A Reversal of Values

More and more I am forced into believing in this idea. It seemed entirely esoteric at first – in other words, a crazy idea – but it seems to fit the facts. And that is all we can ask of a theory.

Somewhere, buried deep in our minds, there must be a switch – which if flipped, reverses all values. The most fundamental of these is the instinct towards self-preservation – of individuals and groups. I am watching with astonishment as the human race self-destructs, While everyone is convinced that just the opposite is happening – that things are better than ever.

They are not entirely convinced, however – they also believe the bad guys are out to get them – and are about to succeed in their nefarious plans. Never considering for a moment that the bad guys are them.

Perhaps this has happened before, many times – as people turned against the empire that was ruling them – and destroyed it – and in doing so – themselves also. In the case of the Roman Empire, this resulted in the Middle Ages, which lasted for over a thousand years. Since we now live in a global empire – nicely linked together by the Computer – it is hard to predict how long this collapse will last.

I took down The Question of Value from my bookshelf, dusted it off – and will be reading it again. I was tremendously impressed by this book and ordered all the subsequent book from James S. Hans – but was disappointed by them.

I am convinced that all these thinkers – some of the world’s best – (with the exception of Boorstin, in his book The Image)  have overlooked the effects of Technology – evidently considering it a subject beneath them.

I am convinced that technological advancement has gone too far, too fast – and we have responded by destroying everything. This is not hard to understand – once you make up your mind to see things the way they are.



Envy is Ignorance

This is more of Emerson. He has his romantic excesses, but it is hard to quarrel with this:

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power that resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

James Hans explains:

Emerson assumes here that the great obstacles in the way of the individual are envy and a consequent desire to imitate the one who is envied. We find our own position in the world to be lacking, so we seek to imitate another person who seems to be much more in control of the flows of his life. In so doing, we think, we will be able to achieve the kind of autonomy we desire and perceive in another. For Emerson, this is a view based on ignorance because it lacks an understanding of the nature of human individuality in its strengths and weaknesses. It fails to see that the good life is predicated on accepting precisely that which most of us are loath to embrace: ourselves.

My grandmother, for example, was a struggling writer, determined to write a great novel – without the talent to do so. She would study writers who were successful and try to imitate them. All she got for her efforts were a large collection of rejection slips.

But she was a success at a different kind of writing: homilies for offering envelopes, and supported her family throughout the Depression by writing them. Unfortunately, none of them have survived.

Emerson on the Essential Self

As I said before, I am reading The Site of Our Lives, by James S Hans. He quotes Emerson on page 45:

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the member agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realilties and creators, but names and customs.

Is Recovery Possible?

The answer is: yes, in theory. In practice, things are more difficult.

Perhaps I should first state  what I am talking about: who is trying to recover from what? For most, this question will strike no response: they are not aware of any crisis – or that any response is necessary. For them, things just go on as usual – with only a few minor crises to keep things interesting, hardly worthy of the name. They not only lack the ability to see the problem – but are adamantly opposed to seeing it – by anybody. They are part of the problem, and determined to remain so.

This is addressed to the minority, who know too well what is happening, at least at the gut level – but wonder if their situation is hopeless. I can only speak from personal experience, and my personal observations – bolstered by the observations of others.

One of these is a rather strange fellow, James S. Hans, who got many of his ideas from Nietzsche – another strange fellow. Frederich realized that one of our main problems was our desire for revenge for things that had happened to us in the past – real or imaginary.  We are determined to get even. Freud came up with some elaborate theories for this, with one at their root: our obsession with repeating our problems over and over – perhaps with minor variations.

Let me put this another way: we are all small children, still struggling with our childhood problems. This will strike you as either obvious – or ridiculous, depending on your point of view.

The 19th and 20th Centuries were a bad time to be a child – or to be anyone, for that matter. The human race was turning against itself – the most catastrophic event in history. At the same time we were turning towards all our technologies – and determined to be like them. An impossible job that only makes us feel inadequate.

So here we are, in the 21st Century, wondering what to make of the wreck around us. If we are aware of this wreckage, we have solved our first problem: being aware of a situation too horrible to contemplate. The next step is what  to do about it?

Here is where it gets interesting. And where most advice is useless. Speaking for myself, I had to realize how deeply enmeshed I was with my past, (especially with my mother, may she rot in hell), and with my working history – which was a repetition of my childhood, over and over. To put it in the language of addiction: I had to hit bottom. When you do that, you either splatter or you bounce.

Fortunately for me, I was in another culture and I was dimly aware that self-destruction was not necessary. And that people were not necessarily evil. And that is why I am writing this posting.

Be suspicious of those who blithely say “I have forgiven everyone in the world for everything bad they have ever done to me!” They are probably lying.

The Urge to Destroy the World

This is going to be a difficult posting. My lead here is James S. Hans in his book The Question of Value, in its last chapter, which I am in the process of reading and rereading. And to be perfectly fair, the book The Master and his Emissary, which complements it.

Hans does not consider the impulse I am describing here – a strange blank spot in his reasoning which I cannot account for, because he describes its setting perfectly. Basically it is this: man is finding that the world limits his plans for infinite expansion; finds this intolerable; and therefore wants to destroy it. In the case of America, he is destroying America – and much of the rest of the world is doing the same, following our lead.

This is something few can see, even the brightest – probably because is it so horrible it is not believable. Hannah Arendt noticed this when she was writing about the Holocaust. The same thing happened in the Russian Gulag and in the Cultural Revolution – while the rest of the world still could not believe it. In that respect, nothing has changed.

I personally found this destruction intolerable in the working world, when I was part of it. Now that I am out of it, I can watch it happening; write about it; and see that this makes no difference to anyone. They cannot hear me talking.

This approach may sound familiar to you: apocryphal warnings have been going on for a long time. But the situation now is different: it is entirely new – and entirely new things are going on in it.

What is new? In the past five hundred years change has been so rapid and continuous that we are now looking at a new world – and we do not like what we see. People are ambivalent about this: insisting both that everything has changed and nothing has changed at the same time. It’s about time we made up our mind. But there is one problem: we have no mind left – it has been left far behind.

For most, this is not a problem at all. For them, it is a good thing: “Our minds only created big problems for us.” they say – and they are right. We misused our minds entirely. But this is no reason to quit using them entirely. We should start over and start using them right: in harmony with everything else. But this is precisely what they do not want to do. They are like spoiled children: insisting that they must have their own way – if not, they will demolish their play-pen.

Everything has to be taken into account when we think about changing things – and this is no easy matter. But, on the other hand, it is probably not impossible – we just have to start taking the first few baby steps in that direction.

There is no shame in being a baby – but for Americans, it is. Our history is clear: babies get destroyed.

The Ubiquity of the Social Network

My scripture this morning is from James S. Hans’ The Question of Value, page 162. This is my third pass through this section, and I am determined to get it down.

I have two criticisms of this guy, the brightest person I know: (1) he doesn’t appreciate the impact of technology – something Lewis Mumford is much better at; and (2) he doesn’t realize that people no longer exist. To be fair, I have a hard time with this last point myself – and keep asking myself: if they are not people, what are they? I cannot come up with a word that satisfies me. It will no doubt take future generations to understand this phenomena – and to name it – if there are still generations around.

It seems to me, to make an extreme simplification, that Computers Have Taken the Place of People . And this should be the realization we should start from.

But we should also make it clear how this technology has affected society in two ways: (1) by integrating all the power structures in the more advanced countries to make local power complexes and (2) integrating all the economies in the world (globalization). The social network has been replaced by the Internet, a technical network. In the process people have disappeared, because they are no longer necessary – or even desirable. It takes some work to dig this out of Hans. The following is an example of his brilliant writing (on page 165):

We are masters of the anxious moment, the aporias of boredom, the never-ending sequence of disappointment and reversal; we have probed the interstices of these orientations like true devotees and pride ourselves on our ability to bear the pain we have engendered and so fully exploited…We make use of them simply because they are an essential aspect of the narcissism through which our values have come to be defined.

Ouch! It is hard for me to admit he is right. But I have a contribution to make too – as I said above.

The Discursive and the Recursive

This posting in pure James S. Hans, and what he says in his book The Question of Value. He says what many others are saying: we are one a one-way track to nowhere. But he does the best job of explained how this track was constructed. The only other book that comes close for me is Telling the Truth About History – which says much the same thing from an historical perspective.

I am keenly aware of my audience here: people who read little, and are likely to stay that way. What can I say to them? Probably not much. I am talking about a lack of  awareness so huge it is probably insurmountable. If past experience is any indication, a few readers will understand what I am saying immediately – and the rest never will. But let me proceed anyway; it will help me clarify my thoughts.

The modern world was based on a belief in reason – most famously Rene Descartes‘ Cogito ergo sum. Without understand it at all, most people still believe this – and will not give it up. To put it another way, they believe they are in control of their life – when they are out of the loop entirely.

This is probably a good place to start – but also the place I lose almost everyone immediately. If they were still with me, I would steer them to the Scientific American, and the article about The Inflation Debate. This is typical of the latest debates in scientific circles. Most will simply say they are not interested in something so esoteric as inflation theory. But they are missing the point: science is now using the recursive approach to problem-solving. This adopts a different stance. In the past Newton, for example, reasoned from first principles – one of them being that God exists, and is the center of all being – the discursive approach.

The recursive approach assumes that what we know now is only a first pass at understanding, and we will have to take additional passes at understanding reality – beginning with the basics each time. This is so radical that places like Scientific American have never made it explicit – but simply assumed its readers already knew it.

Its advertisers would be offended. For example, there is a huge 15-page advertisement paid for by Malaysia, right in the middle of the magazine. A number of scientific organizations have been embarrassed recently by disclosures of how much money they have received from repressive Islamic governments. They would all be offended by any suggestion that the truth is not known for all time.