Month: May 2012

Feces, Meet Fan

A couple of weeks ago, Frontline kept me up late when I got sucked into their four-part expose on the 2008 financial meltdown, Money, Power, and Wall Street. As always for Frontline, it was an incisive examination of the topic, revealing nuances that the mainstream press mostly overlooked. And it doesn’t appear that anything substantial has been done to repair the damage. The government threw (and continues to throw) lots of money at the problem, while any teeth of reform have been filed down by lobbyists.

I, like most Americans, have my own life to live, and can’t obsess about how big money is corrupting our republic. I have moments of clarity like cold water being splashed on my face, then I bury my head in the sand again. (Which means the sand is going to stick to my wet face. How’s that for mixed metaphors?)

Then my wife and I were talking about generational differences last night, started by a seminar a week ago by a rather good presenter speaking about the challenges of teaching to the Millennials/Generation Y/whatever the hell they end up being called. I had a few quibbles with his generational divides, based mostly on my reading of The Fourth Turning many moons ago. Which got me wondering how Strauss & Howe viewed current events, and if they thought things were lining up for the Crisis period that they had predicted.

Neil Howe believes that the Fourth Turning began with the 2008 financial crisis. Makes sense to me.

A comment on that post led me to a blog called the Burning Platform, where the proprietor has written up a very long analysis of the current Crisis in three parts, entitled You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. His politics appear to be a bit askew (from mine [though so are Neil Howe’s]), with a dash of conspiracy theory thrown in, but the vast majority of his points appear sound to me. (Just, for God’s sake, don’t read the comments! 9/11 nuts, crazy fundies of all stripes, and New World Order gold-standard bearers, oh my!)

I’m fairly convinced that the chickens are going to come home to roost over the deregulated banking industry sometime in the next eighteen months. Perhaps appreciably sooner. The news about JP Morgan Chase underscores that these banks are still engaging in risky behavior and are too big and too dumb to stop it. Perhaps when the debt ceiling looms again later this year it will be the breakdown that leads an authority figure (presumably the President) to step forward and take extraordinary measures. I know that it’s cliche to bring up the Nazi’s in totalitarian rhetoric, but I hope that whichever President has the reins then is not a Hitler, or a Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but an FDR, a Lincoln, or dare we hope, one(s) who has(have) the mettle and foresight of the Founders. I worry how Obama will perform in such a crucible, but perhaps the last four years have given him the on-the-job training. Romney thrown into such a crisis I suspect would be an unmitigated disaster, but he has been such a cipher to this point that it’s near impossible to judge what his true leadership would be under extreme pressure.

Being a (more or less) liberal, I think Obama’s stated values (some of which have been compromised over his first term) would be better for the continued health of the country, post-Crisis. But perhaps it will not be this President who will be the great leader who will save us or destroy us during the Crisis, but the next one. After all, we’re probably in this thing for 10-15 more years.

I would like for this to all be conspiracy theory, but historical cycles are clearly real, and the timing looks too convincing to ignore. Must not stick head back in sand…

The good news (assuming Strauss & Howe’s cycles are correct) is that now is the time when we can achieve great solutions to the conflicts of our day and forge a new, better consensus. But no one says it’s going to be easy.

Facebook, it’s not you, it’s me. No, really, it’s you.

I think I need a break from Facebook. Hell, I think I need to stop using it entirely. Maybe limited to promotion, if that ever becomes a thing (that works).

“People are stupid.” It’s the mantra of a close friend, and I’d be better served by using it as preventative wisdom rather than disgruntled venom after the fact. I know that people have different opinions and we grow by discussing them and blah blah blah. This is the freaking internet. I’ve been here for over fifteen years. You’d think I’d know what it’s like out there by now. Facebook is like AOL ten years ago. Not your first destination for high-minded discussions.

Le sigh.

I’m too weak to go cold turkey. But I’ve got a new (spring? May Day?) resolution. Stop engaging in political discussions on Facebook. Just stop it. People are talking but nobody’s listening. It’s like the stereotypical family Thanksgiving dinner.


Gimme some of that new time religion

Sometimes I want to found my own religion, but then I remember L. Ron Hubbard. And Joseph Smith. Apparently, you can’t found a modern religion without being cynical or a crackpot.

See, I’ve been reading about Buddhism. Not just recently, but over the past fifteen-plus years since I took a course in college. There’s a lot of kooky stuff in there, like in all religions: karma and reincarnation and celestial Buddhas and magic and demons. But it’s also a religion that meshes fairly well with the secular, scientific modern world. At its core, Buddhism is an agnostic religion, at least when it comes to gods, and its tenet of mindfulness is close to the scientific ideal of observation.

I’ve said a lot over the years that if I were forced to pick a religion, it would be Buddhism. But several things have increasingly bothered me about it in recent years. An old Slate article by John Horgan that I just came across explores some of those conundrums. I could quibble with a lot of his statements, or at least rhetoric. (For instance, saying that karma and reincarnation “imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness” seems to fundamentally misunderstand the metaphorical process of karma. Might as well say that the processes of genetic variance and natural selection imply some god-like guiding hand to raise some deserving species to dominance and condemn others to extinction. In the case of both evolution and karma, the key difference from theistic religion is that there is no Santa Claus.)

But as you see, this quickly devolves into theology. That just leads to doctrinal schism and different denominations and to one side calling themselves the High Road and the other side the Low Road.

It’s actually his conclusion that dovetails with the topic that’s been on my mind for many years:

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’ĂȘtre of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Argh. Again, I quibble with his word choice. “Incidental, accidental, happenstance.” They imply the religious disappointment of a lapsed Catholic asking about the meaning of life. It’s a non-sequitur. Only we create meaning. It does not exist without consciousness. And contrary to our self-importance, there is no evidence that the universe would be any the less without our meaning. “What is the meaning of an apple? Of dirt? Of pavement?” Nothing is incidental, accidental, or happenstance. Everything simply is.

(“Is” demonstrates the insufficiency of English when attempting to capture these notions that are at odds with the some-odd millennia of Western thought. “Is” implies stasis. Essence. The sine qua non of a subject. But what I mean is that, “Everything simply dances. Everything simply changes. Everything simply moves invisibly. Everything simply does what it must do.” That’s a lot of freight for a single word, and “is” doesn’t really carry it well, but we’re stuck with it for now.)

But I digress…

Horgan hits the nail on the head with his last line. Can any form of spirituality be compatible with the scientific method? I sure hope so, because the uncertainty of science is not compatible with the human brain. People seem to need the certainty of religion, or at least the comfort of religious practice. And while science as an abstract, devoid of the personalities that fuel its progress, seeks truth, something in the human mind craves certainty. Buddhism appears to be the only religion that attempts to make peace with the uncertainty of the universe (multiverse?) and of human existence within that often unfathomable emptiness that contains everything.

Yet Buddhism has thousands of years of often unwieldy baggage, so perhaps it is not the answer for modern suffering/ennui/existential doubt/uncertainty. Hence, I wish I could start a new religion, one with no god and one that made people comfortable with the perpetual disproof of the scientific method. I’m uncomfortable with some atheists who seem to deify science and make it into Science with the same sort of unassailable Truths that they decry in religion. Humans need some sort of spirituality that can embrace both the intuition of religious/creative experience and the reason of the scientific method. Without it, I’m afraid that the religious meme, which has been such a powerful thought virus throughout human history, will wipe out the brief flowering of scientific enlightenment that we take for granted today.

Unfortunately, I think I’d be a pretty shitty prophet, so I hope someone else is up to the task. And I hope they’re not a nutjob, fraud, crackpot, or thief. And that the high priests who inherit the new religion aren’t power-mad, duplicitous dicks.

What are the odds? History suggests nil.