The genius of Homo Sapiens

If you are reading this, then, more likely than not, you are a homo sapiens, a “wise ape”. We are so wise we’ve invented countless languages, most can be written in one of several distinct alphabets or systems of ideograms or symbols representing words, which can be used by our most skilled to express the deepest thoughts and most profound feelings we have.

Our species has created marvels and miracles over the millennia as the brightest among us have enabled our species to exert increasing mastery over the natural world. We are so brilliant we’ve even developed the technology to destroy the entire planet many times over, we have these tools stockpiled and ready to go, if needed one day.

Of all of our various expressions of genius, by far our greatest talent is justifying our actions. We never do anything without a damned good rationale.

You have to be very crazy not to be able, or willing, to justify the righteousness of your actions.

Self-defense is a legitimate legal justification for using deadly force if you are threatened with deadly force. Every criminal defense attorney will instruct a client accused of murder, if there were no witnesses present and no evidence — like a surveillance video — that otherwise contradicts it, to plead self-defense by making the dead person the aggressor. We are geniuses, in the sense that someone like Donald Trump can be considered a genius, at pleading our case in a way that makes us right and innocent of all wrongdoing, at least in our own eyes and in the eyes of sympatico people.

If I tell you the story of someone who flew into a rage at me, I will include every background detail to make you understand exactly what led up to it, how unfair, even irrational, the anger actually was.

If you hear the story from the person who got mad, they will often have a similarly convincing story for you. From their point of view, I will be the one who, whether on purpose or not, got on their last nerve and provoked them to defensiveness, which I wrongly may have perceived as anger, though it was, in their telling, the farthest thing from anger, more like perfectly reasonable exasperation that anyone in their position would have understandably felt.

One way we do this is by framing the stories we tell. The proper frame includes everything we need to prove our case and leaves out anything we don’t want to talk about. My father was a master of this device, retelling the story in a way that left you little wiggle room to talk about what was now left out of the new frame. That frame excluded anything that might make him look blameworthy in any way. The more the frame relied on a strong moral principle, the better. The right frame can nip the entire issue of right or wrong in the proverbial bud.

Think of Bagpiper Bill Barr, who auditioned for the Attorney General job by writing a long legal memo about how he’d make the findings of the Mueller Report go away, no matter how damning they might seem. Here’s a piece of Barr’s framing:

So, of course, it’s undeniable, in this frame, that nothing Mueller finds could ever actually be valid. If Mueller’s core premise is untenable, unsupportable, cannot withstand scrutiny, logic or legal analysis, anything he finds, no matter how seemingly damning, unethical, corrupt, illegal or whatever, is immaterial (another Barr fave framing term) because his core principle — that a corrupt president may not obstruct justice by interfering in an investigation into his actions — is “untenable“.

Nice conclusory word, and, beautifully, a legal conversation stopper. If the powerful subject of an investigation into his corruption may take any actions to stop the investigation because the investigator’s core premise is untenable, well, whatever the overreaching bastard finds is based on a flawed idea that a corrupt president may not interfere to thwart an investigation into his alleged corruption. It’s beautiful, in a Satanically legalistic kind of way.

In Barr’s case, he justifies this position based on two things, his belief that Jesus Christ Himself wants a Unitary Executive, a strong, conservative, Christian leader unfettered in the exercise of his CEO-like powers, and that the Attorney General, who works directly for the CEO, has the final say on all matters of what is tenable and what is untenable in the highly selective pursuit of justice. Barr reasons, correctly, that if he is the boss of the Department of Justice, no investigation can proceed without his say so, the buck stops with him and he is the final arbiter of what is just and what is unjust. Case closed. Like a narrowly decided 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the AG’s take on justice is the unappealable last word on what his Department of Justice will pursue and what it will not pursue.

To my horror, after four years of nepotism, incompetence, open prifiteering, constant chaos, daily temper tantrums and countless acts of predictable, petty, peevish vengeance against members of his constantly shifting administration who resigned or were fired, a rash of openly corrupt looking pardons of his lying, justice obstructing criminal colleagues and notorious strangers, the Orange Polyp got 12,000,000 more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. Tens of millions of Americans had seen him in mad action and decided that he was the man to lead us out of the pandemic and vicious tribal division and back to American Exceptionalism and “greatness”.

Millions more voted to end his reign, but those 74,000,000 are a hell of a lot of people who thought Trump was better than the alternative, the smiling, compromising, slightly creepy moderate Democrat his party’s big donors and strategists selected, though he was far behind in all the primaries when they orchestrated his sudden ascension to presidential candidate.

There was always something a little creepy about Biden, though he has greatly exceeded my expectations so far. To my mind he was a deeply flawed candidate, with his spotty record as a lawmaker who’d supported more than one unjust law and, conspicuously, his inexcusably shitty treatment of Anita Hill, his pathetic decades-late non-apology to her, his famous smile and tough guy bluster. But spin it as you like, 74,000,000 of our fellow Americans voted for the reality TV star who played their hero on a popular TV show where every week the smartest businessman in America fired the next loser who had failed to flatter and impress him. If you consult the internet for the exact number of votes Trump got in 2020 you learn this, in a flash:

Trump won 74,222,958 votes, or 46.8 percent of the votes cast. That’s more votes than any other presidential candidate has ever won, with the exception of Biden.

Like the Second Amendment, which starts with the words “a well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state…” inconvenient words which are discarded in the framing of “gun rights” absolutists, Trump simply goes:

Trump won 74,222,958 votes, more votes than any other presidential candidate has ever won.

True, as far as it goes, though it leaves out one detail many consider important, that Biden  got 81,283,098, or 51.3 percent of votes cast, the highest total ever for a candidate in a US presidential election, 7,000,000 more than his record-setting opponent got.

Partisans on opposite sides of any struggle have ingeniously (or otherwise) resolved all doubt in favor of their side. An incoherent argument works as well as a meticulous, factually predicated one, as long as partisans remain angry as hell. So it’s not that Biden actually brought out more voters than Trump’s shockingly gigantic army of voters, it’s that, as the Polyp predicted, the election was, in fact, stolen from him by massive systemic fraud, a gigantic conspiracy that included key traitors in his own party, and that HE actually won in a landslide since nobody ever got anywhere near his 74,000,000 votes, unless, of course, you bring the lying, fraudulent, illegitimate Joe Biden into the equation.

This is the world we live in, boys and girls. It is well to remember the human genius for self-justification, a genius so divinely inspired that it can make us doubt what our own senses tell us directly. When people are angry, it takes almost nothing to assure them that they are 100% correct to be mad as hell, even as, in a calmer mood, they might be struck by the fact that angry and mad mean the same thing, while “mad” also means crazy.

As I told somebody whose apology I accepted for getting her back up and glaring at me after she felt I was aggressive and threatening towards her, and she explained later that she’d apologized to me for reacting as she understandably did, after I put her on the spot like that, and I forgave her for not reacting better to my offensive body language, or whatever it may have been that got her back up: it’s fucking hard to be a human.

Dig it.

Restraining heartlessness

Dean Joan R.M. Bullock:


Thank you. Well, I will just end with the quote from Martin Luther King, who said, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” And what I want us to — as the takeaway — is that whatever the rule is as it relates to the meeting of the minds must be of one set that applies equally to all and that the heartless, those who govern by rules which they would not prescribe for themselves, must be restrained in that situation. And if we do, at least, restrain the heartless– we might not be able to change the minds and the hearts of everyone, but if we can restrain the heartless and have everyone under one set of rules, we will indeed be a people that are equal under the law.

Bullock, Joan; Fain, Constance; Weeden, Larry; and SpearIt (2021) “Panel III Discussion: The U.S. Constitution: Reimagining “We the People” as an Inclusive Construct,” The Bridge: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Legal & Social Policy: Vol. 6 , Article 5. Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University.

“Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

Rules, agreed to and abided by, with enforcement when needed, can restrain heartlessness. A strictly enforced law against lynching may not change the hearts of those who feel most alive as part of a righteous, muscular mob hauling some guilty chickenshit bastard off to be tortured to death, but the certainty of severe punishment for the merciless act can restrain the heartless. That King quote cited by the law school dean begins with a beautiful sentence: It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.

My oldest friend summed up a terrible and common human dilemma: it is humiliating to have to ask for what you should be given freely, but it is also something we must do. The context was close personal relationships in which the other person treats you unfairly, or even with a nonchalant brutality sometimes, instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt and the steady mercy we all require from our loved ones. We grow up with the beautiful idea of unconditional love, being loved simply because we are a soul that deserves love, not because love, like respect, has to be earned. All love, it turns out, has conditions attached. It can only flourish when the humiliation of having to ask for what we need is not constant, doesn’t become a heavier and heavier burden. Love by itself, clearly, is not the answer to every terrible question.

The essence of morality, expressed by the ancient Jewish sage Hillel when he was challenged to state it, is “what is hateful to you, do not unto others.” To me the simple practicality of this statement stands by itself as an indispensable guide to a moral life. We all know, more intimately than almost anything else, what we hate. If we hate it when it is done to us, we should be aware that others would hate it too and refrain from doing it to them.

It has taken me many years, but I finally understand the empathy-related problem with even that insightful expression of the Golden Rule. Its limitation is our human limitation on feeling empathy automatically, unless someone else’s vexation is identical to, or very close to, our own. This is a universal limitation on our powers of effective real-time mercy. What is so hard about the seemingly straightforward “what is hateful to you do not unto others” is that we humans naturally understand things from our personal perspective and are geniuses at framing things so we are blameless.

“No, I wouldn’t hate that, no, you just have a problem with someone making a perfectly reasonable demand,” is much easier to say to an aggrieved loved one than, “you know, now that you’ve explained yourself clearly, without making me feel defensive — thank you for that — I would feel terrible if somebody treated me like I just treated you and I’m truly sorry and will try my best not to do it again. Please let me know whenever I start to do it so I can be more aware of correcting that fault in myself.”

That second answer is for fairy tales, in the society we live in, or only possible between two people who love each other while honestly, openly accepting each other’s faults, a rare thing. Easier to shift the blame off yourself, particularly in a highly competitive culture like the one we live in, where one is expected to defend oneself at all costs.

We have not been raised in a generally cooperative society, we don’t solve mutual problems as a group, (ironic in a democracy, that), but see and are forced to accept unilateralism daily in our own lives, in the workplace, we can hear it reported in the news every day as part of public life. One unmovable person, in the right strategic position, has the power to hold up a solution for an entire family, or, in the case of government, thwart a solution for the unmet needs of millions.

We also don’t have a social support system in America for, or a history of, group problem solving, no respected wise elders available for advising on disputes between loved ones, outside of family court and the ever-popular divorce court. In our combative society we’re rewarded for playing hard and winning, not for daydreaming and refusing to compete.

A glance around, at the boiling hatred that animates so many of the world’s billions right now, shows us that a conversation based on the need for love will not get very far. If you are a Muslim in India, ruled as it is by a hard-line Hindu Nationalist party, you do not expect love, or even respect, from your government. Love is for the immediate family, the tribe, and people everywhere are always ready to fight for that. For outsiders, the Other, all bets are currently off. The question is: how do we best restrain heartlessness?

Seeing how hard it can be between individuals who care about each other to always show kindness, we can multiply the difficulty of mitigating group heartlessness by a million or so. The common, grim view of humanity is that we are all flawed, corrupt, out primarily for ourselves, and that we, if given the power, would fuck others we don’t care about as nonchalantly as those in power routinely do to the powerless. Given this view, held by billions, the best we can shoot for is limiting the heartlessness of those with the power to inflict humiliating conditions on others.

The dean quoted at the top obliquely references Hillel’s Golden Rule when she notes “that the heartless, those who govern by rules which they would not prescribe for themselves, must be restrained in that situation.” A wealthy legislator who lives on a yacht, rakes in a tidy sum from his coal interests, and is well-funded by the nation’s greatest toxic polluters, does not consider himself heartless just because he opposes any law that would hurt his family’s bottom line. He simply loves his damned family and wants to make them wealthier! A woman who campaigned as a progressive, promised to fight for fairness and equality, be an advocate for the oppressed, and then takes $750,000 in campaign donations from pharmaceutical corporations that benefit from the current health insurance laws in the US, does not consider herself heartless, or hypocritical, when she opposes any changes her generous sponsors would not like.

When you ask a proven heartless partisan like Mitch McConnell, as Chuck Schumer did the other day, for a procedural compromise to prevent the scorched earth that McConnell’s threat to filibuster raising the debt ceiling will inevitably produce, you will always get some variation on this: “There is no chance, no chance the Republican conference will go out of our way to help Democrats conserve their time and energy, so they can resume ramming through partisan socialism as fast as possible.” 

Politics in the USA as usual. The heartless (and ridiculously exaggerated) claim here is that Democrats are attempting to ram through a hateful, partisan, socialist agenda, including securing the ability to continue paying for a debt that McConnell’s party increased by 25% during the four years of a popular, angry, incompetent game show host’s presidency. That McConnell’s claim is incoherent makes it no less compelling in today’s heartless, zero-sum, sound bite-driven polity. I’ve got no solution for this, except to urge strength to the arms of those in power who find themselves in the humiliating position an incoherent set of loudly amplified self-serving lies has placed us all in. Love them or hate them, the heartless must be fought and restrained with everything we have.

Be very careful what you say when you’re hurt

“I don’t know what I did to make you treat me so unfairly and so disrespectfully,” while possibly accurate, is probably not the best line of approach when someone you love has treated you hurtfully.

If you have degenerative arthritis, say, and did not qualify, until a few weeks ago, for palliative injections that will allow you to exercise for six months without pain while building up surrounding muscle, why is that really anyone’s concern besides yours? Why would you expect automatic acknowledgment of your physical limitations and the empathy that follows from considering a loved one’s disability?

Say you feel wrongly accused of a flaw you try not to have, say in addition to an unreasonable expectation of sympathy, there’s the perception of your habitual comfort inconveniencing everyone around you. You like to sleep all day, so nobody can even be on the road for a vacation workout by a reasonable 10 a.m.

All these feelings, after someone shows you an implacable face, must be put to the side as you figure out the best way to restore trust and mutuality. It may take more patience than you have, particularly when you feel hurt, but that’s a separate question.

The real question is how to convey to them how hurt they would feel, placed in the unfair situation they’ve placed you in. That is not the work of a few minutes or a few hours, of simply choosing the right words. It requires a supremely patient telling of the right story, framed sympathetically, to keep everyone calm and help them understand.

It may take more patience than you feel you have. It becomes easy to think up past wrongs echoing the latest and be hurt by the confirmation of callousness, but making this list carries the risk of making you sound petty and prosecutorial. Best to focus on understanding, clarity and directness, toward a more loving future.

Otherwise, speaking out of pain, you are much more likely to do harm than to say anything that will contribute to healing or empathy.

Try writing the situation out first, it may help you grasp things better, to be more clear and better able to stay out of the many deadly traps hurt will steer you towards.

Best of luck, there is no harder work I know than remaining mild when you feel deeply hurt. It is worth the price to master this supremely difficult skill. In the meantime, be very judicious in what you say while still smarting.

Meditation on 5782

Today is the first day of the Jewish year 5782. The most religious Jews believe that HaShem, according to Jewish tradition, created the universe by performing the miracle of dividing light from darkness, land from waters and creating life 5,782 years ago, literally, as it is written. Thus Jews believed two thousand years ago and, so it is, to the most fervently religious, to this day. Other Jews see 5782 as a symbolic number, the bit about God creating all the plants and animals one by one, culminating in his masterpiece, his special children, humans, woman created out of the first man’s spare rib, as so much Biblical poetry.

Religious belief has never interested me, I have no talent for it. My first thought is armies of the fucking righteous, putting the faithless to the sword, century after century. Virtually every religion has had a turn at Holy War. The most righteous of every creed recognize that the reward of an ethical life, some version of heaven or enlightenment, belongs to the righteous of all nations, when they are not slaughtering them.

My second thought is the hotbed of anti-Semitism that was Hillcrest Jewish Center, where, for several years, I was forced to attend classes after the regular school day was over.

Beyond the “fuck that” of a kid who’d just been sprung from jail having to report to another jail for a few hours, especially on beautiful days when playing baseball was much closer to God than learning to parrot prayers, in an unknown language, that were never translated or explained, there was the silencing of all questions. The blotting out of critical thinking was the most intolerable part of the Hillcrest Jewish Center religious experience. It was a gaslighting similar to what I experienced at home, where my very clever father endlessly fought me over everything, generally by recasting whatever else we were talking about as a damning referendum on my character.

Trips to the principal’s office, fucking Frieda Berkman was her name, did not cure me of my need to question things we were supposed to believe, rites we were supposed to perform by rote, mouthing prayers we didn’t understand. After Berkman got sick of having me wait in her tiny outer office day after day under a poster that said “a teacher attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with the desire to learn is hammering on cold steel” (I asked her about that one, she didn’t like my disrespectful question at all), I was sent to wait in the plush outer office of the rabbi, Israel Moshowitz by name. Moshowitz was photographed shaking Nixon’s hand, of course. He was a big deal. I have no recollection of the pious speech he eventually laid on me about being a good Jew and just doing what I was told. I’m fairly sure it involved the Holocaust.

It took me many years to get over the antiSemitism that was instilled in me by my early religious miseducation at Hillcrest. I used to recoil from the well-dressed swarm of once-a-year hyper-religious Jews who congregated at the Yom Kippur service (the Day of Atonement is ten days from Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year). I’d feel real disgust watching them hurry home to break their fast, in a huge hurry, all full of the righteousness of not having eaten in 24 hours. I’d walk to the synagogue to meet my father, shouldering my way past these hungry, rushing, bad-breathed creatures, and walk him home to break our fast.

I had no patience for the meaningless “please rise, please be seated” ritual of the Hillcrest gymnasium, where cheaper seats for High Holiday services were made available to those who were unable or unwilling to pay top dollar for an expensive seat in the sumptuous main chapel. Once in a while, in the gym, people would faint, and fall off their folding chair on to the lacquered wooden floor where, on other days, I’d played basketball.

No need to mention the vengeance of Frieda Berkman, who snarled at me over a loudspeaker during assemblies, or the united fucking by the synagogue itself, first in not presenting me with the Bar Mitzvah kiddush cup I had earned by reciting a few lines of Torah when I turned 13, and then by inviting me to a special service, in the Ferkauf Chapel, where, I was promised, I’d be presented with my kiddush cup. I put on a suit, went down there, “please rise, please be seated, please rise, please continue to stand,” and, at the end of the ponderous droning, there was no kiddush cup. I think of this every time I celebrate shabbat with friends who have their own, and their adult children’s, kiddush cups on the table filled with wine. I also think of how telling it was that my parents never intervened on my behalf.

So ritual for me, for the most part, so much contemptible horse shit. I say this with God Himself looking down on me, only slightly hurt. Worse things have been said by Jews, by Christians, by the otherwise righteous of all nations. If you experience a sense of community and spiritual completeness by sitting in a temple with others of your faith, God bless you, more power to you.

For me, religious ritual just reminds me of the super-religious Amy Coney Barrett, quickly ruling that religious gatherings during Covid-19 must be exempt from all health regulations, because God requires worship, and then, a short time later, ruling that an unconstitutional abortion ban in a state with a notoriously high infant and maternal mortality rate, a law designed to kill more poor women by forcing them to give birth whether they want to or not, is perfectly fine because the unconstitutional law is administratively complex. You can keep the ritualistic, inhuman religion of fanatics like Amy.

I emerged from a scarring childhood of incoherent religious idiocy, years later, to separate the moral teachings of Judaism from the empty rituals. There is a moral core to the teachings of the rabbis that is worth embracing. If you hate something, don’t do it to others. Be not intimate with the ruling authorities. Remember that you were a slave, do not tolerate the enslavement of others – freedom demands it. If you hurt somebody, do your best to make amends. A pretty good set of core principles, I believe.

These are moral precepts I have gleaned, some during interminable services (bar and bat mitzvahs, usually) where I flipped to the back of the prayer book and read Pirkey Avot, Selections from the Fathers, a short collection of pithy sayings that is part of the Mishnah, a vast book explaining every aspect of God’s laws. “Be not intimate with the ruling authorities” is in there somewhere, and it makes a great deal of sense to me. “What is hateful to you, do not unto others” is Rabbi Hillel’s famous formulation of what would later become Jesus’s Golden Rule “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and, to my mind, it provides a much more concrete guide for how to live an ethical life. If you hate something, don’t do it to somebody else. We humans know few things more deeply than what we hate.

Love, on the other hand, while precious beyond poetry, is a much shakier guide for how to act. A woman I used to know, who loved me, once gave me some counsel I argued against following. She countered that she wasn’t telling me anything she wouldn’t tell herself. I told her I knew that, but pointed out that in the past she had told herself to shut all the windows, turn on the gas and put her head in the oven, something I would never consider doing myself. In fact, I’d fight somebody who tried to insist I kill myself. She had the grace to concede that I had a point. Love is slippery as hell, and many of us don’t love ourselves as unconditionally and faithfully as we should, making it hard to love our neighbors as ourselves in the kindest possible way. At the same time, we, and those we love, are all we really have.

So I was happy today to see my smiling friends, regular synagogue goers, video me from a beautiful beach where they are celebrating today. “The beach is our shul this year,” my friend said, smiling from her beach chair, a light breeze tickling the shade umbrella under a perfect blue sky. I told her how beautiful their shul was, as she got up to take a panoramic shot of the sand, sky and ocean, and stop filming our other friend, who’d said hello but, like me, had had enough of the video conference after a short time. “Please be seated,” I should have told her.

Writing it as fiction

“Writing truth as fiction must never be done with a heavy hand,” the old man said, quoting a line from his last published short story.

“You want to write what really happened as a fictional book, that’s fine, leave nothing important out of the story, at the same time, you do the reader no favors trying to be cute about how this fictional story may be based closely on deeply experienced personal events, or events torn from the front page of the newspaper.”

“So, for example, avoiding the heavy hand, you’d never have a character immediately bring up Larry Fucking Elder and the latest California fucking recall of the Democrat [sic] governor.”

The old man shook his head. “Perfect example, and self-proving one too. It’s too late, once you do that kind of move, to undo it.”

“But isn’t that what editing’s for, man?” I said, though I was somebody else, an entirely imaginary person, living in an alternate universe. “but now that I’ve sullied my lips by mentioning Larry Elder…”

“Fine,” the old man said, “this is worth a footnote, I suppose. When the aptly named Dick Cheney set off the California Energy Crisis by deregulating energy on the West Coast, and you know the minutes of his ‘Energy Task Force’ meetings with oil executives and the identities of those executives were never revealed, per Antonin Opus Dei Scalia, they recalled a Democrat, Grey Davis, over the budget shortfall produced, down to the dollar, by the soaring price of unregulated energy on the west coast, and you quickly had the celebrity Arrrrrnold in there – probably the last reasonable Republican in office. Scalia, for his part, was huffy when asked, decried it as ‘a sad day in America” when an American journalist would ask a sitting Supreme Court Originalist about the appearance of impropriety of him flying around on Dick Cheney’s private jet while he was deliberating over a lawsuit brought against Cheney.”

“USA! USA!!!” alt-me said.

“Just one other thing, the California recall is another example of shit like the Electoral College, the filibuster, tools to keep the hands of the elites on the reins of power in an electoral democracy. As a result of this bizarre legal provision, a guy who won 62% of California’s vote can be ousted by a guy who later wins 14% of the vote, after a 51-49 decision to take the elected governor out.”

“Dass sum shit, as my father used to say,” I said, as not I.

“Living in a time when a hate jockey from talk radio gets the highest civilian honor this nation has hung around his neck by the prime beneficiary of his years of hate speech, it makes perfect sense that the tutor of American Jewish Nazi Stephen Miller, a status quo loving black former talk radio celebrity, at that, is poised to be California’s next governor if they can turn out a 51% share of their angry base in this emergency election to oust the governor elected by 62% of California voters. Makes perfect sense, right?”

“Yeah,” someone said, echoing my thoughts exactly.

“The intrusive narrator is another thing to be on constant guard against. We all know that move, Bob Hope looking directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall and confiding to the audience ‘this is the last movie I ever do for Paramount, they let a bit player from MGM walk in right before the credits roll to steal my girl… sheesh’.”

“We hear that,” they said.

“Another thing, these pronouns y’all use these days,” said the old man.

“It have a problem with that?”

“Never mind, kid. It’s all good, as we say. I just wanted to give you my two cents about the tricky nature of writing fiction from your own life. Especially if you’re trying to take a political, humanist, stand during brutally political, inhuman times,” the old man took a thoughtful swallow of his scotch. “Nazi novelists are never at a loss for their plot lines. Anti-Nazi novelists have to be a lot smarter if they want to write something that could have any effect on those wavering toward joining the exciting mob.”

“The Exciting Mob,” she said, “it sounds like a movie from the fifties with Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin.”

“One last thing,” said the old man, “before I fade back into the ether of this guy’s imagination,” and he pointed at yours truly, incorrigible as Silvio Berlusconi in pursuit of a beautiful young hooker, “if you’re doing this to show off, just stop it. Any moron, literally, can opine without the least censorship or even the guiding hand of common sense, spew those opinions into a few sloppy paragraphs and hit ‘publish’. If you employ a savvy ‘social media’ plan, you can reach countless people with your half-formed, ill-informed yet heartfelt and deeply believed opinions.”

“What is your point, old man?”

“If you’re doing this just to show off, please just stop it.”

“OK, fine.”

Capitalism’s mania for “improvements”

Progress, in capitalism, means steady market growth and constant product improvements, whether people want to be marketed to or have the useful products they rely on redesigned or not. Most people of a certain age are familiar with the term “planned obsolescence”. For those who are not:

a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.

The plan is to make ever greater profits by forcing people to keep buying new things to replace consumer goods designed to become obsolete, outmoded, uncool, unfashionable, useless for their customary purpose. Corporations steadily produce groundbreaking new consumer items, branded, unveiled and advertised with fabulous fanfare, that have to be replaced frequently with updated models. For good measure we have designed a new, improved power cord that won’t fit your current device or older devices, we don’t sell the old power cord anymore, just upgrade your phone and toss all the old ones. This is a trillion dollar business model that has produced countless innovative billionaires (as well as, sadly, a mountain of deadly products left to poison the earth).

Everyone today knows the short term version of the drill as simply “updates” or “upgrades”. In computer and phone-related retail, for the short-term game, all you need to do is force people to constantly update their devices and all sorts of wonderful things can be achieved. My podcast player keeps upgrading its ability to deliver ads that cannot be defeated. The ads of savagely competitive Jeff Fucking Bezos are the best, his undefeatable ads play at top volume OVER the podcast you are trying to listen to. When the ad is done you simply rewind to catch the five to fifteen seconds that were drowned out by the sound of an ear shattering jackhammer being muted, finally, by the noise canceling headphones fucking Bezos is hamfistedly trying to sell to everyone.

Rooms full of Andys [1], creative engineering types on the spectrum, are kept busy constantly tweaking the devices and applications we are constantly using. The “updates” do not always improve the product, often disabling familiar, essential features, but… fuck it, just buy a new device if your old one is giving you crap. Life is change. Capitalism certainly is — as long as the change keeps the extractive engines humming full throttle and new customers are cultivated in every corner of the world.

Here’s a mildly sickening example of forced updates nobody but the seller would ever want. I used to run an animation workshop for elementary school kids, I’d bring a small digital camera, a camera stand, a few small lights and a Macbook laptop computer into the room. Within ten minutes the workshop was humming. While kids choreographed and shot their animations, another team would be swapping out the camera’s SD card, uploading the new frames to the computer, opening the program iMovie and starting to make the day’s single frame animation. Music would be added from a program called Garageband, which allowed kids to improvise and easily remove any mistakes they made. The beauty of the macBook, running Operating System 10.6.8, or earlier, was the seamless integration of its various creative programs. Kids could create music in Garageband, easily drag into iMovie from Garageband. They could overdub multiple tracks of narration on top of the music, frames could be tweaked in an onboard graphics program, dragged into iMovie.

Once I stupidly updated the macBook. The new operating system updated and reconfigured all the programs. Suddenly Garageband became more automated, based on customer feedback, or the quirky whims of a room full of Andys, I suppose, and it became impossible to quickly correct mistakes on the fly. When an 8 year-old sound engineer tried to fix a mistake the old command gave a new result– auto-quantize– make your track adhere more strictly to the metronome. The kids never used the metronome. It was very frustrating how hard it became to fix mistakes that in the previous version were so simple to fix that second and third graders mastered it instantly and quickly taught others to do it.

Yes, an engineer at Apple told me on the phone, not everybody liked the newly disabled programs, he didn’t like it himself, and, of course, they were driven by corporate greed (why give things for free when you can claw them back and sell them?) but once the update was done there was no way to revert back to the previous version of the program. Best bet, he told me, was to buy a used MacBook running 10.6.8 or earlier and never update it. They eventually disabled enough features of iMovie that it became impossible to do single frame animation in iMovie, you had to buy a “professional” program from Apple to do what once came included in your computer.

I am tapping away on WordPress, which “improved” their writing editor in ways that made it more cumbersome than it was before. They touted this brilliant new “blocks” system, which replaced a perfectly useful one, even as they made the “theme” I am using obsolete. The tech term for this is “not supported”. You can use it, but nobody at WordPress can do much except urge you to switch to a supported theme. It’s true you could lose all of your content, which can no longer be backed up easily (we eliminated the RSS feed which used to allow you to cut and paste all content into a form you could save) but your experience will be enhanced, as the rooms full of WordPress Andys designed it to be.

The other day I was able to type on WordPress without straining my eyes. I’d see the words like this:

On the updated viewer, the best one can do is this:

If that’s hard on your old eyes, dude, just get stronger glasses, man. What the fuck do you want us to do, bro? Many people think this is a cool new improvement, (asshole…) OK, we just made that up, everybody hates it, but — you know what? Fuck them all and, with respect, sir, fuck you. We are the vanguard of the new world, innovative masters of the digital universe, and you are a carping dinosaur. Why not just simply go extinct if you don’t like the way we do things now?

Well, anyway, it is hard on my old eyes tapping away here. I devised a workaround, that I will use for all future posts. I will henceforth write in a word processing program, OpenOffice, wonderful, free and open-sourced, then select all, copy, paste into this fucking editor which I can then squint at like the bitter old fuck I am.

And make no mistake, when it comes to predatory fucking capitalism, a massive machine that never apologizes for any crime and is always quick to justify any “externality” (when people are killed in the name of profit, like in Bhopal, India, for example, that’s an “externality” the corporation has to account for, a small portion of the profits will go toward a secret settlement with the families of the dead, assuming they have excellent lawyers that can hold us to account) — I am an extremely bitter old fuck.

[1]

I had a friend named Andy, bright, witty, socially maladroit and occasionally locked up in a laughing academy until his wilder moods could be stabilized, who made a nice living writing computer code. He was responsible for how websites acted, where the buttons were to make things work and so forth. I’d observed many times how idiosyncratic Andy was, he always radically adjusted your desk chair when he sat in it, immediately retuned your guitar (breaking a string once in a while) and so forth. I later realized he was probably somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. What was intuitive and useful to him was by no means universal, is what I’m trying to say.

The Wall of Perceptions

A massive danger we now see all around us comes from people convinced that their perceptions, whatever the limitations of their view, whatever anybody else might have to say about these perceptions, are accurate reflections of the world. Opinion, shaped by what we know and endlessly confirmed by the reliable Confirmation Bias (they agree with me, I must be right!) is magnified and hardened by the agreement of others. The particular silo of opinion we spend most of our time in will shape our perception of the world. The anonymous “friend” groups of the internet, we learn, are incredibly powerful in shaping perceptions and opinions. The lonelier and more disconnected the individual, the more they will be influenced by a community online who claims to see things just like they do.

Our perceptions are shaped by a number of things, limited by our point of view, our knowledge and our access to useful evidence. The level and quality of information we take in is as crucial in forming our perceptions as our ability to gather and sort through reliable information. Our general feeling of well-being or ill health, our mood, our level of fear, the people we trust, the ones we hate, all shape our perceptions. How angry or upset we are at a given moment is a huge factor in how we see things (anger and fear will distort perceptions like nobody’s business) and the secret of Trumpism’s otherwise irrational appeal (keep ’em mad as hell at the ENEMY).

Here’s a recent example, from my own life, of how perceptions, and the emotions that color them, can distort your view of what is real. A few months back we arranged a reunion with old friends we hadn’t seen since before the pandemic, a gathering I was greatly looking forward to. A few days before the weekend we all agreed to take the COVID-19 test to ensure that none of us could be contagious to the others, possibly transmit a breakthrough infection. We’d all been vaccinated, so this test was part of an “abundance of caution,” as the saying goes, during the new super-infectious Delta variant surge. Sekhnet and I were tested side by side and were told we’d have a text when the results were in.

The day before the weekend, Sekhnet woke up to a text informing her that her test came back negative. I, on the other hand, got a missed call from the outfit that had done the test. They left me a message: “Hello, I’m calling from New York City Health and Hospitals, we need to speak to you in regards to your recent test and will call you back again soon. Thank you.” I tried calling the number, but it was not a working number. I groaned, snarled, agonized and belly-ached, waiting for the call back, cursing that bane of American existence, “health care” bureaucracy, dreading the bad news the eventual conversation would certainly impart. Meantime, I was helpless.

If it wasn’t bad news, why hadn’t I received the same good news text Sekhnet had, which did they “need to speak to me” regarding my test results? This obvious question was one I could not solve for — it had to be had news, I became convinced. If it had been good news, I’d also have gotten a text, no? At one point I put my phone on charge and went to the bathroom to micturate (as they say in certain prep schools). During the short time it took to empty my bladder I had the promised call back. This time they left no message.

“HIPPA,” offered Sekhnet, at one point, trying to explain why they’d left me no medical information on my phone. As to the simple text informing her of the wonderful, personal, result of her medical test, a text seemingly in clear violation of HIPPA, she had no immediate explanation.

My perception that I must have tested positive became unshakable, and it was driven by anxiety that I would now have to miss the gathering with well-loved old friends I’d been looking forward to. Sekhnet and I had been tested six feet apart, virtually simultaneously. It made no sense that the same outfit would send a good news text to one of us and not the other, if we’d both tested negative. Sekhnet offered theories, maybe they’d gone to different labs, somehow. My mind kept returning to “it makes no fucking sense!”

True, it made no fucking sense. Aggravating though the seven hours was before I was able to confirm that my test too had come back negative, in the end it still made no fucking sense. The wall of perception that kept me convinced it had to be bad news (until I was able to confirm otherwise) was built from a logical assumption. What I hadn’t stopped to consider is how often, in our modern, digital, corporatized society, things simply make no fucking sense.

I had a friend named Andy, bright, witty, socially maladroit and occasionally locked up in a laughing academy until his wilder moods could be stabilized, who made a nice living writing computer code. He was responsible for how websites acted, where the buttons were to make things work and so forth. I’d observed many times how idiosyncratic Andy was, he always radically adjusted your desk chair when he sat in it, immediately retuned your guitar (breaking a string once in a while) and so forth. I later realized he was probably somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. What was intuitive and useful to him was by no means universal, is what I’m trying to say.

Anytime I encounter a weird glitch on a website, like a frustrating “help” cul du sac you cannot exit from when seeking further information, I immediately picture a room full of Andys, coders with engineering smarts who do not necessarily think and act like the average person. Feature, bug? Who gives a fuck? The money is in constantly tweaking the code, the algorithms, the arrangement of the menus, the efficiency or complexity of the help features. In fact, just today, a room full of fucking Andys at WordPress changed the settings on the editor, so that the text, as you write, can no longer be blown up to an easily readable font, for old eyes like mine. Everyone, obviously, prefers their text at a steady 10 pt, extending the full width of your screen, without the former ability to work on it with less eye strain in a viewer that let you blow the words up to any size you’d like.

There was some kind of human/machine fuck up at the testing place when Sekhnet got her promised text and I got a call from a nonworking number, then another that left no message, no way to get in touch with anyone. I spent hours, convinced the news I didn’t yet have had to be bad (even the “None Detected” I was eventually able to see online was not reassuring, since Sekhnet had gotten a straight forward “negative” by text), finding nobody on the phone, after each long wait, who could confirm the seemingly simple, now obvious, answer that “None detected” is another way of saying “Negative”.

When, at the end of a long, frustrating day, I finally got somebody from the NYC Covid-testing hotline who could instantly confirm that “none detected” did not mean “test inconclusive” but “negative”, my mind was finally put to rest, having at last the clear answer I’d been denied by various Andys all day long. My doctor friend shook her head at my unnecessary day of aggravation (and the hell poor Sekhnet had been put through), since everybody with any sense should intuitively know that “none detected” means “negative”, something very obvious in hindsight, once you learn they are the same, after numerous help hotline folks did not know that for a fact.

True, obvious once you know, but from my point of view, the illogic of one person getting a promised text and the other endlessly waiting for a second callback that never came, was something I couldn’t simply accept as human error. It made no sense and it was going to directly and immediately effect my life for the worse. I had to verify that “none detected” (which I learned on-line after an hour or so of uncertainty) meant negative. If it is so intuitive, why was nobody in the city health bureaucracy I finally got to speak to able to clarify that for me?

There could have been a note to that effect online (“none detected” is the same as “negative”), where they gave you the test result, true, but none of the Andys involved with the website were told to put a note there. So, fearful that I might have to miss the social weekend I’d been looking forward to for weeks, I called various help lines, and waited, with sinking heart, on endless muzak blasting phone queues because of the huge volume of worried callers who were being helped by representatives who themselves could not confirm the seemingly simple, now obvious, fact that None Detected means Negative.

Knowing that these two terms are identical, having had them confirmed, and shrugged at by a doctor friend who couldn’t understand how I could not know the terms mean the same thing, I can now advise anyone in the unnecessary anguish I was in. Before I knew this undeniable fact? I was trapped behind the wall of my perceptions.

The conversation is tiring, but necessary

There are actual facts on the ground, things like massive surges in COVID infections in states whose leaders preach absolute liberty to infect whoever you want (Florida’s Deathsantis has just muscled his way past NY for worst Covid-19 infection rate in US history), and the heat-related 100 year killer storms that have become common. Certain powerful parties (like Koch-funded “think tanks”) work overtime to promote “experts” to “refute” facts that are bad for business, or bad for maintaining minority power in the face of “majoritarian tyranny.” The threats they deny, a deadly pandemic, deadly climate change, do not cease to exist, though they become immensely harder to find solutions for when tens of millions, naturally, prefer denial. How do we talk sense across this abyss of entrenched, hotly clutched opinion?

The conversation is exhausting, particularly after four years of an American president’s childish insistence that showing a tape of what just happened, or of what he just said, is an unfair, distorted, treasonous lie by the Enemy of the People. The Culture War is doing the terrible work of every other war, creating a zero-sum world with implacable, inhuman enemies on both sides. Hard for me not to smirk when I read that the secretly vaccinated governor of Texas (rivaling Deathsantis of Florida for eye-popping COVID numbers) tests positive for a virus he is actively preventing the public from protecting itself from. In the name of Freedom and the Second Amendment, no less. Facts actually matter, though, as does cause and effect, to at least 65% of us. How about this one, did you hear about this?

Take the heat wave this summer in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, which resulted in an estimated hundreds of heat-related deaths, ruined crops and wildfire outbreaks. The town of Lytton, British Columbia, broke the temperature record for Canada three days in a row. On the fourth day Lytton was all but destroyed by wildfire. These events were so extreme that they were very difficult to imagine, even for climate scientists like us, just two months ago.

source

I’d heard about the record heat in Canada, not as much about the hundreds of heat-related deaths, and had never heard of the connection between the record heat and the wildfire that destroyed the town that set the record for consecutive hotter than hell days.

You can read the piece linked above and learn that scientists now have a method to attribute the heat-related disasters to human burning of fossil fuels and other heat increasing activities.

Or, turn on your favorite talking head and watch this entire liberal scam to destroy America be exposed for the godless Commie plot that it is. It will be debunked once and for all by an expert Climate Skeptical preacher with an online degree in divinity who will hip an audience of millions to the flimflam of these wild-eyed Climate Alarmists. Who you going to believe, someone who’s screaming with her hair on fire or someone cool, talking very calmly and reasonably?

The following is from a nightly email news letter I get from an outfit called Crooked Media. Their snappy come on is: Subscribe to What A Day to get more pithy analysis of the world we live in and how long that world can possibly continue to exist. The newsletter is informative and refreshingly blunt and snarky. From a discussion about booster shots for vaccinated Americans:

The Israel experience suggests we might be poised for boosters, even if Republicans hadn’t encouraged vaccine rejection. But the coming booster season underscores the ugly division they created: On one side, the overwhelming majority of Americans follow public-health guidance and are willing to sacrifice for one another; on the other it’s OK to mass-infect children with a novel virus to hurt political enemies. The stakes of keeping that minority out of power couldn’t be higher.

“On one side, the overwhelming majority of Americans follow public-health guidance and are willing to sacrifice for one another; on the other it’s OK to mass-infect children with a novel virus to hurt political enemies. The stakes of keeping that minority out of power couldn’t be higher.”

Could the stakes for our experiment in democracy be higher? I can’t imagine how. I guess that terrifying, all-powerful cabal of Satanist pedophile cannibal Christ-haters could actually exist, and be in control of our country, and millions of innocent young children could really be at risk of abduction, rape and having their blood drained so that vampire Democrats can slurp down its youth-enhancing properties.

On the other hand, surveys show not every earthling believes in these kind of destructive fairy tales (these screen shots are from NowThis News):

This strikes me as encouraging news in the accepting the evidence of our eyes, ears and brains department. In passing, we note that of the G20 nations, six, or 30%, are currently being run by autocrats, including the murderous “reformer” crown prince of the medieval monarchy of our close allies, the Saudis, a gigantic royal family that sits atop an underground ocean of petroleum.

The conversation with people who want simple answers that do not inconvenience them, that confirm their darkest suspicions about guys like George Soros (and the rest of us Jews, for that matter), that give them a feeling of superiority in a world at a very perilous moment, is fucking exhausting. A bridge to the interests of these folks must be built, exhausting as that project is in the face of everything else we are up against.

I guess an important thing to keep in mind is not to start the conversation by talking about how ignorant and deadly science denial is in our modern age. A slick-talking Jew will never convince an antisemite that Jews would not drink your baby’s blood in a heartbeat, given the chance, but there is a way to have this discussion. And have it we must, or watch our beautiful world be destroyed by pure greed, arrogance and a sadistic lynch mob’s pleasure in the suffering of the powerless.

Culture? You’re soaking in it.

When I was a kid there was a long running TV commercial for a dishwashing liquid whose maker claimed it was so great at softening and moisturizing a woman’s skin that Marge, the manicurist, would soak her customer’s hands in it (on the sly, of course). Marge would quickly work how beautifully this wonderful dishwashing product worked to soften skin into every chat. When the customer asked Marge where she could try this amazing product Marge hit ’em with the punchline “you’re soaking in it!” The startled customer would start to pull her hand back, but Marge would gently but firmly put the hand back in the dishwashing liquid and everybody smiled and remembered the product was so good that you could literally soak in it to soften and moisturize your hands.

“You’re soaking in it” serves as an excellent (if mildly strained) metaphor for how dimly we see culture and most other things that surround us, seemingly immutable things that appear to be inevitable. The way things are, and have “always been”, is a powerful reinforcement of just about anything.

There is a compelling reason the US government doesn’t provide health care to all citizens as a right of citizenship. It’s complicated. Same for the reason that millions of underemployed Americans can’t presently go through a government sponsored training program to become skilled home health aides, with a guaranteed decent income, benefits and a pension. Both have to do with what we’re all soaking in, how the “free market” profit motive drives American health care, the lucrative middle man corporations who rake in billions selling these services, skimming a percentage off the top, usually underpaying the unskilled workers who often provide tender, intimate care to homebound older Americans in their last days. There are laws in place, and overlapping regulations, customs, cultural beliefs, etc. that keep things like affordable health care as a right and the right to decent pay for doing a tough, shitty, very important job out of the public discussion most of the time.

If you watch commercial TV you are going to see television commercials. Duh. Nothing is for free, and our constitution acknowledges, in its copyright clause, that all creativity is motivated by a desire for profit. You want something for free? Pay the premium to not see ads or shut up about the constant commercials. It is unthinkable that anyone in a free society would do anything for free, except perhaps favors for friends and family members. In God we trust, YOU pay cash, brah.

Some men see things as they are and ask, “”Why?”” I dream things that never were and ask, “”Why not?””

We can either, in the great old phrase (made famous by Robert Kennedy, who tweaked a line from George Bernard Shaw), talk about things exactly as they are, limited by existing law and culture, or imagine better things that don’t presently exist and change culture and laws to make them real Maybe our worst failures, as humanists who believe in basic human equality and a right to dignity, are failures of imagination.

To me, one of the features of Hilary’s 2016 campaign that doomed her to win the popular vote by only 3,000,000, and come up 78,000 short in the Electoral College (how about that vestige of slavery and rule by the wealthy for a “why?”) was her assertion that changing institutions takes time, sometimes generations, and that steady, incremental progress is the best we can realistically hope for, that radical change is unwise and uncalled for, no matter how pressing the need might seem, and so on.

The status quo, she implied, while not perfect, was pretty good for most people. Her opponent, the malignant Orange Polyp, spoke directly to the grievances of millions of disgruntled Americans when he said he knew how rotten to the core and corrupt American politics was and that he alone could fix it. He’d drain the swamp, build the wall, repeal Obamacare and replace it with something much better, and cheaper, that would cover everything.

This is a simplistic little post on an obscure blahg by a know-it-all who works for free, but there is hopefully a kernel of a thought in it for somebody. The best, and the worst, are things we imagine in the absence of actual experience. Few things we dread turn out to be as terrible as we fear, not everything we look forward to turns out to be as great as we dream it will be. Still, it’s a useful exercise, I think, in looking for solutions, to suspend disbelief based on the reality of a seemingly unalterable legal/social/cultural arrangement that we are all soaking in and that nobody can change. For generating possible solutions to complicated, miserable, often deadly problems, why not imagine something better and ask “Why not?”

Divergent thinking vs. strict logic

If you read this blahg you’ve probably noticed that I am almost always annoyed by irrational narratives. Sounds judgmental, of course, to call somebody’s worldview irrational at a time when an angry crowd screaming “we know who you are! we know where you live!” to people who testified in favor of a mask mandate for school children is just as entitled to their opinions as those following scientific advice about preventing the spread of a persistent and sometimes deadly pandemic.

Every one of us is at times ruled by irrationality, even the most doggedly rational among us — fear of the dark, fear of appearing fearful, fear of death, what have you. We all may come to mistaken conclusions, based on what we know, since what we know is often not the complete picture. Add a single piece of solid information, missing from our previous evaluation, and we will come to a different logical conclusion [1]. Entire nations are subject to irrationality, as we see daily in these troubled times. By changing the concept of “destructive asshole selfishness” to “freedom!” wars are launched and bombs begin to fall, to the cheering of “patriots”.

I was thinking of divergent thinking, a way of thinking that generates a web of connections, sets out many things to consider and sometimes leads to unexpected creative solutions. Divergent thinking is not linear, not strictly logical, sometimes the leaps from thought to thought cannot be explained to others, or if they can be explained, others sincerely won’t give a shit, but it is a way of making new connections and coming across surprising, sometimes important, ideas or solutions that a strict logical flow chart will never provide. Creative people operate this way without thinking about it, it is part of creativity to let the mind wonder where it will during creative pursuits.

It’s the difference between hitting up google for an answer and going with it and reading something that refers you to an unrelated source that teaches you something new about the question you googled. To confirm a definition, or get some background, or a source for what you’re talking about, a search engine is great. To find a concrete answer that is irrefutable (location and hours of a restaurant you want to go to) it’s amazingly handy.

The problem is that the twitch of a few fingers and the instant answer replaces the old, more time-consuming, way of researching and learning about things — finding a footnote on a page that leads you to a source you never heard of where you read something that alerts you to an entire body of knowledge you never knew existed. The “answers” that experts and idiots put out there are easy to find online, but the underlying ongoing discussion that leads to these conclusions is not as readily available from a smartphone. Hitting a screen for an answer is much different than turning the pages of a book, which has an index, bibliography and so on that contains many more leads you’d never see with a Google hit.

In law school, during the first semester, students (at least in my day) were not allowed to use to electronic legal databases that provide updated legal sources instantly. We were left to struggle in the library, searching the stacks for a book that could give us a clue, a lead to another set of books we’d never heard of, where the answer might be provided. This forced us to acquaint ourselves with the wide range of legal sources in the vast rooms full of books in the law library. The CFR (Code of Federal Regulations), which can be found instantly with a few keystrokes, was something each of us had to discover the existence of for ourselves in the course of those frustrating first semester hours in the law library. You’d find a legal decision that seemingly helped your argument, but you were instructed to always consult the pocket part, the annual update inserted in the front of the book, that contained the latest action on the case you thought was promising. The pocket part might contain a mention of your case. Oops, reversed by 19 U.S. 173 (2001)… Searching online you’d get this reversal of precedent instantly, without having to read the previous case, or even the case notes, of the overruled case. Sometimes these prior cases have important information not even mentioned in the ruling that reversed it (this is a specialty of ideological judges like Kavanaugh and Roberts). Read only the decision overturning the case and know less about the issues than you did going in.

Divergent thinking is useful for many things, especially things like looking at history. Human collective action is rarely motivated by strict rational consideration. Why did this mob feel this way on this date? That open-ended question leads down many avenues that a strict quest for “the reason” will rarely turn up. Here’s a divergently derived example:

Ukrainians slaughtered almost my entire family, on my mother’s side, one hot evening in August 1943. My grandmother, who lost everyone, was a lifelong leftist, influenced by the internationalist Marxist commissars who came with the revolutionary Soviet troops that liberated her area of the Ukraine briefly. They taught her that the future of mankind was one without anti-Semitism, without wars between nations, without the forever exploitation of the poor by the rich. It was an intoxicating message for my teenaged grandmother, that she was living in the dawn of a new era of human justice. A few years later, the leader of the Soviet Union, a mass-murdering psychopath some called Uncle Joe, killed as many as four million Ukrainians (mostly by starvation) to prove his point about his view of international justice (which he’d changed to Socialism in One Country). A few years after that, Herr Hitler’s forces “liberated” Ukraine from the Communists. The execution of my family? Logical in that context, Ukrainians viewed Jews as Communist sympathizers and took revenge on their murderers. But, logical?

The helpful term ‘divergent thinking’ was apparently coined by the psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1956 (the year I was born), as I learned from more than two minutes of exhaustive internet research. Guilford contrasted Divergent Thinking with Convergent Thinking, and the little two minute video I’ve linked to in the last sentence sets the whole thing out nicely. Spoiler alert: both forms of thinking are important.

Divergent thinkers can be a pain in the ass, constantly bringing up random ideas seemingly unrelated to anything, prolonging the discussion endlessly. Convergent thinkers can be a pain in the ass, continually focusing on the problem as having only one logically correct solution, being intolerant of “distractions” in this quest. We are all pains in the ass to people not exactly like ourselves.

I tend toward divergent thinking much of the time. If you are this way and you write, vigilance is required (and the passive voice used), since you need to lay things out in a way that doesn’t confuse, or lose, the reader. My solution, sometimes, is footnotes. A paragraph that slows the flow too much (like the digression about law school above) might be better shoved into a note at the bottom, for anyone interested. On the other hand, a strict linear telling, without providing pertinent background perspective to aid understanding and even empathy, can create a dry and pedantic piece [2]. Like anything else, balance between these two ways of thinking is crucial.

I’m listening to historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s excellent Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. I will post an abstract of the book when I’m done listening to it and making notes on it. One thing that strikes me again and again is the way she eschews the strict chronological telling, jumping from Berlusconi to Putin to Mussolini to Mobutu to Trump and back to Herr Hitler. In this way we are constantly struck by the uncanny similarities in how all modern “strongmen” operate. She is not making a checklist and comparing A-B between these various dictatorial leaders, in order, in one chapter after another. Instead, without making direct comparisons, she provides a ton of detailed information that makes her point for her.

Example: In describing the excellent work lobbyists did to internationally legitimize the rule of Mobutu, longtime dictator of Zaire [3], she lays out a few crucial services the lobbying firm Manafort and Stone performed for the corrupt, murderous African leader. She doesn’t mention Manafort’s heroic and well-paid efforts to get corrupt pro-Putin Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovych elected president of Ukraine (he was forced to flee to Russia after a popular anti-corruption uprising drove him from office), at least not there. She does mention that all strongmen deploy pardons for those who perform arguably criminal services for them.

Anyway, friends, I could obviously go on all day. Let’s end it here, with a final thought on the usefulness of a little daydreaming that can generate a web of ideas for problem solving. It’s a good way to generate ideas, as you relax and exercise the muscles of critical thinking, if nothing else.

The Fuhrer indulges an adoring young fan.

[1]

I heard a great anecdote, from Zen teacher Jack Kornfield (on the late Joe Frank’s show), that illuminates this. A man on a train is angry that several children are wildly carrying on as the father sits head in hands, not stopping them. He confronts the father about controlling his unruly kids. The father nods, apologizes and explains that they’ve all just come from their mother’s funeral and nobody knows what to do. Perspective instantly changed from anger to sympathy, based on that new fact.

[2]

To paraphrase the Orange Polyp, “I prefer my pedantic pieces juicy, not dry.”

[3]

Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga was a Congolese politician and military officer who was the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1965 to 1971, and later Zaire from 1971 to 1997. He also served as Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity from 1967 to 1968. Wikipedia