Notes on Our Twelfth Meeting — UTOPIA

MONDAY, OCTOBER 10, 2016

It was good to launch into the new year of Old New Way. After drinks and refreshments, as usual, we headed into the living room at 8:30.

1.  Three Levels of Utopia

I started us off by recounting what I had clarified for myself while reading and reflecting on the theme of utopia over the past month.

I explained that I had come into this topic, back in August, with an unstable notion of utopia as something both universal and yet curiously specific too.

Like most people, I had large-scale dreams of fairer resource distribution, equality of opportunity, ending the release of carbon into the atmosphere, eliminating poverty, establishing peace on earth, all that good stuff.

But I also had small-scale dreams of strolling under leafy trees and across lush meadows with like-minded people, planting seeds together until the sweat dripped off our brows, gathering in houses built by our own hands. At night, I imagined us enjoying rapturous dances to live music, under a full moon. Happy to do my shifts cooking, dishwashing, and helping with the childcare, by the way! That kind of thing.

As I read and reflected, though (I already described some of my process in the Diary post below), I realized that there are actually three quite distinct levels of utopia.

i.

First, there is the level of the “meta-utopia” (the political philosopher Robert Nozick helped me grasp this one). The meta-utopia is the overarching structure of society and government and economics holding it all together. Currently, in the developed world, this structure is called free-market capitalism with varying amounts of a social net, or, more succinctly, “neoliberalism”.

Other models of meta-utopia, scattered around the globe, include: dictatorship, theocracy, socialism, and there are even still some remnants of Communism. A handful of the books that I read invoking utopia (e.g. Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams) insist that, whether we like it or not, we are currently transitioning out of neoliberalism to a “postcapitalist” and “post-work” society, in which the increasing automation of work allows for a basic universal income.

I confessed to the group that on this “meta-utopia” question, I have no idea what structure, if any, would be optimal for the world as a whole.

The complicated questions of how to more efficiently, more equitably, distribute resources, how to minimally interfere with aspirations of human beings all around the world, in so many different geographical and cultural settings, are simply beyond my limited ability to resolve. The United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the US Constitution, the Paris Agreement — all of these are, to my mind, laudatory attempts to organize society on this level. If we combine these global institutions with the careful regulation of the market economy (laws that reign in the financial sector, pharmaceuticals, monopolistic entities, etc.), does all of this, in fact, constitute the best of all possible worlds?

Probably not.

Maybe we could do better?

I’m honestly not sure. (Makes me think of Churchill’s remark that “democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others that have been tried.”)

Would a universal basic income, as proffered by the New Left, provide a more optimal meta-utopia? The more I thought about it, the more I found I have concerns about the unintended consequences of this “post-work” vision. How does it change incentives? What would people do with their time and energy? The truth is that I have concerns with our current politics AND the alternatives.

Over all, then, I realized that — shocking, I know (terrifying to Setenay, I am sure) — I have nothing definitive to say about this first level of utopia.

Well, there is one universal change I would make. I would lean, of course, towards discouraging supernaturalism and “faith” talk of all kinds (aka religion), since I think these outdated ways of thinking cause many more problems psychologically than they solve. So perhaps that is one meta-utopian modification I would make if I could: I would actively establish a global institution, not unlike the ICC,  with the mission of protecting freedom of conscience worldwide, against the imposition of supernatural claims by states or individual actors.

Other than that, I’m not sure what to dream for the world as a whole.

ii.

But then there’s the second level of utopian thinking. Here we come to the small-scale, more enchanting utopias that we all conjure up to comfort ourselves on bland or otherwise hard days.

I shared with the group that when I feel adrift in our technology-driven, consumerist nightmare of 21st century life, I find myself drawn to a primitivist sensibility. I long for the way I imagine the Ohlone or Miwok Indians lived in these same hills, under these same oak trees.

We might call this second level “local utopia.” I acknowledge, though, that my own quirky vision of a limited, local community, living harmoniously with nature, has no more weight than another person’s vision of an urban community, full of flashing lights, psychotropic enhancements, free love and jangling voices. To each his or her own. Even my wife and I would not agree on this one (she wants symphonies; I could get by on birdsong).

Recognizing this diversity of local utopias, I see how important it is that our meta-utopia enables each of us to pursue our more substantive dream as far as possible. Think Tom Cruise and the Scientologists. Think surf bums. Think militia groups in Texas. In the U.S., with a certain degree of privilege, you are pretty free to do this. But that’s a big caveat, as many do not have the time or resources even to consider it.

iii.

Finally, I concluded, there is a third level of utopia: the immediate. We might call it “inner utopia.”

This is what emerged for me, spontaneously, when I put a pencil to paper on the day before the meeting. It doesn’t have anything to do with structure of society as a whole, or even the schedule of who plants seeds and who cleans up in our local communal garden. It is a matter of mind, rather than place.

Here’s what came out of me when I sat down to write. To my surprise, it took the form of a poem:

UTOPIA

Fair fields and wood-beamed halls

Sandy roads, leveled by hand

To each according to each according to each

Generous helpings for all

These are other people’s utopias

Mine is smaller

It is your back

It is your wrist

It is us having

Just a little more time

Before we die

Now when I think about utopia I will think of it with a little more clarity and ask myself, first, which level of utopia am I considering: meta, local or inner?

2. Utopias Around the Room

Next, we went around the room and heard a little of each member’s utopia.

Claudine started. She presented a transparent sphere, illuminated from within by light violet and orange and pink glowing lights. When we looked more closely, we saw a female figure floating in the center of the sphere. Claudine said this was her utopia.

At first I thought she was saying this satirically, as in, “We can only find utopia when we are alone and removed from all contact with other people! Just let me float silent and alone in my crystal sphere!” That’s not what she was saying, though. Claudine explained to the group that the object she brought in was a positive one in her mind.

It represented the serenity and peace that she feels she needs to find first, if she is to find utopia. To Claudine, then, the project of utopia begins with the “inner” level.

Dean pointed out that all governments, all campaigns — to cut to the chase, almost all human activity requires utopian thought. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, for example, are unmistakably utopian documents. (The Port Huron Statement is another one that comes to mind, as I write this.)

Dean worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Bernie’s calls for a less wealth inequality, more fairness, free higher education for all, single-payer health care, definitely invoked utopia. Even though he is by nature a skeptic, Dean admitted, he nevertheless finds himself drawn to fighting for specific goals. The future matters.

Marie-José and Renée both mentioned that their Catholic upbringings had largely soured them on utopian thinking. They both associate the word “utopia” with heaven — in opposition to hell. Since this whole dichotomy strikes them both, ever since they were young, as ridiculous and destructive, talk of utopia has these unfortunate connotations too. To them, as recovering Catholics, the world is a place of nuance and adjustment and daily commitments, not idle fictions that will never be achieved.

Setenay said that her utopia would have to apply fairly and equitably to ALL people around the world. She is suspicious of the effort to conjure up local utopias that do not take into account people in the world who cannot afford to dream. Start with resources. Get people food and water and basic medical care first, before you step off into First World la-la land and talk of meditation centers and ritual dances. She is a meta-utopian, we might say.

Florence had written in to say that addressing climate change, for her, supersedes all utopian thought. Get the planet fixed, make sure humanity survives the next century, and then we can talk more specifically about how we live. But the control of carbon and other toxic chemicals has to inform how we think about the daily patterns of our lives.

Eliana, visiting from NYC, mentioned that she and a few friends have been focused, recently, on the challenge of moving from eros to agape, that is, the challenge of broadening possessive, “romantic” love to a more inclusive, compassionate love. Her utopia would be a psychological one, in which we broaden our capacities as primates, and thereby improve our species ability to co-exist. This struck me as very close to John Lennon’s emphasis, in his post-Beatles solo work, on love and its transformative power. It involves “inner” utopia, no doubt, but moves quickly to questions of local and even meta utopia…

Anshu spoke of her struggle to find utopia among the hurly-burly of life. She thanked Claudine for her sphere, saying that it moved her. And she stressed the need for personal agency, calling Renée a strong example of that.

3. Conclusion

By the end of the evening, I felt good. We had comfortably and safely talked about our dreams for a better world, and as far as I know, no one had been made to feel embarrassed.  We had revealed some of our private wishes.

That, to me, felt like the right place to start: talking to one another, openly, about how things might be better.

It occurred to me, after the meeting, that utopian thinking is by its very nature a collective enterprise. It’s hard, if not impossible, to do alone. So the task I had given the group, to bring in a representation or expression of your own utopia, had the order reversed!

If we were ever to get serious about utopia, clearly we would need to form a separate group, dedicated to this idea and nothing else. We would have to spend at least a year, maybe more, just talking, freely and unabashedly, about our dreams before we even agreed on the first rule or sanded down the first wood beam.

Thanks for coming, everybody. Please add anything I forgot in the comments.

See you next month!

Notes on Our Thirteenth Meeting — SECULARISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS

THURSDAY, JANUARY 5, 2017

As the meeting began we talked a little about Charles Taylor’s book, A SECULAR AGE. But we quickly moved on to more personal reflections on how we feel about living without supernaturalism.

1. The Many Different Paths to Meaning

Claudine spoke up to tell us about a conversation she had recently with a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley. He argued forcefully that all meaning reduces down, ultimately, to the question of power. The rest is just idle talk. “Who are you, living in imperialist America, to waste your time with discussions of secularism and the supernatural while people are dying from your government’s abusive policies in the Middle East?” he asked.

This reminded me of Soviet ideology in its heyday. A “New Soviet Man” proudly rejected the attenuated, bourgeoise intellectualizing of the West. He avoided abstract questions about “meaning” (separate from specific historical circumstances), in favor of “praxis.”

And I was right! It turned out that Claudine’s interlocutor was, indeed, Russian and had spent his formative years in the Soviet Union.

We agreed that this unnamed anthropology professor’s approach — seeking “praxis” and looking to power as the primary lens with which to determine one’s meaning in the world — is one of many possible approaches to living in a secular age. Even Obama seems to hold a version of this, when you consider the sacrifices he has been willing to make in the name of “passing the baton“.

Others include:

  1. Art Appreciation and the Pursuit of Beauty
  2. Tourism/Adventure
  3. Physical Risk-Taking (free diving, wingsuit flying, river rafting, etc.)
  4. Dandyism/Fashion (i.e. self-presentation)
  5. Free Love/Sexuality
  6. Athletic Training/Competition
  7. Pursuit of Excellence (chess, spelling bees, handicrafts)
  8. Nature-loving
  9. Social networking
  10. Consumerism
  11. Awards/Recognition
  12. Ecstatic dance

…and many more.

I confessed that none of these is my single-minded path to meaning. Yet I do have a yearning for some kind of solace, something that would help me navigate the bare and often brutal facts of daily life.

As it is, my closest approximation to a path is an insistence of the importance of… love. I wondered if this is a residue of my upbringing, which was influenced by my mother’s early exposure to the themes of love and forgiveness in Christianity.

Is love enough?

(I also used to have the “civic religion” of the American experiment to hang my hat on — “that all men are created equal,” “the last best hope of earth, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” “I have a dream,” and all that. But Trump’s election, and my resentment at the voters, and my concerns about human beings’ obvious cognitive flaws, to put it bluntly, have complicated that one. I’m sad to say that I am now far more skeptical of democracy as a source of meaning than I used to be.)

2. Does Our Secularism Have Discontents?

Yann asked everybody in the room to raise their hands if they sometimes yearned for something other than the brute and bare facts of daily life, as I had just confessed that I do.

To our surprise, only Setenay and I raised our hands! The other 10 or so in the room sided with Yann in affirming that they do not seek anything beyond the material/natural facts of the world — what Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” This world, this life, is enough for them.

Yann elaborated a little on his position. Generously paraphrasing a toast I gave at a dinner party years ago, he said that he sees our “tiny planet” as precious place in a “vast, cold, impersonal universe.” And that vision, fixed in his mind at all times, is enough to flood him with curiosity and appreciation for what we have.

Jaimey explained that, having grown up as a child in a hippie community, with a non-religious father and a Buddhist mother, during a skeptical time (the Vietnam war dragged on), he has never looked for more that what is. Jaimey also mentioned that he thinks that his father’s habits as a therapist shaped his response to the world; he finds himself approaching problems in terms of a process and not looking for a definitive answer.

For Jaimey, then, the process is the answer.

A number of group members suggested that they turn to “nature” for all the solace they need.

Florence revealed to us that the relentless focus of our Old New Way discussions on the needs, relationships, and values of human beings, increasingly bores her. She sees humans as only one animal amid a panoply of life-forms, including plants. And she wishes that we could shed our obsession with our own human minds and bodies and learn more directly about the plants and trees and grasses and algae and plasma that surround us.

I pointed out that we too, as a particular species of primates, are part of nature. Moreover, our particular modes of thinking are unavoidable — however hard we try, we will never think like trees. (As Florence pointed out, the time scale of a tree, for one, is so removed from ours.) But it goes both ways, I added: they can’t think like us either! So I said that while I appreciated Florence’s intention, to my mind the renunciation of a human-centered approach is folly. We are stuck with ourselves, whether we like it or not.

In this regard, I mentioned what I consider the folly of the poet Robinson Jeffers’ famous “anti-humanism”,  a worldview that, unfortunately, pervades his poetry. Jeffers consistently denigrates human beings, while gorgeously and memorably praising the rest of the natural world. But this is, as far as I can tell, simply the inverse of the Great Chain of Being assumptions that he grew up with. (His father was a Christian minister. Oedipus complex, anyone?) I urged Florence to resist trying to rank us against the natural world, either way. Humans don’t belong on top, sure. But neither do we belong on the bottom.

3. Nature as the Go-To Source of Meaning

Yann mentioned a recent hike to a mountaintop with his son when he felt a communion with nature.

Natalie mentioned how, as a birth doula, she made a point to embrace a giant redwood tree outside of Alta Bates hospital in order to ground herself before each childbirth.

Anne talked about a powerful experience she had once hang-gliding off a cliff in Marin, when a hawk flew alongside her as she landed.

Setenay mentioned that she feels a deep, unspoken connection when walking among redwood trees, even though she only saw one for the first time at the age of 27.

But again, this connection to nature, as powerful as it is, struck me as only one of many possible paths to meaning. Nothing wrong with it. Certainly, it is a tranquil and non-violent form of communion in most of its expressions. (Hunting is an exception.) But is it really enough for them?

I wondered aloud whether the passion and centeredness and feelings of love and communion that Yann, Flo, Nathalie, Anne and Setenay (and all of us) feel in the connection to nature are not so unlike the passion and centeredness and feelings of love and communion that members of ISIS feel at the end of the day when they sit down for tea in their compound in Syria…

After all, their limbic responses to their sensations of comradery are natural too as human beings. Isn’t the attachment to a mountaintop or a tree or a hawk gliding in the air operating on a similar neurological basis as the attachment of a jihadi to his fellow jihadis? Life-form to life-forms on this tiny planet.

And if we can’t make useful distinctions, then don’t we come crashing back to the brute and bare facts of this world all over again?

4. Meaning as Practice… or Manipulation?

Ken spoke of his experiences years ago on a kibbutz in Israel. He admitted that despite the moving times he had, in the end he could not commit to the supernatural beliefs of Orthodox Judaism. Hence he felt it was time to move on. Jaimey pointed out that even in a religious setting there will always be varying degrees of belief among the members. So religion can be seen as more of a practice than a belief system. Certainly, Reform Judaism, or the Unitarian Universalist Church, or Buddhism all take this more open-ended approach.

For Claudine, though, all of these religious traditions, even in their most moderate forms, are effectively manipulating people’s natural limbic needs and desires. She felt exploited by them when she was younger. Anne mentioned that she did too, and that was why she refused to attend church as a young girl despite her mother’s angry insistence. Jaimey tended to agree that this is what religions do, even in their moderate forms.

5. The Analogy to Romantic Love

I shared my friend Oliver’s recent suggestion that a religious commitment may not be that unlike the experience of romantic love. It is not subject to refutation or rationalization. It represents a surge of energy in one’s limbic system, and survives on that basis.

How I long for my limbic system to “light up” in the way that I have experienced romantic love, but in a larger context than a single couple! The ecstasy produced would be almost unbearable. Despite my resistance to supernaturalism, I do sometimes envy the limbic ecstasy that religion provides its followers. Even while I agree with Claudine and Jaimey that they are being manipulated.

So I am therefore left at an impasse: I want something “bigger” than the quotidian facts of my life, something to hold my suffering and inspire me in moments of frailty, but I don’t expect to find it. I want more than the social, the constructed, the fleeting and ephemeral, whatever it is we happen to generate while we “follow our bliss.” Yet I am too skeptical to subscribe to any unitary perspective on meaning (no New Soviet Man or even Burning Man acolyte, I). Even more than that, I see any such exclusive commitments to be damaging and stifling. The desire remains, though, even while I know it cannot be satisfied.

6. Imagine

At one point I shared with the group that in preparation for this meeting I had been reflecting on John Lennon’s much adored anthem for atheism and honesty, “Imagine.”

I told the group that after so many years of tearing up to this song and singing along in the car, I had only in the last few days realized that John Lennon let a flaw into it, a lie. “You may say I’m a dreamer,” he sings…

“You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will be as one”

Up until the last line, I am with him entirely. And I would like so much for even that last line to ring true!

But of course the world will never “be as one.”

We are diverse. We have conflicting interests. We have different taste, different agendas, different ideas. We will organize around passions that do not sit well together.

He may be right that world would be improved if we lived with “no possessions” and “above us only sky,” but it will never be unified by any one point of view. The truth is that this is a problem that cannot be resolved… because the problem/non-problem is our existence itself. (Jaimey’s turn to accepting the process as the answer comes to mind.)

7. Living in the Body and not the Brain

The hour was getting late, as another poet of our time would have it.

Nathalie, on her way out, remarked that the discussion was too “heady” for her. “I live more in here,” she said, gesturing with both hands down the length of her body. (Alas, as interesting as our discussions are in this group, I would venture that we all feel this frustration at times. It is so hard to speak to one another with our hearts fully open.)

Walden spoke of “stopping the chatter” of his mind and living with more of a direct connection to the world. This, he said, would also help him live his moral mantra to “not act like an asshole.” The chatter, in his view, leads to assholic behavior.

Towards the end of the meeting I played a song, Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee.” After the song ended, I described how on Christmas day, with my wife Renée dozing on the sofa next to me by the fire, I had played this song on an old crackling LP.

I had felt touched by Muddy Waters’ representation on the guitar of the meandering, key-shifting buzz of a honey bee. I had also felt touched by the sadness underlying the singer’s acceptance of his “honey bee”… when she comes back home after making honey in so many places without him. The song seems to live in a space beneath the chatter. It definitely speaks to the body as well as the brain.

8. Some Questions Facing the Old New Way at this Juncture

We concluded with a brief conversation about the Old New Way as a reading group. After two and half years, where do we go from here?

Earlier in the meeting, of course, most of the members present had admitted to having very little interest in my desire to find and refine a non-supernatural language through these discussions. I had thought that we were in this together! But it turned out that for Yann and the others (with the possible exception of Setenay, and perhaps Don?), these meetings simply represent an opportunity to discuss intellectually substantive topics with like-minded people. For all they care, these meetings could be about calligraphy, as much as about love or utopia. The point is that we share a secular worldview, but unlike me they don’t feel a need to explore the ramifications of this worldview in terms of meaning and action.

So in some sense this called into question the nature of our group. Am I, as the organizer, alone in my Quixotic quest to find and refine a non-supernatural language of meaning for our present day lives? Does the rest of the group merely look onto my efforts with bemused affection? If so, does that realization steer us in a different direction? Or do we carry on as before?

We broke up in good spirits. All good inquiries.

It was nice to have Walden and his son, Alex, stay for a bit while I was putting away dishes. We spoke of suffering. As usual, Walden was not an asshole.

Notes on Our Fourteenth Meeting — THE LIVING PLANET

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2017

The Possible Hypocrisy of Our Professed Love for Nature

I launched us off by talking about the constant tension I feel between my desire, on the one hand, to have the living world matter, really matter, for me — as a sensual experience and as a source of emotional and moral guidance — and then, on the other hand, my guilty sense that I will never stop exploiting its resources.

Don and Yann sat near me on the sofa, which is covered with the skins of multiple cows. A fire burned behind me, which happened to be fed by gas… but I confessed that I have no doubt that if it demanded logs I would happily throw another onto it when the flames grew small.

Sometimes my rapture about nature, and our insistence on our deep embeddedness in it, strikes me as… obviously hypocritical.

“Aren’t we like SS officers,” I asked, “sitting around our bunker in the death camp, talking sentimentally about how much we love the sacred singing of those inmates in House #13?” We love nature in a sentimental way, while all the time we ruthlessly exploit it.

Yann spoke up to say that this ignored the many gray areas. Yes, we exploit nature, and we always will. But as our awareness grows of our interconnectedness we can do just a little bit better to treat the living world with respect and care. The abuse of the orcas in Sea World is coming to an end in the U.S. because public awareness was raised. Many of us purchase cage-free chicken eggs, even at an increased price. We do not clear-cut forests in as many places now, but rather, like the author of The Hidden Life of Trees does in Germany, we devote ourselves to considering how best to maintain eco-systems (well, until Trump reverses all that).

“So I get it, you’re saying we are not so much SS officers,” I answered. “We’re more like… the low-level Polish guards standing in the snow. They do what they can to sneak a crust of bread into the hands of an emaciated inmate, making it just a little bit better, while still earning their pay.”

The hypocrisy still troubles me (all unfortunate Holocaust analogies aside). Which is it? Do we want to open ourselves to nature as equals, or do we want to persevere in our primate-based habit of dominance?

After all, I pointed out, we like dominance; we can’t deny it. We like scoring a winning goal in soccer. We like it sexually, sometimes (to varying degrees). We like the thrill of power when we accomplish something significant in a public arena. Would we really ever be willing to abdicate that aspect of ourselves in order to maintain a more harmonious and equitable relationship with the living world?

Death and Vegetables

Don talked of how he struggles with this question of power on a very personal level. Already a vegetarian for some 30 years, he even wonders about the ethics of eating vegetables! This started when he became aware that the needs and vitality of plants are not as different from our own as we like to think.

In response, I shared with him an excerpt from a book by Dorian Sagan, Death & Sex, (brought to my attention by Setenay) in which Sagan describes how our very mortality is bound up in our shared evolutionary history with plants. Sagan eloquently points to how we are all bound up in a cycle of birth and death, so even as Don eats a plant he can recognize that he too will be “eaten,” disposed of, turned back into humus someday. It goes back to the process of sexual reproduction, which require that the “older generation” becomes unnecessary once sperm meets egg (or archegonium, as the case may be) to create new life.

Sagan points to the earliest fossil record of sex:

“The oldest ejaculation in the fossil record occurs in the Devonian, 408 to 363 million years ago. The paleological preservation of the salacious scene is reminiscent of the erotic frescoes of erotic paintings preserved at the village of Mount Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius. Long before humanity, the earliest preserved ejaculation took place among a member of the Rhyniophyta, a phylum that contains the first land plants, which began to diversify some four hundred million years ago. The act was caught in flagrante delicto by chert, fine crystalline quartz with an uncanny ability to preserve fossils. Algaophyton major is one of the most common plants in the volcanically preserved Rhynie Chert, named for the nearby village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Early in the colonization of land by plants, and before the evolution of true leaves, the fast-setting minerals preserved a host of petrified plant, fungal, lichen, and animal specimens. (Animals evolved earlier but came to land after plants.)

“Since sex usually occurs in water, it doesn’t tend to preserve well. But in one four-hundred-million-year-old silica-rich deposit local changes in pH remobilized some of the silica, leaving behind thin films of the original organic material. In the specimen the chert beautifully preserved the plant’s delicate archegonium (from goni, Hindi for ‘sack,’ akin to yoni, Sanskrit for ‘vagina’) — the female sex organ. Another sample of rock, sliced thin and observed with a microscope, shows Aglaphyton’s antheridium, its male sex organ — filled with sperm cells ready to explode. Here, preserved by chance, with neither compromised actors nor moral qualm, is a geographic equivalent of the ‘money shot’ of pornographic films — an ejaculation event 140,000 times older than Homer’s Odyssey, 400 times older than the human species, and almost as old as the appearance of animals in the fossil record.”

Detailed preservation of sperm ejection from sporangia in the Rhynie Chert fossil

Sagan continues:

“The sexual reproductive cycles that got swinging not even a billion years ago, brought with them a frightening complementary motion, the switching from side to side of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. With meiosis came mortality because going back to sperm and eggs eventually meant discarding those trillions of somatic cells that, although having brilliantly served their purpose, were not directly represented in evolution. And with reproductive sex came programmed cell and differentiated body death, because evolutionarily our bodies are husks, biodegradable reserves of valuable bioelements that belong to the ecosystem and must be returned, like overdue books, after performing their natural duty of keeping going the larger energetic process. Personally, as intelligent animals, we identify as individual bodies. Although easier said than done, the mystics advocate a larger view in which we identify with the cycles of natural energy-transforming forms, as well as release from such cycles, which they call nirvana. Creeping behind the bright prospect of Mesozoic ginkgo-sniffing reptiles, primeval ejaculators, and the first fragrant flowers was that dark figure, the inevitability of their demise. A melancholy note was struck in the cosmic love machine [underlining added].”

Setenay read aloud Sagan’s conclusion that our involvement in this cycle of sex and death has a consoling spiritual aspect:

A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.

Or as David Abrams puts it, in his Becoming Animal:

“As an omnivore, an eater of the flesh of plants and sundry animals, willing to taste almost anything… I find myself entwined in a great gift of economy, wherein each life partakes of other lives and gives of itself in return… If we ingest the land’s nourishment not only through our eyes and ears but also through our hungry mouths — chomping leaves, seeds, and muscles with our teeth, moistening them with our saliva, and swallowing them down into our depths, incorporating the world’s flesh into our own — it can only be so because we too are edible. Because we, too, are food.”

Does that make you feel any better, Don? The knowledge, as you chomp down on a piece of broccoli, that you will die too?

What It Takes Truly to Appreciate Nature

In talking about his own relationship with the living world, Ken mentioned Martin Buber’s writing on the value of moving from an “I-It” relationship with nature to an “I-Thou” relationship.

He had previously sent to me by email this excerpt from Buber, which I will include in full now:

Notes on Our Fifteenth Meeting — DEPRESSION

THURSDAY, MARCH 23, 2017

We had a lively meeting. Considering the personal nature of our topic this time, I won’t give my usual dramatic rendering of our back-and-forth discussions.

Instead, here are a few of the areas we covered…

1. Depression as Both a Challenge and an Opportunity

Some members of the group spoke of their own or their family’s experiences with depression, and how it presents at once a challenge and an opportunity.

When you finally recognize depression for what it is, they agreed, there is a kind of relief to be had.

You have to accept that it is not likely to go away, this shadowy character (one member even gives her depression a name: “Demetrio,” a dangerous, handsome, dark-haired figure, always trailing her and looking for vulnerable moments to step into her life. She likes him but knows to keep him at bay).

Instead of trying to abolish depression from your life, these members explained, you learn to cordon it off, control it, anticipate its attempts to insert itself. Perhaps, too, you learn to avoid its familiar means of access, like alcohol or lack of sleep or poor nutrition.

One member spoke of making it conscious (so far as possible) and willfully turning his back to it, all the while knowing that at times he might have to face it again to subdue it.

Some spoke of learning to recognize its lies, particularly its false certainties about the utter emptiness of life or… their own shame and failure. “Ah,” you might say to yourself when your thoughts begin to gravitate towards a particularly brutal assessment of life or yourself, “I have heard that before!” You learn to discount the language depression uses to draw you in.

One member spoke of how she has actually learned to love her capacity for depression. Acceptance, in her case, does not require passive resignation. Instead, she has learned to celebrate the wide-ranging emotions given to her by depression. She plays “big,” as she put it. So she has learned to think of her depression as more than a threat, but as something that is the shadow side… of a part of herself which she cherishes. She wouldn’t want it any other way. It just requires more vigilance than for some who live with more of an even keel.

2. Depression As Seen From the Vantage Point of… Infinity?

Should depression be understood as a heroic struggle for Meaning in the face of the infinite abyss?

Or should be understood, to the contrary, as merely a frustrating set-back and time-suck in a person’s admittedly finite life, something to be given no particular value (or no more than, say, shingles)?

I suggested that the ways we talk about depression seem to fall into one of these two camps.

In the first camp you have Tolstoy’s Confessions (which Setenay summarized for us), or the “dread” of the existentialists, or traditional religious narratives of sin and redemption through faith. At least since the early 1800s we have the popular conception of the moody, shaggy-headed genius, heroically resisting the conventions of society or the world, at a cost.

George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2).jpg

Lord Byron, depressed genius.

In the second camp you have William Styron’s and Sylvia Plath’s memoirs, both of which are descriptive of a grim ride down to the rock bottom… pretty much without redemption. I mentioned in this context that perhaps I like Kafka so much because he doesn’t give his protagonists a heroic stature when he depicts their despair and disorientation. Yet somehow he makes their narrative arcs compelling to his reader anyway. Deeply depressed himself, he manages to straddle this gap between the heroic and the mundane.

3. Social and Cultural Aspects of Depression

We talked at one point about how different cultures, and different generations within cultures, have developed different norms around depression.

Jaimey mentioned how first-generation Holocaust survivors generally resisted speaking about their experiences. Yet as we see in the documentary Shoah, when pushed by the filmmaker’s insistent questions, they finally can be made to break down emotionally. Is anything gained by making them talk in the face of such pain — other than satisfying our prurient interest?

The filmmaker in that case faced criticism for pushing them too far. Yet…their sons and daughters and grandsons and grand daughers often seek talk therapy to enable them to emotionally process their family histories. Is one approach right, and the other wrong?

Setenay talked about how some Armenian survivors of the Turkish genocide, particularly those still living in Europe, preferred not to speak of it, while their American children (in a group she attended) actively sought to put the pain and suffering of that experience into words. What is perceived as good for one generation may not be perceived that way by the next.

This brought us to a discussion about how depression has been feminized in American culture, so that men are often depicted as stoic and silent… but rarely labeled as depressed (Florence brought up Nicholas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas as an exception to this). We talked about how it is surprising that there are so few words for such a nuanced state: “melancholia” being one, “anomie” another, “ennui,” “malaise.”

It seems to be difficult to speak about — words fail. We are just scratching at the surface of our understanding of this aspect of experience.

4. The Relevance of Childhood Trauma or Loss to Adult Depression

Some members of the group spoke of painful events in their childhoods, and how these events continue to drive their darkest times.

Yet some of these same people noted that, at a certain age, they were able to distance themselves from it. “That was not me, and it had very little to do with me!” they tell themselves, and a great weight lifts.

Whether through geographic distance — moving to another coast — or simply through the passage of time, some people are able to adjust their focus to keep those old neural networks from lighting up too brightly.

I mentioned how in The Crack-Up F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of refusing to hold a “sad attitude towards sadness” or a “tragic attitude towards tragedy” — instead drawing a bright-line distinction between the hardships of his life and his own self. After coming across it a few weeks ago, I have found this observation useful for my own life. Since then I have reminded myself on a few occasions not to over-identify myself with my circumstances and the daily, hourly emotional responses I have to them. This is of course part of the practice of Buddhism, as well as aspects of all religious traditions (“turning it over to God,” etc.).

Some in the group who had enjoyed happy childhoods spoke of the opposite challenge: not so much trying to establish a useful distance from childhood trauma but, rather, trying to find ways to cope with the relentless, almost banal accumulation of suffering as we grow older.

In this respect, I admitted that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, and his struggle to bear up under the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” didn’t speak to me at all as a younger man. “What is this guy’s problem?” I thought to myself. “Why would anyone want to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’?”

Yet as life has gone on, I can relate more. At least I understand now what Hamlet is asking. How are we to deal with our suffering? When does the burden become greater than the reward? These are unquestionably valid questions at 48; they seemed silly to me at 18.

5. Achieving a Clarity of Understanding 

Some members pointed out that understanding itself may have quite important role to play in the avoidance of depression

Not only can people start to recognize depression’s language and familiar means of access, and hence tamp it down when it tries to poke its ugly head into their lives. More than that, some suggested that clarity of understanding can sometimes turn depression into something more akin to grief. It makes our response to suffering a manageable feeling as opposed to an intractable condition.

For some, the capacity to clearly understand and articulate the sources of suffering, when they were children, helped them to order it and contain it and overcome it in later years. For one member, it wasn’t even her own understanding. It was her friend’s extraordinary clarity at the time of her death that brought a sense of gratitude and peace, which would have been otherwise difficult to find.

We talked about how in an evolutionary sense perhaps depression has a distinct purpose. Maybe it functions to… slow… us… busybody… bipedal primates… down. To shift our attention away from our usual daily tasks towards more large-scale problems of existence in a longer time-frame. Maybe this is useful on some occasions.

In a fascinating way, when it comes to depression it seems that what goes on in our heads directly impacts our neurochemical state — and the reverse as well. Our heads and our bodies are working in such complicated ways together that it is not possible, sometimes, to distinguish where one begins and the other leaves off (ok, don’t say, “The neck?” — you know what I mean).

6. Taking Leave

As it got to be 11, we had to leave the discussion there.

Thank you to all who came and shared your reflections. What a rare and valuable opportunity to discuss some of the more unpleasant aspects of life with an open-hearted and open-minded group of friends.

See you next meeting!

Notes on Our Sixteenth Meeting — THE FUTURE

THURSDAY, APRIL 27, 2017

The future is scary these days! That may explain the smaller than usual turn-out at this meeting devoted to contemplating it.

There were only seven of us sitting around the room. It was cozy, though, and we had a good talk.

1. Jaimey’s Critique of Yuval Noah Harari’s Shallow Thinking

Jaimey got us going by launching right away into a withering critique of Harari’s Homo Deus.

He maintained that, throughout the book, Harari relies on a kind of verbal slight-of-hand to put across a rather limited and superficial thesis.

Above all, Harari wants to assert that our familiar ways of thinking about ourselves are obsolete and failing us. To aid this thesis, Harari must insist that the mainstays of our usual understandings of our relationship to the world, little things like “consciousness,” “free will,” and even the unified “self,” have been revealed to be fictions — lies!

It follows from this that humanism (and its expression in the political sphere, liberalism) are no longer helpful organizing systems for our time. According to Harari then, we are on the verge of a brave new world which will require new fictions, new mythologies (he suggests “techno-humanism,” “dataism,” and the like).

To Jaimey, however, Harari’s bold contention is mostly bluster. The unified “self,” Jaimey assured us, has not been eradicated… because it was never assumed to be unified in the first place!

Harari insists that from the time of the Enlightenment on, many philosophers in the West have fixated only on the self as a utility-maximizing, rational agent, and have therefore ignored the emotional and expressive and changeable nature of our experiences. But that is laughably ignorant as a potted intellectual history of the West, according to Jaimey. “If Harari had even a passing acquaintance with German intellectual history,” Jaimey explained (and here, imagine his voice lowering into a soothing, Chomskyesque tone of disdain and dismissal), “then he would recognize that the dialectic between the Enlightenment and its critics has always been far more complicated than that.

“Even Kant would never have insisted that the self was merely a rational agent!” Jaimey stated, his eyebrows rising cheerfully.

It is this straw man (of the blinkered Enlightenment thinker), Jaimey continued, that leads Harari to make so many egregious errors throughout his narrative. For example, he groups 20th century fascism under the label of “evolutionary humanism.” Jaimey considered this an obvious error.  For Nazism and fascism unmistakably represented post-humanism, in that they ignored the irreducible self of the person in favor of the single characteristic of “race.” They are, we might say, textbook examples of post-humanism. After all, Jaimey observed, even a “genius Jew,” to a Nazi was still sub-human and considered unfit for civilized society.

But Harari’s telos requires him to see humanism as engaged in its “religious wars” in the 20th century; in other words, as just another “fiction” that emerged as a means of social control. So it would be deeply inconvenient for Harari to acknowledge that, in fact, a fierce commitment of many millions of people across the Allied world to process and fairness and individual rights stood firmly against this threat at mid-century. Certainly it would complicate Harari’s catchy narrative about the fragility of this “fiction” of humanism.

Jaimey also pointed out that for all of the trending news items and memorable sociological studies he plucks out of the internet, Harari ends up contradicting himself at times. At one point, for example, Harari concedes that nobody really understands “consciousness” yet. So how can he then proceed to draw conclusions about how our belief in it has been, or has not been, shattered?

In summary, Jaimey felt that most of Homo Deus is not much more than a kind of extended, improvised vamp, leading up to the admittedly difficult questions he poses in the last chapters. Those questions, Jaimey noted, are indeed disturbing and real:

What should the role of technology be in the future, considering that it is rapidly displacing human beings from their sense of being useful?

How far can we go with neuro-chemical enhancement and digital interfaces before we find ourselves unrecognizable?

2. A Skeptical Lens on the Enlightenment

Responding to Jaimey’s critique, I brought up another book that I read in anticipation of this meeting, The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. There are certain parallels in this book to the story Harari tells in Homo Deus about the development of humanism and the legacy of the Enlightenment.

Both see the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individuality and reason and the rule of law as having fostered an unprecedented material boon for humanity. Both also see this new, ostensibly egalitarian/materialistic/hedonistic life as having creating enormous dislocation and anomie.

Yet whereas Harari sees the “fiction” of humanism as only recently becoming outdated by advances in neuroscience and data science, Mishra sees it as having been oppressive and unstable all along.

The Age of Anger focuses on the way that the Enlightenment creates resentments among the majority who adopt its aspirations… but have no means of satisfying them. This deep tension in liberal democracy, Mishra argues, arose from the very beginning of the 1700s.

Mishra traces a counter-Enlightenment story (from Rousseau to Herder to Fichte to Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to Marx to Weber to Freud to the Futurist poets to Nazism to ISIS… and even to Trump voters). And he argues that this counter-Enlightenment wave is actually cresting in the present.

As the disorientation and furious change caused by liberal, democratic, individualist, consumerist society sweeps the entire globe, people everywhere, on every continent, are beginning to be consumed with the same violence and chaos that overcame Europe in the 20th century. People are angry because they feel shut out from the traditions and values of the past… while also feeling shut out from the future! There is only the volatile present.

The elite, Mishra points out, from Voltaire and Catherine the Great to Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, still triumph, even in a supposedly egalitarian, liberal model of society. Their vaunted philosophy may sound good rhetorically, but most people get left out all the same. So the disenfranchised turn to group identities, authenticity, order — all the ingredients of fascism and authoritarianism. Mishra notes in this context that Rousseau’s ideal society was the city-state of Sparta.

I explained to the group that this thesis, too, struck me as relying on a slight-of-hand, a reductionist approach not unlike Harari’s. For just because a moneyed and privileged elite emerges out of liberalism and capitalism, doesn’t mean that the whole Enlightenment project was and is a charade, does it? The principles of individual rights, equality under the law, free inquiry, and so on, enshrined in slogans like “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” are (pace Marx) not mere bourgeois propaganda.  Neither were they meant to occupy the entire ground of meaning in people’s lives.

They are procedural guides.

They were — and are —  as far as I understand them, simply intended to point the way towards a process by which people can create meaning for themselves in the most unobstructed way possible, without interfering with other people’s efforts to do the same. Liberal democracy can definitely be charged with hypocrisy and multiple and ongoing failures to create well-being, but that is not the same as suggesting that it is a scam. It may be deeply flawed and the best thing we have going.

Jaimey agreed that Mishra is following a telos in his book as well, and this requires him to see the Western Enlightenment project in a very skeptical light (after all, Jaimey pointed out, Mishra is writing form a post-colonial vantage point — and it is no doubt a necessary corrective to the blithering paeans to democracy and liberalism offered up by neoconservatives and the American media).

In order to point to the future, both books take a narrow and teleological view of the past. Perhaps this is unavoidable when trying to see ahead? You have to use one kind of lens or another?

3. More on the Question of Elitism

Our discussion of The Age of Anger led us into an extended discussion of elitism.

I argued that there are multiple definitions of “elite,” and the use of the same term for all of them leads, unhappily, to confusion. There is of course the moneyed, privileged elite — think Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, the guest list at Mar-a-Lago, etc. But then there is what I think of as the “intellectual elite” — academics, policy experts, writers and scientists and artists.

To my mind, people on the Left often conflate the two, and as a result they sometimes… pour out the baby with the bath water, as the saying goes.

Hillary Clinton, for example, certainly has ties to both kinds of elites. But I would argue that her policy prescriptions, and likely her deepest commitments, are closer to the intellectual elite, whom most of us admire because they espouse roughly the values of liberal democracy. Despite her failings, Hillary probably does mean what she says when she talks about wanting equality and rights for all. She actually does want individuals of all stations and creeds and cultural traditions to be granted dignity, and given equal access to economic opportunity. Perhaps she doesn’t go far enough (free college tuition for all?), but when she doesn’t, to my mind, these are largely matters of degree and policy debate. Thus her ties to the economic elite (her own wealth, her speeches at Goldman Sachs, her resistance to seeking criminal prosecution of Wall Street after the crash of 2008), though real, do not represent, as far as I can tell, a nefarious attempt to bilk everyday men and women. In other words, it isn’t a scam.

Yet people let their frustrations about the rise of an “elite” make them cynical and even hostile towards liberal democracy as a whole, and often repulsed by the very people like Clinton who are its champions. My take is that, yes, there is a huge illiberal surge, just as Mishra suggests, and it is accurately represented by Trump supporters. But there is also a huge surge of people holding firm to liberal democratic values — expressed, for example, in the rapturous reception given by urban, privileged people (broadly speaking, what we might call the intellectual elite), to the musical “Hamliton.” Think of it as “Hamilton America.” It is strong too, perhaps even stronger than the atavistic forces of the Bannonites. Both of these forces are surging and powerful, at our present moment. That’s why I think that, despite its many failures and frustrations, we need to stand squarely with this liberal democratic culture, even at the risk of being associated with an “elite.”

Setenay suggested that before we try to impose our “Hamliton America” ( multi-cultural, pluralistic, liberal, democratic) values on the other half, we need to deliver for them in practical and economic ways. They need money, and access to jobs, and dignity. To this I answered: We can do both, can’t we?

But Setenay wasn’t that sure that these universal values can even be addressed before more fundamental concerns. What strikes her as more important than talk of values is to assess honestly where the power lies (I think of Lenin’s succinct question: “Who, whom?”). Yann took this argument up, saying that the reason that Trump voters have the views they do is actually because of inequality. Systemic inequality has led to poor education, discouragement, a cultural coming apart for many. No assertive, well-nourished, self-satisfied elite, talking about liberal democratic values of inclusion and tolerance will make a dent on the Trump base, without first creating more equality on the ground. The problem is circular, and it feeds on itself.

All of us agreed that the solutions are not obvious. Some of the forces are so big — automation, globalization, the dispersion of “fake news,” drug epidemics — that it is difficult to know how to counter them. Even where we can, it is increasingly difficult to get the elite to care (here is where there is certainly some overlap between the moneyed elite and the intellectual elite).

Yann is optimistic that even the most craven Mar-a-Lago denizens still want to live in a healthy and sustainable economy, and hence worry about the “unwashed masses,” to some limited extent. But he frets, too, that it used to be that the upper echelons of society actually needed the buy-in of majority of the people, for the simple reason that they required a large military and a productive workforce. In our digital, high-tech world of drones and robots, with the army and the workforce receding as felt needs, what will be the pressure, other than vague anxiety for the future of the country, to force the elite to care?

4. Claudia’s Timely Arrival

We were graced with the arrival of Claudia, who spoke directly to her experience working with people who face the raw end of the economy. She mentioned how many of the people she works with in the Alameda unified school district definitely feel a hard ceiling on their ambitions to rise in life. As a result, they are, as we would expect, resentful and angry.

She knows one Latina woman, for example, who voted for Trump for the simple reason that he promised to “make America great again” (this woman, Claudia reported, already regrets her vote). This one individual case seemed to me to support both sides of the equation! The problem of elitism is real. But the problem of misguided and even ignorant values in the ranks of the non-elite is real too. These two problems are intertwined, if not intractable.

5. Predicting the Future is a Fool’s Game

We ended the evening speaking briefly about our own visions for the future. I tried to stay away from describing a personal utopia (we had already done that at our Utopia meeting). Instead, I tried to describe what I think will actually occur…

Surely this kind of prognostication is impossible to do with any confidence, but what trends do we see magnified in the future?

I told the others that I tend to throw my hopes in with the eventual triumph of liberal democracy and socialist-leaning capitalism, once again (as it did in Europe and Japan after the disruption of the two world wars). With this hope in mind, I spun out an admittedly rosy scenario, in which the current upsurge of ressentiment described by Mishra resolves by, say, 2037?

Those many millions of people whose traditional cultures have been jettisoned and even assaulted by liberal, democratic, individualistic, consumerist values, will, I think, discover, over time, that new values do take root. Just as in present-day Sweden, or Australia, or Argentina, so in 20 years or so, will the people of Indonesia, and Nigeria, and Bangladesh learn to absorb a new, pluralistic, dizzying, sometimes confusing, but ultimately open-textured and liberating outlook on their lives. They will form reading groups to forge new meanings in this unsettled and unsettling world. Likewise, those in the already developed world in the West, who have watched resentfully over the past 20 years as their unfair and disproportionate share of the resources has slipped away, will learn to dial down their consumerist expectations. They will learn to accommodate themselves to what Thomas Friedman famously called the Flat World.

Oh, and the whole science of climate change turns out to be wrong! So there’s no ecological catastrophe. Wouldn’t that be nice. (Okay, my prediction ended up being a utopian vision, despite my best efforts to keep it neutral.)

Claudia spoke movingly of a future where a new set of values emerge, values which celebrate the “emotional life” of each person, as opposed to a combative, “compare and despair,” zero-sum game we presently find ourselves playing.

Setenay rejected my regulated capitalist/liberal/accommodationist utopia. She predicted that with the introduction of a basic universal income, and the expansion of health care as a right for all, the world will shift to a more communal model. Some private property rights may remain (you own your own house, for example), but after the “Rise Up” Revolution of 2026-32 there will be far more active redistribution of wealth, leading to increased opportunities.

In the end, we decided that we really don’t know what the future will bring. As Setenay pointed out, there will likely be “non-linear” events, such as an astroid creating an electro-magnetic pulse knocking out all communication satellites, which will set the world in a direction nobody could anticipate!

6. The Future of the Old New Way

As for the future of this group, The Old New Way, my inclination is to wind it down for the present.

We have had three years and a total of sixteen meetings. Sweet sixteen. Each one to me has proved invaluable. I find that I am clearer, three years later, in my thinking on so many questions that I had at the outset of this group.

I can also say, with pleasure, that the group has introduced to me at least as many questions that had never occurred to me before.

Thank you all, my friends, for participating, for pondering, for laughing, for debating, for dreaming.

With love and hope for a beautiful future, for as many people as possible,

Tom