BookBlog: Man’s Search for Meaning

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When I was in high school I played the part of Peter van Daan in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. The director of that production, one of my high school theatre instructors, told us it’s not uncommon for people to refrain from clapping at the end of this play. They sometimes simply stand and walk solemnly out of the theatre, carrying with them the story they had just received. I have that feeling about this book.

It’s not a book to be applauded. By all measures of human decency it’s not even a book that should exist. But it does, because humans are often indecent. What this book is is a book to be received and carried on as a reminder of the indecency and the perseverance of humanity. It’s a book of deplorable tragedy, and unwavering hope. It’s a book about the monsters inside our minds, and the gods inside our hearts. I am not happy I read it, it’s simply good that I did.

That’s it. There’s really nothing more to say. I’ve stared at the keyboard long enough and erased enough summary introductions to figure that out. I’m simply walking away, carrying the message I received with me.

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BookBlog: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

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This was a book that spoke to me on a lot of personal levels, and helped to make a lot of sense of who I am and who I’ve become as a result of the experiences I’ve had in my life, namely my time serving in the U.S. Army. Sebastian Junger, a highly regarded combat journalist and writer of several other works, gives a detailed and well-supported argument in his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging for what he sees as a general and significant disconnect in the modern American society from the earlier tribal roots of the human species. This disconnect, Junger suggests, may be a leading and significant root cause of many of our modern ailments and psychological afflictions. The idea being that we are simply not living as our ancestors lived, physically, emotionally, communally or psychologically.

Early in the book, Junger discussed statistics and studies that arose during the early American settlement and associated wars with the indigenous inhabitants of what would eventually, and bloodily, become the United States of America. One of the more unexpected and difficult dynamics of these conflicts and the clashing of modern Western European culture with the stone age tribal cultures of the indigenous peoples was the thousands of white European Americans who allegedly defected from advanced society and joined the tribal clans of Native Americans. Some of these defections came in the form of captured men, women and children who, by the time they found themselves in a situation to return to white society, no longer wished to. What Junger does not discuss is the potential role in these cases that Stockholm Syndrome could have taken in preventing these people from wanting to return to modern life, and certainly a child who was captured or born in captivity would have a much easier time adopting the culture of its captors and therefore less apt to assimilate back into white society. I would think this could have played a significant role in the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, there were a significant number of cases of voluntary defection of people with European ancestry simply walking away from the budding urban and industrial life and finding a home with the tribes of North America. It’s suggested by Junger that this was simply a calling home of people who had an evolutionary trigger activated and, no matter how long back in their ancestry it had been since their forefathers wore buckskin and howled at the moon, the lure of a return to savage life, once it became possible to do so in the New World, was too strong to ignore.

The tribal life, although demonstrably dirtier, more dangerous and arguably harder to endure, offered many things that modern life had left behind. The sense of community and group survival was rapidly disappearing in modern society and replacing it was a highly individualized and competitive culture. Tribes competed, often violently, but they competed almost exclusively with each other and rarely ever was there competition to the point of in-fighting within the tribe. Liberty, especially that of women, was much more valued in the indigenous tribes. The women were free to marry whom they wanted and to cease being married whenever they chose. All members of the tribe had specific tasks and chores to accomplish for the greater good of the community, but the hierarchies were small and simple. Class and status was not celebrated and the tribal way of life made it nearly impossible for any one tribe member to amass a disproportionate amount of wealth above the rest of the tribe that could be passed down to offspring who did not earn it. Leadership existed and warriors celebrated, but all in all every member of the tribe acted in the interest of the tribe. This snapshot of prehistoric culture found in the American wilderness, and eventually hunted down to near extinction, represented a more natural and enduring culture than what the westward expansion and Industrial Revolution was affording the emerging American lifestyle.

Junger spends some time contrasting the historical tribal culture with the modern American one in ways that made a lot of sense to me. Like all things deemed progressive, the second, third and beyond order effects of the rapid rate of societal evolution was not immediately clear, and is only starting to become understood today. Our natural environment is being decimated, our population is increasingly unhealthy (despite all the modern marvels of medical science), wealth inequality is growing (as our Chief’s no longer have to answer to their tribe only their shareholders), our sense of community has been diminished to the point of forming home owner’s associations to compel our neighbors to cut their lawn so we don’t have to risk actually talking to them. Most pointedly in this book, our psychological states have become increasingly troublesome. Despite all the comforts of modern life, we are anxious, we are depressed and we are suicidal on higher scales than previously known in western culture. It’s difficult to get a handle on what the suicide and depression situations were in tribal cultures as such things were not well studied in the North American Natives. In general, suicide in a tribal culture came when one was no longer of any use to the tribe.

Old age beyond ability to do one’s fair share of work, dishonor on the battlefield and significant physical disfigurement were some reasons known to lead tribe members to take their own life. Although emotional parallels can be drawn between the feeling of exile and ability to contribute among tribal and modern urban cases of suicide, the tribal reasoning seems to be tied to physical impairment rather than irreconcilable emotional states without clear physical motivators. It would seem that some of us are simply having a tough time accepting the rapidly changing and continually less agrarian and community oriented lifestyle that is evolving around us.

To discuss and study the stark differences between these two worlds, the tribal and the modern civilized, it is natural to look at a group of people who have significant experiences living in, and traveling back and forth between, the two worlds. That group is combat veterans. This is where the book really begins to hit home and speak to my personal experiences and some of the emotional and cognitive states I have found myself in both during and after my time in the military.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the modern scourge of the military veteran. Although the actual loss of life and overall viciousness of combat operations as compared to our earlier wars has diminished greatly, we find ourselves with an increasing amount of diagnosed psychological impairment in our military members. To be clear, I am not someone who feels they have been psychologically impaired by their military service. If anything, I would describe my psychological state following military service and deployment as Post Traumatic Growth, which is the less notorious phenomenon of experiencing increased cognitive and emotional ability following a period of extreme stress and feeling of danger. Regardless, what Junger goes on to describe felt very familiar and reminiscent of several key crossroads I have come to in my post military years.

One of the strange parts of the emergence of the PTSD culture is that, as previously stated, by most objective and subjective measures, war has gotten a lot nicer in the modern age than it was in our grandparent’s time. Our loss of life and limb is down, the number of soldiers who actually see a fire fight is low, the carnage and mayhem of world wars fought in bloody trenches is something that is simply not seen today by the average American service member. Yet, there does seem to be a greater psychological toll that is occurring. One of the reasons Junger hypothesizes this could be is simply a cultural shift that has gone towards providing a victim mentality to those who have experienced traumatic events. The tendency is to take a veteran who is struggling to re-introduce to civilian life and hand them a diagnosis and disability check for the rest of their life. Junger cites statistics that show many veterans seek treatment and go to appointments long enough to be given a 100 percent disability classification (meaning they will receive a tax free salary for the remainder of their life) and then promptly cease seeking treatment once they have done the bare minimum needed to receive the lifetime salary. What Junger suggests is, in part, we are not practicing good diagnostic and treatment standards and there is significant abuse of the system. It is apparently not uncommon for these abuses to be noticed in therapy groups and VA medical centers and often scuffles between the truly needy and the abusers have to be quelled by the staff.

Although these abuses are certain to exist, it’s impossible to say to what significance they play a role in the increasing psychological cost of war, and systemic abuse is not the main point of this book. The main point in this book that Junger seems to be making is it’s not the war zone that causes psychological problems in many returning veterans. Instead, it’s the world they return to. The combat zone isn’t the problem, the modern world of competitive individualism and victim mentality, where no one knows their neighbors and no one regularly sees or works with the members of their social networks, and fewer and fewer people take responsibility for their actions or their situation in life is the problem. American veterans return to a society that habitually thanks them for their service, which can only emotionally serve as a reminder that only the very few will ever serve, while the rest just go about their lives. Junger cites the mandatory military service culture in Israel as supportive of this dynamic. Nearly half of Israel’s citizens serve in the military in some form at some point in their life, so Israelis walking around thanking each other for their service would be as natural as Americans walking around thanking each other for paying taxes. We might all have different feelings about what it means to pay taxes, but it’s nevertheless something that most of us do. It’s simply the norm.

The Israel contrast goes on in this book to point out something else modern American life has lost in relation to primitive tribal cultures; in the primitive tribal culture of North America (as well as the modern tribal culture of Israel), the community existed extremely close to the tribe’s conflicts. Warriors were the direct defenders of the society, and the enemy was not simply an abstract idea that came through the TV screen from the other side of the world. The enemy was there, lurking in the shadows, planning to strike at any moment. While I’m certainly in no hurry to live somewhere where I feel constantly threatened by invading forces, I have to admit that doing so provides a catalyst for a group of people to forget their differences and bond together for a common cause. The terrorist attacks of 9-11 serve as support for this, when America found a level of unity and patriotism not experienced for many decades prior, and has asymptotically diminished since.

Given this context, I can say from experience the military is a very tribal culture. Through training and environment, the differences that soldiers may have; be them racial, religious, gender, political and during my time in the army even sexual preference differences, become not as strong of focal points for soldiers. My time in the army was still underneath the don’t ask, don’t tell policy towards sexual preference, but for younger lower enlisted and officer classes it was generally well known who was and was not gay. Even the few who may have not liked homosexuality where not very apt to report their fellow soldiers for behavior they disagreed with. The camaraderie and tribal dynamics tended to govern in these situations, and only the old timers really expressed any concern for the sexual preferences of others.

For those who had families, the family too was a part of the tribal culture. The family dealt with deployments and field training issues in their own way. There were support groups and community advocacy groups, children went to school and associated with other children of military parents and a commander’s spouse often acted in several key roles within the community. The extended tribe was an important part of the success and motivation for the warrior members of the tribe.

During deployments, the tribal mindset increases. It’s often been said that soldiers don’t really fight for their country when they are in a war zone, they fight for the men and women who are directly around them; their tribe. I think there is a lot of truth to that. There is a phrase that Junger uses in this book that I have seen used in others as well to name the mental shift that occurs in solders who are deployed to combat zones. That phrase is the hive switch. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt suggests that human beings are 90 percent chimpanzee and 10 percent bee. He describes the hive switch as a mental state that a human enters (notably in a war zone) where the self becomes less important and the greater good of the unit (the hive) becomes the focus. This is how great feats of heroism, often leading to the hero’s own death, can be explained in great times of stress and violence. The tendency for absolute self preservation that is so dominant in the sedentary and individualistic American society falls away when the enemy is actually at the gate (not just proverbially at the gate as often suggested by campaigning politicians).

As I’m writing this, it seems to me a good litmus test for whether or not what a politician is trying to make you afraid of is an actual threat would be whether or not what the politician is saying makes you want to band together with your neighbors despite your differences, or become suspicious of your neighbors because of your differences. If the hive switch hypothesis holds true, then the real threats should make us want to join together, not tear apart. If the enemy the politician is describing are your neighbors, then the politician might just be trying to control you with irrational emotion. A theory to be explored another day.

So soldiers generally live in this tribal sense. They band together as brothers and sisters, lean on each other both physically and psychologically and fight for each other and for the families left back at the base. There are squabbles and competitiveness and not everyone gets along all the time. However, the differences that soldiers fight over are more communal and less demographically oriented. Fights are more likely to occur over who plays their music too loud in the barracks than who comes from an immigrant family or has a slightly different religious ideology. No one cares about that shit, because it’s not important. Soldiers have a strange way of speaking to each other, which is something that, even though I only lived in that culture for a minority 6 years of my life, returning to the way civilians speak to each other has proved to be far more difficult than it was to grow accustomed to the shit talking of the army.

In the army, if you were not accepted by the tribe (for whatever reason) then you were effectively shunned. People simply did not talk to the members who struggled to fit in. Whatever communication was required to accomplish tasks was handled very matter of factly. The bare minimum amount of conversation occurred during duty hours, and virtually no socializing with the misfit occurred during free time. If a member of the tribe was more or less accepted, but not fully trusted, then the speech patterns to those members could be described as courteous, but not very inviting. If you want to know whether or not a member of the tribe was not only accepted but fully trusted, count how many times that tribe member is called a fuckstick and his mother a dirty hooker. The more insults, the more trusted and accepted the tribe member is. This is what is referred to in the army as shit talking and if you weren’t doing it back, you were at risk of finding yourself in one of the outlier groups.

If I told a fellow soldier to nut-up, quit crying, un-bunch their panties and carry-on before anybody notices what a little bitch they’re being, then rest assured that language came from a place of love and genuine concern. It took a long time for me to accept that this is not an effective way to talk to people back in the civilian world. Although I accept it and I approach people from that place of acceptance, I still don’t thoroughly understand it and I have to say I don’t believe the civilian way of talking to one another is objectively better. As course and rude as the shit talking culture may seem, it gets results, fosters bonds between group members, propagates emotional antifragility, breaks down barriers and motivates people to overcome obstacles instead of allowing their obstacles to overcome them. To be sure, it’s not a nice way to approach people, but life ain’t nice and if a group is going to become a tribe then they better get used to things that aren’t nice.

So American veterans return from their tribal culture of service, often to find their country increasingly politically and socially divided. The chiefs seem perfectly content at cultivating an air of dread and fear (see above remarks about the enemy at the gate, so say the politicians), using emotional marketing tactics to split us into camps of us and them which is antithetical to the core of military and tribal life. The us vs. them mentality within military and tribal culture is more of a struggle with external forces; the enemy. Returning to America we find ourselves in a culture that seems to be focused solely on attacking itself, something that can be disheartening to the men and women who spent significant time and youth operating at great personal risk for the good of the country.

The American veteran often returns to society to find little to no real sense of community, especially in the urban culture where our population density seems to be inversely proportional to our knowledge of our neighbors. We live on top of one another, but rarely ever do we commune with one another. The rural American culture seems to be holding on to this sense of community a lot better than the urban life, but the rural life is itself under an existential crisis. The long trend of our population moving to the cities continues and the rural life is itself dying.

With the mass exodus to the cities also comes further loss of many key dynamics of tribal life. Namely having an intimate understanding and association with the day-to-day struggles necessary to keep society going. As we’ve moved into the cities, our positions in society have become increasingly specialized. Very few of us have a working knowledge of how food is grown, water is made potable, how lumber and other building materials come to be or how infrastructure keeps us going. The miners and loggers and farmers have become abstractions to us. In the liberal ideologies, these people are treated as simpletons and regressive laborers in environmentally archaic industries. In reality they are the communities, that is, the tribes who perform the functions that are the basic necessities of modern life. The city folk have just become too disconnected to understand this. This all comes together to form a modern existence that is simply difficult for veterans to reconcile. Often in the early days of America, when thousands of white Americans by hook or by crook found their way back to tribal life, attempts would be made to bring them back to cities and back to their modern way of life. Many times these people would reject it all and risk great harm to escape the city and return back to the tribe they had come to know and love.

The implication in Junger’s book is this is why some American war fighters miss the war, why Londoners following the blitz of WWII joked that they wouldn’t mind one night a week of bombings just to keep things interesting and why Israeli’s who live danger-close to their conflicts seem to escape many of the psychological aftermath that plague American military servicemen and women. Counter-intuitively, what we are lacking is a strong and communal country for veterans to come home to, we lack a culture prepared to help them feel useful, empowered and wanted in society. Veterans return to the country they left, only to find a nation of what my drill sergeant would call a bunch of goddamned individuals. If you had the tone and inflection of a drill sergeant’s voice in your head while reading that they way I had it in my head while writing it, you’d have no doubt that drill sergeant meant the word individual as a great insult.

I’ve never been very comfortable with people thanking me for my service. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot since returning from the military. I know that my discomfort towards the gesture isn’t shared by all veterans, but I have recently and finally become aware that I’m not the only one. I ran into an essay on the internet a while back that let me know there are many other veterans out there who share my discomfort. I know the gesture is well-meaning, and I’m not mad that people feel motivated to make it, so I typically just say you’re welcome and leave it at that. I don’t stand up at ball games to be recognized and I don’t get free meals at participating restaurants on Veteran’s Day.

If I cut through the emotional response I have when someone thanks me for my service, which is mostly frustration, vulnerability and confusion, then I’d have to say a root cause of the emotion is that I’m not sure what people are thanking me for. I’m really not even sure if they know what they are thanking me for, which I think is one of the points of this book. The culture, the perception, the understanding and the fundamental dynamics between military, that is tribal life and the average American civilian experience is so far disconnected that the well-meaning gesture can seem to some veterans as something empty and obligatory. Well meaning civilians understand the veterans among them have done something, something deserving of gratitude, something they haven’t done…but they don’t seem to know what that something is. They don’t know what they are missing.

My emotions are not unique, which I was very happy to discover. I spent a long time feeling like there was something wrong with me, something ungrateful, for not feeling the gratitude that others were trying to express to me with their thanks. My emotions are also not standard for all veterans. I have many veteran friends who I’ve told about my feeling towards the phrases and gestures who don’t agree with me. Veterans aren’t as monolithic as some try to treat us. We come from a common forge of tribal culture, but we still retain a broad spectrum of diversity. That said, if you want some suggestions on alternative things to say to veterans, I would try asking them what their experience was like, how they feel it shaped them and what they have been doing since returning home. Junger suggests in this book that more needs to be done to make veterans feel useful and important in society, the way they were in their tribe. In my opinion, a lot could be done if more people made the effort to strengthen their communities and stop being assholes to their neighbors and their fellow Americans who have differences that are easy to focus on.

When I was a child I got into an after school fight with another boy in my class, I think I was in fifth or sixth grade at the time. We took the time to wait until school was well over, and the traffic of other kids and parents cleared up. After a few moments of the fight had passed (which seemed like forever), a man came out of an apartment across the street from the patch of grass we had chosen for our battle ground to stop the fight. I didn’t remember this until I started to write this post, but I think now I’ll never forget it. The man was tall, white, thin and his hair was buzzed short. He approached us shirtless from across the street, commanding us to stop fighting. He said that he had just gotten back from Iraq, the timeline matches up to the Gulf War, and that this is not what he wanted to come home to, this is not what he fought for. We broke up the fight and went our separate ways, the man walked frustrated and emotional back to his apartment. I didn’t really understand at the time why the man had taken such an issue with two kids fighting. In my childhood mind, if he was a soldier then he must have liked fighting. I think I understand what he meant now.

Book Report: Stealing Fire

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Stealing Fire came to me as a suggestion from an entrepreneur friend who is a fellow avid reader. I have no idea what his personal journey with altered states is, and, as will be discussed, there really are natural ways to gain access to the worlds within us. My friend’s suggestion did come with the comment that this book would be good for me due to the things he knows I’m into. He was right. This book was like picking up a textbook that was written to counter all of the war on drugs messaging I received as a child and in support of my own personal journey with the benefits of altered states of consciousness in my younger and more wild days. This book was validation for the world I discovered and often wondered whether or not was real, the one transposed over the world around us, hidden in plain sight from the people who don’t know how to look for it. This book was a sigh of relief, and a hope for a future with a more realistic approach to drug policy and the benefits that can be, and have been, obtained by those who have the cognitive wherewithal to explore their inner minds through natural and chemically imposed altered states of consciousness. First, a little backstory about me.

When I was in the sixth grade I won an award from the D.A.R.E. program for an essay I wrote on the dangers of drugs. I’ll pause now to wait for everyone who knows me to stop laughing and catch their breath.

So a few other sixth graders and I were honored for our compositions at a special assembly. We took turns reading our essays for the school and received a nice certificate and a coupon for a special chocolate record that commemorated our success in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education course. Yes, they actually awarded children for their essay on the dangers of drugs with refined sugar and trace amounts of THC. It was a well intentioned program, but not a well conceived one. D.A.R.E. would eventually be called a massive failure and a waste of time and money, having literally no positive outcomes attributable to it. The cracks in the “Just Say NO” philosophy of the 80’s and 90’s were beginning to become hard to ignore.

Not that I was, at the time, a sixth grader who was into drugs. It would be a few more years before I started dipping my toes in the forbidden molecular fruits around me. I was just a kid who could spell, use good grammar, held a vocabulary well beyond my grade level and had learned to use my intelligence and skills to game adults into handing me grades, awards and refined sugar with trace amounts of THC in it.

I have zero recollection of what I actually wrote and recited. There may be a copy of the essay around somewhere in one of the boxes of memories my mother cultivated for me over the years. I’m about 100% confident that whatever I wrote was 100% regurgitated information from the lectures and materials of the program that, much like the speech I gave, found no lasting place in my memory. It was 100% bullshit.

Somehow I always knew that it was all bullshit. Like praying to a god you don’t believe in just because the adults around you were doing it (which I also did till I was about twelve). I cognitively knew that I was supposed to just say no to drugs, but I never really felt it in my heart. That’s probably why, as childhood evolved into adolescence, I skipped the phase of saying “no” to drugs and went straight to saying “perhaps” to them.

Alcohol came first, naturally, as that was the one that could be swiped from parents and sometimes purchased from less than reputable drive-thru liquor stores (thank you Monti’s on 16th!). I never cared much for marijuana in high school. In retrospect that was probably due to the inability of teenagers under the full prohibition of the 90’s to get anything but dirt weed. It took decriminalization and market regulation to produce access to good herbal medicine. It also took me growing up and becoming a discerning adult to be able to know how to treat that plant right.

LSD was cheap and pretty available in the 90’s. The rave scene was in full swing and still underground enough that a highly motivated 15-year old could infiltrate and find whatever they were looking for. MDMA was around, but too expensive for my allowance. Psilocybin mushrooms were an occasional treat, whenever they could be found. (I can already see my mother shaking her head while she inevitably reads this. Hi Mom!)

At any rate, my early childhood suspicion towards the war on drug’s marketing materials was gaining supportive data in high school and into my 20’s. They tried to throw some Prozac or Zoloft or something to that affect at me halfway through high school for the crime of exhibiting angsty behavior. I quickly threw those things in the trash. They simply made me placid, and placid was the last thing I wanted to be. Between the choice of feeling something vs. feeling nothing, I choose something. Every time.

I’m probably painting myself as being more in control than I was at the time. My early intuition told me that the messages I was receiving about substances didn’t feel right to me, my early experiences with substances supported my hypothesis, but if you were to look back in time through a crystal ball I was just a kid getting high and trying to figure out what all of that meant for me. I know that my experiences didn’t feel bad, they didn’t feel dangerous. It was simply a different way to experience the world around me that I had discovered. I didn’t feel like a dope and, despite my failing grades in high school, I was well aware that I was intelligent. I was simply disinterested in going to class. The flat out lies of the “Just Say NO” philosophy were becoming exposed.

Of course it wasn’t perfectly safe, and not everyone makes it out alive and/or well. That’s true about a lot of things. Studies cited in this book state that horseback riding is more dangerous than recreational drug use on a per capita basis, but I had no idea of that at the time. The risk vs. reward ratio seemed, at the end of the day, worth it. So I continued to have no sympathy for the Devil, buy tickets and take the rides to varying outcomes, most of which I can honestly say were positive and I wouldn’t have changed for the world.

It wasn’t easy. There were certainly forces working against me. Friends who had bought into the every user is the beginning of an addict bullshit of that D.A.R.E. program I aced, parents and teachers who had to be negotiated and sidestepped, authorities to outsmart and black market products to acquire at high risk were all obstacles that had to be overcome. The obstacles weren’t simply functional, though. They were also philosophical and existential. My experience was obviously at odds with the narrative around me. I was smart enough to understand that I may, in fact, be fooling myself into believing that everything is fine when in fact it is not. There were a few times when everything was not fine, even though I thought it was. There was no guarantee I would come out on top of those times, I simply did in the end. How much of that was cognition and how much was luck is impossible to determine.

As I got older, the data became more robust. I noticed that, while a few friends seemed to have taken it too far and ended up burned out, for the most part everyone was fine and seemed to be enjoying themselves as double agents of the counterculture. As I got older still, not only were the overwhelming majority of my drug friends fine, a significant pack of them seemed to be thriving. They were becoming educated professionals, successful non-starving artists, musicians, actors and entrepreneurs. If you are still holding on to the illusion that all the well adjusted people around you must not have done drugs in their life because otherwise they wouldn’t be well adjusted people, then I’m pleased to help shatter your illusion. Having climbed, high, a top the mountain and able to look back, I promise you that you can’t throw a stick into a crowd of well adjusted people without hitting someone who has dabbled with illicit substances and come out the other side better for it.

If you don’t believe there is such a thing as societal benefit that comes from criminalized altered states, then please take whatever device you are reading this on and throw it in the trash. Your computer, phone, tablet, they were all conceived, invented, designed and coded by people who have found creative and innovative solutions to complex problems through natural and artificially altered states of consciousness. Stealing Fire states something that should be implicitly known; that nearly every billionaire in Silicon Valley uses psychedelics to solve problems. But enough backstory, on to the book.

Beginning in ancient times, Stealing Fire (a reference to Prometheus, the Mythological Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans) starts with the story of a party in Greece. At this party, the host distributes a banned substance among his guests that sends them all into an introspective cognitive journey. The substance was called keykeon and until the host, a decorated military commander named Alcibiades, stole it from the Grecian elite and distributed it to his friends, it was a pretty closely guarded secret of the ruling class.

Keykeon was a staple of an ancient ritual called the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secretive nine-day ritual held annually by members of a certain religious cult. The purpose of the ritual was to strip away all known points of reference in the consciousness, to gain new perspective on the world and society and to take that perspective and the learnings from it to go out and lead the world to a better place. It has been suggested that some of the greatest mathematical and philosophical discoveries of the ancient world came out of the Eleusinian Mysteries. While you’re throwing away your MacBook because it was invented by a guy who did LSD, go ahead and burn your house down for all the Pythagorean theorem that was used to build it.

You still with me? You still not homeless? Good.

In this introductory story, Alcibiades is Prometheus and he has stolen the fire of keykeon from the egotistical religious elites who held that they were they only ones fit enough to sit around getting high and think about thinking. For the crime of stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus was chained to a stone and sentenced to an eternity of having his guts eaten out by crows every day, only to have them grow back overnight and go through the ordeal again the following day, ad infinitum. Alcibiades got off light, he was only tried in absentia for blasphemy, a crime punishable by a simple mortal’s death.

This is only one story, from long ago, about the rogue actions of a counterculture leader simultaneously stealing and playing with fire. There are many others throughout the ages that serve to illustrate the ebb and flow of man’s dance with altered states of consciousness, their rituals, the hypocritical vilification of the plants, fungi and synthetic molecules that people have used to reach them and the overall struggle that organized society has had to accept the fact that, no Mrs Reagan, there is not a universally good reason they call it dope.

While this book is obviously meant to help break down the fears and walls surrounding substance-induced consciousness expansion, it does give ample regard to the natural methods of reaching the mental state defined in the book as ecstasis. Ecstasis, whether it comes from a mushroom, a molecule, an ancient Greek elixir, surfing a big wave, free diving to 700 feet, meditating on a hilltop, handling rattlesnakes at church, dancing till you’re drenched in sweat or praising the lord of your faith can be defined as reaching an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence.

This conventional definition permits the authors the ability to define their scope from ancient Greeks to the tea-headed hipsters of the beat generation to the hive-mind operation of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six. As promised, the authors fully recognize at least one truth of the war on drugs, that is You don’t NEED drugs to get high.

As it turns out, brain scans of Buddhist monks in meditation, wing-suit gliders in flight, Christian revivalists chanting in tongues, highly trained special forces military groups,  Jewish pilgrims and many others in a sober state of transcendence look nearly identical to the brain scans of people who took the express route to the dissolution of all time and space by ingesting various natural and synthetic substances. You don’t need drugs to feel at one with the universe, it just turns out to be a faster way to get there.

Playing with altered states of consciousness doesn’t universally lead to positive results, either. The master switch to these mental states is not always controlled by benevolent hippies and harmless gurus. Cult leaders have at times emerged and wreaked havoc, suicide pacts have been carried out by followers who lost their way to life, and recently declassified documents have outlined the experimentation of the government and military with mind control techniques that were not too shy or conservative in values to keep designs to an LSD bomb off the table of possibilities. If you think there won’t be declassified documents in another 50 years that outline the experiments they are certainly doing today (but won’t currently admit to), then you haven’t been paying very much attention.

The marketing industry has gotten a hold of the altered state of consciousness buzz terms recently, as well. Conglomerates of advertisers funded by billion dollar industries have spent considerable efforts the past few years to learn how to hack the brain of the consumer in exponentially more efficient ways than untrustworthy focus groups. This leads to a whole new big book of ethical dilemmas as these titans of industry attempt to circumvent the troublesome task of producing products the consumer wants, and instead look for new and subconscious ways to make the consumer want the products they produce. I seriously doubt that our society is ultimately in much of a position to stop them at the policy level, so maybe think twice before you strap on that cool new VR headset. Subtle programming in your augmented reality could very well be giving you daily Big Mac attacks. Which brings us to what I believe to be the central thesis of this book; what do we do with these altered states of consciousness?

Expanding our minds through various methods, it would seem, is something that is as old as humanity itself. What is humanity except a bunch of walking and talking apes who, somehow, managed to expand their minds enough to gain self-awareness? We often count the discovery of fire as a pivotal moment in our species’ technological evolution, which makes the story of Prometheus stealing fire and giving it to us resonate at least on a fabled level. We could continue to openly deny ourselves a positive relationship with substance-induced altered states, relegating them to hush-hush parties of cults and billionaires in some sort of pseudo-moral campaign against the dangers that do come along with an expanded mind. But that doesn’t just leave the induction of ecstasis in the hands of the few benevolent, malevolent and ignorant innovators in California. It’s highly unlikely that government, and functionally impossible that industry, is going to cease and desist their experiments in citizen and consumer control through the development and understanding of altered states of consciousness. The book does start to sound a little conspiracy theory-ish at this point, but to quote the late Kurt Cobain, “Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.”

What Stealing Fire suggests, in line with the Burning Man ethos of open sourcing creativity and innovation, is a likewise open source approach to ecstasis. Keep it socialized, keep it out there. The more people are in control of their own states of reality, altered or not, the harder it is to consolidate our sense of reality into one unified, or several partisan, brands. The more we are free to look within ourselves by whatever methods we deem fit, and as long as we harm none but ourselves, then the more our world around us will stay a place of wonder, creativity and innovation. Hopefully that does more harm than good. Fire can bring warmth and permit a society to flourish and evolve. It can also bring death and destroy everything that people have built. Prometheus didn’t give us instructions to build or destroy, he only gave us the tool to do both more efficiently. The key, it would seem, to outweighing the destructive blazes with transcendent light is making sure that more of us can carry the spark.

I highly recommend this book.

Book Report: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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This is my first venture into Russian literature. Well, sort of. I started Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy a few weeks ago, but it really was not sucking me in at all and I ended up putting it down. There were a couple of interesting passages, but mostly I found it to be little more than aristocrats talking to other aristocrats about being aristocrats, which wasn’t of much interest to me. I know that Tolstoy is regarded as one of the  great writers of all time, and I’m certain Anna Karenina is an accurate and important portrayal of the culture, I simply felt like I was watching a movie I wasn’t interested in, and a long one at that. Nothing was being retained and I was just going through the motions. There’s no sense forcing something with little promise of a return.

But, I still wanted to get into the Russian works, so I pivoted in lieu of retreating and picked up One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This book was about as far in the other direction as I would think one could get from the drama of the Russian Aristocracy in the 19th century.

Set in the Soviet Gulag prison labor system following World War II, the relatively short (approx 150 page) novel follows one day in the life of prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Shukhov is currently serving a ten-year sentence to hard labor, officially for the crime of being a spy for the Nazis in WWII, but in reality he was a prisoner of war who escaped and found his way back to the Russian front lines. His true crime seems to have been admitting to the truth and telling his superiors that he was, in fact, in the hands of the Germans for a period of time which was more than enough to spark espionage paranoia and convict him of treason. The tragic irony being that if he’d of had the foresight to create a lie and state that he simply got lost from his unit and wandered the forest until he found his way back, he might have been spared the accusation of being a soldier tainted by the culture of the enemy and allowed to rejoin the ranks. Such was not Shukhov’s fate.

Despite this injustice, Shukhov does not seem bitter about his predicament. Perhaps he was to some degree in the beginning of it all, but certainly if he had displayed much bitterness or tried to fight what was happening to him he would have simply been executed. For whatever reason, by the time we catch up to Shukhov he seems rather resigned to the life thrust upon him. Better to live in hell on earth than be sent to the one below, I suppose. Regardless, this isn’t a book about the ways things should have been, it’s a book about the way things were.

At least Shukhov was only given a ten year sentence, a hard thing to survive for certain, and there was no chance of him ever being the same even if he did survive it. The true tragedy, in his mind, was all the poor souls who started coming into the camps in recent years. At some point, the sentencing practices of the judicial system had changed and now it seemed that everyone was coming in with twenty-five year sentences no matter how benign their crimes were. Shukhov had never seen or heard of someone surviving twenty five years in the Gulag, and didn’t ever expect to. Solzhenitsyn himself served eight years for writing critical remarks against Stalin in letters to his friends, which I am certain served as ample research for this novel.

The description of this one day in the life struck me as a combination of prison (which I’ve never been to) and Army Basic Training (which I have). Being a labor camp, the day is described as something very different than what we are used to seeing on TV about the modern American prison system. Rather than simply a large concrete fortress used to house thousands of inmates who have nothing really better to do with their time other than lift weights, press license plates and run internal crime syndicates in concert with corrupt prison guards, life in the Gulag contained a rank and file system, official prisoner leadership structures and work projects that more explicitly served the needs of the Soviet Union (without having to hide behind pesky bureaucracies to profit from prison labor the way we do in the US).

The prisoners were divided into platoon-sized elements with their own prisoner leadership and numerical designations. Shukhov belonged to the 104th labor team headed by a prisoner/squad leader named Andrey Prokefyevich Tyurin. Tyurin was on his nineteenth year of imprisonment as of that day. The role of the squad leader was to act as liaison between the rank and file campers and the guards, who themselves seemed to only be in a slightly better position than the prisoners. The guards had more power, more access to warmth, better clothes and better food, but they were still stuck in the camp regardless.

Survival in the Gulag was not at all assured or much tended to by the guards. It took a savvy squad leader, who himself was in competition with the other squad leaders, to do what he could to shelter his squad from the bad labor details, to jockey for position in the food lines and to run an economy of trades and favors that both came to him from below and went up from him to the authorities to ensure that his team had the best conditions they could, tacitly at the expense of the team whose misfortune found them lead by a less effective leader. Perhaps this is something like the criminal groups that exist in the modern American prison system, but in the Gulag this seemed to be more of a fight for survival than what occurs here and now. No one starves to death in American prisons because their cell block leader can’t cultivate enough favors to obtain enough extra bread to meet the basic caloric needs of the cell block.

The intricacies of the subculture of Gulag prison life are explained in great detail, how to hide good tools from guards so that your work was a little bit easier, the dangers of being caught with an extra layer of warm clothing underneath your standard dress, the no guarantees that the extra firewood that everyone smuggles every day in the form of broken sticks would ever make it back to the barracks, the fight for food that leaves everyone licking their bowls clean even on the good days, the barter and trade of tobacco and bread to ensure that you and your allies got what they needed that day, and implicitly had it to do all over again the next with a different but also constant set of changing variables and obstacles to overcome. Some days were going to be better than others, and all anyone can ever do is the best they can.

The system was rough and easy to find oneself on the outside of, if one was not careful. Find yourself out of line, and your punishment got worse. Solitary confinement for any more than ten days would probably mean death. If not death, you’d never be healthy again, making it that much harder to return back to the system of struggle and survival without finding yourself again on the outside of it.

The implication with the stern sentencing and mostly construction tailored labor details is that the system of crime and punishment in this era was less about crime or punishment and more about creating a cheap labor force to rebuild Russia following the war and to prop up the Soviet Union. I am certain there is some truth in that. What I think the main take away from this novel is that 150 pages could be filled with one day in the life of this one Gulag labor camp prisoner and, as the novel states at the end, this was only one day in the 3,653 days of Shukhov’s sentence. The three extra days for the three leap years he would experience in his ten years. While many of us simply go through the motions of our day to day lives, sometimes struggling to remember what happened a week or even a couple days ago, and while each day in Shukhov’s 3,653 days could probably fill nearly identical 150 page novels, I am certain he, and Solzhenitsyn actively felt every single day in a way that I hope to never know.

 

Book Report: The Trial

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Every so often I would come across the word Kafkaesque, either somewhere in the news or some literary reference or uttered by an academic and/or intellectual in conversation. After this occurred once or twice, and after I grew tired of pretending I had a grasp on what the term meant, I looked up the adjective so I could better understand its definition. As defined by Merriam-Webster:

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Well, fuck. That wasn’t any help. I mean, I get that there’s oppression and nightmarish qualities involved, but the dictionary definition of the term basically says that if you haven’t read it, you won’t understand. After a few more times of coming into contact with the term I decided to go ahead and join the club of people who are able to use the term with some sense of knowing precisely what it means, so I picked up The Trial, by Franz Kafka.

Our protagonist in this novel is the Chief Financial Officer of a bank by the name of Joseph K., presumably in Germany although I don’t think this is ever explicitly stated. We join Joseph K., most simply referred to as “K.” throughout the novel, on an exciting morning for him. This is the morning that K. is arrested. For what, he hasn’t a clue. All he knows is that men have shown up to his place of residence, inconvenienced him, embarrassed him in front of his landlady and violated the personal space of a fellow tenant in his building. (I hope you read all that in Rod Serling’s voice. I just did.)

From the jump, it’s clear that K.’s understanding of crime and punishment in his society is very disconnected from reality. Nearly nothing is the way he expects, and sometimes even demands, it to be. His arresting officers have no idea why K. is being arrested, and why should they? It is not their job to know such things. The officials he comes into contact with after his arrest cannot help him either. They, too, are simply doing their parts in a much larger show. From the moment I met K., I wanted to yell through the pages for him to shut his damn mouth and quit believing that he knows things about the world he lives in. Then again, I have been detained for questioning by the law in more than one country. My propensity for silence in the face of law enforcement is a learned trait. I am certain the first time I found myself arrested, my ignorance was just as glaring as K.’s. Regardless, I began very quickly to wish the man would simply shut the fuck up. Alas, he did not.

What K. did do was attempt to assert logic, or rather his version of logic, in a world that was very illogical, or rather one that seemed illogical to him. His expectations of the criminal justice system in his world are time and time again dashed by bureaucracy, nonsensical tradition, the intertwining of strange actors in various roles, a judicial system patched together in attics and alleys which I assume could only be the product of a long road of economic turmoil, and ultimately by a sort of religious experience itself. It’s unknown why this superficially familiar world behaves the way it does. The history of this society, much like its geographical location, is not rigidly defined. The reader is simply given the experiences as they happen when they happen with no discernible backstory as to why the world described is the way it is.

K.’s biggest problem is his unwillingness, or inability, to accept his situation for what it is. He often believes things are too serious in times when he should not, and dismisses his trial in the times he should be focused. He stands up to authority, which only ends up exposing his ignorance, and finds friendships in the least productive places, namely a chamber maid who he believes to be his closest ally. Unfortunately, she simply has a fetish for accused men. In the end, it is a story told to him by a priest that seems to help K. find some acceptance of his position, or perhaps just finally exhausts him into submission. I would believe either. Everything he knows, or believes he knows, doesn’t matter. He simply is where he is and has his part to play. If he had known the exact right things to do, people to trust, statements to make… then maybe his outcome would have been different. But that’s the catch of K’s world; no one ever knows what the right thing to do is, because everyone only knows their part. Escaping a trial is the stuff of urban legends. It’s believed to have been accomplished before although no one in present time has ever known any heroes who have done the right thing and been given their release. Whether or not the right thing to do even exists could be debated, although it’s my opinion that it does not. The only right way to be is the way you are supposed to be, even if that is not the way you are.

By the time we reach K.’s final moments, he is almost tranquil in his acceptance of his position. Not entirely, but almost. He attempts, best he can, to remain calm and stoic in the steps leading to his execution. He welcomes his executioners, only wishing they were of a better sort rather than wishing they were not there at all. He attempts to struggle for a moment, but even that resistance seems out of place to him and so he does not keep it up very long. I wish I could say that K. experienced at least one true moment of clarity before he died, but even in the end he seems to still be searching to make sense of it all.

Kafka never makes sense of his world to us. He never explains it, never tells us why it is the way it is. That’s the point. It’s not up to us to understand the world according to Kafka. It’s only up to us to know our place in it. K. never knew his charge, never met his final judge, never heard the bell ring on his own trial. That wasn’t his place. His place was to play the part of the defendant, and a guilty one at that. Just as it was the part of his executioners to play the part of his executioners, his lawyer the part of his lawyer, his judges the part of his judges. None of the actors understood their role, but they all accepted it. In Kafka’s world, understanding is not requisite to acceptance. That is the nightmare.

I’m going to read more of Kafka’s works. I want to solidify my understanding of the world according to Kafka. In the meantime, I’ve worked up my own definition of the term, one that doesn’t rely on whether or not you’ve ever read a Kafka book. I reserve the right to change my definition, at will, as I discover knew things about it in practice. For now, I define it as follows:

Kafkaesque: When the world you know is immaculately shattered by the world which is, helpless as you may be to prevent it…

Book Report: The Age of Empathy

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This is the 13th book published by primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal, although it is the first of his that I have read. In it, de Waal links his decades of work with primate social behavior to his own Dutch-American societal understanding and personal journey in a way designed to suggest that we humans (especially Americans) are not necessarily bound by self-maximizing and cut-throat behavioral tendencies. He argues for the existence of empathy in apes, monkeys, bonobos as well as higher order mammals such as dogs and cats and even delving into the collective behavior of birds.

In beginning this book, my original fear was that the author would be an overly idealistic Dutch socialist type. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great respect and admiration for the European culture. Having lived in Europe for a few years during military service, I experienced first hand the benefits of a more socialized society. Although admittedly I was still a U.S. Government employee so I paid none of the taxes that paid for this culture. This almost certainly gives me an idealized view of the highly socialized society.

Regardless, I enjoyed the common services, advanced public transportation and overall culture of social connectivity that can be found throughout much of Europe. One of my all-time favorite countries to visit during my European tour was Frans de Waal’s native Netherlands. The sense of community in Amsterdam seems so ingrained that, although the number of bicycles easily outnumbers the number of cars, I hardly every saw a bike with a lock on it outside of a residential building. My fellow American travelling companions and I never did figure out if the locals either weren’t worried about people stealing their bikes or perhaps if there was some sort of tacit take a bike, leave a bike type system that the city was running off of… The bikes were never locked up, but they weren’t very fancy either. I would believe it if the residents simply weren’t terribly concerned with whether or not the bike they left with was the same as the one they arrived on.

So it’s not a distaste for the European socialist culture that made me initially wary of a book from a Dutch academic about empathy, but rather it was the understanding I have that America is not Europe and that it is unrealistic to expect any sort of cultural flip in the U.S. to happen on any short timeline. The author was quick to settle my fears, however, and soon paused to describe the in-between state of his worldview. Having been shaped first by his European upbringing and education and then reformed by his decades of work in the United States, de Waal states his own cultural allegiances as lying “somewhere in the Atlantic” between Europe and the United States. This effectively dispelled my suspicions of de Waal as an idealist and firmly established him a realist. I like realists.

Having established his own personal history and culture, de Waal moves on to the meat of the book which is the work he has done observing primates specifically in the context of their tendencies towards empathy, society, sympathy, equity/inequity and unity. In addressing animal behavior in this way, de Waal picks up two adversaries from polar opposite ends of human spectrum. The first being the hard-line scientists, the second being evolutionary deniers, both of which are simply not comfortable assigning historically human personality traits to animals. To the scientists, this aversion seems to mostly be a word game. To them, a dog cannot be happy it can only be playful and likewise it cannot be angry it can only be aggressive. Emotional adjectives are solely owned by humans, and it is simply inappropriate to discuss animal behavior in these terms.

Interestingly to the same ends but by very different means, the evolutionary denial perspective asserts that humans are the sole owners of complex emotions by virtue of our special place in the universe. Implicitly this place was given to us by a creator, and the animal kingdom was then given to us to use as we see fit. Being the superior and beloved children of creation that we are, concepts like love and empathy are a relationship between humans and their gods. The relationship between humans and animals is something more utilitarian and so there is no need for creation to waste feelings on the animal kingdom. To the scientist, we are sufficiently advanced enough to have developed emotional processes that are uniquely our own. To the spiritualist, these emotions were given to us because we sit in the light of consciousness, a place other species simply do not occupy.

I can’t say the author effectively dispatched any of these detractors to his perspective. Nothing was proven in this book. Nothing is ever proven in behavioral science, especially in non-human animal behavioral science. The best that can be done is to have perspectives and hypotheses supported by observation and repeatable experiments. At the end of the day, the difference between a happy dog and playful dog is perspective. Arguments on which adjective is appropriate quickly delve into the existence, nature and placement of the soul within man and animal. Perhaps someday there will be a settlement to this argument, but I highly doubt one will come in my day.

What the author does is make a damn good case for the existence of empathy in the non-human animal kingdom. He brings his experience, insight and observation to the topic in a way that resonates with the reader, at least it resonated with me. The concept seems reasonable, supported and attractive and I see no harm in deciding it to be true.

Approaching the conclusion of the book, de Waal circles from the lives of chimps and Capuchin monkeys back around to us human apes to tie it all together in support of his thesis point. That point being that our empathy is not unique to our species, it is very much alive and well in nature. Again establishing himself as a realistic person influenced by his time in America, he then gives great regard for the advantages afforded to man and animal through competition, and pauses to note that he does not advocate for a removal of all things apathetic from our society. Being a man with a perspective sitting somewhere in the Atlantic, he goes on to discuss his concept of fairness as not simply a situation where everyone gets an equal share of the pie, but also one where the baker gets a larger slice. Because he earned it. That too, the author suggests, is fair.

If I was missing one thing from this book, it was a call to action. The title suggested that I would be exposed to at least a theory on how the overly socialist societies to the east and our own American one could meet Frans de Waal in the middle of the Atlantic, hopefully finding a place where we can reap the benefits of culturally systemic empathy while still realizing a decent amount of capital reward afforded by perpetual competition and struggle. I did not take anything like that away from the book. Then again, if I was really looking for a definitive solution to the ages old back and forth between liberty and society in the spirit of fraternity, I probably shouldn’t have read a book written by a realist.

Basket of Deplorables.

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I picked this book up on a suggestion. It’s new. Like brand spanking new. I’m generally distrustful of new books. They’re untested. The best books stand the test of time, and by function of the laws of time and space, a new book has not been afforded the opportunity for significant survival.

The 2nd hesitation I had before starting this is, quite frankly, it’s a book specifically about white perspective. That’s a dangerous perspective to undertake in modern society. Looking into a few superficial reviews of the book before I got started and certainly I came across the judgments of this being a racist writing. The assertion being that anything which sheds light on historical white poverty is inappropriate given the context of African and Chinese slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. I wondered if maybe I had accidentally bought a racist book.

However, since I am man who is not afraid to read books he disagrees with, I decided to consume the content under the threat of reading something inappropriate.

Either Nancy Isenberg is not, as some critics suggest her to be, a racist who is producing some sort of #AllLivesMatter argument, or I am smart enough to read a historical account of something from a racist and not be poisoned by the underlying agenda. Long story short, I do not feel the critics of the white perspective were being rational.

I do not feel somehow racially emboldened by a story of white poverty in America. If anything, I feel I now have a better understanding of just how fucking racist the white settlers and founders of the United States actually were.

Through the telling of how the most depraved and desperate British citizens (including children) where selected for deportation to the New World as indentured servants, planted as nothing more than hands to perpetually work on farms, Isenberg rips off the rose-tinted shades we are adorned with by our American public school education and Disney Movie retellings of our past.  Isenberg tells how the most unproductive members of American society (which was literally and intentionally infected with unproductive people shipped here from Britain) formed a troublesome, backwoods, argued-to-be not-entirely-human class of ultra-poor white people who lived more as animals than humans. Every American knows that Australia was settled as a prison colony for Great Britain. For some strange reason the fact that America was done in much the same way escapes our high school history books. The average human didn’t initially come here for opportunity, it was a punishment for a crime as minor as idolness.

And so, after an upwards of 80% attrition rate to early settlements, a survivor stock of American humans emerged and began to take hold of the land. These were tough fuckers. These people survived when 8 out of 10 people didn’t make the grade. And they started to do what all humans do given enough time. That is; pile up resources. The most savvy of the savvy snatched up land, the sterling tongues created the concept of property rights and started leveraging things called laws against the slower bunch.

The entrepreneurial men enslaved people from other continents to work their fields.

Slavery wasn’t just about controlling people who look different than you do because they look different than you do, it was a way to cut out the people who wanted a decent wage and Sundays off to go to church from the equation. Racists often like to assert that slave owners weren’t racist, they were just economical. Bullshit. They were fucking both. Just because there’s a cultural and economical rationale to slavery, doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply rooted in the oppression of fellow humans based on stark physiological (read:skin color) conditions.

Oh, and the other slap in face that makes me reject notions of racism in Isneberg’s work? Apparently the abolition of slavery itself had racist motivations. Ya, that is also something that is conveniently left out of the Alhambra School District history books from the mid 80’s to mid 90’s.

We’re all led to believe that, all of a sudden, a bunch of people in the North side of the country got woke and decided that owning the life of other human beings was existentially wrong. Ya, not so much. Because the consolidation of power had created an upper class of white people who were so upper class that they could own slaves to do all their manual labor for them, and since there was a hillbilly class of white people who managed to survive off handfuls of mud pies (called clay-eaters by the Antebellum snobs) and the occasional squirrel meat, some really fucking racist people started deciding that it would be better to free the slaves so that plantation owners would have to hire poor white people (because none of them would give money to a negro, naturally) to do the work they were previously getting for the price of keeping a group of owned people alive.

You read that right , folks, the abolition of slavery was, in part, fucking racist. The United States of America gained slaves because of racism, and it got rid of slaves, in part, because of racism. Rich white people were tired of there being a bunch of poor white people who were so poor  that they were apparently sub-par to enslaved black people, so those rich white people fought to end slavery so that the enslaved black people would naturally take the place of the poor white people and the poor white people would be socially elevated in the process.

Damn. There goes the last shred of apparent decency I had about the founding of this country.

So Isenberg goes on in this way, providing the ultimate pessimistic view into the class-based history of America, which is fair, if ever I dealt in such a ridiculous concept as fairness, but what does it provide in terms of progress?

Well, since I am smart enough to draw my own conclusions without attempting to ascertain the intention of the author, I will simply write about what I took away from the book and that is this; if the impoverished people of our society, of all races, would band together and realize that poor white people have more in common with poor non-white people than they do with rich white people (something that fantastically escapes poor white people), then perhaps we would actually have a chance of making a dent in the perpetual problem of inequality in our American society.

To quote LBJ;

“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Read more books. I recommend this one. History is repeated by those who don’t know better.