What Makes Humans Human?

Little, today, is as it was.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark,

and people gathered under the stars, which they could actually see, in those days before nighttime light pollution,

and under those stars, they told stories.

In EVERY culture around the globe, storytelling, in the form of narrative poetry, existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have from every culture record stories that were already ancient when they were finally written down. One of the earliest texts in English is that of the poem Beowulf. It reworks and retells, in a much distorted manner, much, much older stories—ones that predate the emergence of English as a distinct language. Stith Thompson, the great folklorist, did the literary world an enormous favor by compiling a massive index, today known as the Arne-Thompson Index, of motifs of ancient folktales worldwide. Name a story motif—three wishes, talking animals, the grateful dead, cruel stepsisters, golden apples, dragons, the fairy or demon lover, the instrument that plays itself –and you will find that the motif has an ancient pedigree and was already spread about the world long before historical times.

English is a Germanic language. All ancient Germanic societies had official storytellers whose job it was to entertain people in those days before modern entertainments like television and movies and the Internet and drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In ancient Denmark, the storyteller was called a skaald. In Anglo-Saxon England, the storyteller was a scop (pronounced like MnE “shop”). The scop accompanied his stories on the Anglo-Saxon harp, a kind of lyre.

Of course, the telling of stories wasn’t the only entertainment around campfires. In most cultures, people danced and chanted and sang as well, and sometimes stories were told by the dancers or singers or chanters. All this was part of acting out the stories. (Want to know where the Christian devil, with his red body and horns, comes from? Well, in ancient Europe, people worshiped an Earth Mother and her consort, a Lord of the Forest, and they told stories of the hunt. When they acted these out around campfires, they held up to their heads animal horns, or branches in the shape of horns, and that’s how they pictured their Lord of the Forest, as a therianthrope, red from the campfire, with horns. When the Christians spread North across Europe, they made the god of the Old Religion into The Adversary. Grendel’s mother, the monster from the bog in Beowulf, is a demonized version, in a Christian story, of the ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Nerthus, to whom sacrifices were made by binding people, cutting their throats, and throwing them into a bog. You can see an ancient bas relief of the Lord of the Forest, btw, on the Gundestrup cauldron dating from 150 to 1 BCE. See the accompanying illustration.)

But where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal? Storytelling takes energy. And it doesn’t produce tangible results. It doesn’t mend bones or build houses or plant crops. So, why would it survive and be found among every people on Earth from the earliest times onward?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential, built-in part of the human psyche, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Storytelling turns out to be one of the fundamental ways in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have we come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures, in the Aristotelian sense of essentially. That is, it’s our storytelling that defines us. If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it may make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

At the back of each of your eyes are retinas containing rods and cones. These take in visual information from your environment. In each retina, there is a place where the optic nerve breaks through it. This is the nerve that carries visual signals to your brain. Because of this interruption of the retinas, there is a blind spot in each where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE. If what you saw was based on what signals actually hit your retina at a given moment, you would have two big black spots in your field of vision. Instead, you see a continuous visual field. Why? Because your brain automatically fills in the missing information for you, based on what was there when your eye saccaded over it a bit earlier. In other words, your brain makes up a story about what’s there. Spend some time studying optical illusions, and you will learn that this is only one example of many ways in which you don’t see the world as it is but, rather, as the story concocted by your brain says it is.

This sort of filling in of missing pieces also happens with our memories. Scientists have discovered that at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. There’s a well-known limitation of short-term memory to about seven items, give or take two, and that’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only about seven items from, potentially, billions in your environment. When you remember an event, your brain FILLS IN WHAT YOU WERE NOT ATTENDING TO AT THE TIME based on general information you’ve gathered, on its predispositions, and on general beliefs that you have about the world. In short, based on very partial information, your brain makes up and tells you a STORY about that past time, and that is what you “see” in memory in your “mind’s eye.”

So, people tend to have a LOT of false memories because the brain CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story about what was PROBABLY the case and presents that whole memory to you, with the gaps filled in, for your conscious inspection. In short, memory is very, very, very faulty and is based upon the storytelling functions of the brain!!!! (And what are we except our memories? I am that boy in the Dr. Dentons, in my memory, sitting before the TV with the rabbit ears; I am that teenager in the car at the Drive-in with the girl whom I never thought in a million years would actually go out with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

You can also see this storytelling function of the brain at work in dreaming. Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan smoking a cigar.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends, and we had smoked cigars.

The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story. That’s the most plausible current explanation of why most dreams occur. The storytelling parts of the brain are responding to random inputs and tying them together—making sense of this random input by making a plausible story of them. This is akin to the process, pareidolia, that leads people see angels in cloud formations and pictures of Jesus on their toast.

So, those are three important reasons why the brain is set up as a storytelling device. Storytelling allows us to see a complete visual field; creates for us, from incomplete data, coherent memories; and ties together random neural firings in our brains to into the wholes that we call dreams.
But that’s not all that storytelling does for us. Storytelling about the future allows us to look ahead—for example, to determine what another creature is going to do. We often play scenarios in our minds that involve possible futures. What will she say if I ask her to the prom? What will the boss say if I ask for a raise? How will that go down? In other words, storytelling provides us with a THEORY OF MIND for predicting others’ behavior.

Stories also help people to connect to one another. When we tell others a story, we literally attune to them. We actually get “on the same wavelengths.” Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, recorded the brainwaves of people during rest and while listening to a story. During rest, their waves were all over the place. While listening to the same story, even at different times and places, those people had brainwaves that were in synch.

Storytelling also provides a mechanism for exploring and attempting to understand others generally. Our basic situation in life is that your mind is over there and mine is over here. We’re different, and we have to try to figure each other out—to have a theory of other people’s minds. By telling myself a story about you, I can attempt to bridge that ontological gap. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves about others tend to be fairly unidimensional. You are simply this or that. I, on the other hand, am an international man of mystery. This is a tendency we need to guard against.

We also tell stories in order to influence others’ behavior–to get them to adopt the story we’re telling as their own. This is how advertising works, for example. The advertiser gets you to believe a story about how you will be sexier or smarter or prettier or more successful or of higher status if you just buy the product with the new, fresh lemony scent. And it’s not just advertisers who do this. Donald Trump sold working class Americans a fiction about how he could strike deals that would make America great again because he was such a great businessman, one who started with nothing and made billions. The coach tells a story in which her team envisions itself as the winners of the Big Game. The woo-er tells the woo-ee the story of the great life they will have together (“Come live with me and be my love/And we shall all the pleasures prove”). And so on. Successful cult leaders, coaches, lovers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, politicians, religious leaders, marketers, etc., all share this is common: they know that persuasion is storytelling. The best of them also understand that the most successful stories, in the long run, are ones that are true, even if they are fictional.

When we tell stories, we spin possible futures—we try things on, hypothetically. And that helps us to develop ideas about who we want to be and what we want to do. Gee, if I travel down that road, I may end up in this better place.

And that observation leads to one final, supremely important function of storytelling: Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that you tell yourself about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The stories you tell yourself about yourself become the person you are. The word person, by the way, comes from the Latin persona, for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre.

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place, for the most part, automatically. There is even a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, to recapitulate, storytelling . . .

helps us to fill in the gaps so that we have coherent memories,

ties together random firings in the brain into coherent dreams,

enables us to sort and make sense of past experience,

gives us theories of what others think and how they will behave,

enables us to influence others’ behavior,

enables us to try on various futures, and

helps us to form a personal identity, a sense of who were are.

Kinda important, all that!

Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It runs through every aspect of our lives. It makes us who we are.

It’s no wonder then, that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are Homo relator, man the storyteller.

(BTW, the root *man, meaning “human being” in general, without a specific gender reference, is ancient. It goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, but there’s still good reason, today, to seek out gender-neutral alternatives, when possible, of course.)

Copyright 2015. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

Posted in Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

It’s about Time (a Catena)



A brief tour of fascinating (and lunatic) notions that philosophers (and a few poets) have had about time. 

The Mystery of Time

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”

–St. Augustine (345–430 CE), Confessions

PART 1: What Is Time? Types of Time

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Absolute or Scientific Newtonian Time

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

–Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

The Specious (Nonexistent) Present

“The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. [Each of] all the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the [specious] present. [Each of] all the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the [specious] present. At the instant of the termination of [each element in] such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be [an obvious] past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the [obvious] past, which does not [really] exist, the future, which does not [yet] exist, and their conterminous, the [specious] present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

–E. Robert Kelley, from The Alternative, a Study in Psychology (1882). Kelley’s concept of the specious present has been extremely influential in both Continental and Anglo-American philosophy despite the fact that Kelley was not a professional philosopher.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childSubjective Time

“Oh, yeah. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I never finished it, though I did spent about a year with it one evening.”

Experienced Time: The “Wide” Present

“In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation or succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and forming the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

–William James, “The Perception of Time,” from The Principles of Psychology, Book I

459px-Einstein_patentofficeA, B, and C Series Time (Three Ways of Looking at Time)

  • The A Series: Time as Past, Present, and Future
  • The B Series: Time as Earlier, Simultaneous, and Later
  • The C Series: Time as an Ordered Relation of Events (with the direction being irrelevant)

Influential distinctions made by John Ellis McTaggart in “The Unreality of Time.” Mind 17 (1908): 456-476. The three types are much discussed by philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition.

See also The Unreality of Time 2: Block Time, below

PART 2: Does Time Exist?

No, It Doesn’t: Change Is a Self-Contradictory Idea

“For this view can never predominate, that that which IS NOT exists. You must debar your thought from this way of search. . . .There is only one other description of the way remaining, namely, that what IS, is. To this way there are very many signposts: that Being has no coming-into-being . . . . Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressive nor thinkable that what-is-not is. . . . How could Being perish? How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; and so too if it is about-to-be at some future time. . . .For nothing else either is or shall be except Being, since Fate has tied it down to be a whole and motionless; therefore all things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name: Becoming and Perishing, Being and Not-Being, and Change of position, and alteration of bright color.”

–Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 BCE), fragment from The Way of Truth, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)“Does the arrow move when the archer shoots it at the target? If there is a reality of space, the arrow must at all times occupy a particular position in space on its way to the target. But for an arrow to occupy a position in space that is equal to its length is precisely what is meant when one says that the arrow is at rest. Since the arrow must always occupy such a position on its trajectory which is equal to its length, the arrow must be always at rest. Therefore, motion is an illusion.”

–Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BCE), fragment from Epicheriemata (Attacks), in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

“One part of time has been [the past] and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet [the future]. Yet time, both infinite time and any time you care to take, is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.”

–Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Physics, IV, 10–14. 217b-244a.

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35Yes, It Does: Change Is the Fundamental Reality of Our Lives

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

–Heraclitus, (c. 475 BCE), fragment from unnamed book, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

[Heraclitus seems to have held this fact to be one of many indications of the essential unworthiness/irredeemability of this life; the other fragments of his writings that have survived suggest that Heraclitus was a kind of 5th century fundamentalist preacher, upset about the moral decay around him, who viewed the world as synonymous with decay, and who wanted to point his readers, instead, toward the eternal Logos. Plato inherited this view; the Christian church inherited Plato’s. Such contemptu mundi (contempt for the world) is often, in that tradition, expressed as contempt for that which exists “in time” and is not eternal.]

“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”

–Woody Allen (1935–      )


No, It Doesn’t: Time is an Illusion Due to Vantage Point in an Eternal Space Time (the “Block Time” Hypothesis):

“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing, for we physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

–Albert Einstein (1879­–1955), in a letter written to the family of Michele Besso, on Besso’s death

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922–2007), who is in heaven now, Slaughterhouse Five

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

–T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), “Burt Norton,” from Four Quartets

No, It Doesn’t: The Now as Consequence of the Blindness of the Brain to Its Own Processing of Temporal Data (the “Blind Brain” Hypothesis)

“Nothing, I think, illustrates this forced magic quite like the experiential present, the Now. Recall what we discussed earlier regarding the visual field. Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply ‘runs out’ without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and, I suspect, without the benefit of any ‘visual run off’ circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of blindness you cannot see.

“This, the Blind Brain Hypothesis suggests, is what the now is: a temporal analogue to the edgelessness of vision, an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field’–what James called the ‘specious present’–hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamocortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to. There is time in experience, but no time of experience. The same way seeing relies on secondary systems to stitch our keyhole glimpses into a visual world, timing relies on things like narrative and long term memory to situate our present within a greater temporal context.

“Given the Blind Brain Hypothesis, you would expect the thalamocortical system to track time against a background of temporal oblivion. You would expect something like the Now. Perhaps this is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.

“Which is to say that the Blind Brain Hypothesis offers possible theoretical purchase on the apparent absurdity of conscious existence, the way a life of differences can be crammed into a singular moment.”

–Scott Bakker, “The End of the World As We Knew It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”

PART 3: What Contemplation of Time Teaches Us about Living

Carpe Diem

“Such,” he said, “O King, seems to me the present life of men on Earth, in comparison with that time which to us is uncertain, as if when on a winter’s night, you sit feasting . . . and a simple sparrow should fly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly fly out through another. In that time in which it is indoors it is indeed not touched by the fury of winter; but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to our eyes.

“Something like this appears the life of man, but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.”

–The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II


“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”

–Horace (65–8 BCE), Odes 1.11

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), “Rubiyat,” trans. Edward FitzGerald

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

–Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time”

459px-Einstein_patentofficeBut at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My ecchoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv’d Virginity:
And your quaint Honour turn to durst;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

–Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), “To His Coy Mistress”

“Get it while you can.
Don’t you turn your back on love.”

–The American philosopher Janis Joplin (1943–1970)

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childGive Up/It’s All Futile Anyway

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of nonexistence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.

“Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day. It might, perhaps, make us mad to see how rapidly our short span of time ebbs away; if it were not that in the furthest depths of our being we are secretly conscious of our share in the exhaustible spring of eternity, so that we can always hope to find life in it again.

“Consideration of the kind, touched on above, might, indeed, lead us to embrace the belief that the greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present the supreme object of life; because that is the only reality, all else being merely the play of thought. On the other hand, such a course might just as well be called the greatest folly: for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”

–The ever-cheerful Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), “The Vanity of Existence,” from Studies in Pessimism

Three Phenomenologist/Existentialist Views of Time

NB: the following are NOT quotations. I’ve summarized material that appears in much longer works. You’re welcome. I have included Husserl in this section, even though his work is just an attempted explanation of time, because the other two philosophers treated here are reacting to Husserl’s ideas.

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Husserl (very bright dude, this one): All our ideas about time spring from our conscious experience of the present. That experience is characterized by being intentional, by being toward something. We typically recognize three kinds of time: 1. scientific, objective, Newtonian time, which we think of as being independent of ourselves and as independently verifiable; 2. subjective time, in which events seem to move slower or faster; and 3. phenomenological or intentional time, which is the fundamental experience on which the other concepts of time are based, from which the other concepts derive because the phenomenological present includes not only awareness of present phenomena (the present), but retention (awareness of that which is not present because it no longer is—the past), and protention (awareness of that which is not present because it is about to be). The present is intentionality toward phenomena before us here, now. The past is present intentionality toward phenomena that are not present but are with us and so must be past (that’s where the definition of past comes from). The future is present intentionality toward phenomena that also are present but are not with us (as the past is) and so must be the future, which will be (that’s where the definition of future comes from). Therefore, in their origins in our phenomenological experiences, the future and the past are parts of the present, conceptual phenomena held in the present, alongside actual phenomena, as phenomena no longer present and not yet present.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childHeidegger: Husserl had it all wrong. It’s the future, not the present, that is fundamental. We are future-oriented temporalities by nature, essentially so. Our particular type of being, Dasein, or being-there, is characterized by having care (about its projects, its current conditions, about other beings)—about matters as they relate to those projects. Our being is characterized by understanding, thrownness, and fallenness. Understanding, is the most fundamental of the three. It is projection toward the future, comportment toward the possibilities that present themselves, potentiality for being. Our understanding seizes upon projects, projecting itself on various possibilities. In its thrownness, Dasein always finds itself in a certain spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment that limits the space of those possibilities. As fallenness, Dasein finds itself among other beings, some of which are also Dasein and some of which (e.g., rocks) are not Dasein, and it has, generally respectively, “being-with” them or “being alongside” them, and these help to define what possibilities there are.  “Our sort of being (Dasein) is being for which being is an issue.” Why is it an issue? Well, we are finite. We know that we are going to die. This is the undercurrent that informs our essential being, which is care, concern. We are projections toward the future because undertaking these projects is an attempt, however quixotic, to distract ourselves from or even to cheat death. We care about our projects because, at some level, we care about not dying, having this projection toward the future for which we are living.

459px-Einstein_patentofficeSartre: The world is divided into two kinds of being: being-for-itself (the kind of being that you and I have) and being-in-itself (the kind of being that a rock or a refrigerator has). Let’s think a bit about our kind of being. Take away your perceptions, your body, your thoughts. Strip everything away, and you still have pure being, the being of the being-for-itself, but it is a being that is also nothing. (The Buddha thought this, too). Being-for-itself has intentional objects, but itself is no object (there’s no there there) and so is nothing, a nothingness. Time is like being in that respect. It consists entirely of the past (which doesn’t exist) and the future (which doesn’t exist) and the present (which is infinitesimally small and so doesn’t exist). So time, like being, is a nothingness. This being-for-itself is not just nothingness, however; it has some other bizarre, contradictory characteristics: Its being, though nothing, allows a world to be manifest (how this is so is unclear), a world that includes all this stuff, including others, for example, who want to objectify the being-for-itself, to make it into a something, a thing, a being-in-itself, like a rock. (“Oh, I know you. I’m wise to you. You’re . . . .” whatever.) The being-for-itself also has a present past (in Husserl’s sense) and is subject to certain conditions of material construction (the body) and material conditions (in an environment of things), and all these givens—the body, the environment, one’s own past, and other people seen from the outside in their thinginess—make up the being-for-itself’s facticity. The being-for-itself wants to be SOMETHING, and so lies to itself. It acts in bad faith, playing various roles (playing at being a waiter, for example) and creating for itself an ego (via self-deceptive, magical thinking). But in fact, being in reality nothing, being-for-itself (each of us) knows that that’s all a lie. We transcend our facticity and can be anything whatsoever, act in any way whatsoever. In other words, we are absolutely free and therefore absolutely responsible. This responsibility is absurd, because there is no reason for being/doing any particular thing. “Man is a meaningless passion.” But the absolute freedom that derives from our essential nothingness also allows for action to be truly authentic (as opposed to the play-acting) in addition to being responsible. Only in death does the being-for-itself succeed in becoming a being-in-itself, a completed thing, and then only if and in the manner in which he or she is remembered by others. A person who is not remembered never existed. Death is a time stamp or, if we are not remembered, an expiration date.

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)The Eternal Return and the Weight of Being

“341. The Greatest Weight. What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

–Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), The Gay Science

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35The Fleeting One-Offness of Everything and the Resulting Unbearable Lightness of Being

“But Nietzsche’s demon is, of course, wrong. There is no eternal return. Where does that leave us? Isn’t life ALWAYS a matter of I should have’s and I would have’s and if I had only knowns? “[W]hat happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. . . .

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

–Milan Kundera (1929­–     ), contra Nietzsche, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Albert_Einstein_HeadCopyright 2010, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Are Trump and His Supporters in Fact Fascists?

A few years back, a friend, someone whom I respect, challenged me on Facebook, saying that Trump might be a lot of things, but he wasn’t an actual Fascist. Well, I beg to differ. If it steps like a goose, . . .

Here are a few of the clear signs that, yes, Fascist is precisely the term to describe Trump, his supporters, and those who wish to assume the orange mantle:

Alliance with other Fascists/Authoritarians. D.T. allied himself with violent, extremist authoritarian nationalists around the globe—with, of course, his handler, Vladimir Putin, but also with Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán and even, shockingly and weirdly, with Kim Jong-un. Hitler allied himself with extremist authoritarian nationalists around the globe—Mussolini of Italy, Hirohito of Japan, Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, Horthy of Hungary, Antonescu of Romania, Tiso of Slovakia, and Pavelić‘of Croatia (see the Tripartite Pact signed in September of 1940 and joined later by other members of the Axis Powers).

Use of Violent Citizens’ Militias. D.T. supported and employed on numerous occasions armed, right-wing citizens’ militias, notably

a) at the March on Charlottesville by neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and murdered an antifascist protestor;
b) when a group of these self-appointed militiamen invaded the Michigan Capitol and Legislature, armed, and plotted to kidnap and murder Michigan’s governor; AND
c) when several groups of these, including the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, broke into and ransacked the U.S. Capital, beat police officers, caused injuries that led to deaths, called for hanging the Vice President, and tried to overthrow the incoming government of the United States by preventing its certification.

Trump approved of all these actions by Citizens’ Militias, saying in the first instance that there were “Good people on both sides”—the Nazis and those opposing them–and in the latter instances that these were “patriots.” And, of course, he planned and stoked the last–the January 6th insurrection. In addition, he called on his Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to violate the Posse Comitatus Act and send federal troops to attack BLM protestors, which Barr sort of went along with his little green men (Esper and Milley, to their eternal credit, declined). Hitler, of course, infamously used citizens’ militias, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, or brownshirts), to provide protection at rallies, to attack enemies, and, with the SS, to carry out the infamous attacks on Jews during Kristallnacht. When asked to denounce white supremacy in a debate, Trump responded by saying, “Proud Boys—stand back and stand by.”

Monumentalism. D.T. loved monuments and monumental architecture and got a lot of political mileage out of riling up supporters of continuing to have on display in the public sphere commemorative statues of genocidal maniacs and enemies of the United States (Columbus; slave-owning men who led forces of insurrection during the Civil War). He organized a Republican Convention that was replete with monumental architecture and iconography. To do this, he violated the law by using the White House and its grounds as a political campaign/convention set. He called for absurdly expensive military parades of the kinds one sees in Communist China, North Korea. and Putin’s Russia. Trump called for building a massive “patriotic” sculpture garden. He held monumentalist nationalist events like the 4th of July military airshow at Mount Rushmore. Hitler, of course, employed Albert Speer to build monumentalist fascist architecture and devoted a great deal of his time to this.

The Cult of Personality. D.T. constantly referred to himself as “the best” or “the greatest” this or that and plastered his name on everything, from massive amounts of merch (Trump steaks, Trump straws, Trump flags) to buildings to letters accompanying Covid relief checks. He turned every discussion of every issue into one about himself and how great he is, even events that were supposed to be to honor Gold Star families or present information about how not to die from a virulent pandemic. Like a mob boss or any other Fascist leader, he required loyalty oaths and fired people who didn’t make them. At every cabinet meeting, cabinet members were expected to preface their remarks with long exhortations about the greatness of Trump (for an abject lesson in human self-abasement, go listen to a recording of one of these delivered by Mike Pence, to whom, of course, Trump showed no corresponding loyalty). He literally described himself as “the only” person who could solve the country’s problems. Clearly, Trump suffers from malignant narcissistic personality disorder. Conjure in your mind, if you have the stomach for it, a typical Trump rally. Trump created a cult of personality, just as all Fascist strongmen have done—Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, Pinochet, the Kim Dynasty of North Korea, etc. The difference, of course, is that Trump was merely a WANNABE Fascist strongman.

The Myth of the Return to Racial and National Greatness. D.T. constantly referred to a mythical Golden Age to which he would return the country and even made this his official slogan (“Make America Great Again,” or MAGA). This was, of course, precisely what Hitler did, calling for a return to a time of Aryan and German greatness–the major theme of his propaganda and writing and speeches.

The Racial Supremacy Myth/Use of Racism to Mobilize the Masses. D.T. constantly issued racist dog-whistles, from his ad attacking the innocent members of the Central Park Five to his Obama birtherism to his calling asylum seekers “caravans” and “hordes” of “rapists and murders” to his references to “s—thole countries” to his “Good people on both sides” to his planning of rallies at sites of racist violence (near the Alamo, Tulsa, etc.) to his suggestions that China purposefully engineered and released SARS-COV-2, which Trump variously referred to, in his racist way, as the “China flu,” the “Wuhan flu,” and so on. And, of course, Trump built his whole campaign, initially, on the racist idea that America was being taken over by immigrants and that in order to “have a country,” we would need to keep out the brown-skinned hordes. In fact, this is why Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller chose Trump to run in 2015 to begin with. See the Frontline documentary about this, Zero Tolerance (2019). Trump called for the Border Patrol to SHOOT innocent asylum seekers and screamed at his Secretary of Homeland Security for saying that she couldn’t do that. Hitler baked anti-Semitism into the Nazi ideology. Both leaders ran concentration camps targeting members of particular ethnic groups. Both committed horrific Crimes against Humanity (Hitler’s genocides; Trump’s kidnapping of immigrant children and separation of these from their parents).

Scapegoating and Call for the Elimination of Enemies Within. D.T. constantly referred and continues to refer to “enemies within” that have to be eliminated “or you’re not going to have a country anymore.” These he refers to as Socialists, the “Radical Left,” “Antifa,’ and so on. One of Trump’s favorite and most often used slurs is Enemy of the People, a phrase that goes all the way back to Roman times and was famously the title of a great play by Ibsen. Calling for the elimination of enemies within is, of course, exactly what Hitler did, blaming Germany’s troubles, such as its loss of World War I and its hyperinflation on “enemies within”—Jews and Socialists and Communists—who had “stabbed the country in the back.” But it was, of course, the extreme left-wing Fascist leaders in Russia and East Germany, during the Stalin Era, who made Enemy of the People a standard catchphrase in the 20th Century, but Trump is too ignorant to know this, to know that every time he calls Biden or Fauci or whomever an “Enemy of the People,” he is sounding just like the murderous Joseph Stalin. (And yes, you can have Fascists who come to it from the left.) And even if Trump did know this, it probably wouldn’t bother him in the least bit. Trump has expressly said that he was unhappy with “his” generals because they didn’t show him the deference that Hitler’s generals showed to Hitler. Of course, Trump doesn’t know, because he is profoundly ignorant, a bear of very little brain, that a number of those very generals tried to assassinate Hitler several times. LOL. Be careful what you wish for, Donnie!

The Fascist Rally. D.T.’s main method of communication with his base was the large-scale rally—precisely the sort of method used by Hitler, with Goebbels and Speer as organizers and Leni Riefenstahl to film these.

Indoctrination of the Young. Trump called for the creation of an overtly exceptionalist, nationalist curriculum. Hitler did the same (see, for example, the Nazi textbook on Aryan supremacy, Rasse und Seele) and also created his Hitler Youth, his League of German Girls, and his Lebensborn Program.

The National Supremacy Myth. Trump’s American Exceptionalism, Hitler’s Übermenschen and Deutschland über alles. Same diseased thought.

Eugenics and Genetic Determinism. D.T. constantly referred to his “good genes” and what he called his “racehorse theory” of what constituted a fine woman–one who was properly bred. Despite the fact of his almost total scientific ignorance, he was and is committed to a myths of Eugenics and genetic determinism–one of the central myths, of course, of Nazi ideology. And this myth, of course, supports the racial and national superiority myths.

The Erasure of the Concept of a Nation of Laws and Totalitarian Insistence That His Will Is the Law. Trump insisted, “I have an Article 2 that says I can do anything I like as President.” He seems to think that he could just magically wave his hand and declassify documents and that, at any rate, rules about preservation and secrecy didn’t apply to him because NO RULES apply to him. Trump treated agencies and departments of the government as HIS, insisting, for example, that “His” generals and “His” DOJ and “His” everything else be absolutely subservient, and he fired or attempted to fire anyone who disagreed with him about anything. Barr went along with basically turning the DOJ into Trump’s private law firm. Hitler, of course, had the Enabling Act, making his will and the law identical. This the Fascists like Trump and Hitler share with Absolute Monarchists, the idea that L’étatc’est moi. Belief in the absolute authority of the Glorious Leader (Trump thought his image should be carved onto Mount Rushmore) is what puts the “total” in Totalitarianism.

The Portrayal of Himself as the Ultra-Masculine Leader, the Archetype of the Masculine, the Strongman. Trump loves to talk about how tough he is and constantly made threats via Tweet, yelled at staff, tore up briefs, and actually threw things when he got mad. And he constantly degraded women, speaking of grabbing them by the genitals, bragging about being able to get away with sexual assault, yelling at his female Secretary of Homeland Security and calling her “Honey,” making disgusting remarks about female celebrities and reporters. He actually ran a freaking old school beauty pageant. He bragged about walking in on the women while they were dressing because as owner, he could get away with it. He was a big pal of Jeffrey Epstein’s. Of course, Trump didn’t have the physique to portray himself as a male sex symbol, so he tweeted out pictures of his face Photoshopped onto the body of fictional boxer Rocky Balboa and actually sold this image on his website. Over twenty-five women have accused him of sexual assault. He paid off a porn star and a Playboy bunny to keep quiet about affairs with him. And in these respects, Trump was in the mold of other Fascist leaders who promulgated hyper-masculinized images of themselves (along with a big dose of hyper-sexism)–think Mussolini and Pinochet and Berlusconi and of Hitler’s military garb and Putin’s shirtless, horseback photoshoots.

One could go on and on. In Trump one had and has ALMOST the complete Fascist package. The one element that was missing was the competence to pull it off. Trump is far too ignorant and stupid to have effected a Fascist revolution in America. The next guy will have all Trump’s Fascist tendencies but be smarter and more knowledgeable.

P.S.: It is extraordinarily important to call Fascism out when it rears its monstrous head, to call it what it is. Why? Because silence is complicity. It’s letting it happen again. It’s making the same mistake that Germans made back in 1932-33, expecting that it’s not going to be all that bad. That experience is behind us all now. We are supposed to know better. It CAN get that bad, that quickly. Been there, done that. In the middle of the last century, we fought a war to end this shit. Here we are seeing it again, right here, on our soil. Who would have imagined that we would have slid so far backward? These must be more than just words: Never again.

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 63 Comments

A Preliminary Inventory of Trump’s Lies about the Mar-a-Lago Search

Don the Con, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways from just the last few days.

Trump suggested that the FBI might have “planted” documents when he knew that he and his family members had watched the search live on Mar-a-lago’s closed-circuit television system. So, this was a lie.

Trump said that the FBI had raided his “beautiful home” after his having cooperated fully. But he hadn’t cooperated fully. He had retained, illegally, despite repeated requests that he turn them over, documents with the highest level of security classification. And he knew this. So, these were multiple lies, for he made them more than once. We now know that he illegally held onto hundreds of pages of documents, many with the highest levels of secrecy, and he did so after repeated attempts of the National Archives, the DOJ, and even former members of the Trump team to get him to turn them over willingly.

Trump and his son Eric have claimed that the raid was political motivated and have suggested that it was done at Biden’s bidding. Another lie. Trump doesn’t seem to get that the DOJ is not the president’s private police force, as much as Trump tried to turn it into one during his tenure.

Trump claimed that he had a “standing order” that any documents that he took from the Oval Office were automatically declassified. He knows that there is no such thing as a standing order declassification policy, especially not for top secret and SCI documents, which are so classified because revelation of them poses a grave threat to national security. Another lie.

Trump claimed that all presidents do this. A lie. All presidents are not lying, treasonous, moronic criminals.

Trump claimed that Obama did this with large numbers of documents. No, Obama followed official procedure and protocols for transfer of Obama administration documents from the National Archives to the Obama Presidential Library. There are established procedures for this to ensure security and limits on what can be done with what. The claim that Obama did this is another of a great many lies that Trump has told about Obama, dating back to the birth certificate lies.

Trump called on the DOJ to release, immediately, the warrant and property list for this search, knowing all the while that he had copies of these and could himself release them. So, another lie, and a particularly blatant one, on which Garland called his bluff.

I’m sure that this is not an exhaustive list. Trump lies so routinely that it’s difficult to keep up with them all. He also lies blatantly because his moronic base will believe anything and because his toadying supporters among elected Republicans, who long since gave over any principles they might have once had, will cravenly back him no matter how blatant and egregious and dangerous to the country’s security the lies are.

Update, 8/14: Trump or someone close to him released to rightwing media outlets the warrant with the unredacted names of FBI officials on it. Predictably, given this MAGA crowd, these FBI officials have received threats!!! Horrific. No low is too low for the MAGATs.

Trump told his former chief of staff, John Kelly, that he [Trump] didn’t “believe in” the classification system. Now, this statement is really, really revealing. First, Trump thinks that the verb “to believe” has the meaning of “approve of,” so that “I don’t believe in” and “I don’t approve of” mean the same thing. Second, this illustrates his stupidity, his inability to make crucial distinctions. Third, because he cannot make crucial distinctions, he can’t understand things, like why we have a classification system for secrets related to national security. Fourth, this particular lack of understanding of a distinction is an example of a general cognitive issue that Trump has: He cannot distinguish between reality and what he wishes were the case. Whatever he wants, right now, must be reality, to Trump, or he throws a childish fit. He is the Child-man in the Promised Land. Toddler Trump. If reality doesn’t fit his desires, he throws a fit and throws food at the wall. If the thing he doesn’t like is a rule or a law, he just breaks it. This is how the mind of a criminal sociopath works.

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 109 Comments

Trump 2024 Campaign Slogans

Please vote for me. Otherwise, I go to prison.

Why just documents in the toilet? Why not the whole country?

Making America Grate Again

TRUMP 2024: 20 for Obstruction of an Official Proceeding. 24 for Seditious Conspiracy

MAGA: Moscow’s Asset Governing America

The Man with No Plan and the Tan in the Can

Trump, the Relapse

Back to the Future! Way, way, way back!

Trump: For a Whiter House in 2025!

Vote for Trump or He’ll Stamp (or Stomp) His Foot, Hold His Breath, and Throw a Plate of Food

Grab ’em by the Ballot!

Cuckoo Coup Redo

If I Lose Again, Again, It’s Because It Was Rigged, Ha Ha

Because He Doesn’t Give a **** about You

No One Believes Any of This B***S*** I’m Saying, but People Vote for Me Anyway –Donald Trump

Posted in Humor, Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 7 Comments

Honesty about Religion

I know that people are supposed to “show respect” to religious belief–that that’s a widely held position. But I don’t have any respect for it. I have precisely the opposite. It seems to me breathtakingly ironic that religions make claims to truth and characterize dishonesty as a sin and yet are fundamentally dishonest. They involve people lying to themselves and others about what they understand and know. Believers today no more know the ideas that they promulgate as truths than did folks living in ancient Norway when they spoke of Odin and Frigg, but at least those ancients had the excuse of living in a superstitious, prescientific time. Superstition is, of course, superstition no matter who believes it. It’s not made any more credible because it is believed by someone who is in other ways discerning and knowledgeable.

Yes, I know that giving up one’s invisible friends can be hard, but it’s long past time for that.

Here’s a tell: people are actually so unsure about this religious stuff that they pretend to certain about that they have to build walls around it, make it out of bounds, taboo, or impolite to criticize it. Suppose that I were to say to you that Chicago is the greatest city in Indiana. You would feel no compunction about pointing out to me that I’m wrong, that Chicago is in Illinois. That proposition about the world is false, and no one would think it wrong, at all, to say so. But if it’s a religious claim–prayers are answered, you can only be saved by grace, you go to heaven (or hell) when you die, a human sacrifice had to be carried out to erase people’s sins, Christ died and was resurrected after three days, a virgin gave birth two thousand years ago, wafers turn into God’s body, Joshua told the sun to stop in the sky and it did, Satan is at work in the world, there are witches, you shouldn’t suffer a witch to live, and so on–the claim, no matter how childish, how ludicrous, how like the other crazy things that people used to believe thousands of years ago in a credulous age, supposedly must be treated with respect. Why? Because if you treated any of any of these fundamentally silly and sometimes morally obtuse religious claims as you would treat any other claim about the universe, you would dismiss the stuff out of hand. Religious ideas can’t stand up to scrutiny, and that’s why questioning them in public is treated as taboo, as a faux pas.

Here’s another tell: When people talk about their religious ideas, they use the term belief. Even though they make the claim that their religious propositions are knowledge, are certainties, are things they know to be true, they use the term belief: I believe that Christ is my savior, I believe in the power of prayer, and so on. But consider this. If you think it true that there is beer in the fridge, if you consider it certainly to be so because you just put a six pack into the fridge, then you would NOT say, “I believe that there is beer in the fridge.” You would just say, “There is beer in the fridge.” People simultaneously claim that religious knowledge is the highest and surest type of knowledge AND use the term belief to describe it, a term we otherwise reserve for describing uncertainties. Why? Because we use the term belief when we are making claims that we are not actually sure about. What this shows is that people don’t actually know the things they claim to know via their religions. They are LYING about their certainty, to themselves and others. And ironically, the major religions all teach that lying is bad.

Here’s the thing: I take seriously the notion that you shouldn’t tell falsehoods and shouldn’t claim certainty about that which is at best totally fanciful and speculative, like a fairytale. I’ll go even further and say that perpetrating falsehood is really damaging, that it undermines people’s ability to think clearly. And I think that telling falsehoods to children as part of their training for adulthood is particularly egregious. It’s simply not acceptable.

Enough. Enough. It is far, far past time that we threw over these superstitions from the infancy of our culture before these become, again, via our fundamentalist Extreme Court and various state theocracies one of the primary vehicles for propping up murderous autocracy, which has been a major function of monotheistic religion since its inception in the ancient city-states.

We should stop, I think, pussy-footing around people’s religious “sensibilities.” Why? Because the truth actually matters.

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Religion | 6 Comments

The Second American Revolution Has Begun, and This New Trump Court Is Carrying It Out

Warning: read this only if you are actually willing to do the minimal work necessary to understand the revolution that the Extreme Court of the United States is effecting right now. It can happen here, folks. It is happening. And this court is preparing the way. What it is up to is equivalent to the German Enabling Act of 1932. I think all of this extreme and frightening.

Let me be as clear about this as I can be. My reading of what the Extreme Court has been up to is NOT that it means to do away with the doctrine of stare decisis, though you will read many pieces in the popular media that claim that this is so. No. This court means to establish, with Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health and West Virginia v. EPA, in this term, and with Moore v. Harper, in the next term, a new set of precedents designed to prepare the legal ground for meeting the conservative goals of

a) shrinking the federal government down to a size at which it can be drowned in a bathtub and
b) turning over power to state governments, many of which will become de facto theocracies under the new legal order the Extreme Court seeks to establish.

Let’s look at the three cases and see how each reduces the federal government (and importantly, reduces or eliminates and prepares the ground for further reducing or eliminating previously federally protected human rights).

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health provides a template or boilerplate for eliminating not only the federal right to abortion but a) whole bodies of federal law and regulation related to unenumerated rights and b) the primary functions of agencies and departments that do that regulation and enforcement to preserve those rights.

WV v. EPA is a template or boilerplate for eliminating government agencies or departments (or parts of these) that promulgate regulations in areas over which the Congress has, according to the Constitution, primary authority. This Court is arguing that Congress can’t turn over to Executive Branch agencies or departments decision-making about matters left to Congress by the Constitution if the decisions made by those agencies or departments deal with “major questions.” The idea is that Constitutionally, some matters belong SOLELY to the legislative fiefdom and cannot be delegated, in whole or in part. So, for example, in WV. V. EPA the court ruled that the EPA, being an administrative agency, cannot force utilities to move toward cleaner energy sources, that Congress would have to authorize the EPA, specifically, to do that (something that, of course, the current Senate, with a 50 + Manchin block, would never do). And as with Dobbs, the Court doubtless means to generalize this ruling, in future rulings, thereby shrinking dramatically the power and scope of the administrative/executive branch of the federal government. The Court means to strip administrative agencies and departments of powers in full knowledge of the fact that Congress, being divided, will not step in to carry out the work formerly done by the Executive Branch (will not, for example, agree on laws with real teeth related to matters like climate-friendly energy sources or food safety). And again, the effect of that will be, with the federal executive and legislature and courts all out of the picture, to turn all this power back to the states.

And, finally, Moore v. Harper will enable the court to rule that the feds cannot pass legislation to protect voting rights because determination of how voting is to be conducted is entirely up to state legislatures under this extremist reading of the Constitution. Again, the effect will be to eliminate federal power and agencies/departments and turn this all over to the states. This is really important to Republicans going forward because the only way that they can hold onto power is by restricting voting rights, and the troglodytes on the Extreme Court want to ensure that Republican state legislators can do that.

All this is revolutionary and is meant to be. It’s the fulfillment of a dream that conservatives in America have had for a long, long time. They have long believed in state’s rights and in the federal government being a monster not envisioned by the founders. This Extreme Court is simply finally making good on the conservative dream to enshrine those beliefs in law.

And, btw, as with the various parallel attempted coups undertaken by Trump and his team (there were several of these), this has all been discussed on Steve Bannon’s War Room Pandemic podcast (or whatever he is calling his show; I have read that he doesn’t like his podcast being called a podcast; perhaps the term doesn’t sufficiently match his delusions of grandeur). Bannon recently devoted much of whatever his program is (podcast? cuckoo coup lollapalooza?) to this very topic–the ways in which work is underway to completely “dismantle the administrative state.”

Again, conservatives have been making these arguments for a very, very long time. Now, after a century of arguing that our expansive federal government is illegitimate, they finally have a supermajority on the court that agrees with them. The nationalist, fundamentalist supermajority on the Court sees the current program to shrink and drown the federal government as returning government in the U.S. to its original principles after a long period in which it veered off into weirdness never conceived of by the founders. THAT’S NOT a new argument. The conservative legal scholar James Q. Wilson, for example, spent much of his life making it. Our Original Sin, politically, according to Conservatives, was the expansion of federal government via an over-generous interpretation of the Interstate Commerce clause, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Thus we find the feds involved in matters as diverse as regulation of tobacco and food and wetlands and emissions.

Know your enemy, folks. Understand what the conservative beef is. And don’t underestimate them or it.

In short, this Court is in the process of establishing precedents that amount to a legal revolution that returns U.S. government, they believe, to what as envisioned by the founders: independent state governments in loose federation. So, the Extreme Court will claim to be reaffirming precedents, but ones from long, long ago, before the courts derailed and created a huge federal government that can have its hands in everything, from marriage law to regulation of tobacco and wetlands.

Those of you old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s will understand what I mean when I say that this could most appropriately be designated The Nullification Court.

Again, and in summary, this court plans to reduce, dramatically, the scope and power of the federal government and place power over many matters back into the hands of state governments, many of which will function as small, independent theocratic states with the court’s imprimatur and blessing. The folks at The National Review and The Wall Street Journal and The American Enterprise Institute, who are hip to this, can barely contain their glee.

This is the disaster that Trump has wrought. But it’s too complicated for Americans to follow. They are too busy thinking about the next Spiderman movie or Elon Musk sex life tabloid release. So, the fascist revolution will happen here while no one was paying any attention.

Posted in Politics, Religion, Trump (Don the Con) | 40 Comments

What Fascism Looks Like

In the middle of the last century, the United States and its allies fought a world war to end fascism. What did fascism look like? Well, it looked like this:

Like Hilter or Mussolini, Donald Trump . . .

Has long been the object of a cult of personality

Has long called for an exceptionalist, nationalist curriculum

Supported armed citizens’ militias in the streets (for example, the folks who raided the Michigan capitol) and called on citizens’ militia groups to stand back and stand by

Continually scapegoats immigrants

Continually scapegoats enemies within, including Socialists

Continually uses racist dogwhistles

Continually promises a return to a mythical Golden Age (Make America Great Again)

Espouses a doctrine of national exceptionalism

Uses the massive rally as his primary means of communication with his base–rallies where there is lots of iconography and chanting

Attempted to use the military to quell protest and dissent (Trump was only stopped from doing this because Milley and Esper refused to go along)

Ordered mass murder (Trump ordered his head of Homeland Security to have Border Patrol Officers SHOOT unarmed asylum seekers and was only stopped from doing this because that head, Kirstjen Nielsen, refused to do so}

Arrogated to himself absolute power (Trump claimed in speeches that the Constitution gave him the power, as president, to do whatever he wanted)

Refused to accept election outcomes that did not favor him and attempted to effect a coup (Fascist Glorious Leaders never lose elections, or if they do, they effect a do-over)

Has a thing for monuments, for monumental architecture, and for military parades

Supports autocratic, fascist dictators around the globe

Wields such power in his party that almost no one will stand up to him on anything

In other words, Trump is a CLASSIC fascist, and the Trump cult is a fascist cult. One has to be incredibly blind not to see this.

The only differences between Trump and, say, Mussolini and Hitler, are that

a. Trump was too stupid and ignorant to realize his goals (The next guy, having assumed Trump’s mantle, won’t be; he will have the right yes men in place.) and that

b. Trump didn’t have the legal framework in place to implement fascism here (Our current Extreme Court is working on that).

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 1 Comment

Prosecuting Trump for Insurrection

Could someone please wake up A. G. Garland?

If Garland doesn’t prosecute Trump, then democracy in America is already over. The only think distinguishing us from a banana republic is that we don’t grow bananas ourselves. That said, here is

Your Handy-Dandy Guide to Some of the Federal Laws Under Which A.G. Garland Must Charge Donald J. Trump

(These are ones related to The Big Lie; a whole other set of laws would enable a whole other set of charges related to The Big Rip-off. Note that Trump needs to be charged with multiple, separate counts of each of the following.)

18 U.S. Code § 2384 (2000): Seditious conspiracy

If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.

18 U.S. Code § 2385 (2000) Advocating overthrow of government

Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government; or

Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts to do so; or

Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence; or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof—
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.

If two or more persons conspire to commit any offense named in this section, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.

As used in this section, the terms “organizes” and “organize”, with respect to any society, group, or assembly of persons, include the recruiting of new members, the forming of new units, and the regrouping or expansion of existing clubs, classes, and other units of such society, group, or assembly of persons.

18 U.S. Code § 371 (2000) – Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud United States

If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
If, however, the offense, the commission of which is the object of the conspiracy, is a misdemeanor only, the punishment for such conspiracy shall not exceed the maximum punishment provided for such misdemeanor.

18 U.S. Code § 1505 – Obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, and committees

Whoever, with intent to avoid, evade, prevent, or obstruct compliance, in whole or in part, with any civil investigative demand duly and properly made under the Antritrust Civil Process Act, willfully withholds, misrepresents, removes from any place, conceals, covers up, destroys, mutilates, alters, or by other means falsifies any documentary material, answers to written interrogatories, or oral testimony, which is the subject of such demand; or attempts to do so or solicits another to do so; or

Whoever corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication influences, obstructs, or impedes or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede the due and proper administration of the law under which any pending proceeding is being had before any department or agency of the United States, or the due and proper exercise of the power of inquiry under which any inquiry or investigation is being had by either House, or any committee of either House or any joint committee of the Congress—

Shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism (as defined in section 2331), imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 1 Comment

I’m Woke. You Should Be, Too, by Diane Ravitch

Posted in Politics | 23 Comments

Things I Worry About: How Alternative Fact Worldviews Enable Fascism

George Santayana, in Reason in Religion, makes the argument that religion serves the same sort of purposes that poetry does and that, while not literally true,* is nonetheless elevating. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, makes a pragmatic argument for religion, saying that what matters is not its literal truth** (on that he agrees with Santayana) but, rather, the consequences of belief, which he considers to be mostly positive. He points out that when you look at the teachings and actions of a saint in any of the world’s major religions, these are similar and life-affirming: Be kind and generous to other people. Don’t hurt them. Be humble. Care for the infirm and needy. Don’t be greedy. And so on. Aldus Huxley makes the same ecumenical point, at length, in his book The Perennial Philosophy. Kurt Vonnegut had a soft spot for religion and made the claim that when Marx called religion “the opiate of the people,” he didn’t mean that that was a bad thing. Life is hard, Vonnegut tells us, and people need pain relievers. His were his Pall Malls.

My own inclination is to say, look, religions make empirical claims about us, the world, the universe, ultimate matters, for which there is not a scintilla, not a jot, of evidence, and it simply doesn’t make any sense–it just isn’t reasonable–to believe things for which there is no evidence. Consider this statement: There is an intelligent species in the Proxima Centauri star system that communicates with hyphae and reproduces via spores, like mushrooms on Earth. What is the truth value of that proposition? Well, clearly, there is no reason whatsoever to think it true. It COULD BE true, but there is no reason to believe that it IS true. There simply is no relevant evidence for the truth of this specific claim (though there is ample evidence that life is abundant beyond our fragile blue planet).

My take: Speculation is fine, but do the adult thing, when you are speculating, and admit that like a science fiction writer, you are simply trying on possibilities. Don’t take wild-ass speculations all that seriously, though, because the truth matters. It really does. It matters, for example, that undocumented immigrants to the United States have very low crime rates and are not “hordes of rapists and murderers.”

In general, I have been inclined, like Vonnegut, throughout most of my life, to a live-and-let-live attitude about people’s religious beliefs, but as I witness the quotidian reality that right-wing extremists like Ted Cruz and Tucker Carlson can barely open their mouths without claiming that God is on their side, I am becoming more and more inclined to say, look, grow up. Throw off the superstition. You might have a lot of knowledge about what your religion thinks about God, for example, but you don’t have ANY actual knowledge about God. You just don’t. And you certainly don’t know that He (or whatever) wants people to vote for Donald Trump and to ship asylum seekers to Mexico and to keep women from controlling their own bodies. If you claim that you have such knowledge, actual knowledge, then you are just lying, and ironically, most religions tell us that lying is a bad thing indeed.

Increasingly, our politics seems to me to be driven by ignorance and superstition, and so, increasingly, I’ve become allergic to both.

That said, there is much, much that we do not understand about ultimate realities. We are MOSTLY ignorant, and that’s built into our perceptual and cognitive makeup, into the limitations that our perceptual and cognitive apparatus imposes on what we have access to and what we can understand. So, I’m also equally impatient with dogmatic materialist determinists, and my blood boils when people like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett refer to themselves as “the Brights.” No, they are practitioners of the religion of Scientism, and Scientism isn’t science.

In short, in this time of “alternative facts” from the right, it’s important, I think, for saner, wiser people to insist on actual facts and to stand up against worldviews in which empirical propositions for which there is no empirical evidence whatsoever are claimed to be true. Open that door, and anything goes. What’s true becomes a matter of who has the power to enforce it. That’s the world of alternative facts, and in that direction lies the fascism that I think we are precipitously sliding into.


*Santayana is wrong about poetry. Sometimes it is quite literally true, and sometimes a writer thinks a poem true, even if it isn’t. For example, Hesiod and the poets whom we collectively refer to as Homer doubtless thought that while they were taking liberties–poetic license we now call it–the general outlines of what they were saying were factual.

**In fact, James wants us to redefine truth as the following attribute of some propositions: that believing them has positive consequences for us. That’s a pretty radical notion, but I’m not here going to go into why I reject it except as a sometimes workable but sometimes extremely misleading rule of thumb.

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Trump (Don the Con) | 4 Comments

On Putting Powerful Tools in Unskilled Hands: Two Egregious Tendencies in Contemporary Poetry

NB: Several of the examples I use in this essay come from various essays by Randall Jarrell that I read years ago in my own wayward youth. If this were a scholarly piece, I would track those down and footnote them. But it’s not, so I won’t. I’ll just let this introductory note be an acknowledgement of the debt. Go read Jarrell’s essays. They are wonderful.

In the past, poets were among the best-selling authors of their times. Dryden, Pope, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Byron, Tennyson, and James Whitcomb Riley, for example, commanded enormous audiences. A young woman wrote to Wordsworth asking why he didn’t try his hand at one of the popular romances of the kind coming out of Germany. He replied that his motivation was a bit crass: his audience, because he was a poet, was much larger.

Flash forward a couple hundred years. Because more people today than in the past receive educations, there are doubtless more people writing poetry now than ever before. Do you know anyone who doesn’t have some poems, written in his or her tweens or teens or twenties, stuffed away in a drawer or on a thumb drive? You have some, don’t you? Haaa! I knew it. Hell, even someone as close to illiterate as is, say, Donald Trump, probably committed a poem in his wayward youth (precursor to an even more wayward semiadulthood). One can imagine the quality of that!

So, we live in a time of poetry writing. However, we are also living in a time of almost no poetry reading.

Today, even major poets are published in editions of a thousand copies, most of which are bought by libraries. Doubtless, the poet’s mother also buys one. Robert Frost was likely the last person who was actually able to make a living writing poetry, and he did this only after struggling financially for the first 40+ years of his life. Most practicing poets today have a day job, even the very great ones like Brooke Baker Belk.

I am loath to discourage people from following their bliss, but consider this: One of the ideas that makes the rounds among teenaged boys in 21st-century America is that there are other teenaged boys who make millions each year trying out games for gaming companies. I wish I had a hundred bucks for every time some teen boy has told me that being a videogame tester is what he aspires to. “So, are you going to learn to code?” I always ask. “No, you don’t have to do that. They pay you just to play the games,” is the inevitable answer. Well, anyone who thinks that he or she is going to make a living as a poet today is just like those kids. Uh, no. It’s more likely that you will be discovered to be a lost prince or princess of some obscure African kingdom or that you will run into the ghost of Cleopatra in Algebra class.

So, what happened to the readership for poetry? Well, I think that there are two answers to that question. The first, and biggest, in this country, is that English teachers killed kids’ interest in poetry by continually asking, “What does this mean?” as though poetry were a kind of unproductive Easter egg hunt for meaning perversely well hidden. What do kids learn from this sort of teaching? That poets are weird and that reading poetry is hard and not worth the effort. There’s a name for this kind of inadvertent teaching. It’s called the Hidden Curriculum. Every such English teacher is actually teaching, without recognizing that he or she is doing so, that poets are these perverse people who don’t try to communicate but, rather, try to hide what they mean from their readers. Kids naturally conclude that poetry is scholastic bullshit. A girl once asked T.S. Eliot, at a reading, what he meant by this line from “Ash Wednesday”: “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree. Eliot answered, “I meant, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.’” To combat this perception of poetry reading as something just too difficult to be worth undertaking, a great teacher and poet of my acquaintance, James Worley, used to type poems out as passages of prose and give them to kids in that form. Otherwise, if they saw them arranged into lines, they would think, “Yikes. Poem. One of those things that’s damned near impossible to read.”

But that’s not the main topic of this essay. What I want to address here is the second reason why poetry is widely written but rarely read today, and that’s because most of it is drek. After being subjected to a lot of truly awful contemporary “poetry,” most people just don’t want to be bothered anymore. So, this raises another issue: why is so much contemporary poetry so awful? Well, a partial answer is that many young poets, now, try to use techniques first introduced by masters of the craft but that the young would-be poets don’t have the skill to use well.

Think of woodworking and the use of an electronic router. This is a powerful tool. The extremely sharp bit on a router revolves at between 59.5 and 178.5 miles per hour. Anyone who tries to use the thing without a considerable amount of training is likely to destroy whatever he or she is working on and might well lose the use of a finger or a hand or an eye. Or, to take another example, think of a supposed “good guy with a gun,” barely trained, responding to an active shooter. He or she is most likely just going to hurt himself or herself and one or more innocent bystanders.

Young would-be poets, today, often think that poetry is a medium for gushing randomly and emotionally and vaguely while suspending all the usual rules for communication. It’s art, so anything goes. In particular, they seem to think that in poetry, one can simply free associate and forget about ordinary rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, capitalization, and logic. Where would they get these crazy notions? Well, here’s what happens: a master comes along and employs a new or resurrected or borrowed technique. Others copy the technique, often poorly, and a false takeaway from the master’s work becomes part and parcel of how people conceive of the medium thereafter. I’ll discuss two examples of this.

T.S. Eliot wrote poetry that made obscure allusions and was highly elliptical. So, to understand a particular line in one of his poems, you have to be familiar with the grail legend of the Fisher King or a scene from Dante’s inferno or a particular poem by a thirteenth-century Provencal troubadour. To understand another line, you have to read what is being described into the barest hint about it: he writes, “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo,” and you have to fill in the details: Oh, you figure out, based on barely sufficient clues, he is talking about women in an art museum or at an exhibition or a salon, reducing art to idle chatter. So, from this, people mistakenly concluded that in poems, one can simply free associate, mention random things, and be as obscure as one likes. In fact, the more obscure, the more mysterious and possibly profound, and thus the more poetic. And this is a DISASTROUS takeaway. A poem, like any other piece of writing, is a medium of communication. Eliot was not trying to be as obscure as possible—trying to muddy the waters to make them look deep, as Nietzsche famously commented in another context. Rather, Eliot was trying to communicate (emphasis on the word communicate) as much as possible in the fewest possible words. In other words, he was striving to exemplify in his work the virtue of economy of expression. Unfortunately, many would-be poets today got from work like his and that of his imitators the notion that if it’s obscure, it’s a poem. No, that’s not a characteristic that makes something into a poem. It makes it into failed communication.

Edward Estlin Cummings wrote poetry that intentionally violated standard rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, word and line breaks, meter, and manuscript form. However, commonly (though not always), he was doing this with very good reason. I’ll give an example not from Cummings but from Walt Whitman, who wrote, “I snuff the sidle of evening.” Here, Whitman makes the noun snuff into a verb and the verb sidle into a noun. Turning snuff into a verb suggests that the speaker is reacting to evening as one does when taking snuff: it’s an enthusiastic, addictive, intense, at least mildly intoxicating action. And the nominalization of the verb to sidle suggests evening cozying up to the speaker. In both cases, he is violating the usual usage of these words with an explicit purpose—to render extremely concretely a particular experience. Evening sidles up to the speaker, and the speaker loves this so much that he snuffs it, takes in the intoxicating presence of evening in an intense gesture. But as with Eliot, would-be poets reacted to Cummings and other experimental poets by latching onto the wrong takeaway. They didn’t take away the idea that one can, on occasion, in a poem, violate an established convention of grammar, usage, punctuation, formatting, logic, or whatever in order to achieve a particular innovative communicative purpose that has been clearly worked out. Rather, they took away the utterly crazy notion that in poetry none of the conventions apply. And that, again, is a recipe for failed communication. Conventions exist in order to facilitate communication, and participating in communication is, after all, why people read and write, speak and listen. One shouldn’t have to say things that obvious. Here’s a small sample from a work by someone who has imbibed the false takeaway that in a poem, anything goes:

A light-shines.
In the distance

This snippet violates a number of rules of punctuation. If the author were writing prose, the sentence (for it is, or at least resembles, a sentence) would be punctuated (and parts of it capitalized) in one of the following ways:

A light shines in the distance, beckoning.


A light shines, in the distance beckoning.

And, of course, each would have a slightly different intention and signification.

When broken into lines, these would become

A light shines
in the distance,

or better yet,

A light shines in the distance,|


A light shines,
in the distance

or better yet,

A light shines,
in the distance beckoning.

Note that each of these is punctuated just as the lines would be if they were in straight prose. Also note that in the second of each of these examples, the line break actually serves a purpose. It accentuates the grammatical structure of the enjambed (run-on) sentence. In the first two examples, the comma sets off a participle. In the second two, it sets off an absolute construction.

In other words, unless there is very good reason for doing so, one should follow the standard rules for capitalization, punctuation, grammar, usage, logic, and so on that one would follow when writing prose. and when one breaks a rule, dividing a sentence into separate lines in a free verse poem, for example, there should be a reason for doing so. Otherwise, if one treats punctuation marks and capital letters and line breaks like simply various seasonings sprinkled randomly in a text, one simply introduces confusion. But, of course, people don’t read in order to be confused. They read in order to be communicated with.

My suggestion to young poets re: copying the innovative techniques of folks like Eliot and Cummings: These were skilled masters at the height of powers developed over many years. Do not try this at home. And if you break a rule, do it for a good reason. The word art comes from the Latin ars, meaning a work of practical skill or craft. What distinguishes a craftsperson from an amateur is that he or she knows the rules and breaks them, when he or she does break them, rarely and for good reason. Why? Because otherwise, the resulting work is simply a mess.

Posted in Poetry, Teaching Literature and Writing | 11 Comments