The problem with Donald Trump is not one of economics and hate. The problem is about legitimacy and trust.
The reason that Trump has risen so high in the polls is that he speaks to the lack of legitimacy with which many people hold the establishment. And why should they hold the establishment to be legitimate? After all, many of these are people who have lost their jobs to government-sponsored globalization, who have lost their homes and retirements to government-backed thievery by the banks, who have seen their futures redirected to a wealthy few through government-backed policies of upward redistribution, and whose every interaction with the government, from law enforcement to the labor department is anything but pleasant. Stoke this daily with hate radio, and you can see why people are primed for a change.
Is Trump unpleasant? Sure. Is he a fascist? Possibly. Would he take America somewhere it does not want to go? Almost certainly. But from the aggrieved perspective of those systematically disenfranchised by the establishment, how could he be worse than what they currently deal with on a daily basis? Hence the desire for change.
It is highly unlikely that Trump will win the presidency. But that does not mean the anger and despair he represents will go away. Trump is the canary in the coal mine; something that the establishment should take very seriously if it does not want to see trust in the government further, and perhaps irrevocably, eroded.
Twelve Years a Slave came in the mail from Netflix a while ago. It sat resolutely on the counter for a week or two collecting dust, and then I sent it back unwatched. I will probably never watch it, even though I have written some thoughts about it. The Kindle edition of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book Between the World and Me is sitting in my wish list. That I will certainly read some day. Just not today. I have read Black No More, by George S. Schuyler, and Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison; both provided to me years ago by my wife, who incidentally is usually identified as ‘black’ even though she is in actuality Panamanian by descent. I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People by Brit Bennett is very much worth the few minutes it takes to read it. I started reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois a while ago, but it has been languishing as of late. There are a couple of works about Malcolm X that I am currently reading, but more for my interests in civil disobedience and radicalism than in what they have to tell me about race and racism.
This does not mean that I am not sympathetic to the issues of racism that are pandemic in American society, or that I have no concern for those who are direct recipients of it. Nothing could be further from the truth! However, an event recently happened to me that has caused me to rethink my attitude and perspective on the subject.
A few days ago I had dinner with my wife and a friend of mine that ended in my wife storming out of the restaurant after a heated discussion about race turned ugly. My friend, who considers himself to be a ‘good’ white person was chagrined. As a good white person myself, I was also chagrined. This resulted in a heated discussion between my wife and I a couple of days later when she got around to talking to me again. After reflecting on this, I have had an epiphany of sorts about race and racism. For it occurs to me now that the central issue of racism in America and why it continues to resist resolution is not about what we know or don’t know. The central issue of racism is about what we can never know.
I have been on this earth for north of half a century. I have seen and experienced many things. I have read many things. I have written some things. In all of that, I have experienced racism both directly and indirectly. I thought I understood it. But I don’t really. Not because I haven’t tried, but because no matter how much I try, I will never know what it is like to be black. No matter how much I read about it; no matter how many movies I see about it; no matter how much I think or write about it; there is nothing other than actually being black that will ever make me fully understand what it means to be black.
What I do understand is this: if you are white and poor you can, with some luck, become white and not poor. If you are black and poor, you can never become white and not poor. The blackness will follow you no matter where you go or what you do. There is no escaping it, even if you are amongst other black people. To be born black in America is in some sense to be born cursed: cursed to be considered a menace; cursed to be sexually objectified; cursed to be considered less intelligent or capable; cursed to be considered a thief; cursed to still be worth only three-fifths as much, if at all; indeed, cursed pervasively in innumerable ways. And the most insidious curse of all is that there is nowhere to go to escape it.
Good white people can choose not to cross the street when a black man strolls their way, but the urge to jump is still there, embedded by brainwashing since birth. Good white people can treat black people as if they are equals without being sanctimonious about it, although it requires some effort and they have to think about it. Good white people may even understand that black people do not naturally know how to dance or sing, even though the media likes to reinforce endlessly that trope. Or the shucking and the jiving, as the not-so-good white people and the media types call it amongst themselves. Indeed, the white people, good and bad, who make up the vast majority of our entertainment media complex have written and produced many stories about what it means to be black. But then these are not really stories about what it means to be black personally, but stories about the place that good black people should inhabit in white society. After all, black people have no need for these stories because they already know what it means to be black. They were born that way. Black people in America learn their place early if they want to survive.
So what are good white people to do if we can never understand what it means to be black? Do we need to watch more movies about the atrocities that white folk have inflicted on blacks so that we tut-tut more indignantly about it? Or to read more books about the experience of being black so that we can pretend to understand, even though we really can’t? Given that the voices of the oppressed have always been missing in history, then we do need those things. But they have to be stories written by those who experience it directly, using their voice, in the ways they need to relay it. Stories about the oppressed edited for delicate white sensibilities do not interest me. Stories about the oppressed written by and for the oppressed do.
So as a good white person you do need to open your eyes to all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which American society reinforces racial codes and stereotypes. And the best way to do that is to listen objectively and non-defensively to their stories. But at the end of the day all you simply need to understand this: to be black in America is to strive endlessly for the one and only thing that white people inherently take for granted. To be not born cursed. It is as simple as that. Blacks are not trying to steal white power, or steal anything at all. They are not asking for handouts or special advantages. They are not seeking a favored status or for their lives to matter more than others. They merely want to inhabit the same space that the white community inhabits: the space to be judged solely on that which they can change. Nothing more, and nothing less.
In September of 2013, I wrote a blog post in which I labeled Syria as the proverbial canary in the coal mine with respect to global warming. Here we are, almost exactly two years later, and I see that Syria continues in that canary role; this time with the mass migration of people seeking escape from what has become an untenable situation.
Ten years ago, the world witnessed the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina and the mass migration of as many as a million people looking to escape the storm, many of whom became refugees in their own country as a result of literally having nowhere to return. With Syria today we are witnessing the mass migration of millions of people seeking to flee a civil war in which global warming arguably played a role. So what can be learned from these events?
First, as the oceans and drought eat away at the places where people can live, there will be a steady trickle of economic refugees who will seek to relocate, similar to Syria when drought-stricken farmers were forced by the thousands to abandon their farms and villages. This migration will intensify as global warming ramps up. Fully half of the world’s population currently inhabit areas that may be literally too hot for humans to survive within the next couple of centuries. Where will all of these people go?
As with Syria, most of these people will be moving to the cities in search of food, water, and work, and we witnessed how explosive that situation became. It only took the mass migration of 15% of Syria’s population over a five year period to set the stage for civil war. In other areas of the world, hundreds of millions of people may be forced to migrate over the next century as conditions worsen in their respective regions. Can the world’s cities sustain that much influx of population? Can the infrastructure support it? Considering that, as with Syria, many of the areas that people will be fleeing from also represent where the food is being grown, how will these people be fed? How will the current urban inhabitants be fed when the farmland floods or dries up?
Secondly, as we are observing now and observed with Katrina, there will be relatively sudden mass migrations caused by events both natural and man-made. With Katrina, the people displaced by the storm fled into neighboring states to seek shelter, stressing many of the communities that took them in. With Syria, some four million people have fled the civil war to seek asylum all across Europe, stressing countries across the region. With Katrina, most of the population was able to trickle back as the region eventually rebuilt, but many elected to stay where they landed. Will the same happen with Syria’s refugees? Are the rich countries of Europe and North America prepared to periodically handle repeated and sudden influxes of refugees as events like this become more common?
Although anything can happen in the future, I believe that the current refugee crisis can provide some insight as to what may unfold over the next several decades. First, in general terms, the steadily increasing migration of people dislocated by the effects of global warming will stress the urban centers to which they will go in search of food, water, and work. At first, the urban centers will be able to absorb—and in some cases even welcome—the influx of refugees. However, over time, and as the flow of migration relentlessly increases, the urban centers will slowly become overwhelmed, particularly as they become resource starved as a result of decreasing water and food supplies. As with Syria, this can suddenly reach a tipping point and quickly degrade as more and more people seek to make due with less and less. Within the relative confines of the urban environment, cultures will clash. The haves will be under increased stress to defend themselves from the have-nots. Authority structures will become as stressed as the food and water supply. At some point, overwhelming hopelessness may lead to general unrest, rioting, and civil war.
As the world’s stress level slowly rises with the global temperature, there will be more Katrina-like and Syria-like events as the frequency of large destructive storms increases, and civil unrest boils over into civil war. This will cause sudden influxes of refugees into already stressed regions, possibly pushing them into civil unrest. There may be a domino effect as regions collapse. Democracies may fall to be replaced by authoritarian regimes. There may be regions of anarchy where no one has control. This may result in the release of nuclear and biological weapons, further increasing the world’s stress level and resulting in more waves of refugees. Fundamentalism and nativism of all stripes will be on the rise as entrenched populations seek to defend themselves from the ever-increasing influx of asylum seekers. There will be calls to close national borders. Large groups of people will be placed into internment camps. Atrocities will ensue.
On a global scale, trade barriers and protectionism may once again rise as nations feel the effects of resource shortage. Some nations may feel the need to militarily protect assets that exist in other nations, leading to civil unrest and open war. China may cease to exist as the cheap manufacturer of the world, with reverberations felt throughout global supply chains. Without closely linked trade to facilitate a global community, nations will have less need to be friendly to one another, laying the ground for increased hostilities and outright war.
The Asian block may be the first to crumble under the weight of over population and limited resources. The vast fisheries that feed this area will run dry as ocean-wide fish stocks collapse from over production. It will join the Middle East as a mass exporter of refugees as rising oceans and expanding desert claim some of the most fertile farmland in the world. The borders between India and Pakistan, and North and South Korea will be especially war prone, considering that at least three of these countries have nuclear weapons. The old saber-rattling over disputed territories between China and Japan may intensify into open conflict.
The rich countries of the west will eventually feel the strain. European countries will continue to absorb refugees from the mid-east and Asia as the populations of these areas flee starvation, unrest and civil war. This will cause a resurgence of nationalism along the European fault lines and old rivalries will return. As southern Europe becomes inundated with refugees and water, this will cause increasing stress on the European Union and possibly cause it to fail. Unified Europe may eventually disintegrate back to the warring factions that monopolized world events during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Countries that were staunch allies a few decades before will be tempted to war over diminishing resources as half of the world’s species become extinct.
The United States, in particular, will suffer as large numbers of displaced citizens flee the increasingly uninhabitable South and mid-West. The record drought that encompassed much of the U.S. in 2012 will become the new norm, and large areas of formerly productive farmland will be abandoned as people flee to the cities in search of food, water, and work. There will be more Katrina-like events, and this may result in other areas that are simply abandoned because the resources will not exist for reconstruction. This may lead to areas of anarchy within the U.S. that will require the deployment of the military. Once the precedent is set, the military will be used to supplement or even replace local authority in other areas. Authoritarianism will rise in the U.S. as Americans seek safety in the sacrifice of civil rights, as they do now. The definition of ‘terrorist’ will continue to broaden, as will the ranks of political prisoners. Many of the fruits of complex civilization that people take for granted now, from a reliable Internet, to reliable sources of electricity, water, and food will be seen as luxuries. Most will be forced to live a simpler lifestyle of limited means and options. Tent cities will become the new norm as American refugees struggle to relocate. The very rich will be able to wall themselves off for a while, but this, too, will eventually fall…
Can all of this be blamed on global warming? Of course not. What global warming represents is the tragedy of the commons writ on a global scale. It is a stressor that will increase the intensity of strife by creating civil unrest where harmony may before have been possible, and elevating civil unrest into civil war. It will break systems that are currently stressed, and stress systems that currently are not. However, we are not obligated to follow this path, and we can stop business as usual if enough of us try. Global warming is merely the fuel of the fire; the more of it we have, the hotter the fire will burn.
Note: for a discussion on the evolutionary basis for consciousness, please review part one of this series.
No other species in the history of this planet has been so fascinated with its own reflection than humans. No other species has been so self-conscious in relation to its reflection than humans. No other species has ever given a voice to its reflection, or dialoged with it, or told it to shut the hell up.
To be human is to constantly talk to yourself. Usually not externally, but internally through conversations we have with our “internal voice,” with which we plan, plead, bargain, and perform many of the same dialogs we would with another person. But why is this so and, more importantly, why is this important in terms of adaptability and survivability?
Imagine a creature hiding in a bush, trying to figure out the best way to attack another creature as a source of food for survival. Now imagine two creatures in the same bush with the ability to communicate so that they can collectively figure out the best means of attack. In which of these scenarios is someone more likely to eat tonight?
Now, let’s take one of the creatures in scenario two and internalize it, so that creature two is always there for creature one to discuss and plan with. Is this “combined” creature more likely to eat than the separate creatures in scenario two? Probably not, because these separate creatures still bring individual experiences and the ability to work as a team that may be of collaborative value to the task of acquiring food. But it is still better than the creature in scenario one. In other words, being able to plan with an internal self is better than having no one else to plan with at all.
There are many species that have adapted to being able to work in teams for the betterment of the collective. Wolves are a popular example, but so are dolphins, elephants, certain species of the big cats, and, of course, primates. But no species has taken it to the level of humans, and this is inarguably due to our ability to communicate with one another; an ability that may be directly related to our ability to communicate with ourselves. In other words, our ability to not only reflect on real world events, but to also the ability to divorce that reflection into its own “entity” with which we can internally communicate may very well be our most adaptable trait, and the one that has allowed us to overcome our biological complexity and become the most successful species on this planet.
But if humans represent the current pinnacle in the evolution of consciousness, then what is next? How may Nietzsche’s Overman evolve? Well, the jury is still out that this high level of adaptability in the form of consciousness is a survival trait in the long game of evolution. Indeed, it is quite possible that, as a species, we may have overshot the optimal level of adaptability and be on our way to extinction. In other words, we may be too smart for our own good.
Consider: not only are we the species with the greatest potential to preserve life on this planet, we are also the species with the greatest potential to destroy it. All of it. No other species in the long history of this planet has ever had that potential. Indeed, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the rate of extinction of other species has been greater than possibly any other time in the fossil record, even the K-Pg event that wiped out the dinosaurs. In that sense, we have become the destroyer of worlds.
Secondly, while our level of consciousness and intelligence have provided us with an evolutionary advantage as individuals, it is our membership in an organization of even higher complexity that has allowed us to span this planet: our civilization. We may be complex organisms biologically, but our civilizations are far more complex creatures, and far more susceptible to change. There is some evidence, in fact, that we have only been able to achieve our level of civilization due to the fact that we have been living in a relatively stable period, climate wise, for the last ten thousand years. A stability that we are actively disrupting.
Finally, while we have not escaped the forces of evolution, as some have claimed, we are the first species with the power to advance it orders of magnitude faster, in whichever direction we choose. Whether it is genetically modified crops, animals, or people, we may very well advance human evolution straight off of a cliff. So this line of consciousness may very well stop with us, and by our own hands. Only tomorrow will tell.
But, speaking of tomorrow, assuming we survive and continue to evolve, and in line with the theme of consciousness, what may the future bring for us?
First, let’s quickly discuss the trend of altering the human form, either biologically or mechanically, called transhumanism. Is transhumanism the next stage in evolution? Given my thesis so far in this series that the primary human evolutionary advantage is the level of consciousness we have been able to achieve due to our intelligence, I would have to say no, unless it advances our level of intelligence and consciousness. Attaching alternate body parts or “purifying” the genetic code are merely enhancements, not true evolutionary advancement.
What about increased intelligence? There is little doubt that, within the next few decades, we will be able to enhance our intelligence, either genetically, biologically, mechanically, or some mixture of the three. But there may be limits to this, or at least a law of diminishing return. For example, if we double or triple the intelligence of our dogs, they may be able to learn tricks faster and possibly achieve some higher level of communication, but that does not mean we will be able to sit down with Rover and discuss the relevance of Shakespeare. At some point a dog will just be a smarter dog, as we will just be smarter humans.
However, if attaining higher levels of consciousness is our primary evolutionary path as humans, what could that mean?
In part one of this series, I discussed levels of consciousness, from purely reflexive to highly conceptual. I also discussed the difference between “seeing” red, “feeling” red, and “being” red. Unique to humans is a state I would call “beyond” red. Our consciousness has achieved a level where we can create versions of red that have never before existed, or may never have existed via natural means. So, the next step might be moving even beyond “beyond” red by creating new realities in which the context of red itself may have a different meaning. Think of the Matrix and the alternative realities that that level of technology would allow. We will not just expand our consciousness in the current space-time continuum we call reality, but into many other virtual space-time continuums of our own design.
In relation to that, our level of consciousness has allowed us to achieve higher levels of complexities through the utilization of language and the ability to collaborate with others to create vast societies. If language is a barrier to increased complexity, then we may evolve ourselves beyond that either in the ability to process higher order symbolic constructs, or even doing away with language altogether and just comingling our consciousness with others or, perhaps, everyone. Indeed, by expanding—or even separating—our consciousness from the underlying biology, we may attain some sort of immortality, although that may stretch the definition of what it means to be human beyond the breaking point.
Finally, we may be able to create brand new consciousness, or consciousness that would never have come into being naturally; a topic I will elaborate on in the next part of this series.
To those who were brought up in the Western tradition of conscience— and who was not?—it seems only natural to think of their agreement with others as secondary to a solitary decision in foro conscientiae [in the tribunal of conscience], as though what they had in common with others was not an opinion or a judgment at all, but a common conscience.
Hannah Arendt, Civil Disobedience
The New York Times had quite an interesting opinion piece the other day concerning the recent trial of Oskar Gröning for crimes against humanity as a Nazi in World War II. Although the author’s commentary is interesting in its own right, it is to the comments section that I would like to address this post; specifically those that believe the German people should not be held accountable because they were merely following the “common conscience” of the time.
In her essay Civil Disobedience, Hannah Arendt discusses at some length the dilemma that people can discover themselves in when they find their individual consciences to be at odds with the common conscience of their society. Do they have a right to resist? Can the right to resist be enshrined in law? What protections from the law do or should people have who choose to resist?
Entwined with these questions, of course, is the moral obligation to resist. If you find yourself at odds with established doctrine, do you have a moral obligation to resist regardless of the outcome? And if you choose not to, can you be held accountable for cowardice or complicitness by future generations?
There are many who say that the German people should be absolved from the Holocaust and other atrocities of World War II, as most of them were merely following the established doctrine of Germany at the time. But shall we give the American slave-owners a pass too? After all, slavery was the established doctrine in America two hundred years ago. People who owned slaves were just doing what people did back in the day, right?
Except that they weren’t. Even two hundred years ago, slavery was nearly unique to the United States amongst most other countries at the time, and there was robust debate within the United States as to the right of one human to own another. Thus, the doctrine utilized by slave owners to reconcile their conscious was not the uniform doctrine in the United States, but merely the doctrine of those who owned slaves and their enablers. The people who owned slaves, and their enablers, did so because they were slavers who thought it was ok to own slaves in contrary to most of the rest of the world. Nothing more.
Likewise, a similar argument could be made against the German people. The Holocaust may have been the “solution to the Jewish question” devised by the Nazis, but it was certainly a solution unique to the Germans, and one for which the rest of the world was aghast once it was discovered. And while the extermination of millions of Jews may have been conducted largely unknown to the majority of the German public, the harassment of the Jews certainly was not. Thus, much like the slave owners, the doctrine utilized by the German people to reconcile their conscience was not some uniform “common conscience,” but merely the doctrine of German exceptionalism, of those who disliked Jews, and their enablers. They may have been caught up in the moment, but it was a moment they heartily embraced, in contrary to most of the rest of the world.
The example of the Holocaust is not something for which the German people of the day should be absolved: it is something that should be forever enshrined in history as an example of the consequences of intellectual and moral turpitude on a grand scale. The Germans followed their path not because they had no other choice, but because they were either morally complicit, or too intellectually lazy to choose otherwise. The true heroes of the German people were those with the moral and intellectual fortitude to resist that in whatever way they could. This may sound overly harsh and removed from the issues of the time, but to suggest anything less is a way of enabling such collective atrocities in the future.
When the war ended and the Germans were freed of the spell of the Nazi party, there was—and still is—much soul searching as to how they could have been collectively complicit in such atrocities. And this is something that will come to haunt Americans, too, when the current torture fever and Islamophobia runs its course, much as we struggle now with reconciling the internment of the Japanese during World War II, or the long struggle of civil rights in this country. But make no mistake: there is no moral cover in following the herd. Either you believe what it believes, or you resist in the means available to you. Where atrocities are concerned, the tribunal of history will make no room for moral ambiguity, collective or otherwise.