November 9, 2015
by Les Lane


In one episode (“Flight Path”) of the great 1970’s science fiction television series UFO, a young, beautiful woman is threatened by a bad guy (under alien control) who is trying to jimmy her apartment door and shoot her. After brief indecision she remembers the double-barreled shotgun in the closet and blasts the intruder through the door just as he gains entry. He falls to the floor dropping his pistol which slides away, but then starts painfully dragging himself toward it to finish the job. How does she respond? Does she:

A. walk into the next room, light a cigarette, and escape through the window

B. pick the pistol up, put it on top of the refrigerator, light a cigarette and threaten the maniac with the other barrel of the shotgun, or

C. kick the gun away, put the sofa on him and sit in it, light a cigarette (they smoked a lot of cigarettes in this show), call the police and pull out a good book?

The answer – none of the above. She cowers in a corner of the room within range of the gun – without even lighting a cigarette – and waits, trembling and devoid of hope, for him to finish what he started. Ah…how times have changed. Nowadays the intruder would be a 250 pound troglodyte who would unceremoniously bash in the door only to get his derriere kicked by a 100 pound hellcat in a black leather jumpsuit.

It helps, if one wishes to understand what the heck is going on in these vintage shows, to be able to travel back in time and immerse oneself in the social mores and attitudes of that period. Not an easy thing to do. In this case, we must understand that first – attractive women were essentially porcelain angels. Showing a bit of grit was fine, and even a little sexy, as our protagonist did when she shot him in the first place, but taking it to the next level by threatening, or heaven forbid, shooting her attacker with the other barrel (option B) would have been crass, unseemly, and completely out of the question for any self-respecting woman. Better to die. Solving a problem through violence or the threat of violence, was the purview of the man. Second – the idea that any man (protector) would try to kill a woman (protected) was so ghastly that it literally paralyzed her. The sheer evil of it pinned her to the wall. Nowadays we take violence of all types and degrees for granted, but back then, with World War II still fresh in the social memory and fought over and over in movies and on TV, violence was relegated to certain closely prescribed circumstances. (The shock value of this type of homicide, however, did add immeasurably to the intensity of the show.) Third – option A or C would have introduced shades of gray to a black and white situation that would have caused considerable discomfort to the viewers. He was bad, she was good. He was powerful, even in his last moments, she was helpless. If this black and white situation wasn’t actually black and white, what other situations and attitudes might be suspect? It would have been too much to contemplate.

Times change, and most of that change is inevitable. Of course change brings destruction and dissolution – of attitudes, organizations, systems, physical entities, etc. – but no one would want to live in a world where nothing ever changes. Imagine living where you live how you live, surrounded by what you’re surrounded by, doing what you do in the way you do it with everything exactly the same… forever. If old stuff wasn’t destroyed, there would be no room, mental, physical, or metaphysical, for new stuff. There would be no creation of any kind.

Destruction and creation are the engines of life and existence. Take away the cycle of destruction and creation and you’re left with entropy – an infinite field of stable nothing. To try to prevent change out of a blind fear of the destruction it brings is to lose your chance at creation, as the political organization of ultra-conservatives that has animated the Frankenstein’s monster Tea Party will inexorably discover. But change these days is increasing exponentially, and a nagging question is beginning to surface. How fast is too fast? At what point does the rate of change in technology (smart phone apps), business (universal, omnipresent commercialization), daily routines (non-stop multitasking), private life (hovering drones, gps), etc., threaten our individual and collective psyche? The fact that so much has changed since 1970 that it is difficult to make sense of certain situations in the shows of that period is interesting. Is it alarming? Should we be concerned as a species, or do we possess the ability to just continue to speed up forever? In 1970, Alvin Toffler and his wife (uncredited co-author) warned us against out-of-control change in their best-seller Future Shock. The book spawned a new field, futurology, that attempts to predict and explain the future, but scientific studies and surveys that plumb the depth of our capacity to endure that future are very difficult to find.

Blind, mindless fear of the unavoidable change toward diversity and power-sharing has transformed the far-right into suicide bombers, willing to destroy themselves, their party, and the country in order to “save” America. But not all conservatives have lost their minds over this. A consultant with one of the recent moderate Republican gubernatorial campaigns agreed, during a private conversation, that change is necessary and inevitable, but added that it should be “methodical.” While “methodical” might be a little slow for many Progressives, the suggestion that change also not be helter-skelter is perhaps not completely off in right field. When it comes to attitudes about change, the difference between left and right might just be one of degree. This suggests compromise in our body politic might still be possible, you know – like it used to be in the perfect, golden-age past. Now that would be a change!

September 30, 2015
by Les Lane
Comments Off on Voting? Please!

Voting? Please!

Let’s get right down to it, shall we?

Stock reasons not to vote:

  • You are one of millions. Your vote won’t make a difference. It’s like spitting in the ocean.

  • You know politicians are lying when they have their mouths open and words are coming out. A politician’s campaign promises are like Listerine wafers in your mouth.

  • You don’t understand the issues and you’re too slammed right now to educate yourself. It would be irresponsible of you to vote. You should leave it up to the people who know what they’re doing. Besides, see reason number one.

Stock rebuttals to stock reasons not to vote:

  • Only 1/3 of eligible voters actually vote. So your vote does make a difference. (Okay, so it would be like spitting in Lake Pontchartrain then!)

  • There are actually some politicians who are not lying liars that lie. (Oh sure, and I’m the pope.)

  • It’s your duty as a citizen to inform yourself and participate in the democratic process. (Fine, you pay for a lawyer who can explain those ballot initiatives to me, or a political scientist who can dissect the policy proposals, or a psychologist who can assess the personalities, and I will go vote, if I can find time to go to the polls and stand in line.)

Hmmm…This may take a little more effort. Okay, try these:

  • When you vote you say to the universe, “I exist,” even if you have to drive, park, walk, and then – yes – stand in line to make that statement. It doesn’t really matter if the universe already knows you exist or not. Making the statement is not for its benefit. It’s for your benefit. It may be the most important statement you ever make because when you make it, you matter. Some people declare their existence by hurting people or destroying something. It’s much easier to do, but it’s also much more cowardly and much less impressive. Exert yourself a little and declare your existence constructively by voting.

  • Okay, so you declare your existence. Big deal. It felt good, but once done the big moment is over and the universe maybe still doesn’t care. Not true. When you vote you determine your destiny, though not in the sense, necessarily, that whomever you vote for will be elected and stick to his or her promises (see reasons not to vote above). Instead, as many philosophers and leaders (Ghandi and Emerson among others) have pointed out:

Your thoughts become your words.

Your words become your actions.

Your actions become your habits.

Your habits become your values.

Your values become your character.

Your character becomes your destiny.

Voting even once changes you. Sitting on your tush and letting other people make decisions without your input also changes you. Thoughts become actions become your destiny. Big things are actually small. You, for example, are the culmination of a “twinkle in someone’s eye,” a passing, fragile thought. The whole universe works this way. (Don’t make me drag out that old cliche’ about the mighty oak from an acorn. I will if I have to!)

  • Quantum physics will tell you that everything and everybody is interconnected energy. What you do impacts the universe.  What you don’t do impacts the universe.  The same sort of interconnection exists at the macroscopic level. Every look, word, and action generate multiple, and multilevel, emotional, physical, and philosophical reactions in others. When you vote you make ripples that continue long after the polls close. This happens whether you believe it does or not, so don’t waste your time and energy in denial. Just go out and make some good ripples.

  • Finally – and this one is slightly less philosophical – looneytune ultra-conservatives want you to stay away from the polls. They have broken every rule – legal, ethical, moral – at some point to keep you, or someone like you, from voting. If you don’t vote, you play right into their hands, and they all say thank you.

Keep this in mind also…If you are still alive you have learned how to judge people, at least to some extent. Forget all those ballot initiatives and all those policy proposals if you are pressed for time. Focus on the people running. You may not agree with everything they say, but are they good people? Read a little about them, from both sides of the political spectrum, and attend just one of their appearances. You are likely to enjoy the adventure and you will learn that first, they are regular folks, just like you, except they decided to go into politics. Second, they all have good ideas and bad ideas that you will recognize as good or bad. And third, they are easier to evaluate than you think. Go and see for yourself and then trust your judgment.

“‘Nuff said.” Go vote.

August 31, 2015
by Les Lane


Isn’t it strange that so many things are just the opposite of what they appear to be? Take color, for instance. The color of something is not what it is, it’s what it isn’t. Simplistically put, the wavelength of light that an object rejects is its color. So, in one sense, a red object is actually every color but red. Similarly, autism appears to be a lack of awareness of the outside world. In reality, people with autism perceive too much, and the deluge of sensory noise paralyzes them. “Normal” people, able to screen out the majority of sensory input, are the less aware ones. The idea that “all men are created equal” that informed the Declaration of Independence helped bring about another, uniquely American idea, that humans could be separated into “races” and discriminated against on that basis. The upside-down cross is actually a symbol of humility…Hold on!! “All men are created equal” caused racism?!

Well, not exactly “caused.” But catalyzed – yes. Here’s how.

According to Race – The Power of an Illusion, a documentary which aired on PBS a decade or so ago, slavery had been around for millennia, but slavery based on racism only began in the 1700s, right here in the soon-to-be United States of America. Early English plantation owners succeeded in surviving and prospering only because they had low-cost slave labor, but the first slaves, Irish and Amerindian, didn’t take to it very well. They got sick and died, or ran off, or became belligerent. The colonists believed that what was absolutely needed for economic survival were African workers. Africans were the cream of the crop. Africans were already farmers and cattle breeders, with industries, arts and crafts, governments and commerce. They worked harder, were more civilized, were familiar with many of the colonial money crops, had immunities to Old World diseases, were easily identifiable and therefore easily captured if they ran away (not so with the Irish), and they had nowhere to run away to since their home was across the ocean (not so with Amerindians). But there was a problem: how could New World leaders promote liberty, freedom, and democracy on the one hand, and a system of slavery and exploitation of non-white people on the other? The first solution was the contrivance that, since Africans were heathens, they benefited from contact with Christians and conversion to Christianity. This, however, did not stand the test of time, so a new solution was developed toward the end of the 1700s. Africans, as it turned out, were sub-human, and therefore designed for slavery. Shamefully, many otherwise admirable historical figures, including well-known “scientists,” colluded on this feat of social engineering over the next 200 years. Such was America’s unique original sin and America has suffered from it ever since. (The Amerindian genocide and displacement, while equally tragic, is not a uniquely American phenomenon.)

Contrarians notwithstanding, modern anthropologists appear to be overwhelmingly in agreement that there is no scientific basis for the concept of human races. Never has been, never will be. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) declared so four times, in 1950, 1951, 1964, and 1967, and strongly worded denunciations of the concept were published by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 1996 and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1998. There are some physical differences among human groups, generated by 200,000 years of evolutionary response to different environments, but, if you took a walk from the equator north, you would encounter no biological boundaries or sharp distinctions. In fact, physical characteristics would change so gradually, you might not even notice. As the AAA put it, “it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that…Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes.” So biological markers indicating racial differences in intelligence, sexual behavior, birth rates, infant care, work ethics and abilities, personal restraint, lifespan, aggression, altruism, economic and business practices, family cohesion, brain size, etc. simply don’t exist, and no amount of wishing will bring them into being.

This is not to say that centuries of discrimination, poor treatment, low quality food, sub-standard housing, lack of a proper education and so on did not have consequences, but any humans, from anywhere, exposed for over 200 years to the poisonous fruits of racism would end up disadvantaged and struggling.

Not every expert agrees of course. Dr. George W. Gill, professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming and forensic anthropologist for Wyoming law-enforcement agencies, for example, pointed out on NOVA’s website a few years ago that “Morphological characteristics.. like skin color, hair form, bone traits, eyes, and lips tend to follow geographic boundaries coinciding often with climatic zones…serologists (blood serum specialists) who work largely with blood factors will tend to see…races as not a valid construct, while skeletal biologists, particularly forensic anthropologists, will see races as biologically real. The common person on the street who sees only a person’s skin color, hair form, and face shape will also tend to see races as biologically real. They are not incorrect.”

But Dr. C. Loring Brace, professor of anthropology and curator of biological anthropology at the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, clarified it in this way: “Major continental terms are just fine, and sub-regional refinements such as Western European, Eastern African, Southeast Asian, and so forth carry no unintentional baggage. In contrast, terms such as “Negroid,” “Caucasoid,” and “Mongoloid” create more problems than they solve.”

When in doubt try logic. Any pinkish tan person who lifts weights in the sunlight will have denser bones and darker skin than another who swims in an indoor pool. Do these differences indicate a difference in “race”? Of course not. How do these temporary adaptations differ categorically from the longer-lasting adaptations acquired after 200,000 years surviving in Africa? The answer is they don’t. A 6% adaptation does not a sub-species make.

There is no such thing as race. What boggles the mind is that this realization wasn’t reduced to a cliché years ago.

August 1, 2015
by Les Lane


Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Last month we asked the following questions: What are the right’s cultural constructs? What are the left’s cultural constructs? What are the a priori premises upon which they each build these constructs? To sidestep motivated reasoning and avoid intellectual and social gridlock, it is useful for Progressives to know these things. Of course, different studies use different words to describe different concepts in different ways. In other words, this line of inquiry is a can of worms., but perseverance does yield actionable results. The core of the onion appears to be a combination of first, one’s attitude about how dangerous the world is, and second, one’s pessimism or optimism about human nature.

If you believe (likely at a subconscious level) that the world is, essentially, a dangerous place, and that humans are naturally prone to evil, then you will tend to be authoritarian, dogmatic, and comfortable with social/political/economic rank. After all, simple, straightforward, unambiguous beliefs, rules and regulations, leadership by the “most capable” among us, and authority-sanctioned punishment keep evil human tendencies boxed up, and the dangerous world at bay. According to an article by Jonathan Haidt at entitled “What Makes People Vote Republican,” the patron saint of this moral system is sociologist Emile Durkheim. Haidt writes, “A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durhheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for outgroups…The basic social unit is the…hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions.”

What a bunch of reactionary narrow-mindedness! But…wait a minute. “Self-control,” “duty,” “loyalty,” and “family” actually don’t sound so bad…

If, on the other hand, you find the world more interesting than terrifying and you believe that humans are naturally prone to good, then you will tend to be individualistic, comfortable with ambiguity, and concerned, above all, about fairness and reciprocity. According to Haidt, your patron saint is John Stuart Mill, and a Millian society at its best would be “a peaceful, open and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily…to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.”

Now that’s what I’m talkin about! But…wait a minute. Individualism can devolve into excessive self-focus and comfort with ambiguity can lead to formlessness and world’s gone wild. I mean, how many more choices (flavors, colors, apps, sizes, models) will we be deluged with before we all drown?

As it turns out, nobody has the monopoly on morality or truth, and either side could destroy the world if left unchecked. Go figure. It just so happens that the far right appears to be way closer to accomplishing this right now than the far-left. Progressives need to step in and help save the world alright, but first they need to understand that trying to mercilessly and publicly crush patently absurd arguments with crystalline logic will, because of motivated reasoning on both sides, probably accomplish little. Instead, the secret may be to deploy logic in a more mindful and self-restrained manner, to put oneself in the other’s shoes and couch one’s appeals in language the other side can relate to.

So, instead of “Big oil and gas are destroying our planet and endangering billions because of greed and you’re too stupid to understand that!” we might try, “You know in Job we read ‘But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the LORD hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind. (12.7-10)’” And Isaiah must have been pretty upset when he said, “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. (24.5).” What covenant you ask? To be good stewards of creation for one thing.

The Bible a little too much to handle? Okay, try the Gipper. According to The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism, by Thomas Robertson, Ronald Reagan, in a 1970 business magazine, wrote, “Americans at last are beginning to realize man can no longer ignore his own damaging impact on his overall environment…We have permitted air and water pollution to become a national disgrace – a peril that threatens permanently to alter the delicate balance of ecology that preserves a livable natural environment.” Reagan was so right, and saw this coming so long ago!

Reagan make you queasy? Consider a little bit of commentary on world events: “Those crazy Chinese, with their pollution so bad they had to shut down over 800 factories for two weeks in order to get clean air for three days for the 2014 APEC summit in Beijing! Just another example of how communism is a self-serving sham perpetrated by an out-of-touch, greedy elite. Thank goodness America is more self-aware and sensible than that!”

These are perhaps not the best crafted examples – this is undiscovered country for many of us – but none of them contradict Progressive beliefs or values. And there is no shortage of raw material to use or conservatives to practice on. Logically speaking, what is the goal here? To continue to talk past one another while Rome burns, or to fix things? To save the world or to feel morally and intellectually superior while tearing out head hair in frustration?

Besides, if anyone can pull this off, Progressives can, because we are intelligent and logical and open-minded, and right about so many things. And humble…I forgot humble. What do we have to lose? It would be, if nothing else, an interesting experiment.

July 1, 2015
by Les Lane


Last month’s blog, in an effort to bridge the chasm between left “truth” and right “truthiness,” introduced the recent social intuitionist model of cognition that maintains that logic is actually a faithful servant of the emotions instead of their master, and that this is the best arrangement for productive and successful decision making. Three scenarios in which deployment of pure logic would lead to disaster were offered as springboards into the murky depths of what social intuitionists call “motivated reasoning.” This month, we take a closer look at motivated reasoning and how an understanding of it might empower progressives to help save the world from the short-sighted, panic-induced policies and thinking being championed by the far-right. What follows is based largely on an article published in Psychological Review in 2001 by Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”

Haidt’s article opens with a scenario in which a brother and sister decide to make love. (Take note of your reaction.) Nobody else knows about it, both are consenting adults using protection, neither has regrets and no psychological backlash is evident. In fact, even though they agree not to do it again, they are glad they did it and they cherish what they shared. Was their action wrong?

Let’s say you are reading this with someone you respect. (It isn’t necessary to like them.) Chances are your first reaction is to recoil at the incestuous image. When your companion asks if you feel it is wrong you answer, without even having to think, that it is. “But how can you say that when no one was hurt? I think it was sweet.” What??!! How could they possibly believe…?! That’s crazy! Danger, Will Robinson! Your brain goes into overdrive to construct a logical argument to support your judgment (the “wag-the-dog illusion”). Your companion counters with their own logical argument, and that just makes you more determined to get them to see the truth before it’s too late.

Too late for what exactly?

Your reaction is immediate and strong. You do not spontaneously generate a list of logical pros and cons from which to make a reasoned choice, you go straight to judgment. Only afterward does your logic kick in to support that judgment. This, says social intuitionists, is how motivated reasoning works. You make an immediate judgment based on “intuition” or “instinct” or your “gut feeling” and provide logical reasons later. They have even identified the areas of the brain that handle each function. And here’s the kicker – unless you are very self-aware and somewhat trained in philosophy/logic, you are likely to hunker down into your post hoc “logical” interpretation even if a disinterested observer from Alpha Centauri Bb awards the rationality prize to your companion. Your companion/opponent is likely to do the same. Nobody’s mind will be changed and y’all might conveniently forget each other’s birthday that year. There is a better way.

First of all, understand that you are in good company with your nasty motivated reasoning and all – all other humans do it. In fact, Rationality Golden Boy and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson immortalized motivated reasoning in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice that Jefferson did not bother to construct a logical platform for these “self-evident truths.” He just stated them…as a priori premises… and then used them as a platform to brilliantly build a case for revolution against the English king.

So the first step in dealing with truthiness is to forgive yourself and your opponent for motivated reasoning and, like an intellectual Judo master, bend like the willow. Use motivated reasoning to your advantage. Use your knowledge of this invisible power, and your logic, to couch your explanations and arguments in the emotional terms of the cultural constructs that engender far right motivated reasoning and you are likely to encounter far less mindlessness. To change the course of a raging river of opinion, in other words, don’t try to build a dam in defiance of its torrent, go with it and gradually redirect the channel.

What are the right’s cultural constructs? What are the left’s cultural constructs? More to the point, what are the a priori premises upon which they each build their cultural constructs? Many of these premises are shared, and this provides lots of options for communication across the chasm. On the other hand, there are, arguably, two premises on each side that appear to be non-negotiable, that will probably require compromise. Stay tuned next month for that discussion. Fascinating stuff!