We’re all earthlings

“Looking at the Earth (from space) for the first time, … you realize that hey, we live on a planet. We’re all earthlings. The only border that matters is that thin blue line of atmosphere that blankets us all.”

– astronaut Nicole Stott

 

At a period when polarization and nationalism seem to be increasing around the world, I feel the need to keep pushing for a more inclusive view of humanity. I heard Nicole Stott on the radio this morning, and thought I’d pass along her quote. Also, see:

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” – Carl Sagan

 

Red States versus Blue States: Who Would Win a Civil War in the U.S?

“Nearly every government that goes to war underestimates its duration, neglects to tally all the costs, and overestimates the political objectives that can be accomplished by the use of brute force.”   

– The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs (source)

 

Last week congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, created yet another controversy by posting an image on social media that asked whether red states or blue states would win in a second U.S. civil war (the clear implication is that the red states would). Understandably, King received a lot of criticism for this, for contributing to a political ecosphere that is already steeped in heated rhetoric, in which real political violence has been on the increase. King has since deleted the image, but he is not alone. With anxieties and polarization growing, talk of a possible second civil war in the U.S. is still relatively rare, but I can’t recall another period in my lifetime where I’ve heard it with such regularity. Even Stanford’s Niall Ferguson has written about this.

Others have opined on King’s glibly pondering civil war as a sitting member of Congress, the fact that he overlooked the fact that his own state is “blue” in the image, his transphobia, or his timing (the post came just a day after a white supremacist killed 50 people in New Zealand mosques). I’d like to focus on the idea of “winning” a civil war.

First, a step back. The way that we initially frame a question has a big impact on our thinking. As the linguist George Lakoff wrote around the time of the First Gulf War, “metaphors can kill.” To frame war solely in terms of winning and losing (ex. an image of two boxers) does a great disservice to what actually happens during wars. Lakoff continued: “It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and in a war, they could afflict tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of real human beings, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or American.” Certainly, the same suffering would apply to a civil war in the U.S.

In a similar vein, the former war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote in his book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” that we should distinguish between “mythic war” and “sensory war.” Mythic war is deceptively seductive, offering people the chance to participate in some great noble cause, though people’s justifications may vary (to defeat evil, for freedom, for party, for God, for country, for one’s ethnic group, to avenge past wrongs, etc.). Mythic war’s perennial appeal resides in its apparent opportunity to help people find meaning by contributing to something potentially historic and bigger than themselves, particularly for the marginalized and for those who have struggle to find meaning in their lives. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.”  

By contrast, sensory war refers to the on-the-ground experiences, the fear, the atrocities, the “blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents,” ultimately revealing that – quoting Harry Patch – war is “organized murder and nothing else.”

 

Historical Lessons: How Destructive Would a Civil War Be?

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Thinking of Nebraska in a Blue State

Like always, I’ve been following all of the good and bad stuff in the news. Under the latter category, I’ve been thinking of the people in Nebraska who were affected by the “bomb cyclone” that hit there a few days ago. There’s a lot of bad in many places around the world, but I’m focusing on Nebraska right now because it’s been called a “historic” and “monster” storm, creating both devastating floods and a blizzard that have displaced an unknown number of people.

I do have another motive for highlighting Nebraska, and that is because it is known as one of the reddest of the “red” states in the U.S. By comparison, I live and teach in one of the most consistently “blue” areas of the country (and I guess I am personally more blue than red). But note that in reality, most states are purple. Anyway, this is a bit personal, but today I donated to one organization with the specific intent to help people in Nebraska.

I’ve never been to Nebraska, and off the top of my head I can only think of one person I’ve ever met from there. I’m not wealthy, and it wasn’t a lot of money. Nor am I looking for praise. Rather, I was just hoping that if I made this public, someone somewhere, maybe Nebraska, might see this as a tiny symbol of good will from a blue area of the country at a time when this country is so polarized.

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The Mindless Menace of Violence

Robert F Kennedy made this speech “The Mindless Menace of Violence” on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination. I pasted some of his words below, which are, sadly, as relevant as ever. We still have a long way to go. I know that this blog is tiny, and that it won’t make a dent in the massive, coordinated campaign of anger that exists online. These sentiments won’t reach the right people, and will persuade few minds. I’ve been online long enough to know that most minds are already made up, and some will find RFK’s words naïve at best, and at worst worthy of contempt. But I think they are necessary.

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Hate Seeps In

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

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In 2014, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann conducted a cross-cultural study of people with schizophrenia who experienced auditory hallucinations, such as hearing “voices.” Not all people reported having the same experiences, however. People in Ghana and India said that their voices tended to be positive and benign, even playful and entertaining, and that these voices often came from God, spirits, or family members. By contrast, Americans said that their voices tended to be more violent and hateful, and they were more likely to perceive the condition as a disease. Luhrmann proposed that Americans’ emphasis on individual autonomy could predispose them to seeing voices as an “intrusion” on their self, whereas Ghanaians and Indians were more likely to interpret their voices as relationships. 

The point is that culture can have profound effects, even for a condition like schizophrenia. There is a tendency in a biomedical model to perceive health and diseases solely as physiological conditions, but it is important to remember that we are situated in a grander context beyond just the individual body. Something similar may happen with inebriation. As Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton wrote: the way that people in any society “comport themselves when they are drunk is determined not by alcohol’s toxic assault upon the seat of moral judgment, conscience, or the like, but by what their society has taught them” (1969: 165). Just as patterns around alcohol consumption itself may be socially molded (how much to drink, and where and when), so is behavior while intoxicated. There is no single way for a brain to respond to schizophrenia or intoxication; rather, they are influenced by the ecology of ideas in which they find themselves. Ideas seep in.

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The Centre Will Hold. It Has To.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

-William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

 

 

To a large extent, this blog has been an exercise in finding reasons to be hopeful about humanity. I’ve written about finding perspective even during periods of death and loss, about finding commonality even during times of war, about reconciliation after conflict, about the evolutionary unity of humanity, about the logic of cooperation, about altruism in other species, about the complexity and flexibility of human biology and behavior, and the fact that we are not fated to war and conflict. I even tried to cling to the idea of truth at a time when some are promoting discord and confusion.

I have to admit that it’s hard to find much of that optimism right now. As a kid, I used to think that the world would always get better. Previous generations were racist, held slaves, and committed genocides, but they did those things out of ignorance. My generation was more enlightened, integrated, and tolerant. Then as a young adult, gay people started to gain more acceptance, and it seemed like progress was inevitable. With the rise of the Internet, I thought greater connection would mean wider sharing of views and greater empathy and tolerance, that those anonymous strangers “over there” would become real people who weren’t all that different from ourselves. I thought the best ideas and truth would rise to the top. It seemed inevitable.

Now I think I was profoundly naïve. I see a world succumbing to division and the intentional, cynical fomenting of hatred. I see people putting selfish interests that hurt the many for the benefit of a few. I see cruelty and malice being portrayed as virtues. I see vulnerable people being disregarded, left out in the cold, and painted as the scum of the world. Children are being thrown in camps.

Powerful people don’t relinquish their privileges easily, and they often prioritize private profits over the greater good. They sometimes deem people expendable, including entire groups of people. Now I see the Internet as not inherently bad or good, but a tool that can be manipulated, either bringing people together or splitting them apart. White supremacist movements, including neo-Nazis are growing around the US and Europe. Inequality has grown. It is all pretty depressing. I haven’t given up hope completely, but things seem pretty bleak right now. Keep fighting the good fight, everyone.

samwise

 

 

Where have all the soldiers gone?

“When will they ever learn?”