So many things are so contentious about COVID, as a thinking person, it wears me out. Though in my younger days, I might have thrived with a bit more conflict. But as I have aged, I count on the exchange of ideas and information, combined with a sense making process (all accurate data must fit together in some kind of a combined narrative) to unearth the more complex narrative around the current crisis. Without that network of knowledge, where all people possess some piece, and level of truth, we as a society swim in a memetic fog. We can’t get to the truth, and subsequent plan of action.
That’s especially true for the current v-Meme vaccine wars that we’ve been engaging in. And it’s hard to know exactly how badly we’re sabotaging ourselves because, once again, we don’t know whether the problem described in this piece is really that bad. After a whole year of both a.) really bad things happening, and b.) event also being blown out of proportion, it’s hard to recalibrate. Is the news media actually telling us the truth this time, or are we in on the memetic feedback loop to reinforce our distrust of fellow citizens and establish even more authoritarianism?
It’s still foggy.
With regards to vaccine distribution, this piece from NBC News is the latest for today. Here’s the scenario from that piece.
“A hospital Covid-19 vaccination team shows up at the emergency room to inoculate employees who haven’t received their shots.
Finding just a few, the team is about to leave when an ER doctor suggests they give the remaining doses to vulnerable patients or nonhospital employees. The team refuses, saying that would violate hospital policy and state guidelines.
Incensed, the doctor works his way up the hospital chain of command until he finds an administrator who gives the OK for the team to use up the rest of the doses.
But by the time the doctor tracks down the medical team, its shift is over and, following protocol, whatever doses remained are now in the garbage.
Isolated incident? Not a chance, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told NBC News.
“This kind of thing is pretty rampant,” Jha said. “I have personally heard stories like this from dozens of physician friends in a variety of different states. Hundreds, if not thousands, of doses are getting tossed across the country every day. It’s unbelievable.”
For the purpose of this piece, I’m going to assume Dr. Jha is correct, and we’re dumping unused vaccines, instead of finding ways to distribute them outside the established guidelines. It would be what we would expect from a rigid hierarchy. Breaking rules on distribution and using personal judgment, that requires agency, isn’t allowable even among highly educated/trained physicians. The last thing you’d want these doctors to do is feel empathy toward patients, because the implicit projection of their character is that they’re weak-willed softies, with limited moral bearing. Sheesh.
And the doctors know this projected image, regardless of reality, so they dump the vaccines instead of using them. Because the basic consequence is getting fired (Authoritarian) or being subjected to a long, likely pathological legal-and-punishment process (Legalistic/Absolutistic.) The process IS the punishment, and the doctors know this. Far easier just to take the passive path and let the vaccines go bad, that the social structure is strongly encouraging of, anyway.
Here’s the deal. If there’s a single takeaway from all this for the medical community, and as I’ve said, COVID-19 has really rung society’s bell, memetically testing all of our various systems, it’s that they need to understand that a lot of the behavior in their community is NOT a function of individual judgment gone either right or wrong. Rather, it’s automatic, with little thought of actual consequence. Instead, as long as the doctors color within the lines, then health care workers can just turn on the auto-pilot.
If you’re an American, possessing any desire of living a normal life, this first week in January, 2021, had to shake you up. People being shot in the Capitol, law enforcement officers attempting to prevent the execution of members of Congress as well as the Vice President– all of it is more than enough to make your head reel.
Or at least mine — because I have dealt directly and indirectly with at least some of the membership of the Patriot Movement as a timber/environmental activist back in the ’90s. And when you’re worried about people killing you, then, well, you pay attention.
A few stories — I was involved with, and organized Forest Service roadless protection efforts across the ’90s, and into the ’00s. A good hunk of this work is profiled in my book, ‘Wild to the Last: Environmental Conflict in the Clearwater Country’ printed by WSU Press. The book was published in 1998, and still holds up today, in my opinion — though the events described in the book had a far more positive resolution than appeared possible when it was published. I did work across generic timber over-harvest issues, but my primary focus was preserving unlogged and pristine areas for eventual designated federal ‘Wilderness’ — what we call ‘Big W’ wilderness, that is protected by Congress from mechanized entry and management.
I have lots of stories, as this did not go down easily in many of the logging communities in northern Idaho, where the Clearwater National Forest is located. Decades of over-harvest had driven mill closures across the state, and when towns dependent on timber lost their money, they mostly had no easy economic transition. This was coupled with positively feudal politics (e.g. the one guy running most of the wood chip trucks was also County Commissioner of one of the counties we worked in, and there wasn’t a time when the scales were opened on the road) as well as some of the same conspiratorial stories that we are seeing now.
Coupled with brain drain from these areas, as well as reactionary politicians like Helen Chenoweth, an iconic “Wise Use” movement Congressman (she herself asked for that designation as a push-back against perceived political correctness) things got hot on more than one occasion. I can remember being at one hearing about roadless areas that the US Forest Service had been hosting in Coeur D’alene, Idaho. We had set up outside the door, on the sidewalk — myself and a handful of activists, mostly women that day– with our pamphlets and such. It had been a quiet morning, when suddenly a group of timber workers — loggers as well as mill employees — came rushing us in a mob, screaming that they were going to kick our asses.
I was, and still am a physically large man. It’s funny how there’s a natural organization that occurs in that kind of event. I turned around to the women, in the face of oncoming chaos, and yelled “Run!” which they did. And me, standing there dressed in my Carhartt overalls and jacket, stood there ready to fight — or really, get my ass kicked, because that was what was about to happen.
Except it didn’t. The Idaho Attorney General, Al Lance, who was tightly aligned with the screaming mob, started blasting them in a commanding tone, and that message was amplified through their leadership. What then happened was an amazing example of how conflicting people can at least come together. The leadership forced the much larger mob into a circle, and then allowed any member who wanted to stand in the center give their story. The theme was remarkable — most of the stories told by the workers resonated around the theme of “these environmentalists — they want us to be poor like them.” Quite a different change from the “environmental elites” wanting to deprive workers of their jobs. The chants grew louder for us to also stand in the middle of the circle, and of course, I did. But the most moving testimony was given by a young mother, on our side of the issue, who stood in the middle, with her baby on her hip. She spoke with the usual hippy pitch of loving Mother Earth. But then she turned and looked at them and said “But all of you are old. And we are young — and it will be our world soon.”
The Clinton Roadless Initiative, which protected essentially all remaining roadless areas, and driven by my friend, Steve Kallick, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, passed in the late part of Clinton’s presidency. So, at some level, we won. That victory, though, was to be one of the last real environmental victories the community has experienced — and that was in 2001.
During the whole season of my more intense involvement with the environmental movement — from a start in 1990 to 2002 or so, I watched the various militia, hardcore Christian Nationalist and Wise Use movements — the constituencies of what we would call the Patriot Movement, grow. Helen Chenoweth, whom I dealt with multiple times, was a full-on nut and a member of what is called the Christian Identity faith, that postulates that the Lost Tribe of Israel is actually a bunch of white folks that ended up migrating to Northern Idaho. All of it may sound wacky, and a lot of it was — Chenoweth herself was famed for her promiscuity, and her church had services where there was sections designated to “charismatic laughing” — where constituencies would laugh for an hour straight. None of it makes sense to those on the outside of these folks. But the roots are deep. Listen to Great Britain’s unofficial anthem if you don’t believe me.
Chenoweth (she’s now passed away — died in a car wreck) was prophetic in more than instance about the expansion of the surveillance state, especially post- 9/11. And there were also real failures of governance at the time as well. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Randy Weaver and Ruby Ridge — all these crises help lead to Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building. Many of the stories we hear now have persistence, though with new actors given larger roles. Some are more archaic — The Turner Diaries and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion comes to mind. And others transformed — for example, George Soros hadn’t achieved the prominence he has now, but the internationalist cartels still played heavily in the rotation of hits.
Yet strangely enough, even though I had my own life threatened multiple times, most of it seemed rational. Or at least less crazy. Timber workers actually didn’t know much about the woods (loggers more because they at least drove around in the forest for their jobs) and couldn’t appreciate that most of the places we were fighting to save had little timber left to harvest anyway. A huge part of the crisis was brain drain. As the more enterprising and evolved folks moved out of the towns to seek other opportunities, that left a leadership void. And while I might not like the various conspiracy theories, at least most of it made sense. I was an anti-logging activist, after all. Death threats were, to some level, part of the game.
But they never developed into much. There’s kind of an unspoken rule in the woods, that made most of that so much hot air. We were both (at least the loggers and me) back in the woods together. You didn’t broach that line of hurting someone in the woods — because then it could happen to you.
The other point which is becoming far more clear to me in the current crisis is that even only 25 years ago, we were organized around geography. I lived in Pullman/Moscow, and worked on timber issues in North Idaho. The first chapter in my book is titled ‘A Sense of Place’. Our coalition of groups all had names, mostly dedicated to the place they were working to preserve, such as The Wild Swan Coalition, on the Swan River in the Flathead Valley.
What that also means is that information concentration, and establishment of myths was modestly constrained. If you wanted to believe the really crazy stuff, you had to find people of like mind to share your stories with. And for North Idaho, that meant either living on a Neo-Nazi compound outside of Hayden Lake, or attempting to connect with other pagan neo-hippies and apocalyptists in the woods outside of St. Maries. None of it was easy, and people would likely argue about the truth. You don’t find massive network builders living in small communities in the Intermountain West. You move there to get the hell away from everyone — not necessarily find friends.
And that affects the concentration effects of populations. There’s a great analogy in Kenneth Stern’s prescient book, “A Force Upon the Plain” that talks about the concept of a recruitment funnel for extreme activities. There’s a stack of radicalism on the Right, starting with the large, fundamentalist churches, such as the Pentecostals and Nazarenes. Beneath that might be Full Bible/Christian Literalist churches. Below that were the Christian Identity folks, that then fed the militia members, or sat co-jointly with the Neo-Nazis, or other radical right Pagan movements. If the funnel was wide enough at the top, it would squeeze down enough people, and rage, so that a Timothy McVeigh would pop out the bottom. It was (and actually remains) really a probabilistic numbers game.
There were all sorts of dampers, even in that funnel of crazy. I remember one apocalyptic cult that decided it wanted to wait for the Second Coming up around Dixie, Idaho, where the Cove-Mallard civil disobedience campaign had been held. Dixie sits at around 5000′ in elevation in the Northern Rockies, which means that it’s 10 months of winter and 2 months of mighty late fall. And those two months probably had lots of black flies. Inevitably, these types of cults had men and women, and sometimes families. But they would never last, at least up in places like Dixie, for more than two years. The women basically wouldn’t put up with it. If you’re going to wait for Jesus, it was far better to do it in a place like Moscow, that at least had a couple of grocery stores and a decent shopping mall. Proof of that is self-evident in the success of Christ Church, a Full Bible Church founded by Doug Wilson, a local pastor who writes revisionist history on the Confederacy. He even has his own college now — New St. Andrews.
All of this has made me realize this important truth. What is going on with Trump and the riots at the Capitol is really nothing like what I experienced. And the dynamics must be re-thought.
I’ve talked pretty extensively on my blog about trauma, and how it changes perspectives. It’s mostly positive if you recover from it. The one thing it does is gives you far greater range of experience, and potentially empathy, if it doesn’t kill you. But there are drawbacks as well. I have to admit I did not see the Trump/Capitol riots coming at all. I thought we’d get out of the Trump years with a whimper, not a bang, and even wrote a conciliatory op-ed piece here about Donald Trump and voting choice, that ran just days before the Capitol takeover.
How I managed to miss this has caused me reason to reflect on my own thought process. The short take is that when dealing with these ersatz ‘Patriots’ in the past, one of the rules of thumb I follow is that if someone’s saying they’re going to do something illegal, like kill you, they’re extremely likely to NOT do it. Anyone threatening me at a meeting with the standard “I’m gonna kill you” was really just attempting to intimidate me. Actually killing you would involve anonymous phone-calls and hang-ups (I got a number of those) and a bullet from nowhere. I was also younger, and just didn’t worry about it. Often the news focus in the various Wise Use organizations would target the wrong organization as being responsible for a given advancement in environmental policy. If they couldn’t even figure out who was behind a given lawsuit, or timber appeal, who really needed to worry about those folks?
And there’s the final part of my own development I’ve also had to ponder. I’ve had an incredible life, with highs and lows. But part of having trauma in the background (and there are studies that have been done that validate this) is that one can develop kind of an Ultimate Survivor’s Syndrome. Bad stuff may happen. But it takes more to get on one’s radar screen. And until that happens, your brain just figures it will handle it. After all, you’ve made it this far.
What I’ve noticed is that my developed perspective from those times is far less relevant now. People are saying crazy things. And, unlike the past, people are DOING crazy things. I believe that the majority of people that stormed the Capitol last Wednesday did it as part of some bizarre demonstration, or “theatre of overthrow” with no real hope of having a coup where Trump would be reappointed President. But there’s enough evidence now that I’ve seen that a more coherent minority had murder on their mind. And denying that is in no one’s interest — especially the persistence of our nation.
What changed, as I’ve written about earlier, is how our organizational methodologies have changed. As I said above, if you wanted to be part of a hard-core anti-government group in the ’80s and ’90s, you had to go to the compound. The organization was geographical, and inevitably involved hardships. One of my mentors, the original back-to-the-woods liberal hippie, Leroy Lee, lived in a tee-pee for years, carrying water half a mile up the hill from the well on his small property, outside the community of Santa, Idaho. Politics were distributed in predicting the apocalypse as well. There were still far-right and hardcore libertarians, but there were also more than a fair share of Lefties, like Leroy. None of the Instagram poseurs that took place in the Capitol riots would last more than a day up there on the mountain.
But now geography simply doesn’t matter. You can find your tribe online, from the comfort of your sofa. And that matters a lot. I’ve discussed before John Robb’s term of ‘networked tribes’ and he’s right. But the other reason that REALLY matters is now organization occurs through resonant views, on multiple levels, of individual’s value sets/v-Memes. That’s now the primary driver. You go to 4Chan, or 8Chan, or wherever, and you find your memetic tribe. The coherence generated is far greater than anything hashed out in a log cabin in a mountain – because if you don’t agree, you just refresh your browser and move on. In a real-life living situation, you have to deal with differences, even if they’re minute, in your immediate geographic community. Someone’s wife might not be so hot on driving all the way across the country and storming the Capitol. That disapproval serves as a necessary damping in the system, and limits the number of recruits. And physical cults, like the fundamentalist Mormon groups in places like Colorado City, AZ, are fundamentally far less attractive. Life is boring in those small communities, like they always have been. Everyone has to wear the same clothes, and so on. Reality intrudes, or as I would call it, validity grounding. You can’t create nearly as perfect a bubble as you can online.
My friend, Betsy Gaines Quammen has written a book, “American Zion” that talks in depth about the potential for violence in the current movement, through looking at the lens of the most recent of geographic seditionists — Cliven Bundy and his sons. She does an excellent job of profiling, in their case, their historic Mormon roots, and how they branched off from the more mainstream versions of that faith. They are both geographically isolated AND intensely wired into the memetic fabric of the current milieu. With big cowboy hats, and demonstrations/seizures like the stand-off at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon, they are stage-playing the myths that spread into the online bubbles of sedition out there on the Internet, and until very recently, amplified through services like Facebook, Twitter, and Parler. (As I write this, Parler just got taken offline by Amazon, and there are implications there that are basically gone as well.) Betsy’s book is highly recommended for understanding the people generating the real-life myth structures that the modern movement most capable of violence is embracing.
But the problem is bigger than just Cliven Bundy and sons. Now that geography is really just a background set for Sedition Theatre, the real coherence building between individuals can occur exactly at the resonant v-Meme the individual has. What that means, especially in regards to Trump, is that not only can Trump send out signals to those individuals at an empathetic development state — all those people for whom Trump is living in their head rent-free — that enshrines the Magical Authoritarian v-Meme (“Make America Great Again” and by the way, I’m the only one who can do it.) Trump, as a relationally disruptive, empathy-disordered narcissist, can also connect with a subset of those folks who meta-think just like him. And that’s far more powerful. As I wrote in this piece, Value Sets/v-Memes serve as containers for thoughts — plug a couple of parameters into the outgoing information stream, and people assemble a far more complicated narrative, quickly and with extremely high coherence, of the intent. That’s how it works. Here’s a picture from Trump’s son, Don. Jr., Parler feed.
And when the empathy-disordered connect, therein lies a real problem. One of the questions researched in the standard psychological literature on psychopathy is the observation of the lack of a habituation response. For normal people, subject to basically any positive stimulus, regardless of how pleasurable it is, you get tired of it. That first scoop of ice cream you have, that first beer you open, tastes amazing. But as you continue to drink, each taste satisfies a little less. And in the end, you finish the bowl of ice cream, or put down the beer. Beer engineers realize this explicitly, and devote quite a bit of attention to how to make that last warm dregs taste passable.
But that’s not what happens with psychopaths. The habituation response is far less, if it exists at all. Murderous psychopaths hang the victim up and carve them up, seemingly inured to the screams of their victims. And all that input only fuels more behavior. When you put two empathy-disordered people together, they climb Jacob’s Ladder together — at least in the short term. The actions proposed are more surreal, the conspiracies more extreme. And that means that crazy, idle threats can actually turn into actionable items. Looking at the handcuff zip ties on some of the rioters’ kits should give everyone the willies.
Long-term IS different. Over time, psychopaths winnow themselves out of social networks, primarily as a function of fragmentation of the information stream, and people moving away from the disruptor. Most people need homeostasis in their brains. And that doesn’t come from having FBI agents knocking on your door and hauling you off to jail. Empathy in stable human systems on average at least stays the same, or increases. Civilizations and their edifices are primary exhibits. Collapse does happen, of course — but we wouldn’t have our advanced technological society without the concomitant average increase in complexity — and the empathy that created it.
There is real peril in dealing with this crisis right now. The fact that the Republican-controlled Senate isn’t begging for passed Articles of Impeachment for Trump right now is deeply problematic. Enough of them are hoping that the rage over the Capitol burning will habituate and fade. But a certain number of the empathy-disordered Senate are stepping forward to defend Trump. Even after the Capitol riots, Senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz continued with their pointless protest of the Electoral College vote. As Twitter friend Adam Townsend has said, “the spectacles will only get bigger in the Coliseum.” If there was ever evidence that this insight is true, it was with this continued nonsense.
The Left itself, though, is far from out of the woods in this whole debacle. Short-term, the institutions of this nation must stabilize the nation itself. And that absolutely means removal of means for organizing for outright sedition. But there are far too many opportunities for overreach in this situation, that appears simple, but is really complex. The Left has won the Culture War — and Big Tech has lined up behind the Left at this moment in time, essentially killing off the more extreme memetic tribes of the Right in one fell swoop. But that does not mean that all members of the Left are morally or scientifically correct about everything. Nor that these privatized social utilities, like Facebook and Twitter, will do the right thing in the long term. The moment may not demand complexity and nuance. But the long term governance most certainly will.
What will happen in the short term? It’s Sunday, January 10, today, and frankly, I’ll admit I have no idea. But I’ll tell you what we’re going to test — the robustness of the connections of the Right Wing’s social network, as well as the actual strength of compulsion to translate the more extreme and violent messages into action. Do they exist beyond the ephemeral nature of a Twitter post? Like it or not, we’re in a Memetic War of Ideas, that are translating increasingly into actions. And we’re running the experiment.
Though, of course, I find it difficult to escape my own frame on writing about issues — I can’t resist peeking under the memetic hood of this crazy civilization we’ve created — I’m going to try with this post. No promises, though.
We’re now 10 months or so (give or take who’s counting) into this pandemic — and largely, the people that have borne the cost of our fears are our children. Kids have been displaced out of schools due to COVID fears, and Very Important People, while even attempting to leaven their messages and tell officials to keep schools open (who would better come to mind than Gov. Gavin Newsom and Dr. Tony Fauci?) keep the overall fear-o-meter pegging against the charts. That hardly helps anyone understand exceptions, or spread, or really anything. We’ve established the largest full-scale suspension of freedoms with nary a vote in our lifetimes.
And what has it gotten us? If you look at the data, very little indeed. The most recent COVID death chart from the U.S. is posted below. It’s what we engineers call a time series — a plot of COVID deaths over time — and while the artifacts (the sawtooth waveform) are due to a number of reporting issues, the deep reality is that there is no place on that curve where a systems engineer might point to and say “hey — this is where our social measures made a difference.”
Well, anyone that’s honest. Here’s the plot.
You can’t look at that plot and honestly say “see — this is where we made a difference because a majority of folks started wearing masks,” or “this is the result of our Thanksgiving Holiday Super-spreader Event.” There’s a little bobble through the points in the Christmas holiday, but what they average out to is a bending over of the classic respiratory illness death curve that characterizes the pandemic.
The shape of the overall curve is actually far more understandable than is made out in the media. COVID showed up late, and on the shores of the US in February, and in the tailwind of a weak respiratory illness season in 2019, gave us the big punch up in numbers in high-latitude, low elevation country in the US in March and April. This was followed by the typical low-latitude surge in the southern states in the summer, and the green field COVID wave I call the High Plains/Upper Midwest surge that happened in October. Then the country settled down into its usual seasonal pattern (what we’re experiencing right now) with COVID beating flu to the punch. We’re at the descending peak of that wave now.
Why any of this is a surprise is beyond me. The structure of the pandemic mirrors insights already created by people like Jared Diamond, in ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ — where he famously laid out the key indicators of disease vectors as aligning, in simple latitudinal ways in Eurasia, creating more domestic animals and disease resistance. This vs. the North/South alignment of the New World. Our climatic variation has always been the thing that has governed life on this side of the pond, and it’s no different now.
And even discarding that Big Picture insight, the reality is that, well, not much changed with all that we have done. Yes, it is impossible to say, because we don’t have a “control” country to run an experiment against. But if you just look at the modelers’ data, they have consistently over predicted the event as a calamity of historic proportions. Which, well, it’s not. It’s a bad time, but it doesn’t come close to the real pandemics of the past. It is utterly mind-boggling that these models, having been so chronically wrong, are paid attention to at all. History will not be kind to the recount of those efforts.
Over and over, we’ve attempted to pin this pandemic on those we disagree with politically. I’ve written about this here. It’s just nuts, and these things have to stop. Or we’re going to end up in a civil war. And that will kill far more young people than COVID ever could.
Where we are missing the boat regarding COVID is the damage that the pandemic has done through destruction of relational growth that really fuels how young minds are formed. Primary- and secondary school-age kids get this from going to school, and there is no real risk, despite the histrionic anecdotes pushed by the media, for school children. Yes, there is a smattering of extremely tragic cases that are part of the pandemic. One of the curiously sociopathic angles discussing COVID is the risk to football players for some version of myocarditis as an after-effect of the pandemic — as if the well-established dangers of smacking each other’s skulls together weren’t enough. There can be no better juxtaposition of how we perceive risk, however. One is a reason to lock down/up our children indefinitely. The latter is merely a continuation of “how we do things around here.” The various lockdowns have been done ostensibly to save the old, though, once again, it’s not clear that any of this anti-socialization has helped them either. In fact — probably not.
When it comes to college-age kids, living in a university community, I hear the constant berating from the elders about irresponsible college kids are, because they continue to socialize. And it’s wild to me that voices of control have been recruited from the student population themselves. I’m not going to name names, because I still have hopes that these young people, though adults, will grow out of the need to please their elders and represent their natural constituencies. There is really functionally no risk to college kids as well. And schools that have opened (I live next to the University of Idaho) have managed to even control spread, as much as it can be contained, than schools that have gone online. Which would, not surprisingly, jibe with the overall statistics — that not much we’ve done, plus or minus, really matters.
If we’re to start understanding why the enforced collapse of socialization matters to all students, we’re going to have to come to terms with what we actually do in schools. The answer is not “we smart adults tell students a bunch of stuff, they soak it all in, and they’re far better off for it.” I’ve been teaching (and winning awards) my whole career for teaching, which is really only a modest part of a relatively modest career. The reality is that students learn mostly from each other. And the lessons they learn, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, are mostly about how to relate and listen to each other. We sprinkle the lessons of the venue on top of all of this, of course. But the biggest hunk of everything they learn involves themselves, and their interactions.
My tagline, since I started my empathy project, has been “as we relate, so we think.” The meaning of this is not simply “if you relate nice, then you think nice.” The stakes are far higher. The DeepOS lesson of all this is that relating to different people, across varying ages, social statuses, and racial/ethnic variations, creates the conditions in the brain for other complex, more discipline-specific information to get slotted. Without that interaction, though, the brains of young people, while not exactly being frozen, do not thrive. And being that all people, in all walks of life, are spread out on a probability distribution for pretty much any issue/concept you can think of, we will decrease a certain percentage of the population’s intellectual and developmental abilities in ways we cannot predict yet. If you say you care about disadvantaged populations in the U.S. this should deeply concern you. Those will be the students whose starting line is moved back once again. My advantaged students, and their parents, can and will find ways around this, and I absolutely do not begrudge them.
But in a time of already-extreme separation between opportunities for rich and poor, those without resources, juggling even furnished iPods in mediocre online classrooms, will be even more screwed. Don’t fool yourself. And they also will not have the more evolved social environments that well-off parents are already creating for their children. Mores the pity.
Just so folks know, I’ll be back in the classroom myself in 18 days, running students through my curricular vehicle, the Industrial Design Clinic. I’m one of the few that’s made that choice. It was not forced on me by my administration. And, no, I haven’t had the vaccine. And yes — when I’m told my number’s up, I’ll get in line, but not before. I already know there are people that need it worse than me. There’s a reason I have 2400 hours of sick leave accumulated through my career– it’s not because I’m unhealthy.
I’m doing it because, even though it will be a difficult classroom environment, it will give my students to get to know their best teachers — each other. We’ll be in masks, we’ll be wiping down tabletops, all things of indeterminate efficacy, but part of whatever set of rules we are told to follow. But we’ll do it together. And I’m looking forward to a great year.
There’s two pieces out on Netflix that I’ve figured are worth writing about. The first, a post on The Social Dilemma, is here. The second is about the new movie, Hillbilly Elegy. Do note — this is NOT about the book, which I haven’t read (and don’t really want to.)
Why should I feel compelled to write about Hillbilly Elegy? I was raised in the same essential venue as the author, J.D. Vance — though separated by about 20 years. I grew up in Portsmouth, OH, and was born in 1962. Vance was born in Middletown, OH, in 1984, and grew up there. Middletown is outside Dayton, OH, and about 100 miles from Portsmouth. In many ways, we had some touchstones of parallel lives. Vance escaped life in lower-middle-class Middletown through a variety of pathways, including the Marines and Yale Law. I escaped Portsmouth via Case Western Reserve University, working in the steel mills of Cleveland, and getting my Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Duke University.
First off, I want folks to know that the movie is worth watching. In fact, I think it would be great if the entire East Coast establishment would watch it, and hold discussion parties on it, with the points from this piece. Ron Howard is a masterful director of scene and set, and he does an amazing job of capturing the interiors of life in lower-middle-class America, in the midst of rapidly draining economic opportunity.
At the same time, the movie trots out the “hillbilly” trope as a primary cultural hook. Being raised in the hillbilly borderlands of the Ohio River country myself, and someone that spent a good hunk of my younger life chasing whitewater across the Appalachian province, I know about life in the darker hollers. I’ve seen both the rich and poor parts of the country. Relative wealth in Appalachia is actually indexed to two factors — one is elevation, and the other is broadness of the valleys. Higher elevation in Appalachia (in the southern Blue Ridge) consists of beautiful farms, and rich music in broad valleys. But lower elevation mostly consists of the heavily striated break lands where coal is king, sunlight is scarce, and a culture of violence and poverty dominates.
I can tell you that there is no “life in the holler” in this movie, nor is there any capturing of anything culturally specific to the Appalachian region. It’s really a picture of the collapse of much of the Midwest due to industrial flight, and it takes place in the time (late ’90s/early 2000s) when that part of our history was in full swing. No one’s listening to bluegrass, attending a fiddle festival, making a chair from green wood, brewing up corn liquor in a still in the backyard, or fixing a broken-down pickup — all things that were skills I was both exposed to, and some I mastered (I’m a decent banjo player, and a woodworker, FWIW, and have a Gibson Mastertone sitting downstairs waiting for a better teacher) as part of real hillbilly culture. No one’s saying “First you make a mash” in this movie–the first step in brewing up corn liquor, the next step which can involve throwing a dead cat in the middle of it to start the fermentation process. Doc Watson isn’t playing in the background, that’s for sure.
The closest we get is a couple of scenes of kids swimming in a creek — something that, along with catching crawdads, dominated my childhood. But that’s about it — no real connection to the collapse of Scotch-Irish culture that Arnold Toynbee documented, which led to the keeping of promiscuity and out-of-wedlock childbearing, while not leaving much else. It’s not even clear that Vance even knows about this part of mountain culture — there’s no permeation of any of that in the movie, other than his own absentee father. It is true that Appalachia was in a state of profound change after I left to move to Washington State in 1988, so I might not have gotten the memo on how the region changed. But I do remember, even as I was leaving in the late ’80s, that times did improve a bit, before the opioid crisis of the 2000s that continues even today. The Appalachia I grew up in, living on Turkey Run, had the neighborhood gas station run by the Setty clan, and had honest-to-goodness hillbillies living in school buses up on blocks, with a prone, resting Holstein cow tied to a tree in the front yard, and chickens perched on her head, back, and butt.
And what did that real Appalachia look like? Here’s a vignette. I’ll never forget visiting with Jonas down at the local gas station, who was working on fixing our small family tractor, one day. Jonas worked as a mechanic on the school bus contract, and from a hillbilly perspective, was downright prosperous. He had an obese wife, and a small, overweight daughter who wore shirts with the scalloped strain of buttons barely attached, that he went home to every night. This particular day, he was covered in grease and diesel soot from being up in the engine compartment of one of the school buses. My mom asked him how he was doing, and he responded “Why, just fine, Mrs. Pezeshki.” “And how about your wife and child?” my mother inquired. “Well, Mrs. Pezeshki, they’re just fatter and uglier than ever,” he quipped. “Why, Jonas, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” my mother retorted. “Oh, but it’s the truth, Mrs. Pezeshki!” And we all laughed.
With regards to the movie, here’s the basic story. Vance grew up as a child with occasional trips to the family place of origin, in Jackson, located in Breathitt County, Kentucky — a veritable archetype of negative hillbilly stereotypes. Vance is raised by his mother, a nurse, and her mother, Mamaw. Mamaw is indeed a hillbilly word — and Glenn Close plays it for all it’s worth. Mamaw ends up pulling 13 year old (or something) from his mother’s (Bev’s) custody after a consistent decline from his mother stealing opioids at work, and getting fired from her job. The extrication occurs after she remarries (again) an Asian-American, Ken, who doesn’t appear to be first-gen anything, but has a son J.D.’s age.
In the context of “tough love” Mamaw’s upbringing, J.D. has an epiphany that he has to get his act together and start working hard in school, as well as take a part-time job in a grocery store to help with the family income. This leads to J.D. leaving for the Marines, followed by being in Yale Law school. The relationship he has with his eventual fiancee and wife, Usha is shown as facilitative to his success. When he returns back home during one of his mother’s episodes, Usha helps him stay on track, and land a job at a prestigious law firm.
There’s more to J.D.’s actual story that he profiles in his book — but there’s enough in the movie to realize the implied circumstance. Supposedly J.D. is exhibiting “hillbilly family values” when he threatens to beat the hell out of one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends that jettisons his mother’s clothes out of the second-floor row house, which is the only spot that I felt actually got at the actual poverty level of anyone that might actually be a real hillbilly. J.D.’s sister reveals to J.D. that Mamaw once torched her husband for being a drunk, and that’s the reason the mother’s such a mess.
The problem with the movie is that the quick takes from the movie fall so easily into current Right/Left-wing political tropes. If you’re a Right-winger- and apparently J.D. Vance falls into that category (he has considered running for a Republican Senate seat in Ohio) then his story is a tale of considerable emotional and material challenge, followed by hard work and education along the path to a successful conclusion of the American Dream. If you’re a Left-Winger, you immediately start sputtering the “but, but” line about the collapsing economy and the surrounding circumstances keeping everyone else down. At some level, both these story lines are true — both the path, as well as the rebuttal, making it easy to walk away from Hillbilly Elegy with some blank dismissal of the effects of culture, or family, or whatever. And Vance was encouraged to write Hillbilly Elegy by his Yale Law professor, Amy Chua, aka the “Tiger Mom”, of parenting book fame, and so it’s just unremarkable that he would write a book like it, with his self-help narrative. And it’s not completely invalid. Mamaw is the Tiger Grandma behind the scenes to help Vance unlock his real potential and get the hell out of Dodge. And lest you, the reader, think that I’m dismissing the effect of one dynamic individual in the process of rescuing a life, that would be incorrect. Good for her and him.
The real story, even as told, is more complicated — it’s transgenerationally complicated. The basic myth is indeed an inspiring story, told in the manner of “any person, with enough hard work, can escape their path if they follow the straight and narrow.” But it’s a myth — just that — and far from a blueprint from how to rescue a society from large-scale collapse. And written in the personal authority frame, it’s no surprise that Vance has little metacognition on what perils he escaped. As I was watching the movie, I had a very different take on many the events. There’s a scene of vandalism of a warehouse that Vance and his friends perpetrated, which triggered a burglar alarm in the warehouse. He lucked out — even though they roar away in a getaway vehicle which they wreck, they didn’t get caught.
It would be easy for me to chime in on the same “self made man” story. But even though I lived much the same trajectory, I recognized the luck I had in basically getting out of the same situations Vance did, and realized that I was almost always exceptionally lucky. As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but chuckling under my breath, reminded of the story of when one of the Duke basketball teams won the NCAA championship. At the same time they won, it turned out that all starting seniors on that team also graduated from Duke with their degrees. A sportscaster got on and said “That’s the way you do it. You CAN have a team that wins the national championship, and graduates all its seniors.” Another sportscaster chimed in “Not so sure that’s what this shows. From my take, it means that there’s just enough players – 5 — in the NCAA, who can win the national championship, and graduate on time!”
The real thing the movie is about is the effect of transgenerational trauma, and it appears that Howard, as the director, groks this, even if Vance only modestly alludes to it. It’s a hard story to write, because it’s impossible to write about in the present tense. That’s because most of the perpetrators are still alive, and might not take kindly to any tell-all effort about the family secrets. You only get to talk about those that are dead with their past problems, and Vance does not break from the mold. In the context of the movie, both Vance and his sister are all healed up with healthy families, though Vance’s sister is portrayed as being in the middle-class precariat. She works in a shoe store (like a Payless) in the movie, but is dutiful in running down her errant, opioid-addicted mother, and manages a loving marriage.
And then you’re stuck with, inherently, a mythical framework. The problem with really getting accurate data on past trauma is that, of course, both the recipients, as well as the perpetrators (and they can be one and the same) of the trauma are dead. And worse, their accounts may be, well, less than truthful. You simply can’t tell. And if you attempt to unearth these dead skeletons, I guarantee you’re going to run into trouble with the folks still alive. Not everyone wants to get to deep, potentially healing truths. And worse, maybe YOUR perspective is off as well. How can you be sure you’re not just getting triggered, or making up facts to support your own narrative?
The short version of my own story is this. My father was an Iranian immigrant, and was a communist revolutionary (Tudeg) that supported Mohammed Mossadegh, the moderate socialist who nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) back in the early 50s. For that sin, the CIA, under the direction of Kermit Roosevelt, overthrew the elected government and installed the Shah, in 1953. He in turn was ousted in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution.
My dad left Iran in 1956. He was a doctor, and that education was his ticket out. The East Coast hospitals would dredge Developing World hospitals for doctors, who they would bring to the US and keep, essentially as super-nurses/ indentured servants. I’m not up on the details of US Immigration law, but essentially, like now, if you wanted to immigrate, you had to have a job. And the jobs — in hospital parlance, staff slots — were all held in urban areas for the sons of the doctors who ran the East Coast hospitals. If you wanted to get your Green Card, you either had to a.) marry someone in the U.S. with citizenship status, or b.) find a job and sponsorship for immigration. That usually meant moving out of an urban area, where most of the physicians were raised, into a backwoods venue that needed doctors. That was something many of them, being upper-class occupants of the structure in their home countries, and plunking them down in rural America, were less-than-prepared to deal with culturally.
My father himself, though a doctor, and at some level a material success, as well as a political activist, also came from a background of trauma. His father, Logman, was in the Iranian Army, and a violent man. He was married in an arranged marriage to my grandmother, Sephoora, and she was pretty bonkers — probably from his constant alcoholism and whoring, as well as the beatings he would regularly give everyone. It was so bad that the brothers, when my father was 14, lined up together and told grandpa if he touched mom again that they would kill him.
So my own father came to the U.S., chasing that archetypal American dream, where one brother (my father was the oldest) would typically come and establish themselves economically, then bring the rest of the family over. Because some of the individuals are still alive, I, likely like Vance, am constrained from telling the whole story. Or rather, what I think the whole story was. Because I can’t really know. But suffice it to say that the family transplant operation did not work out as planned.
In the U.S., my father met my mother (both my parents are passed) a descendant of poverty-ridden, but hardscrabble Scotch-Irish and Swedish stock. My mother had been raised as a step child through a series of husbands of my own grandmother (she married and either divorced or buried five!) My mother’s own father had abandoned her when she was young, and left her with the nascent beginnings of avoidant personality disorder, which she fully manifested in her 30s. They married, and had three kids — I’m the middle child, but in an Iranian family, which we nominally were, the oldest son is called the Dadash, and is responsible for the other children. That ended up being my role, and I can’t say that I did a very good job. After my birth, we moved to Southern Ohio, ending up in Portsmouth, so my father could develop an OB-Gyn practice, where we moved when I was in second grade.
Initially, things were OK — but it wasn’t long until the economic scene started to unravel in Portsmouth. The large steel mill, Empire-Detroit Steel, started closing parts of the facility as the first wave of deindustrialization hit the region, and my father’s practice started suffering. His solution to this was to become a full-blown alcoholic, which he probably was already well on his way to becoming, considering some of the stories I was told about when he was dating my mother. Robert Earl Keen, one of my favorite country music singers, couldn’t draft a song that my father wouldn’t fit into. He also started keeping a mistress, and that’s all I’m going to say, as that person may still be alive.
My mother, on the other hand, through her own trauma, as well as trauma inflicted by my father’s grandmother (she arrived in the U.S. when my mom was pregnant with me, to take my father back home to an arranged marriage,) started to recreate her own family system. What’s amazing is that there could hardly be a better description of it than Frank McCourt’s description of his own childhood in the award-winning book, Angela’s Ashes. This quote about sums it up:
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. . . . nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
Call it what you will — destiny, kismet, whatever. My father and mother, a trained surgical nurse, found each other, from half a world away, in Galveston, Texas, in an operating room. They married soon thereafter (I think their courtship was around 3 months) and honeymooned in New Orleans. My father finally got sober, with me as the policeman, the Dadash, when I was in my mid-20s. But it took me another 20 years to realize that a big reason my father drank was, well, because he was married to my mom.
The groundwork had been laid for repetition of their own family tragedy, down through the years. I myself ended up, at the age of 13, telling my father that I would beat the hell out of him if he hit my grandmother, in an incident that was not all my father’s fault. I ended up in my own dysfunctional marriage, a story that will once again have to wait, as the actors are all still alive.
What’s amazing about my own story was not my own self-made aspect. My family did indeed have a strong educational bent, and education was, in part, how I leveraged myself out of the collapsing Appalachian milieu. I went to Case Western Reserve at 16, and graduated in three years, paying for most of my college, though truth be told, I never went hungry. My father was a doctor, after all. I took a job at the steel mill at 19, and supported myself and in part my first wife through graduate school. What was really amazing was that I managed to recreate the same hero/tragedy family dynamics my parents had created — who had previously copied, with one or two minor life tweaks, their own parents. Misery is a familiar bedfellow that any traumatized individual is knows all too well, and it’s a journey to realize that and actually change it.
The short version of why that is is that we naturally are comfortable with people who have the same problems as we do. And in the case of real transgenerational trauma, those can be doozies. What’s even wilder is that when we are younger, we can’t even see these problems. Moms naturally shriek and cry, and must be tended to. Fathers are dissolute, and have to be rescued. Even in Hillbilly Elegy, it never appears to Vance that so much of all this would be solved by just walking away from it all. Which he could. But relational patterns are deeply ingrained. It is the transgenerational trauma ethos that children raise the parents, and that’s just the way things are — and have always been. In the movie, Bev even puts out the fires on her own father’s back after Mamaw gives him the torch for coming home, violent and abusive, one more night. Why should she not deserve the same parenting from her own child? She earned it when she was an adolescent girl.
If there are divergent heroes in Hillbilly Elegy, they are, not surprisingly, Vance’s Mamaw, and his wife-to-be Usha. Mamaw is a Second-Tier thinker with a fair amount of blood on her own hands, who through the process of reflection, realizes she must elevate her own development if she is to have any chance of rescuing her grandson. She epitomizes leadership innovator Edwin Friedman’s philosophy of emotional self-separation from Vance as a teenager. Through her own elevation of consciousness, she charts a way forward not from her heart, or really her deeply programmed limbic system — but through her conscious brain. Hers is the deeper, darker trauma recovery story that all who break free of transgenerational trauma is the one that really should be told.
The second actor, and most implausible (and at some level, heroic) player in this drama is Vance’s wife, Usha. Usha comes from a healthy, hard-working family, and at some level, that narrative fits well into the Horatio Alger fable Vance is peddling. But people with Usha’s background typically run like hell from someone with as many problems as Vance. And exactly who finds people who have suffered transgenerational trauma? Like attracts like — other transgenerational trauma sufferers. Or predators to the emotional ecosystem. That’s the real rub. Even if you do the right thing, and keep your superficial gaze on the straight and narrow, it’s often not enough. Sometimes you find the job — but sometimes, the job finds you.
At some level, Vance deserves some credit for intrinsic realization that if he exposes Usha to the full-blown effects of his mother’s drug addiction, it might be lights out for his relationship. But Vance’s luck in finding Usha, through a strange confluence likely of cultural influence (South Asian Indians have the lowest rate of divorce in the world, and Usha and Vance are depicted as living together while they were in law school) and personal integrity on her part. Just like the championship Duke basketball team, there turned out to be just enough law partners at Yale for Vance to fall in love with and live happily ever after. I honestly do not begrudge him that — but life is just not so simple. Every human walks along the edge of a cliff, and for those of us with large trauma, the edge is always present. A few of us peer over the edge, instead of planting our face firmly against the wall. But the fact that most of us cannot look, or are even aware that the cliff exists, does not mean the cliff is not there.
In this blog, I’ve emphasized over and over again the notion that relational practice bleeds over into non-relational subject areas — as we relate, so we think. It’s also true that “as we relate, so we relate” is also true, with patterned responses buried in deep in our psyches. With Vance and myself, both of us got out, at least in part, because we worked hard, we adjusted at least some of our values, and we were gifted with big, capable brains. Vance had Mamaw and Usha. My own parents, as absolutely bonkers as they were, did gift me with grounding integrity and the classics of literature.
But we got lucky. Because breaking out of relational attractors in social networks is hard. And sometimes you just have to get that perfect trajectory to escape the potential wells that are all too quick to drag you back into the same cycle again. Here’s hoping that Vance explores more profoundly his own family’s transgenerational trauma, and separates it from any extant notion of hillbilly culture. Here’s hoping he digs more deeply as he advances his political career, in understanding his luck. Because, at least on the surface, he’s one lucky ducky.
Writer’s note: if you’re not familiar with my work, I encourage you to read all the masthead posts first. I write for the perceptive, not the judgmental.They’re really different centers of the brain we work out of. Short version — if you’re reading this and sorting it immediately into good/bad categories, this piece is likely not for you. For those that have difficulties, I recommend this link.
Not with a bang, but a whimper the election season has ended. Donald Trump did indeed lose the election, but he didn’t lose it by the standard that most on the Left thought he SHOULD lose it. And on the Right, the war goes on regarding whether the election is even over. I fully support the right of organizations like Stop The Steal to exhaust their legal remedies. That’s their right, and reading the blather on the MSM calling them traitors and such is just wrong. The reason for a legal system goes back to (and probably past) the Ancient Greeks, and really was a proposition to move past the capriciousness of the Gods in deciding fates. If you need a refresher, read Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, which has wife killing husband-king killing concubine, ending with son killing wife. We got to a legal system precisely to prevent that kind of thing from happening, and it would do us well to remember these lessons, regardless of the various claims made. Legal systems allow relatively non-violent paths for airing grievances, and by the time most parties are done, well, they’re done.
Summing up the election is hard, but here’s a first shot. Trump ran on the notion of a non-functional federal government remaining non-functional. It was a total nihilistic endeavor, but resonant. And trust me, Trump fans, he would have delivered. Most people have little idea what ANY government, federal or otherwise, actually does for them, and the fact that the vote was split still close to 50/50 indicated that almost half on the Right side of the political spectrum thought it wasn’t worth the bother.
And on the Left? Two candidates, still serving as ciphers, with few policy positions other than “we hate the other guy, and he’s responsible for everyone dying of COVID” were elected. Folks may argue that Biden was elected to serve as Grandfather-in-Chief, and Harris, who, if anything, was a “Tough on Crime” politician, in the middle of a nation wracked with concerns about police violence, added some moral heft to the position of “we’re not all racists.” My opinion — if you’re not crazy by now, then you’re not paying attention. Of course, if you’re not paying attention, then, at this point, you might not be crazy. So there IS that. I’m definitely counting on you. Just make sure you’re not crazy, OK?
And like some crazy Greek Chorus, the media lined up behind the messages. Everyone in the country, split in two, ready to go to war with each other — for freedom, against freedom, for masks for COVID containment, against masks, racists or non-racists. On and on. Trump does deserve a fair bit of credit for the media environment, in that as a Relational Disruptor, well, he did what he does. But the need to put the views of such an individual in a neat box led the media down the path to their own ruination. It was disinformation vs. misinformation.
And what is reality? Here we are, almost a month after the election. Let it soak in. There is NO civil war. There even hasn’t been any murders done in the name of politics. Oddly enough, we’ve had reduced public shootings since the election (one that I’m aware of?) That’s saying something for America, where such events are our national stock in trade. Baby steps, folks.
It might dawn on folks that what we’ve really been treated to is a large expanse of political theater, with self-appointed actors, selected for the broader stage based on the quality of the performance, as well as alignment with v-Memes. The grocery store shelves are still stocked with food, and outside the reality that we’ve thrown a good hunk of the population under the bus (as well as our children) because of COVID. Nowhere are militias of either stripe (Proud Boys, or Antifa) actually running a community. That’s just a fact. And don’t tell me it’s going to happen next week (or in 21 days — the Covid Doomers lament.) These organizations don’t have the, well, organization, to create anything resembling a functional government. Hell, they can barely organize a protest or counter-protest that actually mouths a cause other than “freedom” or “racism”. Policy, schmolicy. Old farts like me that actually want to see and understand a piece of legislation and reform institutions to functionality– well, we’re on the outs.
So what is the setting we as a nation have descended into? If anything, is the comfort of what John Robb calls “networked tribes”. In the absence of any true, stand-up geographic institutions, we’ve organized ourselves memetically on the Internet. We have found our people, or at least those we think of as our people, based on Facebook and Twitter. And in the face of the policing of those platforms, some have set out for the territories. Parler anyone? I can’t bear to look.
In the process of that social disintegration — and it is social, not physical/material — remember those stocked grocery store shelves, and fleet of Fedex trucks bringing all our middle class wants and needs to our doors? – what we’ve lost is the operating v-Meme that we actually function at. I’ve talked about this in the past, but the short version is that we all function at some level of development automatically, with some level of sophistication, dependent on past education, life experience and such. I may be a global thinker, but the reality is I’m Performance/Goal oriented. You come to me with a problem, don’t expect me to listen as much as an emotionally-deeper empathetic person might. I’m going to tell you how to fix it.
But along that path of devolution, we also hold on to fragments of tools from the different stages of life we’ve passed through, and now are figuring out exactly how these fit inside our new, deeply fragmented paradigm. If you’re a skilled writer, for instance, you’re still likely to write stories at a high level. But those stories will be couched in your tribe’s paradigms. And if not, expect to be driven into the wilderness. Take a look at my situation. I’m far from a COVID-denier. But I write about the system dynamics, as well as the nuance of the pandemic. That does not make me popular with my Lefty Tribe, who still trumpet the potential of COVID as the Andromeda Strain. Look folks — I was writing about mask efficacy BEFORE it was cool.
The problem with such devolution is that honest Tribes were never supposed to have access to the higher knowledge structures that we co-created jointly. Without the scaffolding of a well-organized society, we were necessarily limited in reach and application of our more powerful tools. And all is not lost. Thank goodness our institutions still function at least moderately well. Can you imagine if the most fervent paranoid fantasies of those on the Left regarding the professionalism of the military actually came true, and they lined up behind Trump? Of course, they didn’t — because most members of the military are honest, good-hearted people, like all Americans. We are not as bad as the media would have us believe. But that would make for a boring theatre presentation.
What are we really, and who is really behind our government? I’m not talking about QAnon or the Deep State. It’s a great question. And just yesterday, I found what I think is the best surface-level description written in this piece by Michael Lind, a professor with a long, diverse career in law and journalism. He’s currently at the LBJ School at UT-Austin, and his analysis is incisive to the core. Lind argues that the poor don’t matter at all, that racism is really not the driver when poverty is factored in (I agree with this mostly) and that what we are really witnessing is a conflict between those of us afraid of slipping into the underclass on both sides of the political aisle. He calls this a Double Horseshoe, and it is spot on.
Lind maintains that the population is roughly split 33% on the top, and 67% on the bottom, and no one really cares much about the bottom/poor, other than they don’t want to BE poor. His argument is that the three dominant castes in politics are the professional bourgeoisie (that would be me, for instance, and other members still possessing a bureaucratic position that pays well enough to live a middle class lifestyle) , the managerial elite (self-explanatory) and the small-business bourgeoisie — the owners of the businesses, like hair salons and restaurants, to name but a few, that are then employing the Underclass. And these groups, not surprisingly, are interested in their perpetuation. Though he doesn’t say it, he’s really talking about v-Meme perpetuation, which, considering the stressors in the current milieu, are a jumble.
He splits out the Underclass into two groups — the Hub City working class, consisting primarily of service workers, and the Heartland working class — people still employed in manufacturing, ag, etc. The main discriminator, which people know intrinsically, is that the dividing line rests at a minimum on a Bachelor’s level college degree. I highly recommend you read his piece.
The challenge we face as a united society is to redraw the map in our minds on how our society works. I’d argue the Double Horseshoe is a great place to start. Of course, we’re in no danger of adopting such a rational paradigm any time soon. The Right is hung up on the idea of “bootstrap pulling”, and the Left has decided on racism. So in an attempt to at least help things along in an empathetic framework, I think it’s fair to ask what the empathy level, as well as developmental requirements of each of these groups.
Starting at the top, we are currently in the middle of an enormous consolidation — what friend Adam Townsend (@adamscrabble on Twitter) has called the “Biggest Roll-up of Power in History” — around the existence of the Megacorps. Townsend argues that all you have to do is follow the money, and it’s a very strong argument. As a trader, he follows the personal philosophy of “skate to where the puck is going.” And where is the puck going? Large, consolidated defense industries, manipulating our notion of security needs, as well as actors like Tesla, Amazon, and Google. It takes only a quick look to see that during the COVID pandemic, the biggest winner was Jeff Bezos, whose personal fortune is now closing on $200B, and is expected to be worth >$1T by 2026.
What that kind of wealth does is create a disorienting bubble that anyone over any modest number of millions can create. And that bubble does not promote mental health. Witness the recent fate of Zappos’ billionaire, Tony Hsieh, as good-hearted a billionaire as you could find. The Forbes piece is worth reading as a cautionary tale. In spite of his solid intentions of building community (he moved into the center of his downtown Las Vegas re-vamp, before relocating to Park City and making himself crazy doing Nitrous Oxide) he lost his life due to suspicious smoke inhalation injuries in a house in Connecticut. Billions of dollars have the effect of creating a magical bubble, regardless of strength of character, or supposed morality. Hard fact — we’re supposed to have to deal with some percentage of difficult people. We may not like it, but it keeps us sane. Imagine deciding “hey, I want my life to include a super-famous singer” and then punching an app for a plane to fly you around. If you don’t think that messes with your brain, I’ve got news for you. Create your own Tribal v-Meme, populated with folks from an anime’ show of your own creation, coupled with magic winged chariots. The ending is almost predictable. Icarus, anyone?
And then there is the larger corporate dynamics that have created profound psychopathy at the top of the Megacorps themselves. I’ve written about Boeing here. Latest news — Boeing wants to move essentially the whole 787 operation to South Carolina from the Puget Sound. Talk about relational disruption.
Off to either side are the Professional Bourgeoisie, and the Small-Business Bourgeoisie. In v-Meme land, the Professionals are busy having their brains programmed by Authority-driven and Legalistic hierarchies. There is a big helping of now-mandatory culture code being served up simultaneously, some of it good, and absolutely some of it for sure overdue. But just like old tribes used to reserve special houses for their most ferocious warriors — a mixture of trauma survivors, as well as the empathy-disordered — we now have a media army reserved for Cancel Culture. You want to protest, or not go along with the latest edict? You deserve to lose your job. And since these definitions come from an elite handing them down, creating an authority, don’t expect much empathy if you want to discuss.
There’s no way that all cultural change can be pain-free, of course. But the problem with an overbearing culture is that when you destroy agency of actors in one venue that may need reform, don’t expect that to NOT happen where you might want creativity and new ideas. Fear spreads, and as I’ve said over and over, the brain trains itself with relational habits that swap in and out of situations. If group-think is overpowering in one circumstance, it will bleed into other endeavors.
And what of the Small-Business Bourgeoisie? They are busy being annihilated by the pandemic. No small business can survive months of inactivity, and restaurants, which make up a hunk of this group, have high failure rates anyway. What’s fascinating from an empathetic perspective is that it is very difficult to be a small business without some level of Performance/Goal-Based v-Meme instinct in your make-up. You have customers, and you have to read them. And as much as those on the Left may hate to read this, they are likely more empathetically developed than the Professional class on the Left. Successful restaurants, or any small business, require more than a clientele. They require a Community, and that means individual attention to every regular that frequents a watering hole. Remember Cheers, where everyone knew your name? That kind of interaction benefits your brain. It’s what this blog is about.
Why does this matter? If we are to fix the larger problems in society, we are going to need multi-scale, complex solutions from all sorts of venues. And importantly, we’re going to need brains that can manage the notion of complexity — something the Megacorps institutions are not particularly interested in doing. Witness the ongoing Google debacle of the departure of world-famous AI ethicist Timnit Gebru. Still not completely clear what happened, but Gebru raised important points of understanding large language models that Google wanted to use, but didn’t like her take. So she got the axe. The large hierarchy Megacorps giveth (who could afford such a position in the first place?) and the Megacorps taketh away. And if there is a lawsuit, Google will be able to pay out (if they should) and then the curtain of silence will drop nonetheless. Don’t expect any larger lessons to bubble out.
It is easy to point fingers at the Small Business Bourgeoisie and tell them their various alignments with figures like Trump have done them no favors. But it’s also impossible to really know through reading media the actual extent of problems and retrograde opinions and their actual effect. Everything that happens passes through the media’s status-driven, limbic-fear features. Mistakes are forgiven for views that line up with the dominant zeitgeist. Not so much for those that don’t. Take, for instance, my own experience with racism in my youth. It was heavy with actual violence. I grew up in a racially segregated community on the Mason-Dixon line. But to fast-forward to today, which I have written about, racial discrimination only rears its ugly head as a secondary factor. And it has to be triggered by class and employment status. Anyone who has a job — or a good job — is alright. So what does that mean?
We finally end up in the groups in the Underclass. Where are they at? Well, basically screwed. As Lind discusses in his piece, they are only trotted out for political expediency, and points of morality. The opium epidemic still rages. Undocumented workers are isolated in jobs no one wants to do, like work in slaughterhouses in central Iowa. They are paid so poorly not just because of the cost, but because if they were paid well, they’d leave. Their v-Meme is raw Survival, and they are organized into bands. And as they become more geographically isolated, they shrink back into their own bubble of unrecognizability.
And those at the actual bottom are trapped in their own public/private hell. I was in Reno visiting my sons, only two months ago. I was riding off the hill on my son’s new bike, down a main thoroughfare into town along the railroad tracks, where a veritable hobo jungle had sprung up. A 14 year old girl, dirty and unkempt, was sitting on the curb, crying. I didn’t stop because I was afraid maybe the bike, or myself, might get grabbed. And I’m a guy with a permanent fire engine siren light wired to my head. It was only one mile away from where my own son lives in a modest two bedroom apartment with his brother. How are those children faring in the pandemic closures of schools? Does anyone really think they’re following along lesson plans on iPads? The mind reels.
It’s hard to know how to close off a piece like this — and in the end, I’ll make a plea for more empathetic evolution. We can’t get there from here. Take Lind’s model and think about it today. Solutions are indeed going to come from all of us.
And for chrissakes, stop demonizing the other side. We all know where that could end. Let’s not turn theatre into life.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed in educating thousands of engineering students, that has directly led to evidence for my thinking on memetics, is the inability of my students to grasp the significance of all forms of data.
Just so you realize, this belies their education, as well as the constant, chronic chattering of STEM education reformers about kids needing more math classes. My students have HAD those classes. They’ve often gotten ‘As’ in those classes. They’re not stupid kids either, so don’t go down that route.
And it’s not like classes in calculus, statistics, and such don’t help. They can indeed. But there’s more going on under the hood that is extremely poorly understood in how people think about numbers. And frankly, while it may have something to do with the numbers a bit, that’s really not the deep problem.
The deep problem is a lack of ability to reason with numbers. That requires a number of things — the ability to make connections, as well as the ability to frame things consequentially, and project into the future. Add on to that the ability to read something like a graph, and then connect that graph to a physical instantiation of action. Now we’re talking.
That’s a lot of verbiage that makes sense to me, but likely doesn’t make sense to most of the readership. Here’s an example.
One of the things we beat kids in engineering education over the head with is the idea of a mass-spring-damper. Mass-spring-damper (MSD) systems make up a ton of mechanical systems — they’re a simple oscillator, a car suspension system, a building swaying in the wind. Anything that vibrates can be approximated with an MSD system. Here’s the basic block diagram.
The mass is, well, a mass, the spring is a spring, and a damper is something that takes energy out of the system as it goes up and down in the direction ‘x’.
Let’s say you pull this thing up, let it go, and watch it wobble. If you plot ‘x’ over time — the vertical displacement, you get a curve that looks like this:
There is math involved in getting these results, of course — the graph above can be predicted using things most folks would find “fancy” — differential equations — but you don’t need to know all that to think about what I’ll say next.
I put up the picture of the MSD system. Then I tell them — the decaying oscillation (a sine function) is what happens when you displace the mass. NOW everyone stand up (I’ll often ask for volunteers) and physically demonstrate WITH THEIR BODIES how the graph says you should move. This is a deep, intrinsic understanding — reading the graph, and then actually demonstrating that you can translate the numbers on the graph into a motion your body executes.
Virtually none of them can do it! Occasionally, I’ll have a more evolved student who will get it. But most will either a.) have no idea whatsoever, or b.) think there’s a catch in all this and I’m trying to humiliate them.
Of course, I immediately start jumping up and down appropriately, and it’s fascinating to watch the concept slowly seep into their brain. I put up numerous graphs, with different types of behavior, and repeat the exercise.
That’s innumeracy — the deep variety. The inability to take numbers and have them make sense to yourself. It has nothing to do with practicing algorithmic thinking, which these students have done in their differential equations class, a form of calculus. ALL the students that sit in front of me have had the math I haven’t discussed in this piece drilled in their heads over the course of the semester. It’s just that none of it “made deep sense” to almost all of them. And if it doesn’t make deep sense, it’s meaningless.
The real problem (if you’re here on purpose, you know likely what I’ll say next) is agency development, and that’s hooked to empathy. They have little ability to have complex, consequential thoughts that they construct. So the idea that they would pull a graph a professor writes on the board and embody it within their own experience is something that they can’t do. They have to be TOLD what it is — and then that opens the doors for more problems. Without embodiment/internalization, and appropriate agency development, it becomes one more semi-useless fact that floats around in their brain, and is soon forgotten. Reasoning with the concept? Are you kidding? Think Charlie Brown in the classroom, with the teacher’s voice going “BLAH BLAH BLAH”.
In my advanced “capstone” design class — the last class they will take as an undergraduate — I work directly on this problem. How? Through having students do estimation of physical systems with equivalents. That’s a fancy way of saying I have them take something they have a “feel” for — like how hot a lightbulb might get — and then reason through some estimate for a physical system they might be designing. I started doing this after noticing students studying thermodynamics would invariably do a calculation where they would estimate the heat in a lighted match of being something like 1M BTUS. A BTU is the amount of heat required to raise 16 oz. of water 1 degree F. Students would invariably make a mistake somewhere in the calculation, then write down a preposterous answer. Their own fact-checking circuit in their brains was disabled.
I give the example I like to use — “how many table saws would it take to drive this large machine?” I am fond of table saws, or power drills, or angle grinders, because I use them all the time. Students often have drills or grinders themselves, and most folks do know the factoid that 120VAC comes out of the wall, and can look up the amperage on Amazon for a given tool. By forcing them to find meaningful ways to reason with numbers, they make far fewer mistakes.
Understanding equivalences matters much in fighting innumeracy, because once one can do that, one can scale one’s reasoning appropriately — as well as ask, when given an inappropriate equivalence, what the hell that has to do with anything.
And the problem is this kind of innumeracy has been coming fast and furious with the COVID crisis. How many people have heard the equivalence “We’ve lost more people to COVID than we did during all of WWII”? This factoid is actually true — we did lose something like 250K troops in fighting in both the European and Pacific Theaters. But it is a meaningless, manipulative equivalence. Approximately 7.7K people die every day in the US under normal circumstances (more than 2 9/11s! if I wanted to be histrionic) — but it’s a meaningless statistic. It counts on the preying on the fear, and distorting the response of the person subject to it. In all things that matter — national sacrifice, governing mood of the populace — comparing COVID to WWII is a psychopathic manipulation, whether intentional or not.
And we have a media culture that is fond of this — on both sides of the aisle. What it does is makes any statistic a weapon to advance a worldview, instead of triggering a thoughtful approach to understanding where and how a number might be related to meaningful policy. I was on Twitter the other day, and a person, a respected leadership consultant, was informing us that they couldn’t leave their house because the death rate in their community was 3%, and they were certain that their 2 young children and themselves would be infected and likely die.
I immediately went to the COVID deaths page — that person had taken the population in their town, and divided it into the total number of COVID deaths in their county of over 3M people.
COVID deaths in the entire county/Actual population in their town ( the actual population of the town was ~ 1/60 the actual population of the entire county) — this would have been a national news story if true!
The actual COVID death rate for their county was around .05%, which is typical for a healthy population at this point in the pandemic
One might think this as an innocent mistake, save for the fact this person had been stuck inside the house with young children, not daring to venture out, for eight months. The deeper truth was that numbers had no real meaning — they were a tool for reinforcing fears, and no questioning was possible for their fears — they only thing they felt they had agency over.
It’s easy to go to the fallback from Mark Twain — “lies, damn lies, and statistics” but once again, the problem is different. More illustrative is considering how a person interprets numbers will directly link to how they ground their own knowing — through using numbers and correlating, or using causal reasoning — to establish validity — how true something can actually be. Or to listen to an authority and just take whatever they say carte blanche. And that involves empathetic development.
The real problem is not just the techniques of learning.
Don’t take this the wrong way, folks. Math classes CAN help. One of the amazing things about math, once you get into it, is that it delivers a range of mental models and cognitive concepts that you can use in your own reasoning. Mathematical concepts like nonlinear systems, chaos, and fractals permeate the very fiber of this blog. My whole system of complexity understanding is based on understanding canonical sets. They are valuable scaffolding for some of the not-so-simple ideas I explore in other posts.
But they do one no good without empathetic development and appropriate agency. The innumeracy we see is really just the tip of the iceberg of a lack of personal growth. And until we fix that, teaching our students advanced logic and statistics will not get us to where we need to be. Instead, we’ll see the raw exercise of manipulation from those conscious, or semi-conscious individuals looking to control how we think. They will be acting out of their lesser natures — according to the v-Meme stack in their social structure. And considering we’ve set up most of those in low-empathy hierarchies, don’t expect the results to be pretty.
Instead of dooming your brain with more COVID analysis, I’m going to write about a very interesting New Yorker article from 2007, that happened to be recommended by someone I’d say is one of the smartest people on Twitter — and certainly by far, the most insightful young person by a long mile -@noampomsky. Check Ava out. She’s awesome.
The article, called The Interpreter, by John Colapinto, is about Dan Everett – a true adventure linguist, who, gifted with a facility to analyze languages from basically nothing, underwent religious conversion, became a Christian missionary, and lived with one of the most linguistically primitive tribes on the planet, the Pirahã. Intending to convert them, he found they had no interest in Jesus, since he was no longer alive. In fact, they had little interest in anything that wasn’t immediate. One of the only tribes to avoid assimilation from the larger Brazilian culture, they are still hunter-gatherers with an extremely sophisticated knowledge base on how to survive in the jungle.
The article mostly maps Everett’s struggles with attempting to apply Chomsky’s recursive grammar theories to the Pirahã language. Which fail utterly. They communicate in a distinctly tonal, almost animal-chirpy form of language, and have little interest in relating anything to anything else. The article goes to lengths to explain they are not some anomalous tribe of mentally deficient humans. In fact, their knowledge of plants and animals is encyclopedic. They just don’t care about tomorrow.
And they even have poor object permanence, or rather people permanence. When a person is out of sight, they are profoundly out of mind.
The example of their exception is a profound dismantling of the notion of language as a precursor to humanity. And if one believes my own theory of Structural Memetics, which basically states that social structure creates knowledge structure, there is simply no rationale to believe language, as a designed/created product, should come first. There is no question that language does participate in the feedback loop that creates human consciousness – as well as itself. But when it comes to the “chicken and egg” problem — it appears that the chicken came first.
What’s uniquely fascinating is that the Pirahã are likely the only extant example of humans dealing with solely the bottom of the knowledge structure stack. There are not even tribal creation myths to contaminate their thinking, though it is fascinating they manage to maintain a sense of identity without them.
Are they low empathy? Well, they’re certainly not practicing much connection or empathetic development with anyone outside their in-group. The article notes that they extensively use prosody, the sing-song tonality that mothers and fathers alike use to soothe infants. And they call the language of everyone on the outside of their world speaking “Crooked Heads” — here’s the pull quote from the piece.
Everett turned to me. “They want to know what you’re called in ‘crooked head.’ ”
“Crooked head” is the tribe’s term for any language that is not Pirahã, and it is a clear pejorative. The Pirahã consider all forms of human discourse other than their own to be laughably inferior, and they are unique among Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual. They playfully tossed my name back and forth among themselves, altering it slightly with each reiteration, until it became an unrecognizable syllable. They never uttered it again, but instead gave me a lilting Pirahã name: Kaaxáoi, that of a Pirahã man, from a village downriver, whom they thought I resembled. “That’s completely consistent with my main thesis about the tribe,” Everett told me later. “They reject everything from outside their world. They just don’t want it, and it’s been that way since the day the Brazilians first found them in this jungle in the seventeen-hundreds.”
One thing to think about when reading this piece — what does it really feel like to live in the moment? ThePirahã have answers. But they’re likely not what you thought. As we relate, so we think can go backwards as well. And might not be as emotionally satisfying as one might think. Complexity and evolved love might just go together.
Naturally, the article written in 2007 doesn’t include Dan’s latest work. I wrote him on his contact page. We’ll see if he writes back. A cursory look at his blog indicates he’s still fighting the Chomsky-ites. Maybe he’ll appreciate a fresh approach.
One of the more interesting phenomena to watch this respiratory illness season (we historically call it ‘flu’ season) is what will happen now that COVID-19 is essentially endemic across the country. Because of the various reinforcing memetic cascades, COVID-19 is somehow treated in the human overmind as a unique illness, instead of the potentially severe, but usually mild respiratory infection it actually is.
And to be fair — COVID is, like all illnesses, somewhat unique. Just HOW unique it is could be characterized in a number of ways, of course. One could look at RNA differentials, which family the virus occupies (obviously a coronavirus, etc.) And all of this typology will make some virologist’s (or group of virologists’) careers. All the more reason, in status-driven social structures to declare COVID as unique. That’s what happens in the science-naming wars.
But here’s a different thought on how to characterize COVID’s actual uniqueness. Why not look at how unique the human immune system’s response is to the virus? Certainly the percentage of cases where we actually see COVID-19-specific antibodies might not be a bad measure. Once we understand the idea of an immune system stack — T-cells, B-cells, cross-reactive coronavirus immunity, and super-mucosal response — and others I likely don’t know about — then the COVID part that actually matters is that antibody response, since they are unique to the virus.
But the other responses are NOT unique to the virus. They’re what happens when any respiratory virus shows up on the scene. And here’s where what appears to be somewhat unique to COVID actually matters.
COVID is, without question, highly infectious, and contagious. We’ve seen this with regards to cruise ships, prisons, and night clubs. Someone who is a super-spreader shows up, and with the right combo of ventilation, humidity, and such, that sucker goes everywhere quickly. One week on a cruise ship, and everyone, essentially, is infected.
But what happens next is interesting. Not everyone may develop COVID antibodies by catching COVID first. But COVID, precisely because it is so contagious and infectious, will trigger that other range of non-specific immunities first, before the other viruses have a chance to party.
What that means is that the other respiratory viruses that show up will be Johnny-Come-Latelies to the respiratory infection wars happening in your system. COVID may indeed be worse in larger context, because of its affection for the immunosuppressed, and trigger other symptoms. None of that is off the table. But the activated immune systems, with their other nonspecific mechanisms, will tear up any influenza virus that shows up. COVID will effectively replace (at least for this year) most influenza viruses in your respiratory virome.
I already went ahead this year and got my flu shot. I still think if you have low reactivity to vaccines, you probably should go get stuck. But knowing that COVID is loose may, in this crazy, upside-down world of viruses, prevent you from catching another respiratory infection. Especially if you’ve displayed symptoms and tested positive.
I’m writing this at the end of our election season, and starting on Friday, November 6. For what it’s worth, it appears that Joe Biden has won the Presidency, Donald Trump is declaring victory and tantruming (as of course, a narcissistic psychopath would be expected to do) and the Senate seems to be in limbo. It does look like the Ds will hang onto the House. While it’s not clear there will be deep change, at least a tired nation can get a bit of a reprieve from chaos. The gangs, Antifa or Proud Boys, didn’t show up storming the polling stations. There were no crazy gangs in the streets. It’s November, for chrissakes, and cold across most of the country.
Donald Trump is busy ranting away, to the point where the various news organizations have decided to censor him. He’s claiming voter fraud (of course) and twisting small circumstances into vast conspiracies that have deprived him of key states, which are largely down to the wire as far as vote tallies. I understand this deeply — in a world of lower v-Meme knowledge structures, conspiracy, as I’ve explained before, is your friend. My retort is simple — if you were going to fix vote totals, couldn’t you have done a little better than just a 2000 vote total separation? How would any conspirator even guessed that things would have been that close? The pollsters once again vastly struck out in predicting election outcomes. Most Ds were talking about a “Blue Wave” that never materialized.
This now turns into a layered DeepOS conversation. Why didn’t the Blue Wave ever materialize? Or even better, why did people believe that it would? What has changed in public information aggregation directed toward popular opinion that has made the tools available so unreliable? And why are they not only unreliable, but invalid as well? What has happened to the information system that has destroyed reproducibility (the core of reliability) as well as whether the situations discussed are actually true? (Validity, and grounding of opinion.)
For us to understand this, I want to first disabuse you of the notion that this started with Donald Trump, and is a function of one person. There is credit, though — Trump actually was a pioneer in all of this, and his intrinsic mastery of Authoritarian v-Meme, low empathy, limbic-based fragmentation messages, harnessed to his Twitter account, is noteworthy. But Trump is just a disruptor, albeit a defective one, in a world ripe for disruption.
How is the world ripe for disruption? As much as anything, it is the structure of modern society that has basically disallowed time for anything but work. If you’re looking for formal studies about how much time people spend at work, they’re out there. But I will anecdotally report that I have lots of students in Seattle, but few students living in the Seattle area that have commute times less that 30 minutes. And most close in on an hour, with some outliers having commute times close to 1.5 hrs.
Such commute times, because of housing prices in the Bay Area, have been de rigueur even since the ’80s. I can remember working in Sunnyvale, CA, at NASA Ames, and taking weekdays off to kayak the Tuolumne River, outside of Modesto, CA, and watching the lines of “super-commuters” — driving sometimes 2.5 hrs. to work in the Bay Area, just so they could own an affordable house. That leaves very little time for friends and family, to say the least.
Even worse, as the late David Graeber reported in his book, Bullshit Jobs, much work in most jobs has no purpose. It’s more to establish status and authority, which inherently works through Authoritarian networks to establish control. Often using labyrinthine rules, some 38% of employees end up chasing their tails. That leads to fragmentation and depression of the workforce. No one can avoid breaking at least some rules, in which case they will live in fear of disciplinary action. That leads to a decline in employee conversation, save for bands of ostensible co-conspirators.
Into that fragmented mess of humanity, where more and more Americans lack meaningful pro-social connection, came social media. People can and will find ways to connect. And social media, with its inherently limited empathetic bandwidth (short messages with a handful of emojis,) filled in the void.
Let’s back up a bit and understand the prior assumptions used by polls in general. Underlying everything is the assumption that people’s opinions may be clustered (there are ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ geographic areas that are well-recognized, if not profoundly inaccurate) and somehow those opinions range along some Gaussian meta-distribution, with partisans on the tails, and the majority of the body politic in a hump in the middle. Politicians have used this characterization literally forever. Nixon and Reagan both talked about the “silent majority”, for example. Politicians have used in their verbiage some leverage to push the peak of the bell curve toward one side or another. But that idea of statistical independence, characterized by intrinsically isolated geographic clustering, has dominated the idea of how polling should be done. Washington is a Blue State, Idaho is a Red State, and never the twain shall meet.
I am not going to claim to be an expert on polling techniques — but the problem is that this is an enormous blind spot. Yet the evidence is there — with the simplistic notion of Red States/Blue States dominating. Even on the face of it, one could roll with a less incorrect paradigm of Urban/Rural geographic opinion propagation.
Yet other factors are profoundly in play. I can buy Italian mortadella at the Fred Meyer in Spokane, WA — a conservative city with strong Scandinavian roots. How did such a food get there, or the demand to stock it in a local grocery store? Certainly not from local culture. There are signals everywhere.
The implicit assumption in the polling is this — disposition is determined by nearest neighbors. And those nearest neighbors are a function of geography, and to a lesser extent, population density. And these clusters are isolated — statistically independent — from the whole.
Anyone reading this realizes that it is obviously false. The major news networks no longer dominate the 6:30 PM time slot in people’s lives for an uptake of what is happening in the world. Instead of geography connecting people, it’s social media. And in a world where you can stay in touch with your high school friends in Ohio, even if you move to Washington State, as well as expand your network to Swedish intellectuals, and talk to Italian chemistry profs on a regular basis. (I’m talking about myself here) the real characteristics of message development will now no longer be anything close to statistically independent. They will be a function of larger connection.
And how does that connection work? With Facebook, it’s the number of friends you have in your network, which has evolved from people you actually knew, to people around the world who join the same Facebook Groups you do. I have meaningful conversations with people in Italy or Ireland far more than I do in my own community. Though there are exceptions (hi Nils!), members of my own community, connected only through simplistic interpretations of localized reality, are far more likely to attack my viewpoints than support them. And trust me — they do.
And here’s the rub. Strongly connected networks lead to power law dynamics, whether it be “the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer” or “vaccines are deadly.” One can find enough connection, with people of enough status (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., anyone?) to temporarily validate whatever opinion they need.
And when people are mostly functioning in the status-driven, belief-based, limbic v-Memes of Authoritarianism and Legalism, grounding to the truth doesn’t happen through individual, data-driven self-experience. It happens through following higher and higher status individuals, who now have ranking systems to show their number of followers. Though Roger Martin was talking about the phenomenon in terms of economics in his latest book, When More is Not Better — Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency, with America’s tendencies toward economic monopolies, the reality is that one sees the same emergent behavior in public opinion monopolies, controlled by fewer and fewer people as well. Your Twitter followers tell you thus.
That means instead of the benefits of a distributed, sensing, high empathy collective intelligence, working through that empathy to converge multiple signals toward a more broadly applicable, nuanced truth, one gets a monolithic presentation of what is very likely the product of distorted, dichotomous, thinking. And if that thought leader who is responsible for pronouncing the truth is empathy-disordered, it’s likely to be layered with splitting — the tendency to see things only in distorted black-and-white. And biased for their own egocentric ends. I’ve written about Trump’s pathological narcissism multiple times. But if you think it’s only extant with Trump, or existing only on the Right, you’re dead wrong.
Those viewpoints come about with power-law, or Pareto dynamics. For those that have forgotten what a Pareto distribution looks like, it’s the old 80/20 rule (80 percent of the problems are caused by 20 percent of root causes.) Now rinse and repeat.
Opinion inherently ends up concentrated on one side, or the other of the political spectrum. No longer geographically bound, the intensity is subject only to the power of the Internet.
How do we end up with two sides, both distorted in their own ways? Entering the stage is now the news media. With a lower-development level population, media stars accumulate tremendous power through their respective channels. Though media actors may portray themselves as absolutists seeking only the truth, the reality is that journalists exist in a status-driven hierarchical stack. That means they, too, are also fundamentally belief-based, and prone to distortion. There are indeed some that are worse than others, but status as a journalist is directly connected to access to higher and higher status sources. You’re not going to become particularly famous in the political world if your only source is Ben down at the local hardware store. You, too, have to compete in a status-driven arena to land that career-making interview with a Cabinet official. And considering the stakes to your own success, you had better mind your Ps and Qs, until it finally becomes status in and of itself to cast yourself as the antithesis of a potential target. Judith Miller, anyone?
And so, in that process of antithesis, one starts another side of the Pareto distribution. With the same, incumbent social physics multipliers — lower v-Meme, fragmented messages, designed to be emotionally resonant, and typically fear-based. Happiness tends not to reinforce the Authoritarian v-Meme from whence they have sprung.
Don’t believe? Look at the reportage on COVID-19 deaths. COVID-19 is super-complex, with a virus likely driven by immunodeficiency issues, even in the primary death cohort of people over 70. The minute a virus starts messing with the immune system, all sorts of scientific construction problems start popping up in understanding it, in that other causal factors will likely amplify the effects of the virus.
Yet when reporters report on COVID deaths during this pandemic, they tend to only do this on a day when numbers are particularly bad. I’ve been tracking the Montana data for a while now, in part of a friendly disagreement about COVID lethality and its effects with friends in Bozeman. Even recently (like last week) there has been one day with only 1 death in Montana (Nov. 1.) Yet The Missoulian, the paper of record in Missoula, is more than happy to beat the fear drum when they have a day of excess deaths — such as the previous day, when deaths numbered 29. One might argue “well the day with 1 death wasn’t newsworthy.” Why would that be true, in a pandemic where intensity of the pandemic matters greatly?
And what does that say about the various arguments someone in the media might make about such reporting? “Well we need to keep the general public following health guidelines,” might be a typical argument. The implication is that the population is inherently low-responsibility, incapable of making decisions themselves, and should not be allow to express their agency. It’s just Authoritarian v-Meme turtles all the way down.
So here we are. There’s no question that the country is divided, and there is inherently bimodal power law dynamics in play. There’s also no question that having Donald Trump as President both exacerbated and accelerated the situation, in that he took a languishing press corps, and through full-frontal attacks on it, fertilized the seeds of divided rhetoric that were already present. I do lay some blame at his feet. But the consequence is that we have a memetically broken information system in our country, where it’s literally impossible to know what to believe. Let’s hope moving Donald Trump off the main stage can start the process of opinion differentiation again.
At the same time, we have to address the deep, root cause of the division in our country. If we do, empathy, in the absence of a relational disruptor, can grow again.
But any expectation that we are going to return to a public opinion evenly spread on a Gaussian distribution seems woefully naive. The networks are there already, and the allegiances have shifted.
But there is hope. I’ll confess that I’ve always been a Bernie Sanders supporter. And while I do find Sanders to be the most charismatic grumpy man in recent memory, I think his vision for progress, based primarily on economic wellbeing, is the way back from the brink. As I started this piece, I’ll end it. We have enormous problem in this country with the meaning of work. Our economic system is simply not working in providing either life meaning, or basic well-being for the majority of its citizens, which then starts the original Power Law behavior. And people will find ways to aggregate and tell their stories to each other, connected across this nation. Because social media isn’t going anywhere — no matter how much people think they can regulate it.
Postscript — in that they simply can’t get enough
In the absence of any really bad news regarding Biden’s election, other than Trump’s tantruming, CNN continues to practice Power Law narrowing and fear propagation. Look at the right side — in a list of people’s comments largely dedicated to being happy over a Biden win, CNN chooses the most provocative as a headline.
Of course, I realize that it’s been going on forever. But ever since Ruth Bader Ginsberg died on September 18, it’s been heating up so much that it’s basically intolerable. It’s been going on with COVID-19, as I’ve written about, for a while. But with the elections almost here, the cacophony has gotten so loud, you really have to shut down in order to maintain your sanity.
What I’m talking about are the Memetic Wars on the L/R divide. And not just in the United States. I follow on Twitter Ivor Cummins (@Fatemperor) who is a COVID pandemic analyst, as well as a nutrition specialist, and the wars are really waging everywhere one can exploit an In-group/Out-group divide with the fear of existential death, be it from COVID or economic collapse.
Accompanying Ginsberg’s death, at least in my e-mail Inbox, has been wave after wave of funding requests. Since I’m obviously a Lefty and a registered Democrat, the asks are all about giving money to this, that or another Democratic candidate. I’m sure if you’re on the Right side of the political spectrum, it’s similar. And while I’m not going to dig around on that stream of BS, I’m sure that their stream doesn’t look that different from mine. Likely the same reason (RBG’s replacement, now Amy Coney Barrett has been nominated and just passed through Senate Judiciary Committee hearings) but the same/opposite-side ask. “Give us money so we can destroy the other side.”
It’s easy enough to get a handle on the amount of money spent on the entire election season — or rather, it’s easy enough to Google and get some dollar estimate on how much money goes for ads. Here’s a guess at $11B. The tragedy is, of course, that after the election, or even right now, most of that money has just gone up in smoke. Or rather, has been funneled to the respective large media companies. You can pick whichever one you hate. But likely, you opened up your wallet and gave nonetheless. I gave quite a bit of election money before the general, but I finally tired of it. No new bridges will be built with that $11B. Flint, MI, will still have contaminated water. Children will still be hungry. And all of us will be quite a bit poorer in spirit, and frazzled in brain.
All of the craziness reminded me of one of my favorite movies of all time — Lord of War, made by, and starring Nicholas Cage. It’s an amazing movie, tracking the rise of a young immigrant, Yuri Orlov, into the ranks of one of the largest arms dealers in the world. I can’t recommend it highly enough. He is pursued throughout his rise by an ostensible Interpol agent, Jack Valentine, played by Ethan Hawke. And at the end, even after he is nailed down, he manages to walk away from any prison time in a stunning conclusion.
What was equally interesting was the documentary of how the movie was made. It is a MUST WATCH.
The short version is that it was cheaper to buy AK47s and film tanks in actual arms deals than pursue the construction of props. If the movie blew your mind, wait until you watch this.
A large part of the movie profiles the relationship between Nicholas Cage’s character and “Andre Baptiste”, played by Eamonn Walker, representing Liberia’s crazed leader, Charles Taylor. It is he who names Nicholas Cage the ‘Lord of War’ in this intense scene.
And so it is with the media companies – our contemporary version of the Lords of War. For what it’s worth, I am a strong Free Speech advocate. Whenever one starts messing with rules regarding speech, inevitably truth suffers and we are worse off.
But the seemingly endless money flowing from both sides of our current memetic conflict has created a media engine that cares little about the people it serves. We see this in the larger new social media empires, like Facebook, as well as on either side of the Fox/CNN aisle. They all make money off the conflict, and have little incentive to see anything end. This piece in particular blew my mind — 7 Ways to Stay Healthy this fall. You’ll notice nothing exceptional in the content. But what’s fascinating is what’s NOT there — no tips or commentary on boosting your immune system. In a piece ostensibly written to give you agency, most of it is dedicated to increasing your social isolation. No word about Vitamin D, sunshine, or eating foods that can help boost your immune system. Why? That would go against the memetics of the platform. Increasing agency is not in the interest of the platform. But increasing trauma and depression, through constant repetition of frightening messages, is.
It IS true that Trump has exacerbated the problems inherent with our current Memetic War environment. Trump is a narcissistic psychopath, and a classic relational disruptor. He early on decided to take on the media as chief foil. And they have responded in kind, discarding the standard low v-Meme techniques of “he said, she said” and “whataboutism” journalism to focus on calling him a liar.
But the elite success strategy of any relational disruptor is to NOT be wrong all the time. If you bat for 50% accuracy, you dramatically increase your impact. Trump at least intuitively knows that his enemies will get things wrong as well, and that strengthens his case.
Needless to say, this increases the severity of the memetic disease our country is suffering. It’s just terrible to watch. It fires up the traumatized and the relational disruptors on the Left as well, and makes it virtually impossible to attempt to thread a more nuanced path through any current issue. I read an article that more white, liberal middle-class women, when polled, knew about QAnon than the supposed target audience — conservative lower working class white folks. How’s that for a boomerang weapon?
And while I am loathe to use the go-to reason for money as a raison d’être in most things, the money that the media companies — our Lords of War — are making in all this is mind-boggling.
There are no easy answers in any of this. I am not advocating that one does not give money to political campaigns. But we are going to have to figure out how to get money out of politics, or we are well and truly fucked. We have to destroy the divisive tribal incentives that drive dollars, and crazy side-stories, as well as destroy any chance we have of increasing empathy in our overall population, or complexity in our solutions. They are inherently linked.
Because, when coupled with a tool as powerful as the Internet, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.