Reflection 160: Of Two Minds

November 23, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Like mocha, human consciousness is a blend of two different flavors, natural consciousness and cultural consciousness. Our biological values, drives, and motives are inherently natural; our language, music, art, learning, and skill sets are largely cultural. Human behavior is an expression of natural values as shaped and calibrated by the cultural affiliations of the actors who perform it. We don’t generally distinguish between the two flavors contributing to consciousness—one the base, the other the medium through which it appears—making the study of consciousness more difficult than necessary because the coffee and chocolate that lend it character are so easily confounded.

Every culture has sex, reproduction, caring, and nurture at its core. Without them, cultures wouldn’t exist. Any more than they would without food, drink, shelter, clothing, social companions, health, and personal wellbeing. These are integral parts of the base in any culture because they are of vital importance to every member, male and female, young and old. That’s the coffee.

The chocolate appears in the way individual cultures establish norms for expressing these vital drives so to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of their members (within the framework of social and natural conditions they all share in common). Such norms are intended to enable a diverse population to live in relative harmony by adopting particular ways of expressing their native values, drives, and motives as are deemed to be proper—that is, boosting the probability of individual survival in a socially acceptable manner.

Add cultural chocolate to a natural base of coffee—you get human consciousness with the overall character of mocha. Which some people like more than others. In some cultures women appear in public with their charms draped in dark cloth, while in others they strut their stuff in full view. Some cultures promote hospitality to strangers, others think it wiser to be suspicious of those you don’t know (which is one way of keeping other cultures at a distance).

On the Maine coast, there are a great many subcultures within, say, the fishing industry. Wormers talk to wormers, mussel draggers to mussel draggers, ground fishers to ground fishers, fish farmers to fish farmers, and so on, each staying much closer to the in-group than to outsiders. If you listen to representatives from the various groups speak out in public meetings, you keep hearing each group’s jargon backed by the same-old attitudes, everybody barking, nobody listening to anybody but himself. The problem is always the other guy—the guy you bark at but don’t speak with. It’s the same story up and down the coast as it is between isolated groups everywhere. Could be wormers and draggers, Israelis and Palestinians, Democrats and Republicans. Once the differences between their respective cultures set into stereotypes, everybody poses as a paragon of the tribe, nobody says anything meaningful, nobody listens. Attitude becomes the whole story, communication is made impossible.

One way around the impasse is to adopt a symbolic medium of exchange to bridge between tribes. I may not like you, but I’ll take your money because money is neutral. I’ll scan your propaganda as long as I have a right to my own opinion. We may even attend the same movies, which our respective outlooks turn into very different movies in our minds.

In our broader American culture, because our currency is the accepted medium of exchange in every corner of the land, everything has a price on the same monetary scale. This speeds and simplifies financial transactions, but makes it easy to believe that money is the prime value in our culture—the only thing that counts—to the point that something without monetary value doesn’t really exist. If you can’t peg its dollar value, what good is it? Thus money becomes not only a medium of exchange but the only culturally acceptable one. That is, it discriminates between what is a socially expedient value and what has true value from the standpoint of personal survival and wellbeing. If clean air or water don’t have a price, they aren’t part of our value system. If ecosystem integrity doesn’t have a price, we needn’t consider it. If honesty or character can’t be priced, do they serve any demonstrable public good? That is, anything existing outside our system of exchange—that is, anything priceless—has no meaning for us. With the result that money becomes the sole scale of value by which we decide what’s important in our culture, and what isn’t.

Which is the root of the national tragedy we are playing out on the world stage. If it doesn’t have a price tag, it can be safely overlooked. Everything can be put on the auction block to see what price it will fetch. If no bids come in, by our scheme it is trash. That is, in settling the differences between us by resorting to the common denominator of cash value—in putting a price on our personal values—we create a system that overlooks what cannot be bought—the truly priceless. Instead of our values running the economy, the economy is now running our values.

Mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia have no value other than as open-pit coal mines. Oceans are to fish, trees to cut down, skies and streams to pollute. That’s the level of value the economy’s bottom line has dragged us down to. In a culture where everything has its price, that price is the only thing we share in common, making every other value not only expendable but a possible obstacle to progress. The end is certain: Earth reduced to a forlorn cue ball orbiting in space, no mocha, no chocolate, no coffee—no life at all. Even now we mistake Earth for a globe, a manmade sphere—as if it met our specifications and not the other way around. We speak of the global economy, not the Earth economy, which would be closer to the truth.

In effect, by reducing their personal survival values to the one dominant cultural value represented by the economy, people are acting as if their culture is everything, their personhood nothing. Imagine a culture entire in itself with members so homogeneous you can’t tell them apart to determine if they even exist. All people reduced to consumers, all else reduced to goods. Only money is real. To settle our differences, that’s the world we have created for ourselves, the global economy in which we all play our role.

In that scheme, ecosystem services have a price. Fish have a price. Trees have a price. Bald eagles have a price. Energy has a price. Sex has a price. Mountaintops have a price. Music has a price. Art has a price. Yes, individual human beings have a net worth or a price. Everything is a resource to somebody, somewhere, so has its price. The highest bidder wins all. In the process, stripping the ultimate value—life itself—from the world household or economy.

Writing these words, I cling to the conceit that I am still of two minds. That my consciousness has not been wholly tamed, domesticated, or taken over by my culture, allowing me to stand apart as a wild-eyed observer capable of independent judgment, thought, and speech. If so, we indies are fast disappearing from the scene, along with newspapers, independent media, regulatory governments, mystics, disbelievers, oddballs, heretics, and skeptics of all sorts.

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall was breached, leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the re-emergence of some twenty states in Eastern Europe and beyond as independent nations. America claimed at the time to have won the Cold War, and welcomed those revitalized nations into its sphere of influence known as the global economy. Now China, India, and Brazil are joining the club of our kind of thinkers—those driven by dreams of wealth and power based on free-market exchange of every world resource at a favorable price. With one economic system triumphant over its rivals, human differences are seen as irrelevant. We form a global community of exploiters having equal opportunity to mine Earth’s so-called resources. Along with businesses, pension funds depend on profits from those resources, as do art and religious institutions, universities, and every kind of “non-profit” organization.

Instead of seeing it desirable to achieve a balance between our two minds as in the past, we are fast becoming a single-minded world culture bent on converting the Earth into personal profit. Like Ayn Rand and other prophets of capitalism, we have dollar signs on our minds—and little else. No one seems to think it strange that everyone pictures himself on the owning side of the deal rather than on the working or laboring side. Few, indeed, side with the Earth, even though every benefit we claim flows from the integrity of its biological functioning. From, that is, the mountains and streams of Kentucky and West Virginia before we stripped and leveled them for coal to burn in our power plants, producing cinders, ash, and carbon dioxide as by-products.

Repent, the end is near! Or is it too late to come to our senses and restore humanity to full consciousness? That is, can we still discriminate values that are convenient and cultural from those that are biological and personal? In sacrificing all for our culture, we stand to surrender our individual livelihoods to an economic ideology dressed as the only way to live, forgetting that capitalism works best for the very few who are on top. The rest of us are workers in the vineyard who can’t afford to buy the wines we ourselves produce.

One thing I am sure of, even though I can’t prove it, is that there are no techno-fixes for what ails us because every one of them merely passes our current burden to the Earth in a form future generations will have to deal with. In its day, the internal combustion engine was a boon to mankind; now it is a curse. Before that, three-fourths of arable land was devoted to producing hay for horses, cows, and oxen. Think of the manmade chemicals in mothers’ milk around the Earth, the plastic bottles and can liners that diffuse into almost everything we eat and drink. Hydropower turns running rivers and streams into standing ponds, blocking fish passage and the downstream flow of silt. What do we do with all these electronic wonders full of toxic metals and chemicals when we no longer want them? Are we to assume the technological solutions of tomorrow will not have a downside? There will be no more radioactive wastes, superfund sites, G.E.-ified Hudson Rivers? They won’t appear on the planning board; once in place, the toxic flaws we choose to overlook will appear in due order.

Start to finish, it is better to be of two minds than exclusively one or the other. Having both cultural and personal aspects of consciousness is the original checks and balances scheme. Individuals need to counterbalance corporations lest they become all-powerful (as, in fact, they are now). Cultures need to instill communal values in the common man to remind him he is not alone and can’t justify using others for his personal gain. If I want respect, so does my neighbor. Extending it mutually to each other, we’ll get along just fine. If I lord it over him, he’s apt to set fire to my barn.

The truth is, when I act, I act for all as a representative of humankind. There’s no escaping the fact we are all denizens of the one planet Earth. What I do, I do for all and to all. We are responsible for and to one another. That I can horde wealth for my benefit alone is pure fiction. That I can borrow from others and have a third party pay my debt is a fantasy. That I can leverage other people’s assets to make a profit for myself is nonsense. We keep trying these ploys, but in the end we all pay. And in the last analysis, Earth pays. If we think we can get away with it, we are too clever by half for our own good. As surely as we are born, we will die. Period. End of our little universe. The ultimate sign of respect is to hold positive regard for all those other universes that will come after us, whether of our genetic line or not. And to live on their behalf as if they mattered—which as Earthlings they surely do. They are one of us, of our planet, the only one we know of where life exists.

The mocha image I began this post with is too light to bear the load I freighted it with. I wanted to ease into my topic, so presented it in terms of flavors I thought people could relate to. My personal attachment is through serving mocha sundaes in the Schrafft’s Restaurant on 81st Street in New York back in 1953 and 1954. But neither chocolate nor coffee is essential to life. Water and oxygen, however, are the basis of photo-synthesis, the process that, in feeding plant and animal metabolisms, sponsors most living things. Water stands for the culture we are immersed in, oxygen for the biological values that spark consciousness to life. Consciousness requires a steady diet of both. I offer them here at the end of this post as more relevant to biological systems than the flavors of coffee and chocolate I offered at the start. In combination, they are the beginning, not only of consciousness, but of everything, including life itself.

Air, Water, Sunlight

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Trapped in our minds as we are, we sometimes ridicule those whose minds and ideas differ from our own. Rather than accept or celebrate such differences, we find them personally offensive or threatening, and so lash out at those who dare to be different—that is, different from ourselves. There’s a lot of that around these days, displays of public scorn, mockery, bitterness.

Where do these tongue-lashings come from? These dyspeptic outbreaks? These trainloads of sour grapes? These sneering, snide, and brutal attacks?

That’s easy. They stem from the scornful ones sensing they are on the outs—have lost what they might have had—so are themselves being scorned and put down. In a word, from a sense of personal threat or defeat. Which cannot be publically admitted, yet calls for retribution, so is thereby transmuted into derision, casting blame, finding fault. That way, the defeated cloak themselves in the virtue of the truly superior, and the successful are demonized as dishonest, disingenuous, disgusting, and generally despicable. If the ploy gets enough coverage, the losers pass as winners among their fans. 

As in bullfighting, the art of the faultfinder is in stunning and then exhausting the designated victim, leading to delivery of the fatal thrust. The spiteful predator turns his prey’s virtues into faults, then dismembers the wretched carcass while still alive. Such is the vindictive politics of our day. Whatever you do, don’t take defeat lying down. Rise up and be a man; show your stuff. Rant and rave—and make sure to notify the press. Better yet, be the press. That way you can make sure every slur gets the coverage it deserves. Even if it doesn’t deserve any coverage all, it enters the public mind as if it were news, not bluster.

Illusion, it all comes down to illusion. To deceiving a public that loves sports and spectacle more than truth. It doesn’t matter what you claim, just come out swinging. The audience will side with you and fill in the blanks. They’ve been taught, after all, that life is a multiple-choice test. Feed ‘em the answer; they’ll love it.

No one likes to be publically humiliated. To be humbled—brought down in the eyes of the people. Particularly not those who thrive in the limelight. If exposed as mere mortals, their reflex is to divert attention by shedding light on someone else’s faults, which brings to mind their particular enemy. If he doesn’t have conspicuous faults, it doesn’t matter—just make them up. Deride his accomplishments, smear his virtues, mock his integrity—again and again. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to get traction as a cynic because the public is nothing if not gullible and loves a good fight.

One defense against slings and arrows is to deflect them toward an innocent party. Turning the tables is easy, just spin your vices into virtues (such as speaking your mind), and your opponent’s virtues into vices (such as his not seeking your advice or sharing your values). Spiteful feelings are always an undercurrent when one side wins over another. But when those feelings vent as outrage directed at the other team, igniting violent speech and acts (as after a soccer game when the home team loses), then attitudes are shown to have consequences, like road rage escalating to assault and battery.

The damning of the president by Fox News and others is no game—it is a calculated strategy to dull the brilliance of his aura in order to undercut the stature and power of the man. At best such attacks are distractions; at worst they disrupt judgment, attention, and consciousness itself. These are not personal slights. They are corporate onslaughts, campaigns by organized groups to ruin a man whose intelligence and influence they are afraid of. This is not the work of envy, hurt pride, or rabblerousing on the fringe—this is out-and-out war.

How did we get to this point? And once here, why do we tolerate such behavior? Put simply, there are two classes of people, leaders and followers. The division between them is told not by ability but by wealth. Those without cash, work; those with cash hire the best lawyers, PR fronts, muscle, and outside agitators to see that their wills are imposed on their lesser brothers and sisters. This is a laughable interpretation of “survival of the fittest,” but it has become the bumper-sticker wisdom of our age and our nation. You needn’t bother getting elected, you can buy your way to power. Not only can you, but you must; only millionaires need apply for membership in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. They are ushered into office by the very corporations whose interests they serve. This is far too important a process to be left for the people to screw up by electing the wrong person.

What a sad little story: the collapse of one of the greatest ideas ever advanced by the human mind—with its checks and balances, one vote and equal opportunity for each unique person, and peaceful transfer of power from one generation to the next. A vision rent in two by assuming there are two classes of people, the haves and have-nots, one superior to the other, the nobler (wealthier) class having an obligation to govern on behalf of their dependents. Viewed from the top, that division into classes is a convenient fiction; from the bottom, a life sentence to hard labor.

But consciousness does not come in two classes. There is only one class of consciousness, and it is responsible for promoting the wellbeing and happiness of its owner. It is the social system that has grown up around consciousness that is corrupt in favoring a small but aggressive elite over the general population. Privilege is concentrated at the top, duty at the bottom—the difference told by a cultural mindset calculated to keep power and wealth on the high side of the boundary between the two classes. That is the structure which looms so large in the cynical attacks on the president and the policies he favors, including a fair and decent public healthcare option covering all Americans. Wealthy individuals and corporations fear losing their influence, so their agents scream bloody murder to discredit the commoner whom the people elected to restore balance and judgment throughout the nation and the world.

The voice of consciousness advises treating others as you would have them treat you: with respect and compassion. The voice of status takes a different approach: the elite know best what is good for you; let us rule. The issue rides on whether all people are assumed to be equal or not. Which is it to be, power to the people or power to the elite? That question is at the heart of the fracas. Through experience we know that mutual respect is a better strategy than lording it over others to get your way, then berating them if they don’t bow to your will. Democracy allows for human differences under the umbrella of equal rights and respect. Taking dominion over others is a sure sign of dissent, which invariably leads to schisms, hard feelings, and violence. That is the Fox News route; the Obama route is to regard those who differ from yourself with respect, then see what you can work out together.

OBEY  

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Looking at the world, as each of us does, through her own eyes, we see that world in reference to the uniqueness of our personal makeup and experience. My senses embody my particular history of life events, as your senses embody yours. These personal histories include our formative development, birth order, sex, class, education, temperament, political leanings, and the host of other influences that make us who we are.  Other people inhabit other worlds from ourselves, privileged by nature to exercise their unique sensibilities, often presenting themselves in ways that seem strange from our point of view. Sometimes, without knowing, we feel alienated from such other worlds because they strike us as being so foreign to our own.

When others conduct themselves in ways we would not conduct ourselves, we register the disparity as a strong sense of discomfort. That sense serves as a kind of error signal warning us we are out of our native element and approaching the limit of personal tolerance. Appropriate action being the desired outcome of any act of consciousness, we consider how we might improve the situation. Do we respond to what we take to be an insult with humor? Do we laugh it off, jeer, display hostility and aggression, seek sanctuary, or give way and, thinking we might learn something, pay attention while the others do their thing?

In truth, we have a great many options, but often resort to habitual modes of behavior for dealing with situations we take to be threatening. That way, we don’t waste any time thinking things through, but respond spontaneously as if the signals we take as insults were intentionally meant to inflict harm.

“You lie!” we shout, or “That’s stupid!” “Death panels!” “Killing Granny!” “Infidel.” If armed, we might shoot from the hip. The point is to take control of the situation by intimidating those we bother ourselves about. “Shock and awe!” was Rumsfeld’s battle cry in Iraq, as if mighty Ozymandias had shouted from the grave. “Let ‘em come!” said his boss, the same man who recited the phrase “axis of evil” from his Tele-Prompter.

Enmity is a cheap substitute for extending consciousness to embrace others who make themselves happen differently than we do. Particularly when affront is taken at, say, differences of dress, accent, sex, or religion. Distinctions interpreted as threats cause havoc, not righteousness. They can lead to attitudes of superiority over lesser beings, to put-downs, intolerance, bullying, armed conflicts, holocausts, colonial domination, and political strife.

Often envy, one of the seven transgressions formerly punishable by death, is at the root of such hostile behaviors. If they have what I want, I am justified in despising them, I tell myself as I blame others for frustrating my ambitions. Native Americans were in the way of European settlers, so were dispensable. The same for Aboriginal peoples in Australia, Palestinians in the so-called Holy Land, Obama in the White House through the eyes of those who choose to feel threatened by his right to hold office. It’s a figure-ground kind of thing.

We are prone to laying our assumptions and preferences—our personal values—on others as if they were obligated to act in our self-interest and not their own. This leads to domination, a sort of colonialism of the mind by which we impose our values on others as self-evident truths for the greater good (as seen from our personal perspective). This great game of as if causes more trouble in the world than almost any other aspect of consciousness. Think of the violence committed against children, wives, members of the true church, and other inferiors in the name of paternalism, the grand pretention that Father (or Husband) Knows Best. A great many advertising claims fall into this category, which confounds consumer interests with those of dealers and manufacturers. Such corporate or commercial takeovers of consumer consciousness are rampant in our way of economic thinking.

Consciousness is our greatest asset in dealing with challenges presented by the worlds we inhabit; that is, as long as it is managed by its rightful owner. Surrendering consciousness to those who covet it for their advantage amounts to resource extraction like mountain-top coal mining, clear-cutting extensive forest ecosystems, or mining the wealth (formerly known as fish and sea mammals) of the world’s oceans. Our current economy is based on invading, subverting, and capitalizing on the consciousness of a gullible public. Minds are extracted every day for profit: that’s what capitalism amounts to: the coercive transfer of assets from those who have less in order that others can have all the more.

Being swayed to misinterpret the disparity between our expectations and what actually happens leads to the erosion of personal consciousness for the sake of getting along with groups of others characteristically more aggressive than ourselves. Self-realization (what I call “making ourselves happen”) by others’ rules is a brute distortion of the most fundamental principles of evolution and survival, which concern the well-being of individual persons, not institutions or corporate bodies. As Jeff Madrick reports in The Nation (August 31/September 7, 2009) regarding a study of Harvard College grads from the early 70s, 80s, and 90s of the last century:

Many more college grads have entered finance since the early 1970s than in previous years. That’s no surprise. But the premium they earned over their peers in other fields was enormous. Katz and Goldin found that the grads in finance made, on average, almost 200 percent more (“Money for Nothing,” page 6).

Of course the reckoning came later—with the financial collapse in the fall of 2008—but the young financiers had made a killing in the meantime, and their corporate bosses are still making a killing many times over. In our society, we consider them the smart ones. The ones we admire and would emulate if we could. They are emissaries of capitalism who mine the conscious minds of the rest of us as so many natural resources to be exploited for personal gain.

The disparity in wealth in the world represents a disparity in consciousness between those content with sufficiency and those who lust for more. The smart money capitalizes on that disparity, as mortgage grantors capitalized on the vulnerability of mortgagees struggling to pay their bills, widening the gap on their own behalf rather than equalizing distribution of Earth’s limited resources—always the anonymous standard backing any currency you can name.

The root of the problem lies in the gap between our conscious expectations and the hands we are dealt by the movers and shakers of our society who deliberately squeeze us to gain as big a survival edge for themselves as they can. When Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” as President Obama was pushing his healthcare plan, it was the disparity between his party’s power and the president’s that made him do it. He never considered that his party’s fate had anything to do with chronic overreaching by Bush-Rove-Cheney, et al. who perversely plumped their slim hold on power into a mandate. The gap is in the eye of the beholder, who funds it with his personal brand of meaning—as long as it is to his personal advantage.

Such are the frailties of consciousness. The simple remedy is to wonder, when confronted by a gap between expectation and fulfillment, “Am I being unrealistic and it isn’t their fault at all?” Blame casting is our national sport, driven by our desires more than any realistic assessment of our performance. But my guess is that it is more likely that nine times out of ten, we have surrendered responsibility for our own behavior in order to find fault with some fall guy in order to cut him down to our size.

Envy used to be deemed a capital offense; maybe we should revisit that discussion. Or at least treat the defamed and exploited as innocent until proven guilty. As I said, it’s a figure-ground thing.

Kanizsa Triangle