I sit here in the wee hours of Saturday morning, worrying about my wife. She is back in her home stomping grounds of New Jersey, visiting family, in particular her mother, who is recovering from a bad fall. Apparently Sharon had a toxic encounter with some crab cakes, and got sick enough to call an ambulance last night. I’m sure she’ll be okay, but I’m waiting for her to wake up, just to tell me that she is indeed okay. We’ve all been there.
Thus begins the cascade that leads to this entry in my rambling, unorganized blog. To occupy myself, one of many current projects is to resurrect her aging laptop from the pits of Windows slowdown. I doubled the memory and am working on replacing the hard drive with an SSD, which by the way is the best way to make an old computer feel new again. Judging by the ominous squeaking from the old hard drive, this is an even better idea. This process involves a lot a backing up, cleaning, and other tasks that – on this creaky old drive – take a lot of time. All of which leaves me here trying to engage my mind on something, anything, to avoid the helpless circular worry cycle of knowing that I can’t help my very favorite person.
And that’s where I made my mistake… I looked at the news. Looking at the news these days is a lot like swirling down the toilet bowl of outrage. For some people, the outrage is one sided. For me, it is more the outrage of the loss of critical thought in our culture. If you have a strong enough opinion, it turns into belief, which is not subject to easy revision. Collect a few people with the same belief and suddenly you have a religion. I suspect that there was once a time when looking at the news was clarifying for most people. Walter Cronkite had a gift for boiling it down into a single evening broadcast that managed to at least appear as if it didn’t have an agenda attached. Nowadays, and I don’t care which side of the great ideological divide you call home, every single voice leads with the agenda and distorts the story to make it fit. That’s like a boxer leading with his face.
Here’s the problem. I care about something called The Truth. In seeking that evasive rascal, I have a process of looking at multiple sides of the news. The left, the right, the subversive, anything that starts with alt, and so on. I shouldn’t need to do that. I should be able to rely on someone to stand up in front of a camera and throw the facts my way without a narrative attached. In this day and age, that is simply not possible. In the synthesis of all these sources, I should be able to approach something more akin to the truth, but that’s not really possible either. In the final analysis, there is never enough time to do more than scan through a bunch of crap, attach as much weight of objectivity as possible, and hope that I come up with something worth thinking. Unfortunately, I’m not any more capable of true objectivity than anyone else. My beliefs, my ethics, and my experiences attach automatically, just like they do for everyone else.
To illustrate my display my complete, mindless subjectivity, and thus disarming any authority I may have to write this entire post*, let me use a sports analogy. I hate the Atlanta Falcons because I hate the city of Atlanta. I hate the city of Atlanta for a variety of reasons that probably boil down to my father’s incessant complaining about traffic when I was a kid in the back-facing seat in our family station wagon. He managed to transmit all that stress to us kids in a way that survives to this day. Does it make sense? Nope. I further hate football teams from Miami, Tampa, New Orleans, and possibly Arizona, LA, and San Diego, because I associate football with the crisp Fall weather that I enjoyed as a player, and obviously these cities can’t possibly experience the right weather for football, right? Well, no. It’s completely stupid. I know it’s completely stupid, but that doesn’t stop me from hating football teams from hot, steamy, or downright tropical places. I hate the Patriots because Tom Brady. Either you get this or you don’t. Yet, I love the Gronk. Go figure. Being a Tennessean at heart , I would like to love the NC Panthers, but Cam Newton prevents me. Despite the evidence that he is actually a decent human being, I can’t get past his style, his arrogant demeanor, and my completely unfounded belief that he will end up on the wrong end of inappropriate allegations at some point in the future. At the same time, I love teams for equally stupid reasons. The Seahawks because I live here. I miss Marshawn Lynch and actually grieve the injuries in the Legion of Boom. I rail at the offensive play calling and wish for a good enough offensive line to keep Russell Wilson from doing his best work in the realm of miracles. I love the Eagles because that’s where Sharon grew up, and this year I feel unaccountable joy that they are a great team. I loved the Broncos for Peyton and hate them for Talib. I love the Packers because they are the greater-than-the-sum result of the working class and the fact that they can inspire people to wear giant wedges of fake cheese on their heads. Yes. None of this makes any sense at all. Yet, it’s a pretty good expression of the human condition.
So throwing aside the so called professional reporters, there is another obnoxious arbiter of reality known as social media. Aka, us. I’ve seen the value of Twitter this year, not as a source of truth, but as a way of taking the pulse of reaction to whatever news story is clogging up the pipes at any given moment. In some cases, it’s also a better and faster source of breaking news than any official source. But, even a glimpse at the trending tags on Twitter is like sticking my head out the car window while going twice the national speed limit. Sure, at 30 mph, the occasional “make like a dog” act is fun and refreshing. Apparently, there are thrillseekers that are happy face-surfing the slipstream at 60 mph and can happily spend vast swathes of time on Twitter, making sure that their every idiotic, devoid-of-logic thought is recorded for posterity and the NSA. But at 120mph, in case you’ve never tried it, you’d better be wearing a helmet and googles. Otherwise it’s nothing but pain and tears.
Clearly, we need some method of vast simplification just to cope with the information and value feed. Our vast system of defining everything, including right and wrong, on other derived definitions is a huge problem. It means that I can’t espouse any kind of opinion without defining the framework that led me to that thought without being accused of some subhuman characteristic. In other words, we live in a world of swirling circular non-logic. Based on this week, we can’t even convict a man who admitted to killing someone for killing that someone. Based on the past month, there are an incredible (although not surprising) number of men who managed to redefine reality into a version that allowed them to project women into consequence-free toys for their own entertainment. Imagine their surprise when the consequences began to rain from the sky. Imagine my own regret that I can’t live in this world without being painted with the same broad brush as these complete dirtbags. Imagine the extent of our moral relativism when their ongoing apologies contain more words about their own feelings than actual expressions of apology to their victims, apologies which are entirely inadequate in the first place. Although I cannot dismiss the ongoing possibility of untrue accusations, it is pretty clear that the vast majority of allegations are well supported, and I shake my head in disgust. But I’m only talking about the symptoms of the deeper systemic disease…
At this point, I could branch off into about 50 directions to pin this idea down. I could head into things that are quantifiable and therefore measurable. For example, I’m currently putting insulation into my shop/office/garage. The hope is that I can heat it through the winter without tripling our power bill and/or tripping breakers with multiple electric heaters. This is a terrible task because it is clearly illustrating how badly I need to get a gym membership, but it’s a great task because it is entirely measurable. As long as I can work a measuring tape and a staple gun without falling off a step ladder, I’m good. I know the outcome. How can you apply that to another human being, much less any group of people? Beyond a certain point, you can’t measure reality. Ask today’s leading quantum physicist about the nature of reality and you will get something that basically amounts to opinions with supporting math. What happens to a square meter of forest if the neighboring tree grows just enough to cast 30 minutes more shade on that patch of the landscape? The answer is an informed guess. Don’t get me wrong. Human beings are very good at navigating existence through guesswork. One could argue that the fact that we all guess a little differently adds up to a self balancing system of survival.
Rather than delve into the other 49 branches of this argument, let me throw the flag of human nature onto the field. Just like the court system of replay-driven due process that has become professional football, let me disclaim the following by saying that I am speaking in observations. As far as I’m concerned, yours are as valid as mine, and I welcome your observations to the discussion. The only real difference is that I am writing mine here and now, in my typically wordy fashion, and attaching my name to them. That out of the way, human nature is our ultimate double edged sword. It is the source of our supremacy on this planet and the biggest problem we face. What is knowable about human nature? One is that it expresses itself in individuals in a myriad of ways, but in the aggregate, it resolves into patterns that we can observe. Take any group of people across any arbitrary division and given enough people, you will see every trait that human nature has to offer. Generosity, selfishness, peace, violence, productivity, laziness, honesty, deceit, codependent neuroses, bug nuts predatory insanity. These things and all the others always appear. Two is that sex is inextricable from human nature. Despite our best efforts to neutralize gender roles of late, it is simply not possible to ignore the fact that we are here because of sexual reproduction, and that makes sex a survival trait. The minute we lose our survival traits, some other species takes over. In the here and now, that means that we can’t wish it away. Sex plays a role no matter whether we notice it or not, or whether we wish it were true or not. Sorry. This reality has consequences. Some male dirtbag will always try to take advantage of it through situational power, some woman will always find a way to use it to her advantage, and some homosexual couple will always have to contend with the opinions of others, even if they are trying to adopt a child that will be far better off in their care than it would be in some hellhole adoption pit somewhere in the world. Personally, I would wish those children into any caring home. Three, it is the nature of humanity that every last one of us is riddled with our failings and blind spots. Of the two, blind spots are the worst because they prevent us from seeing what we are doing to ourselves and those around us. The constant lack of ability to step back from ourselves and ask the basic questions is probably the biggest problem with human nature, and we all fail that test almost every day.
At the same time, that exact same failing can be a strength that keeps us going when there are no good options in life. Holding up the old left hand – right hand scale, is the lack of perspective a strength or weakness? I’ve just said it was both, in true gray-area fashion. In most of the world, it’s probably a huge strength. People live in conditions that would make those of us with time to blog collapse in despair at the broad picture of our lives. We could easily end up talking to a rotten head of cabbage named Wilson. But here in America, the by-and-large land of comfort and convenience, failing to see the forest for the trees is a gaping hole of weakness. We could easily end up talking to a Costco-sized cupcake that we have decided to name Cupcake. Given all these systems and conditions of plenitude, we should have time to see the big picture. Again, sorry, but what heck are we doing? By sticking my head out the car window, I can see that we have abused our power by taking the microscopic and making it into the whole of existence, and that’s why we live in a society of complete relativism that somehow manages to become utterly absolute in a heartbeat.
We live in a system, us Americans. That system is supposed to do certain things. Keep us safe, guarantee a rule by law rather than the whim of a monarch, allow us a level of freedom and independence, and perhaps most importantly, give us a choice in our own future. In order for any of that to work, we are expected to have an informed voice in a very large, impactful discussion. That voice is expected to be passed along to our representatives in government, who are supposed to represent us on the larger stage. If that representative fails to support our views, we are expected to vote that person out of office at the earliest opportunity. Yes, I know. It’s all Civics 101, but we seem to have lost track of this basic chain of accountability. Even worse, our so-called leadership appears to have lost sight of the fact that they work for us (in theory) and typically try to run up a hill under the banner of their own advantage (in power, money, favor, what have you…) and forget who put them office. Yes, our one… er, two party machine serves as the banking system for their rise to power, but you and I are the currency. Like all good banks, the party system is far more capable of enforcing allegiance that any dollar bill in a wallet. Any of our vaunted leaders who read this (I suspect the number is zero) would ruffle up in indignance. It might be true indignance because they are actually trying to represent us, or in far more dramatic faux-indignance because they don’t want to be caught out, lining their own power pockets and failing to serve the needs of their constituency. Aka, us. You and me, the ones who find out that our tax dollars are going to pay off sexual harassment suits, the ones who fill out all the forms every year to discover that our government keeps treating it as their money rather than ours.
The extreme voices say that the only peaceful recourse is to reconfigure your life to pay as few tax dollars as possible, thus controlling the government through sheer cashflow desperation. They say that your failure to cry out loud at every failure of accountability is your failure, rather than the fault of those who wake up every day with a new scheme to abuse the system you support. In other words, they say the mess is your fault. I’d say up to a point, they are right. In the same breath, I’d say those extreme voices are wrong. What are we supposed to do with a self-serving system that uses us as money batteries to finance abuse that falls right back on our shoulders? All of the logical answers will never happen. In pure logic terms, we should demand term limits at a minimum. Experience in lawmaking can quickly turn from disconnect from real existence to disdain for the problems of normal Americans. Some politicians seem so disconnected from our reality that they need a brutal punch to the face to remind them that their rhetorical reality is not the final arbiter of actual American reality. Term limits put a cap on how far their perception can stray from the concerns of the rest of us. The argument that experience counts in Congress is the same as saying that experience counts in mob style protection money. If you can break my knees, will that make it more likely that I will be able to pay the bill at the end of the week?
The most extreme voices say that we should either fall off the grid and disconnect ourselves from our government, or rise in armed conflict to the government. You may get away with the former if you are willing to experience discomfort and inconvenience, but we have a whole set of examples to remind you that you won’t get away with the latter. We’ve had governments in my lifetime that would put up with all manner of sins, but not a direct ideological conflict. The real problem with most of the ultra-extreme views is that it comes with baggage that has nothing to do with a system of America that actually works. If you are preaching white nationalism in the woods somewhere, you’re missing the point. If you are anti-any-culture or racist group, you are again missing the point. At various points of history, there has been extreme resistance to different cultural groups of immigrants. Most of them considered completely white, I might add. Odds are that if you are preaching some form of hatred, you are talking about your own ancestors. The people to whom you owe your very existence…
On the other side, if you are screeching labels at people like the pod people in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, then your extremism is equally to blame. And by equal, I mean you could reread the previous paragraph with your own views inserted. I don’t care who you hate, sooner or later someone in that group will do something that bursts your bubble of belief. You could take note of that when it happens and adjust your reality a bit, or you can stick your fingers in your ears, close your eyes, and say, “Lalalalalalalalalalalala!” In a system where we have no connection between our reality and the noise that pumps out of the collective Americana, this is actually a reasonable response.
Where does that leave us in world where we are subjected to pointless identity politics from all sides and talking heads telling us how much rampant racism and oppression still exists, to the point where people feel entitled to take up sniper positions and gun down police? I’m not saying that these things don’t exist, just that they are not the all-encompassing plague that drives news cycles. At any rate, I could argue that facts all day and fail to convert anyone.
Let me use the Big Rewind to explain. There was a time, a very long time, in which we didn’t have the luxury of any of these debates. We had life, and we had death. We had survival. If you lived in a tribe that spent its entire day roaming far and wide to find enough food to keep living, I don’t think I need to explain that any stranger presented a threat to survival. Even today you can find stats on how much land it takes for any animal population to survive. This tribalism became the same as racism. You were either a part of the system of the world or you were “Other.” Perhaps the stranger became more valuable to the tribe than the resources he or she consumed and became part of the tribe. Perhaps the stranger stayed separate and simply consumed food within the territory of the tribe. They stayed “Other” and thus needed to be eliminated to improve the odds of tribal survival. This was life or death after all. Part of human nature is this legacy. Within every one of us is that seed of racism in the form of “Other.” We can overcome it, but we can’t ignore it. It was handed down to us from hundreds of generations for whom it was not an intellectual debate. It was pure survival that resulted in us. Is it not illogical that human nature contains a racist component that must be overcome through conscious thought.
The problem we face is that the real conflicts do not exist between groups like white people and black people, American citizens and illegal immigrants, Christians versus Muslims -insert your conflict here; it is the conflict among the expressions of human nature. Human nature is largely innate and subconscious and very few of us have the time or energy to examine it. I examine it continuously, like a weird hobby, through myself and others. Here’s what I have found, on top of a relatively racist upbringing in the South. If I personally meet someone of something other than my profoundly white Western European ancestry, I don’t even consider race. Do I like this person? That’s it. Some people I like instantly; some people annoy me before they even open their mouth. Regardless of race, and for reasons I may never really understand. If my simple notice of their ethnicity makes me racist, then I am racist. Perhaps I’m tribalist, but I doubt it. I tend to think more in terms of family, which I extend to include anyone important in my life. Perhaps I’m just applying an organizational tag like human metadata. If you can meet someone without the moment of noticing physical characteristics, then you are far more enlightened than I. Personally, I think everyone notices, in the exact same way that people notice someone they find attractive. In an instant, before any thought or cultural/sexual ideology even begins to kick in. It takes practice to observe this progression, even in ourselves, because it happens blindingly fast. Speed is of the essence in survival traits. We shouldn’t have time to decide.
The instantaneous is not the point. It may save us from the hubcap flying at our windshield, but it doesn’t define us. What does define us is what happens when that instant passes and we begin to apply all the rest of our thinking to the equation. That’s where the beauty and ugliness of human nature expresses itself. It can go either way because we made it to the top of the food chain with our adaptiveness. A professional baseball player can train himself to react to a pitch that goes by at speeds that may as well be a bullet for the rest of us. A marathon runner can rewrite their entire metabolic system to deliver a superhuman result. A biathlete in the winter Olympics can go from all out aerobic effort to the utter calm of high levels of marksmanship in seconds. The body control this requires is also superhuman. Presumably, every highly trained soldier on the planet can do the same thing. All of this is built on a physical foundation, but it’s control of the mental process that makes it happen. You can prove it in the storied 4-minute mile. It was impossible until it was done, and then the mental wall was destroyed and it went from impossible to expected in a historic blink of the eye. You can even see it on TV today. I present American Ninja Warrior, a cartoonish athletic competition that may as well be superhero training for the likelihood of any of us doing what those people do as routine. At some point, there is always an obstacle that takes out everyone, until a metaphorical Spiderman shows up and beats it. Then it becomes possible, and the top third beat the same obstacle shortly thereafter. It really makes you wonder; what are our actual limits?
On the other side of the coin, you may use the same sublime human capacity to take the instantaneous reaction and turn it into something grotesque. I’ve said it for years. The measure of a man is not in the reaction; it’s in what he does with it. I meet an attractive woman who was attractive before I could even notice my reaction. It’s built in. I say to myself, “She’s attractive,” and that’s it. I do not translate her attractiveness into any course of action or assumption of conferred rights to the direction of her life or my access to her body. I think this is fairly typical. On the other end of the spectrum, I may have Zeus-like control of Hollywood and decide that makes every young actress a toy that I can use as I see fit. I may be a Congressman who sees every photograph as an opportunity to grab a female posterior and then explain it away as, “I take thousands of photographs. I can’t remember every ass I’ve grabbed.” I may scheme to the point of actually installing a door locking button under my desk so that my bag of sex toys can be forcibly sold to a woman who is suddenly faced with more existential dilemmas than a cat in a dog kennel. In more mundane circumstances, I may translate friendliness into sexual intent and take up stalking as a hobby. I may use that imagined intent to create an imagined rejection and the whole situation could become obsessive and violent. But I don’t. Why?
My fifty-year collection of upbringing, training, inculturation, experience, and good old trial and error didn’t turn out that way. Lucky me. Life is a collection of experiences and relationships. Thanks to our highly adaptable brains, we can interpret all of these things in any number of ways. You may hear the same commercial three times in a row and think, sign from God. I may hear it and think somebody’s getting fired. Everything we encounter is subject to our mental game. If I meet a person, a potential relationship, with the notion that I am somehow superior in the grand scheme, I’m probably making a huge mistake. If I view another person as some kind of target that could be used to fulfill some need I have, and I’m referring to deep personal need here, not, “Will this lightbulb work?” then I am probably making a huge mistake. On the other hand, if I meet every person with the attitude that there is some value, something worthy of respect, some beauty of human nature waiting to be encountered, then all those initial reactions disappear as fast as they occurred.
It’s a great idea that plenty of people make impossible. All the best intentions disappear in the second instant when we encounter someone who is pointing those same mistakes in our direction, and we are forced to put up some kind of defense. People can be hostile, tired, judgmental in a way that may be aimed at you specifically, one of the groups you happen to inhabit, or literally everyone they meet. You have no way of knowing, but you still need to react. Then human interaction devolves into a messy interplay of actions, reactions, and overlain thoughts that usually become judgments. If we can get past that, then maybe a relationship occurs. Maybe we walk out with the appropriate lightbulb, maybe we earn a new drinking buddy, or maybe we find the love of our lives. Usually the lightbulb is good enough.
My point is that human existence is difficult. There are potentially no boundaries to what that means, which requires us to apply some meaning to it. Every day, every moment, we are forced to ask ourselves what we know. What do we actually know? What can be determined to be true with no prerequisites needed? In isolation, the answer is virtually nothing. The truth is that we only determine truth together. Without others, we can only know hunger, fear, pain, discomfort or the lack of those things. We might not even be able to determine the simple awareness of existence without someone else to serve as an example. Love? God? Creation? Law? World? Purpose? We determine truth together, and right now, we’re really bad at it.
*If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you know that I like to destroy my own credibility as a reminder to both of us that we all are all limited in ways that we may not see. Just like you, I am simultaneously a valid and invalid voice. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something you probably don’t want.
24 hours later, Sharon is feeling much better. Only 38 hours until she gets home! Her laptop is finally fixed without a complete re-installation of Windows, and it runs better than new. As a geek, I’ll admit, I’ve lost a few steps, but I can still pull it off. And yes, I got the old drive copied before it disappeared in a puff of smoke. Small victories…