Archives for category: The Golden Path

Just as I thought life might return to its former level of roller-coaster hijinks, a pubescent Bambi look-alike left off reading Russian literature just long enough to decide that life was no longer worth living. This paragon of quadrupedal excellence made a lightning-fast decision: death via the right-hand side of my bumper and hood was preferable to facing another post-modern deconstructionist essay on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It was one short leap for Bambi, and one comparatively simple calculation involving a 1134kg of car moving at 80.5kph before braking madly for ~.5s (call it -~8kph?) resulting in a simultaneous giant headache for me and a giant leap for Bambi. To the right, off the hood of my car. (Bambi’s leap was augmented by about 5700 N for anyone curious)

All of this has given me an interesting and mandatory look into the economics of automobiles, and through that a look at some of the problems that have become systemic in the U.S. (probably elsewhere too.) I need not be a scholar of Marx to tell you that capitalism is insane. However, rather than diverging into a useless rant on how communism is a superior economic system and that the lumpen proletariat will rise up against the Imperialist oppressor and the state will wither away and we will all be borne away to paradise in the arms of our new-found communist paradise… Not only has it been taken care of already by countless other dewy-eyed students of liberal arts colleges, (UCSC represent!) but plenty of other people as well, (hi, Vladimir Iyich Ulyanov.)

This is the kind of thing that runs through my head lately. We have to be able to make the distinction between the theoretical model of a system that exists in an ideal vacuum and the reality of it as we have implemented it. So of course that means that I have to be able to make that distinction when I speak or write about the subject to avoid raising the hackles of the rabid defenders of the various economic models. Not that said rabid folks are really even that much of a problem in the grand scheme of things; they at least care about the topic, even if they have invested a comparatively small amount of time and effort into educating themselves about the subject.

No, the biggest hurdle is the mass of people who are ignorant and ignorant of their ignorance. None of these folks is necessarily stupid–but if nobody ever educated them in critical thinking, economics, and government, they start out and will likely remain easily led sheep whose fervor can be nurtured by sound bytes and directed by aesthetically pleasing and vapid talking heads to vote however is convenient for the people with the most money and the least scruples. Unfortunately it seems as though even those people who are interested in doing the right thing are generally drawn into the game, joining the arms race that they are all but guaranteed to lose.

I doubt if any amount of angry, angsty undergraduates is sufficient to change the world if the world is coasting along on its own course and constantly receiving reinforcement in the form of ignorant or apathetic people whose ability to think critically has been starved or beaten into submission by human necessities like a place to live and food to eat–and a job in the present economic system to provide them. The youth of the world sees that the sleeping mass needs waking, but what they cannot wrap their heads around is that the sleeping mass probably did not start out asleep, but more than likely gave churning through the morass of activism a shot and gave up in disgust.

My message to the young (as I am SO elderly myself) is this: do not make the assumption that all you must do is make people aware of something to suddenly trigger the same epiphany you are undergoing. That is easy, emotionally satisfying, and almost completely useless. The project that will make a real and lasting difference is going to involve hardship, discomfort, and misery. We have to push the roots of education through the artificial barriers thrown up by unscrupulous politicians, moneyed interests, and people who have given up and would rather cherish their comforting illusions–treating the symptoms and not the disease.

Even if someone could overthrow the U.S. government, completely dismantle all of the corrupt portions of it, and maintain an absolute mandate by force of arms or popular support–it would last only so long as that unifying force kept it going. The answer is not revolution and destruction but re-imagining and education. Perhaps you will attack me for being too vague. My response is that walking this Golden Path is like walking any other; it is a task that must be undertaken by many and not by only one. There surely will be trailblazers and people who will scout the ground in advance of the main body of civilization, but each individual person must learn to keep their eyes open and carry the responsibility for recognizing the blazes, checking their maps, and putting one foot in front of the other safely.

The fix is not a hero or heroine who will save us from ourselves, show us where to step and coddle us to protect our illusions. The solution to our problems, and indeed most human problems, is for individual people to educate themselves to the point where they can predict the results of small changes in their choices with a fair degree of veracity and use critical thinking and communication to combine their individual efforts to solve difficult human problems. That sort of rampant individualism that claims that everything must be done by the individual is not only nonsensical but actively retards this process, to the benefit of amoral people.


Part 2:Well then, what now?

(Read Part 1 here, a short essay on the aftermath of 9/11/01)

If I may, I would like to preempt the criticism that might be brought to bear against what I said in, “Remember, But Be Thorough” by reminding readers that the first step in solving a problem is becoming aware that it exists. Unless some form of heretofore unknown prescience lurks in the gene pool of homo sapiens and an equally unknown capacity to come to infallibly functional and comprehensible conclusions does likewise, it would seem that our particular branch of the primate tree is inextricably bound to do things the hard way. Fortunately for us, we have evolved to the point where the disinterested universe and its wasteful and bloodily meandering cycles of reproduction no longer represent the only available route.

In the absence of a proven superior method, the arduous and time-consuming work of figuring out how to move ourselves forward falls to humans. The first task that must be undertaken is figuring out what we ought to want. After that, we must ascertain the limitations reality places on our ideal. Lastly, we must apply ourselves in the task of making the two intersect, focusing our attention primarily on working to find ways to bend the latter in the direction of the former in spite if the difficulty of that path and the beguiling artlessness and ultimate futility of its antithesis.

In the end it will remain more effective to wrestle cultural and social reality into confluence with our commonly professed morality than to enlist ourselves into an endless succession of conflicts fought within the microcosm of the individual while armed only with the clumsy instruments of governance. Leave the transformation and salvation of the souls of man to those who are content to profess a belief in them, and spend our limited resources in the pursuit of those goods which are detectable and demonstrably extant in the reality we share.

It is the position of myself, and I daresay all secular humanists, that the result of spending of $100 to save the life of a child from preventable illness is superior to that of $100 spent on reassuring that child’s parents that their beloved youngster is in a better place now. Until the presence of a soul can be confirmed, I remain of the opinion that an evidentially grounded sense of responsibility for the common good of mankind’s living, breathing bodies, and active minds is superior to one based on the presupposition that the world we know is a sham.

Pursuant to this collection of notions, I have decided to label this post and the first with the category, “The Golden Path,” in allusion to the writings of Franklin Patrick Herbert, Jr. wherein the characters Paul Atreides and his son Leto Atreides II use their prescience to predict the possible future downfall of humanity. Obviously I am not possessed of the abilities of the Kwisatz Haderach and neither is anyone else at least thus far. Obviously the point of my invocation of Herbert’s work is not to say that we need to desperately begin searching the galaxy for a source of spice melange–but I think that there are definitely things which a thorough read of the Dune epic can grant us which will be of significant assistance.

So let me break out the old literary analysis toolkit and begin to sketch out a rough and ready reading of the Dune epic, at least as it relates to the topic of what humanity and more specifically America, ought to be working at. The “Golden Path” that Paul “Mua’Dib” Atreides and his son Leto II chart out is the result of prescience, or more specifically developed in response to the existence of it and their possession of it as a consequence of a multi-millennial breeding program involving the Navigator’s Guild, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, and the Mentats–three powerful and influential groups possessed of unique powers granted to them by the incredibly rare and precious spice mined on the planet Arrakis.

Arrakis is a profoundly harsh desert world whose lethality is matched only by the stark beauty of its sands and the relentlessly tough self-sufficiency of the planet’s human population, the Fremen. It is the single place in all the galaxy where spice can be found, and as such is a place of inconceivable value to the Human Empire. Much like the colonial South Africa and its diamonds or perhaps colonial Iraq, the planet is dominated by a powerful group granted supremacy over the land by agreement of the Emperor and the Noble Houses of the Empire, (loosely analogous to the colonial powers of Europe), and brutally segregated between marginalized Fremen and workers and the stunningly wealthy nobility.

While the setting itself could support its own interpretation, the long and the short of it is essentially that spice is a kind of ‘X factor’ that unlocks potential in humans and changes them in a manner consistent with their effort. Arrakis is therefore the hub about which the entire Human Empire turns.  It provides the Spacing Guild’s Navigators with the means to transform themselves into misshapen but potent creatures that can “fold” space with their minds and move the giant ships that allow the Empire to maintain its cohesion. It helps the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood to gain access to a kind of “genetic memory” of all past human women as well as granting them The Voice, which is a sort of quasi-mind control which can compel obedience from those who hear it, depending on the strength of the Sister and the willpower of the individual. Lastly, spice melange grants the Mentats phenomenal cognitive powers ranging from eidetic memory to rapid synthesis of huge amounts of data including lightning-fast calculations.

All of these groups benefit additionally from significantly extended life expectancy, and suffer to some degree or another from spice addiction. In light of the dark period in endogenous history during which sentient machines nearly annihilated humanity, spice addiction is a small price to pay for these sorts of replacement for various technologies. The system works. People live their lives in relative peace, the government generally functions, and trade occurs. Here is where we begin to come back to the original thrust, having done a somewhat frightfully shallow skimming of the basics–allow me if you will to enjoin you to partake of the series itself and of my future exploration of its corpus. To put it as simply as I can, humanity in the Dune universe has begun to become stagnant. The familiar primate drives for love, sex, territory, power, safety, and resources have ceased to propel the species forward.

Humans have become reliant first on spice, and second, on special and powerful groups like the three I have mentioned to take care of business. Paul and his son are the rare inheritors of both prescience and what is called the, “no-gene” which shields them from prescience. The “Golden Path” to which I refer is the end result of a determination to avoid the final destruction of humankind by an unknown enemy who might possess the same sort of prescience. The curious thing which separatesDune from most tales and Paul and his son from most heroes is that Herbert’s dystopian future narrative is decidedly ruthless in its egalitarian approach.

While Paul Atreides is lucky enough to be the scion of one of the Empire’s foremost families, in the first novel his family is thoroughly betrayed by one of their most trusted servants and the entire house sans Paul and his mother are slaughtered essentially to the last man, woman, and child. Furthermore, if one takes the time to explore beyond the initial book, we realize that Paul is in fact not the Kwisatz Haderach and is in fact only a partial success and the result of his mother’s deliberate disobedience to the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s orders in the face of her love for Duke Leto Atreides. Mua’Dib himself comes to his power not by being granted a special magical sword, by being the ‘chosen one’, or by inheriting a position of power and privilege that he eventually becomes worthy of during the story.

If I must summarize in brief, Paul is completely cut off from his privileged nobility and thrust into the lethally harsh landscape of Dune, and is forced to earn his way into the equally demanding company of the Fremen. He receives no special magic, makes the acquaintance of no luckily placed bearer of profundity, and has no particular advantages to start with. His prescience is the source only of confusion and fevered dreams until he puts forth the massive effort to develop it, doing so only at extreme risk from Spacer Guild Navigators, and while he is skilled in combat, he worked for years to attain that ability and did not suddenly transform from simple farmer into master at arms during of a five minute montage that takes place within two days of endogenous time.

Paul Mua’dib at least, is one of the rarest breed of heroes: the sort whose roots dig haltingly into the basest soil of human nature and grows only by dint of painful and sustained effort. Imperfect and often troubled by it, the foremost hero of Dune neither accepts nor transcends the geas of the ‘destinies’ laid upon him by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, the treacheous House Harkonnen, the Padishah Emperor, or even his own noble family, House Atreides. In spite of and perhaps due to his own human failings, he instead grasps the reality in front of him and accepts the destiny he writes for himself: the tortuous and agonizing path of doing what is right, no matter the price in convenience, comfort, or even life itself.

Having made what might seem a startling number of wide-reaching assertions without citation, I can almost hear the keening lamentation of my many wonderful teachers, professors, and TAs echoing through the aether to my ears. To those formidable persons I direct this brief request for forbearance: consider the previous piece my introduction and this the first portion of exposition necessitated by my choice in allegorical framework. The meat and potatoes will be attended to, and the depths of the texts rigorously plumbed for support. It is just going to take awhile to do properly.

Until next time, thanks for reading.

On this day, eleven years ago, five tragic things happened. Unless you have been residing in darkest Peru, or are of the opinion that the deliberate suicide-murder of 3000 people, (and counting,) was laudable rather than tragic, you know what three of them are. The other two are not as immediately shocking, but are most assuredly worse in their outcomes. First, Uncle Sam went from neurotically wary in the manner of a soldier fitfully battling PTSD to suffering outright psychosis mainlined into the political process by a flagpole drafted into double-duty as a needle by the amoral with the support of the oblivious. To put it more bluntly: there were and are those who saw 9/11 not as an act of terror or an agonizingly inhuman crime of almost incomprehensible evil but as a ready opportunity for the seizure of power and wealth, and they took full and ruthless advantage of that opportunity.

The last and most tragic event that happened in the wake of 9/11/01 was that the American people, the beneficiaries of the first secular constitution in the world, made a tremendous mistake. America, or at least some significant subset of her citizenry, decided that the flag itself was more important than what it represents–we bought into the delusion that expedience is its own moral good. The fact that a large majority of those fastidious “patriots” so vigorously agitating the fabric of the Stars and Stripes in the name of American purity seem to have forgotten that the blood, sweat, and tears Theodore Roosevelt spoke of stain the flag not due to the touch of tyranny but in spite of it.

The scars of war, the blood of patriots, and the tears that result from their falling indelibly mark Old Glory but they do not mar her. Far from it, they serve to evoke the words of Thomas Paine: “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Take up the flag then, and carry it forward, and let your hands stain those sacred folds with your blood, your sweat, and your tears as you return it again and again to the sky and the view of all who yearn for freedom and opportunity. But never forget that it is valor, liberty, courage, and unity that those stars and stripes portend, and be eternally wary of those tepid souls who wrap themselves in a flag that remains bright and clean. Their vehement zeal is for their own interests, and the cloth they bear a facsimile.

It is just this sort of person who in past eras we found gleefully coming to the assistance of Joseph McCarthy, John Hathorne, or Tomás de Torquemada. The ideologies were inspiring certainly, but the truth of the matter is that these men offered the legitimization of self-interest through a combination of nationalistic zeal and religious fervor. These men would counsel us to abandon the probity of our better natures in pursuit of a narcissistic and myopic mythology lifted more or less directly from the obdurately smug babblings which attend the notion that present privilege constitutes absolute proof of preeminence.

I say not in my America. I say that if we oblige these hucksters that the result will in time be that the stars and stripes that symbolize our nation’s character will not even receive the dignity of being rent asunder in conflict, but will be broken up and auctioned off to the highest bidder with the mindless thoroughness a cow lavishes on her cud. I refuse to believe such a wrenchingly abhorrent fate befits the legacy we have inherited from Paine, Jefferson,Franklin, Madison, and the succession of other worthies beyond my power to recall or to recount. It lies within our power to repudiate evil, but it is not a thing to be done casually or in comfort–selling our liberty wholesale in the cause of security is not an acceptable answer, no matter how small the increments it is portioned into.

Now, it is important to note that I do not mean to imply that the entire fabric of American freedom has been dissolved and replaced with the sort of Orwellian autocracy that might bring tinfoil hats into fashion. That would be unfeelingly churlish of someone who has been the recipient of a rather serviceable lifestyle quite palatial in comparison with that of many places in the world. The fabric of freedom still exists in large part, even if it is frayed and obscured in places by greed and injustice. What I intend to attack is the casual languor in the hearts of Americans toward those among us who are only too happy to wrap their own purposes in red, white, and blue camouflage and continue business as usual.

The earthly representatives of Wesley’s “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” are among those who cried out most stridently for bloody vengeance. Apparently there was some sort of misunderstanding with regard to the turning of cheeks occurring between the sermon on the mount and the present day. Equally confusing is the miscommunication regarding loving one’s neighbor regarding the exceptions for those who happen to appear vaguely Middle Eastern. Surely there are sound theological reasons for this that I, as a humble member of the ranks of the ungodly, am simply not privy to in the absence of the Holy Spirit. The important part is that these peaceful fishers of men took their mission to spread love, tolerance, and faith very seriously: love of only those like us, tolerance of any trifles like the loss of freedom, and faith that God is fully behind whatever is most convenient for us at the time.

The political leadership on whom we depend to form an utterly dedicated and relentlessly competent vanguard in the service of American citizens and the essential rights and duties that make our nation worth fighting for were struck similarly by a plague of popular expedience. Whether calling loudly for pre-emptive defense, (better known to most of us as, “attack”,) an end to the threat of terrorism or most importantly, something easily visible and emotionally palatable to their constituents, these radiant exemplars fearlessly went forth to seek contracts for their largest campaign donors and selflessly invested their own money in those businesses they knew would benefit from taxpayer largesse.

These two visionary groups of red-blooded, white, and true-blue (but not blue collar, naturally) leaders provided us the political expediency and the metaphysical sophistries we needed to elevate ourselves into the same august strata as the citizens of Oceania, heroically locked in endless and just war against a fearful chimera the likes of which the world will never see. Blood, death, and fear are acceptable, you see. When they serve the cause of justice–our justice. There are doubtless many more such groups with sardonically warranted titles such as the Religio-Industrial Complex, or the more commonly invoked and now wan specters of special interest groups and super PACs, but enough has been said to give one a sense of the sorts to whom I refer.

The sheer monstrous immensity of the mass-murders that took place eleven years ago today defy any real understanding of their eventual consequence to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives. However, it is not only ludicrous but an actively destructive abnegation of moral responsibility to stop there. If the deaths of those persons who were killed are to have any sort of meaning, we must not let the opportunity to learn our lesson slip away by allowing the unpleasant chill of mortality to deter our rational faculties and our moral rectitude from their purposes.

I challenge you then, American or not, to engage with the horror of terrorism and stay with it in the circle until its blood stains the sand and you can look into a mirror and say with complete honesty that freedom for all humans can never be subsumed by fear, only briefly obscured. The other option is to lower your head permanently to the ground and content yourself that a life lived in acceptance of utter abjection is better than death in the defiance of it. I find this notion contemptible; so long as we are in a position to thoughtfully and responsibly support the cause of freedom, there is no reason sufficient to justify neglect of this most vital duty. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves.