing and killing, and sleep well at night. Now you just have to figure out how to make it look like they deserve it.
•  There are creatures who walk around upright, wearing human clothes and speaking human language, but who are no more human than sharks. Many of them seem to do well.
•  Money can’t buy happiness, but if you’re going to be miserable anyway, you might as well take the money.
•  If they’re selling religion, just close the door.
•  Listen to someone closely and he’ll think you’re the brightest person he’s ever met.
•  Every discussion is about learning something, or reaching agreement. Every argument is about winning. There are people who CANNOT have a discussion.
•  The War on Drugs is like trying to put out a forest fire by doing away with Bic lighters. It’s the wrong solution. But then again, it keeps alive the richly profitable prison, lawyer and cops-and-courts industries. And hey, destroying people is a small price to pay for that, right?
•  Sports fanatics are idiots. But they seem to have more friends.
•  Skin color is a stupid way to divide people up. But there are people of every color who think it is.
• “Feminist” doesn’t automatically mean “right.” But don’t dare try to tell them that.
•  People who deliberately breed small, stubby-legged, brainless dogs are not really animal lovers.
•  The shrieking modern rejection of the occasional physical punishment administered to children is probably misguided. Civilization was built by people who had their butts whupped.
•  Everybody farts. But when the Pope does it, nobody notices.
•  Some people have never had an original thought in their lives. Fortunately, they never notice.
•  Give people compliments. If you think something good about somebody, tell them instantly.
•  It’s okay to be wrong.
•  Nobody gets enough hugs.
•  Your parents probably didn’t mean to do it to you. They were stumbling through life just like you are. But that doesn’t mean everything is forgivable.
•  Nobody ever thinks it’s their own fault.
•  If two young people take up living together, they will both immediately assume the other one is doing the housekeeping.
•  Used to be, if you were overweight, you were just overweight. Now you can be a victim of horrible oppression. Every. Goddam. Time. Someone brings up the subject of fitness.
•  Cities are not the natural environment of humans. You can never feel so alive, so free, so centered, as when you’re in the wilderness. But well over 90 percent of us will never know this.
•  European tourists dress funny. If they’re French, that goes double.

Thinking Tools: Weather and Will

BGL copySome of what you work out — hopefully, anyway — as you go about your daily life, are what I call “thinking tools.” These aren’t just facts, they’re ways of viewing or understanding the world around you  in a way that allows you to deal with life in a more productive, or less painful, way.

I wrote about something I call “Nailing” quite some time back, and that concept is one of my own thinking tools, something that helps me understand a bit of seemingly irrational human behavior. (Such as why people can be MORE supportive of war after their kid gets killed in one.)

I often have these things in my head for years before I finally sit down and think about them, much less commit them to paper. One such idea is something I call “Weather and Will.”

“Weather” as I’m using it here is meant to represent natural forces as distinct from human ones. It’s all the stuff we have no control over, and have to just be aware of and careful about.

“Will” is what humans do, and it’s subject to, well, human will.

Anytime there’s some sort of incident involving Weather — say Bob gets hit by lightning while playing golf during a thunderstorm — we tend to think it was Bob’s fault, if anybody’s. He should have taken into account that standing out in the open during a storm — and holding a long metal rod aloft — was a bad idea. It’s no fault of the weather itself, which was only doing what weather does — be weather.

We might generously call the event an “accident,” but if there’s any blame to be leveled, it would definitely go to Bob. Recognizing that one of the factors involved has no human volition and the other does, we’d never say the weather should have done something different, but we would definitely say Bob should have done something different.

You challenge Weather, or ignore Weather, or forget Weather, you better expect a bad outcome.

But “Weather” is not always WEATHER. It’s all those other uncontrollable, non-volitional forces too.

If a man lies down drunk on the railroad tracks at night — even through trains are human-made and human-controlled — whose fault is it if he gets hit by a train? We tend to think it’s the drunk guy’s fault. Trains are Weather in the sense that they have this sort of inevitability about them: They can’t be stopped quickly, but even if they could, the train engineer might not be able to see the guy lying on the tracks at night.

Besides which, it’s not like trains leap out of nowhere, or chase you down and kill you. They’re not stealthy, or malevolent. Not only do trains run on tracks which are unmistakable for anything else in civilization, their crossings are always clearly marked, AND a train makes a noise like … well, like a locomotive. Civilization has been SO careful to make trains safe, it’s extremely rare that we could say “Yeah, that whole family was killed after stopping their RV on the clearly-marked rail crossing, but it wasn’t their fault.” No, most of the time it IS their fault, or at least the driver’s fault, and not that of the train or its engineer. There’s really very little about it which is accidental.

But there’s a confusing idea out there about Weather and Will. We see situations — both in fiction and in real life — in which one person gets blamed for something another person did: “The bank robber wouldn’t have shot Bob if Bob had only done what he said. It’s his own fault, really.” “He wouldn’t beat her if she didn’t provoke him.”

Both of those formulations make the bad guy’s actions out to be Weather — as if he’s some sort of unstoppable natural force, something nobody, not even he, could do anything about — when they’re really completely about Will. It’s NOT Bob’s fault for getting shot, not even a little bit. It’s never the woman’s fault when she’s hurt by an abusive boyfriend.

In both cases, the injury done to the victim was 100 percent the doing of the aggressor. There is no element of Weather about the thing. That guy shot Bob because he wanted to. He might have set up this bogus choice for Bob — “Obey me, or die!” — and in truth it might be good in that specific case for Bob to just obey, but nothing in the situation says responsibility for any later shooting rests with anyone but the guy with the gun.

An abusive boyfriend might say “I wouldn’t hit you if you’d just be quiet when I tell you to!” but at no point does that become Weather. It’s his CHOICE to hit her, and he can choose not to. We might say “My gosh, woman, get away from the bastard! Leave now and go as far and as fast as you can!” But this is more in the way of a avidly suggested precautionary measure. At no point does the physical abuse become her fault.

We tend to see large-scale human things like government or war as Weather, and in the sense that they’re big and unpredictable, or take on a Weathery life of their own independent of the human wills within them, it certainly can seem to be true. But it’s important to continue to think of them as the result of Will. Government is a thing humans do, and they can do it differently. War is a thing humans choose to do, and can choose not to do.

There are statistical effects from massed human behavior — actions or effects that arise from our own unconscious nature — that we tend to consider as Weather. For instance, we might say that anytime large numbers of humans gather together — for an outdoor event, say, or just crowded together in cities — there will be masses of litter left to pick up. We expect it, grimly resign ourselves to it, as if there’s nothing that can be done but hire people to try to keep up with the deluge of garbage.

This is certainly true in New York City, where I travel every day in the course of my work. But a half day’s drive to the north, Ottawa, Canada, is the fourth cleanest city in the world. The streets and sidewalks are spotless. Not because the Weather is any different, but because the people of Ottawa CHOOSE to act in a different way.

I think the point is, only Weather is Weather. When it comes to human behavior on any scale, even when you’re dealing with what appears to be unavoidable results, it’s still Will.

Meaning it can be changed. Altered. Done differently, and better.

Non-Sequitur: Dog Friends vs. Dog Owners

chihuahuaSomeone once walked into my office with a basket of Chihuahua puppies. “Here, you want to hold one?” “Eww, no.” “What, you don’t like dogs?” “No, I LOVE dogs!” I threw up my hands and walked away. There was no way I was going to be able to explain why “loving dogs” and “feeling creeped out by Chihuahua puppies” could coexist in one person.

I’ve realized that most people, even supposed dog lovers, don’t really have a feel for the fact that there’s somebody THERE in a dog’s head, a being with feelings, a sense of self, and this other thing: a sort of life-agenda that has nothing to do with humans.

We command and demand so much from them, and mostly never let them be dogs. Which means … we never really KNOW them. We know only the fantasy-images of them we build up in our own heads. We ignore most or all of what they are.

They have no choice but to quickly adapt to whatever conditions we impose but, fairly often, it must be immensely frustrating for them.

This bears on the main reason I don’t like the tiny dogs. They’ve been interfered with so much they’re no longer capable of being DOGS. They’re more like toys with four legs — almost wholly the creations of the dimwits who made them that way.

News flash: The natural environment of the dog is not tucked into a purse. Or even cloistered away inside a house. Yet if these helpless little bundles of fur ever did get outside on their own, they’d still never have a chance of being a dog. Left to their own devices, they’d simply die.

In my mind, turning a dog into a little speck of “cute” is a betrayal of the bargain we have with them — the bargain of >>MUTUAL<< love and respect.

With Tito the Mighty Hunter, my big malamute-black lab mutt, I discovered I could find out who he was, what he wanted, what he might do, only if I made room in my life for an independent Tito, a Tito not of my making but of HIS.

I never expected him to do tricks, or be be “good” for my benefit or the benefit of others. My house was his house, my yard was his yard. If he wanted to dig a hole in the yard, that was fine with me. If he wanted to stop and gnaw on a deer carcass alongside the trail, I’d wait.

And oh boy, we took hikes, sometimes two a day. As a result, Tito was smarter, more relaxed, more aware, and friendlier than any dog I’ve ever known. He could annoy the hell out of me by occasionally going off and having his own adventures, but he was in all other ways a SPECTACULAR friend. Someone who taught ME things about life.

There are so many dangers in the human world that you can never let dogs be completely themselves, but you can let them be SOME of who and what they are.

When you do, they’ll surprise and amaze and delight — and yes, annoy — you. You’ll discover that dogs are not what you thought they were, and you’ll be a true Dog Friend rather than merely a Dog Owner.

Gender Asymmetry, Again

I had a post a bit more than a year ago titled A Third Approach to Gender Equality.

The heart of the post was the assertion that male and female humans have certain distinct characteristics separate from each other, and that taking those differences into account — through an overview that admits of something I call “gender asymmetry” — is necessary to develop approaches to equality.

Men have advantages over women. For instance, men’s naturally greater strength and athletic ability. Which means, yes, women are disadvantaged in relation to men, IN SOME WAYS.

Women have advantages over men. For instance, women’s greater social and emotional intelligence, and the protection afforded by having two X chromosomes (helping women avoid hereditary diseases such as color blindness, hemophilia, etc.). Which means, yes, men are disadvantaged in relation to men, IN SOME WAYS.

Here’s a video from PragerU that makes a point about the powerful visual link to men’s sexuality.

Some significant number of people reading this will instantly leap to think I’m suggesting that women need to dress more modestly in order to avoid being sexually assaulted by horny men (which will be quickly followed by that annoyingly common oh-my-god-why-do-you-hate-women thing).

But in fact, there’s another conclusion possible: That in designing a future culture fair to both female and male humans, the real facts of male and female nature — their real advantages, disadvantages and innate traits, must be taken into account.

If we leap to the victim-feminist conclusions at every point being made, or attempted to be made, we can never have the necessary discussions that will lead to lasting fairness.

Annoying Thoughts on the Verge of Christmas

The world around us – through holiday stories, songs, animated movies, TV shows, sweet little homilies delivered to us daily in every medium — teaches us about automatic happy endings, happily-ever-afters, free gifts delivered for the price of being “good,” all sorts of magical happy inevitabilities, all of which will come to us as we relax and live our lives.

But it never teaches us those things AREN’T automatically true. We’re left to figure out on our own that there’s no Santa, no Care Bears, no Tooth Fairy.

So we’re ACTIVELY programmed to believe in magic and happy accidents, but at no point ACTIVELY taught to stop believing in it. With our untrained young minds, we have to muddle through that lesson on our own.

The result being that many of us never really figure it out. Sure, we stop believing in the actual existence of Santa, but few of us can resist continuing to believe “something good will happen if I just think happy thoughts and Be Good.” If we all just love, and smile, and treat each other with compassion and understanding.

I suspect the reason immigrants excel in America is not specifically because they’re willing to work hard and save money and expect their kids to do well in school. They do well because they come out of a different culture. They don’t believe, as we do — they were never taught, as we are — that good things automatically happen. They don’t have our cultural tsunami of friendly talking teddy bears and magical wishes. They know the truth – that success of any sort comes only with unrelenting, hard-ass work.

And they’re HAPPY to do that work, because it DOES bring success. They can see it working around them and, unblinded by messages that say you don’t have to try very hard, you just have to wish and believe, they work, and think, and plan, and never stop.

I’ve wondered many times if anything good really came out of the 60s, and the only thing I can think of is that all that “Give Peace A Chance” business MIGHT have had something to do with stopping the Vietnam War. But following that … nothing. No peace. No better vision of the future. No new direction. A legacy of drug use, sexually transmitted diseases, and the eventual social idiocy of tattooing, piercing and sagging pants.

(Yes, some good music came out of that era’s musical experimentation. But there was also a HUGE amount of musical garbage, and a great deal of sloppy, crappy, talentless art, both of which continue to this day.)

(Another MIGHT be: The environmental movement MIGHT BE related, remotely, to the 60s “revolution.”)

Worse, we ended up with a disdain for older cultural beliefs, such as the value — the necessity! — of education and hard work.

Worse again, the “good things will happen” mindset – which certainly led into both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, both of which disappointed us with failure – made us draw in and indulge in even more fantasy thinking. Hey, we didn’t lose those wars, we WON them. Those were great VICTORIES. We kept the world SAFE. Our brave warriors were triumphant HEROES. We SUPPORT the troops! Anybody who disagrees is a TRAITOR. (And of course George W. Bush was a GREAT LEADER.)

Worse again AGAIN, it made us even more susceptible to mass manipulation, paving the way for the lies of FOX News and company. Hey, if people refuse to see the real world, why not make some money off their fantasies? Don’t stop believing, people! Just tune in and we’ll keep feeding you!

So here we are in the years 2000, facing a great mess of challenges. Such as the fact that there are 7.4 billion humans out there, eating and burning their way through Earth’s remaining wealth. Ocean ecosystems are collapsing. Species are vanishing at an accelerating rate. The very atmosphere is changing for the worse.

And we’re thinking our happy, hopeful, magical thoughts. Something Good will happen, if we just earnestly and fervently WISH and PRAY for it. Frosty the Snowman will appear under that magical top hat, Santa will fly in on his sleigh, and wrapped presents — Labor Saving Robots! Immortality! Artificial Intelligence! Saved Ecosystems! A World Full of Fat, Happy Babies! Infinite Free Energy! — will fall down the chimney and land under the tree.


Starbucks, Part Deux: Chasing the Red Dot

Watch the video.

The cats are you and I. The guy holding the laser is the media. The red dot is the Starbucks coffee cup story.

I’m going to call them Red Dot Stories from now on.

They don’t mean anything. They’re not significant in any way. And yet we still leap excitedly to follow and talk about them. Just like cats, we allow ourselves to be jerked around by that irresistible fascination with the red dot.

Beta Culture: Beyond Veterans Day

Salt Day copyI confess to mixed feelings about November 11.

I have a number of fairly conservative friends, and you can count on Veterans Day to kick off a massed booming v0lley of flag-wavery — heartfelt prayers, cheers, and best wishes for the men and women in uniform, those gallant, selfless warriors willing to give their lives for our freedom.

I can never join in with such fervent abandon. I mean, I GET Veterans Day. But still, considering some of the things the U.S. military has done … mixed feelings.

I also have this thing about calling anyone wearing a uniform as a “hero.” My definition of hero is apparently somewhat different from the average American. Here’s a hero:

11-year-old boy pushed sister out of way before being struck, killed by car

La’Darious Wylie was waiting at the school bus stop with his little sister, Sha’Vonta, on Oct. 27 when a car came careening toward them.

That’s when La’Darious pushed his sister out of the way.

She was fine. He died. Here’s this ordinary kid doing something extraordinary. Saving the life of his little sister. Losing his own life in pursuit of it. THAT’s a hero. Not just somebody who wears a uniform. Just my opinion, but …

Cops are not heroes until …
Firemen are not heroes until …
Soldiers are not heroes until …


I honor the willingness of these people to put themselves in a position of danger. They’re still not automatically heroes.

For many years, I’ve made an effort to interject this point into the flag-waving on Nov. 11: There are plenty of OTHER people responsible for American freedoms and way of life — farmers, mathematicians, suffragettes, civil rights activists, philosophers, writers. Hell, doctors. Plumbers and electricians. Sanitation workers.

[I’ve suggested more than once that a Conscience Memorial would be a perfect addition to the National Mall in Washington DC.  As I’ve said elsewhere, there are scores of huge monuments to war and death in Washington, but not one single memorial to conscience or whistle-blowing or principled resistance. We have difficulty even recognizing that conscience and resistance is heroic, or that it can be braver in some ways than following along with the killing and dying.]

I guess when you get right down to it, I consider Veterans Day justified, but … incomplete. I have no problem with Veterans having their special day, or the rest of us celebrating it. (I do sort of wonder why there also has to be Memorial Day, which is essentially the same holiday.) The problem I have is all those others who deserve a day of recognition but don’t get it.

We have Mothers Day, and that’s fine. We have Fathers Day, and that’s fine (despite the legions of twits who leap in and tearfully demand equal time for single mothers, as if honoring fathers for one day out of the year is somehow an attack on poor neglected single mothers).

I’ve had in mind for all the time I’ve been thinking about Beta Culture that there would be special holidays or occasions indigenous to Beta. Of course the final roll of holidays would be crowd-sourced, but I’ve thought of several I’d toss into the hat.

For instance, Memory Day (NOT Memorial Day) could be one of them — a day to remember and honor departed friends, relatives, loved ones, and beloved pets. We’d get together and share stories, show pictures, or just smile and quietly enjoy refreshing our own warm memories.

But another cultural holiday, something of a counterpoint to Veterans Day (and held in a completely different part of the year — how about a half year later, on May 11?), is a day to honor some of those OTHERS who sacrificed and gave and lived and died to lay the foundations of the modern world. I call it SALT Day.





‘S’ honors all those who did and do science, not just the cutting-edge research, but everything short of it. Every tiny bit of modern civilization, we owe, on some level, to scientists.

‘A’ takes in visual artists, musicians, movie-makers, sculptors, dancers, novelists — every person in any field of art. They make life worth living and celebrating.

‘L’ is for librarians. I consider books one of the best things ever invented, libraries one of the cheapest and best things civilization has to offer, and those sterling beings who collect and catalog and treasure all those books in all those libraries to be the true shepherds of civilization.

‘T’ is for teachers, and I doubt I could ever say enough good stuff about them. Teaching is one of the noblest professions on Earth, and every one of us save the utterly ignorant owes a massive debt of gratitude to teachers … which never arrives. So why not include them in a cultural holiday?

Of course there are other people who deserve honors. But these, to me, are some of the most profound and worthy.

SALT Day would be a day to honor, to give gifts, to send cards, to call, to visit, to REMEMBER some of the non-military movers and shakers (pun intended) of civilization.



Beta Culture: The Poison of Stories

Bracket copyI’m having this idea. Haven’t worked it out completely, but … here’s the main part.

First, let’s go back to earlier in the year and look at this post: Beta Culture: Seeing the Brackets. (Its illo is just to the right here.)

This is a sister post to that one, and to me clarifies and expands what I was really getting at back then. So:

A great deal of what we humans do in day-to-day living is creating stories to live by.

Some of them might be stories of personal identity – Faithful Believer, Obedient Daughter, Dangerous Rogue, the Funny Kid, Tough Guy, Wild Girl, Smarter Than You, Scary Biker Dude, Poor Little Mistreated Thing, Compassionate Liberal, Staunch Conservative, or so many other roles to define oneself.

Some of them are ways of viewing the world or the people around us – You’re Wrong About Everything, Barack Obama Wants to Take Our Guns, Everything Will Be Okay Because I Have Jesus, The Bilderbergers Run The World, GMOs are Totally Safe and Anybody Who Doesn’t Think So is a Hateful Luddite, All Men Are Just Waiting For Their Chance to Rape and Abuse Women.

It’s this second one, the bit about ways of viewing the world, I kinda want to talk about.

As a writer myself, I know how to write a story and make it interesting. You’ve got these conceptual elements, or this idea, and you turn it into a story. You emphasize certain parts, leave other parts out. You create a narrative, and carve out everything that doesn’t fit. You embellish it, you add tweaks, to make it interesting. Not true, but interesting. More than informing your chosen audience, your goal is to attract and hold their attention. (Ha. Suddenly FOX News comes to mind.)

You fictionalize deliberately in order to capture interest.

In entertainment-type storifying, you do it for that simple reason: to entertain. But other types of storifying have much less innocent aims.

Storifying is yet another of the things that bothers me about religion. Religion is harmful not just because it’s factually false, it’s harmful because it causes you to accept its STORY. Worse, it conditions you to accept not just its own story, but stories themselves.

And here’s the thing: If I tell you certain things and say they are facts, you may or may not accept that those things are facts. You can reject or critique those items. You might be moved to do your own research to find out if they really are facts.

But if I tell you a STORY and get you to accept it, you will thereafter reject or accept additional information ALL BY YOURSELF — depending on whether or not it fits the story. In other words, you yourself become a defender and supporter of that story and all that goes with it.

You can be presented with information which is verifiably factual, and yet reject it because it doesn’t fit the story. You can discover other information which is easily proven false, and yet accept it because it does fit the story. Once you buy into the story, nobody has to argue to convince you of additional parts of the story – you yourself will include and exclude the facts that fit or don’t fit.

You will reject things, ignore things, that fly in the face of the story. You will step totally outside real reality, which is lumpy and uncertain and chock full of facts that don’t fit, and you will cleave to the story.

Jesus wasn’t born in the middle of winter? Doesn’t matter. No way Noah could have gotten two of every species on the ark? Ain’t important. Geology proves the Earth is billions of years old? Says who?

The Bible is not just dangerous because of false facts, it’s dangerous because it turns the entire universe into this story. And such stories are seductive not just because they’re entertaining and, perhaps, internally consistent (which reality may not always appear to be), but because they’re easy to swallow and understand. And once you accept a story, you can feel like you’re there, you understand, you KNOW.

Because I write, because I’m familiar with the storifying process, I’m probably more aware of stories than the general public. But only recently have I started to understand the hazard. This is DANGEROUS, kids, because it turns you into a permanent ally of people who have a vested interest in lying to you, in manipulating you. Once you get caught by their story, you’re an unwitting team member, pretty much forever.

Because anybody can tell you a story. They may not even know they’re making up a story. And you certainly may not realize you’ve accepted it. But if you buy into it, you’re trapped. You have to accept everything presented to you that fits the story, and you have to reject everything presented to you that does not fit the story.

Is Barack Obama a secret Muslim? Oh yeah. Which means he wants to destroy America. Which means EVERYTHING he does must be inspected for its hateful real purpose.

Is Hillary Clinton a manipulative, murderous bitch? Well, of course. That decency and compassion stuff is all just an act, and the part where she looks presidential, it’s a viciously deceitful pose. Every smile and laugh, every expression of calm confidence, is a poisonous trick.

Is there a “liberal media” that’s out to get all the GOP candidates? Absolutely. Which means every question is a sly attack, meant to destroy this panel of good, honest, Christian men who would all make perfect presidents. Have they made Sarah Palin look like an utter fool? That must mean she’s an intelligent, poised statesman, a rich well of wisdom from which every American could benefit.

Is Al Gore a tool of the secret cabal that wants to enslave and disenfranchise us all? Well, sure he is. Therefore global warming has to be an utter hoax.

But also: Are all men vicious rapists, just waiting the chance to brutalize women? Yes, this is known. Therefore, any man who argues with a feminist about any issue whatsoever does it because he’s a mansplaining hater of women who supports Rape Culture and the Patriarchy.

And also: Are all cops malignant racists, and every shooting of a black man is deliberate murder? Totally. Therefore, all black men shot by cops are harmless victims who cannot possibly have done anything wrong. (And don’t you fucking dare accuse me of not knowing about real racism.)

And again also: Are all homeless people simple honest victims of a bad economy? Yep. Therefore ANY attempt by a city to keep homeless people from congregating in city parks, or sleeping in apartment entryways is a hateful attack on the innocent.

Speaking of my own experience, I’ve had countless run-ins with people who are so caught up in the story of GMOs that they’re willing to say that nobody should be allowed to even know if a food contains genetically modified ingredients, that consumers MUST NOT be given the choice, because otherwise children elsewhere in the world will starve and go blind. And these are people who consider themselves staunch advocates of science and reason. Yes, I know there’s more to the subject. But this STORY keeps them from being able to admit there are rational views on the subject that might simultaneously be critical of GMOs, or pro-labeling, and yet not be coming from hateful screaming-insane luddites.

Every movement that storifies is guilty of trafficking in the same sort of dangerous socio-cultural acts as religion. Hell, we probably learned it from religion.

I know there’s a great deal more that could be said here. I sense that there’s a major field of study that someone smarter than me has already discovered and examined at length. But the idea that stories can be dangerous is new to me. And because of that, damned scary.

Because the real world is not a story. It isn’t even a collection of stories. It’s facts. Real-world phenomena. Data. All mixed up in a confusing, ultra-complex mess that can be bewilderingly deep, scarily unpredictable.

Surfing reality’s swirling patterns is a job for a rational being, not a consumer of stories. For every story you buy into, you become that much less capable of understanding the world around you, that much less able to be a free and independent thinker.

For every story you reject, you become that much more able to see the array of facts hidden behind them, that much more able to reach trustworthy, accurate conclusions about how things really work.

I would want this to be one of the most basic teachings of Beta Culture – that stories exist, that they’re dangerous, and that you have to constantly work to recognize and steer clear of them in order to be a rational being.