America the charnel ground

The America that our parents and grandparents grew up in, that colossus, is gone for good. Western civilization is in a death spiral. And humanity as we know it is not long for this earth.

This, by the way, regardless of whether we obliterate ourselves (in a nuclear holocaust or unforeseen systems collapse) or manage to make it to the Singularity.

My whole cohort might be vaporized, or cannibalized by our stranger-neighbors in a not-so-cold civil war. Alternatively, we get past it all, and are merged by AI into an optimization (pleasant or not) that has no interest in our individuality or in the human life cycle.

Our gonads might not survive intact; our progeny may yet be infinite, formless intelligence. Either way, we might be among the last to give our parents grandkids.

The only prediction I’m willing to make is that the rate of change will become unbearable if we continue to cling to things as they are. And we’re all doing it. In fact, I notice that I’ve become more prone to it than I once was, as I’ve seen more of the world, developed deeper relationships, and cultivated empathy.

The long 2016 has been a mindfuck—for the first time, I’m not bullish about America’s prospects. Everyone’s at each other’s throats, and we all know it. Visions of apocalypse have begun to take on an intuitive quality (that said: intuiting isn’t believing).

When The Better Angels Of Our Nature came out in 2012, I ate it up. Suddenly, The Black Swan seems much more important.

It would be best if I started regarding America, the West, and humanity in general the way the Tibetan masters regard a charnel ground (the place where bodies are laid out to be scavenged and burned)—as sites to viscerally experience the occasionally liberating, often horrifying truth: that all things pass, no matter how much we care about them.

And out of this awful awareness, cultivate a more ambient, less possessive sense of compassion.

America in decline: nothing personal

When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978…

In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.

— Peter Turchin, “1977-2017: A Retrospective

Our moment is the first in any living person’s lifetime (or in America’s lifetime, most probably) of convergence between structural-demographic “disintegration” and imperial decline. How does this manifest in today’s politics? “Make America Great Again” as an all-purpose banner for fear of emasculation and obsolescence.

Not being the sole (or even primary) geopolitical superpower isn’t a tragedy. Just ask the happy, prosperous folks in Denmark, or the happy, piss-poor folks in Bhutan. But for people who lived the unipolar moment of the fabled 90s, disorientation is to be expected.

To what degree is international status anxiety contributing to America’s internal “disintegrative” trend by making people feel like dispensable losers? It’d be hard to gauge. To be sure, it’s not the main driver of our spike in partisan rancor, mass shootings, fatal overdoses, and endemic complacency.

But the degree to which Americans cling to exceptionalism can’t be psychologically healthy (Hell, I voted for Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders, and the thought of America not being #1 even stings me a bit!). And when this clinging plays out at the ballot box, tectonic plates shift—and never in our favor.

How can we convince people that changes in the global order needn’t be experienced as personal tragedy?

Dealing with violence, laying down our mood affiliations

Las Vegas: no words. I don’t know why he did it, and I don’t know what the solution is. More importantly, I have no dog in the fight. I just don’t want to see more people killed.

Rather than trying to frame a narrative around the who and why, to the end of arguing that x kind of violence is preventable and y kind isn’t, or that z kind of discourse about kind of violence only serves z people, let’s lay down our tribal histrionics and agree on this: America has a violence problem.

Before we get caught up in secondary issues—the religious and racial background of the assailant, the motive (stated or unstated), or the degree to which policy can prevent such attacks—let us also agree: we must try our best to combat violence, whatever form it takes.

It turns out that this neutral formulation is too much to ask. Because people don’t see “violence” (I would bet that mothers do a better job at this than others)—they see “gun nut violence”, “jihadi violence”, “black inner city violence”, “white nationalist violence”, “police violence”, and “misogynistic domestic violence”, and exercise selective concern.

I would forgive this if people were selectively concerned out of self-interest—but that doesn’t seem to be the case. We’re not designed to weigh contemporary probabilities of harm with much accuracy.

Instead, selective concern about violence seems to be a matter of tribal mood affiliation: e.g. “I am a conservative; we conservatives see mass shootings by white men as the price of freedom” or “I am a liberal; we liberals see talk about black-on-black violence as a racist smokescreen”.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about mass shootings. I don’t know if stricter gun laws will help thwart them, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without lurching into authoritarianism.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about police brutality. I don’t know if post-Ferguson reforms will make a difference, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without depriving police of the ability to do their job.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. I don’t know if global war on terror measures or naming and shaming of Islamic fundamentalists, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without running roughshod over civil liberties.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about the violence in inner cities that disproportionately claims the lives of young black men. I don’t know if stricter gun laws and smarter policing will help mitigate it, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without encouraging racist policing.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about white nationalist terrorism. I don’t know if stricter monitoring, naming and shaming, or stricter gun control will make a difference, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without policing nonviolent speech.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about misogynistic violence at home and on the street. I don’t know if arming women, disarming men, or stricter policing of domestic violence complaints will change the game, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without eliminating the burden of proof.

It is hard, even unnatural, to conceive of all forms of violence as “one thing”. But it’s our best hope. When we pick and choose which forms of violence to freak out about and which to bury, we open the door to others doing the exact opposite. And then nothing gets solved.

America, Israel, and the curse of “special providence”

At The Atlantic, a nice, if occasionally pat survey of how the collision of America’s propensity for fantasy with postmodernism led to our (explicitly) post-truth present.

At Ha’aretz, and straight from Bibi Netanyahu’s mouth, a reminder that Israel, for somewhat different reasons, has reached the same place (before November 8, 2016, I was convinced that Israel had it much worse, actually).

As Netanyahu pivots from Cruzism to self-conscious Trumpism, one important difference in the left-baiting, media-baiting rhetoric is clear.

It’s in Trump’s interest to paint the recent past in apocalyptic colors—with the black devil with the funny name hard at work for the last eight years, how can you expect Dear Leader to undo it all in one day?

Whereas Bibi’s line—those leftists are all doom-and-gloom, but where’s the doom and gloom?—has been the Israeli right’s hobby-horse ever since the start-up nation dodged recession and intifada, against all odds. In the cynical logic of grandmaster Bibi, this means that all you need is to believe him, and the ax will never fall.

It’s a strange thing to have roots in, and to love, the 2 countries whose belief in a special providence is driving them off a cliff. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu—both consummate cynics—is a theist. But their power bases are full of true believers who really do think that God will deliver in a pinch for America and Israel, no matter how deep a hole they’ve dug for themselves.

Perhaps this is why inequality and the collapse of social cohesion—careening toward emergency levels in both countries—are nowhere to be found on the agenda. With God mounted on the wall in a glass cabinet, figuring out the nature of the crisis just doesn’t matter much.

Three observations from Lisbon (and a link)

1. While trying to find my way from the main bus station in Lisbon to a metro station two blocks away, I took out my phone to make sure I was walking in the right direction. On opening Google Maps, I saw that my app was trying to navigate me to Kılıç Dağı, the Turkish name for Mount Saphon, the Canaanite/Ugaritic Mount Olympus.

2. Anyone who feels comfortable in Spanish should consider devoting a modest amount of time to learning Portuguese. The return on investment is huge.

3. If you’re left-of-center on all political issues (like many people I know), think about it: what’s more likely? That one side is right about every single thing? Or that many or most of your beliefs are mostly determined by mood affiliation and cultural preferences?

Link: The latest episode of Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast, Living With Violence, a conversation with Gavin de Becker. Sam didn’t interject much, but it’s probably to his credit: de Becker, who I’d never heard of before, is really gripping.