Uncivil-ization

e6660-pulling-out-hairSomething is wrong. Something has gone terribly wrong, deep inside our dominant culture.

Recently, during a City Council meeting in Our Fair City, a council member exploded in a childish tantrum, stood up at her seat on the dais, red in the face, and screamed about being called a racist on a Facebook page. When she finally ran down, she flounced down in her chair, rolled it back from the dais and sat unspeaking, arms crossed, frowning at the shocked audience.

The surprising result was … there were no consequences. The Mayor proposed a three minute recess, but was talked out of it by other council members, and the meeting continued as if nothing had happened. The petulant council member sat at her seat and leafed silently through the agenda packet for the rest of the meeting.

If this were an isolated incident in local politics, it wouldn’t be so troubling. But this is happening, in one bizarre way after another, all around the world, from Trump to Johnson, from Congress to Parliament, from the United Nations to our local Democratic Central Committee.

Polite, civil discourse, political and personal, is disappearing, replaced by anger, disrespect, name-calling, foul language and violence.

In England, Parliament, which has always been rowdier than the US Congress, has been called to task for increasingly vituperative public rhetoric. The US President rants, whines and lambasts perceived opponents on social media, before the unprotesting press and on unguarded, but recorded telephone calls to international rulers.

Here at home, local politics has descended into personal attacks, wildly exaggerated recall campaigns, special interest lobbying groups and divisive local government policies and campaigns.

I’ve been trying for some time to puzzle out common denominators of this seeming shift in public social relationships that pop up in unexpected places, especially those places where civility has long been the norm.

Based on decades of observation of the public scene, I think several factors are at work here.

In the United States, the Trump phenomenon is a negative influence, dredging up the worst in our society’s underlying thoughts and motivations. Trump is a bully, an ignorant thug, self-centered and supremely egotistical, an isolated, frustrated corporate CEO with absolutely no experience in deliberative bodies or cooperative endeavors. Judging by his supporters, Trump is leading this country down the path to ignorant and uninformed political rebellion and social collapse.

Internationally, ubiquitous cell phone use is raising generations of young people totally devoid of social skills, ignorant of the world outside their electronic devices, expectant of on-demand responses to their slightest desires, unable to read, write and think critically about the world around them.

Corporate media has created a world of newsertainment in which information is indistinguishable from disinformation, entertainment is the desired end (as long as it brings in the bucks) and personality is the supreme quality for legitimacy and meaningfulness.

So-called “Progressive Education” (an educational theory marked by emphasis on the individual child, informality of classroom procedure, and encouragement of self-expression – https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/progressive) has produced an adult cohort that is self-centered, devoid of social norms, and deficient in basic reading, writing, comprehension and critical thinking skills.

Finally, and most recently, climate change fear-mongering is creating apocalyptic hysteria among adults and children alike, misunderstanding of science and the scientific process, and ignorance of ecology, conservation and the very real threats of human population and economic growth, habitat destruction and profligate consumption of resources.

What to do, what to do?

Got me there, haven’t a clue.

This next election, whether or not Trump participates, will be dominated by climate change hysteria, the Green New Deal and homelessness. I think the best we can hope for is for Elizabeth Warren to be elected. Perhaps a woman in the White House can calm the troubled political waters, set an example of civility, empathy and compassion and pull our troubled uncivilization back from the brink.

It’s a lot to expect from one person, history argues against it, the future is in the hands of young people ill prepared to deal with it.

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Woody Allen

 

21st Century Libraries – Books or Programs?

Downtown library-2018

Recently I’ve been intimately involved in the efforts of our local Santa Cruz County library system in planning the use of funds from a county-wide property tax measure to maintain and renovate library buildings in its ten-branch library system.

The flagship of the system is the downtown Santa Cruz library branch, pictured above, which functions as the headquarters for the entire system, with other smaller branches placed in local neighborhoods throughout the county. In 1968 the city demolished the original 1904 Carnegie Library building and replaced it with the current building, now 51 years old.

The plan put forward by the City of Santa Cruz is to abandon this building in the city’s civic center and build a new library in the ground floor of a five-story parking garage in a location three blocks away.

Proponents of the proposed building project cite a need for a “21st Century Library,” following the lead of the American Library Association’s Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century (AL21C) which was focused on monitoring and evaluating trends in technology and society to assist the library community (the ALA program was “sunsetted” in 2014). It’s important to note that this policy emphasis in library services is entirely internal to the professional library community and is not in response to trends in library patrons’ needs or expressed desires.

The technological focus of the 21st Century Library movement is, of course on computers, internet access and digital and digitized materials. This reflects a wider social trend in the embrace of computer technology and the ubiquitous presence and use of “smart” cell phones. The perception communicated by proponents of this view and policy is that the technological and social trends cited mean that libraries should no longer be chiefly regarded as repositories of physical books and materials, but should be more service oriented and provide programs, events, learning opportunities and entertainment to their patrons.

At a recent meeting of the Santa Cruz City Council Downtown Library Subcommittee, the question was asked by the moderator: “If cost restraints on renovating or building a new library become reality, what would you be willing to give up?” Shockingly three of the eight professional and volunteer participants in the room stated they would be willing to give up books and printed material collections and keep digital access and programs.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, What the 21st Century Library Looks Like, Shannon Najmabadi ponders these recent trends in public and academic library philosophy and policies.

“Libraries have reported spending less on print materials and more on electronic resources, including online journals and databases.

“As books are moved off-site, a question remains: What happens to the body of knowledge they contain? Irene M.H. Herold, a recent president of the Association of College & Research Libraries, says a downside to removing books is that patrons won’t be able to stumble on interesting material just by perusing library shelves.”

In addition, in my experience, thumbing through printed material to find something specific is infinitely different from searching for it on the internet. The serendipity factor is eliminated in a computer search, and, thus, any unforeseen opportunities to learn and incorporate something entirely new and unexpected are foregone.

Research suggests that digital reading results in lower comprehension and retention than reading physical books and printed materials. This, coupled with the emphasis on programs and events in libraries, many of which are noisy and obtrusive to otherwise quiet library spaces, further reduces the utility and effectiveness of digital library holdings.

From my perspective as an incipient 70 year-old, these recent professional technological and social library trends serve to reduce public literacy, critical thinking skills, and cultural and historical understanding of youth and adults alike. These skills and social awareness are absolutely necessary for functioning as a contributing member of our democratic society.

Hearkening back to the Library Committee meeting where three of the eight participants immediately expressed a willingness to get rid of books, I feel as if I’m shouting in a crowd of silent onlookers in a dark public square, watching jack-booted thugs hurl armloads of books onto a roaring bonfire.

Brave New World Revisited – Revisited

BNWRIn 1931, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, the dystopian novel of an over-populated world dominated by a highly organized state that uses genetic engineering, hypnopaedia, promotion of sexual promiscuity, hallucinogenic drugs and organized entertainment to control and subdue the general population.

In 1948, George Orwell published 1984, the dystopian novel of a Communist inspired totalitarian oligarchy in England that uses information control, fear mongering, intimidation, and total surveillance to control and subdue the general population.

In 1958, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World Revisited, comparing Brave New World and 1984 with each other, and with events and trends from 1948 to 1958.

Let’s compare Orwell’s observations of the social world of 1958 with the world we see around us today some 35 years later.

Part 1 – Over-Population

In 1931, global population was just over 2 billion people. By 1948, population had risen to only 2.5 billion, and to 2.9 billion ten years later in 1958. Today, world population is 7.7 billion and increasing by 1.07% per year. The rate of world population increase peaked at 1.85% in 1987 and has been decreasing since then. Though the rate of increase is decreasing, world population is still growing by some 80,000,000 people per year.

In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley points out that death control has been systematically provided by benevolent societies through increased sanitation and medical intervention, while birth control requires the cooperation of all citizens, and is limited by cultural (mostly religious) sanctions.

In Brave New World, birth control is achieved through state control and management of human breeding, restricting the global human population to around 2 billion people. In this fictional world society, the human population does not threaten natural areas with excess resource exploitation, allowing some areas to return to wild states.

Huxley concludes that, in the real world, absent any form of effective birth control, “... that problem will render insoluble all our other problems. Worse still, it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable.

We see today the outcome of Huxley’s darkest vision: democracy on the block, up for sale to the highest bidder, homeless camps in every city where the mentally handicapped and drug addicted citizens are turned loose among the populace, to support themselves and their habits through petty thievery, murder and general social disruption. Meanwhile, the over-organized and bureaucratized social agencies and local governments tie their own hands with “progressive” rules and regulations that defy any sane and effective solutions to these ubiquitous social ills.

Our Huxleyan problems are compounded by Orwellian despotic and imperialist governments, fomenting invasion and war in sovereign nations that have the misfortune of harboring large oil deposits beneath their sands, while at home graft, corruption, and malfeasance have become the norm and go unpunished, at least for those dispossessed of economic and political influence.

Huxley concludes his chapter on Over-Population with a warning:

But liberty, as we all know, cannot flourish in a county that is permanently on a war footing, or even a near-war footing. Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central government. And permanent crisis is what we have to expect in a world in which over-population is producing a state of things, in which dictatorship … becomes almost inevitable.

Sound familiar?

“O brave new world, That has such people in it!”

 

 

Celebrating May Day

May Day!

It’s a fine May Day morning here on the Left Coast. A bit of fog lingering, rapidly thinning. The sun is just beginning to warm the chill morning air.

May Day is traditionally a day of diverse messages: a celebration of spring with May baskets, May pole dancing, burgeoning flowers, beautiful young women in flouncy dresses, colorful and raucous parades. More recently than the ancient tradition, May Day was declared a worker’s holiday commemorating the Haymarket affair, when a demonstration in support of an eight-hour for day turned into riots when police fired on the crowd. In some countries, May Day became a celebration of militarism and imperialist excess, demonstrating the folly of humans with access to too much power and too little wisdom.

The historical context of this day seems to have been lost to the current generation of cell-phone impaired and distracted youth and the overweening culture of consumerism, newsertainment and political inanity. Few May baskets are left on porches these days, May poles rarely grace school yards with fluttering ribbons, and many workers think of an eight hour day, if they think of it at all, as a nostalgic luxury.

Nevertheless, it is indeed Spring, the Earth, in our hemisphere, is slowly warming, migrant songbirds fill the air with their optimistic songs, patient greenery stretches both up and down, striving for sun and warmth, drops of sparkling dew trembling on leaf tip and grasping tendrils, deepening their roots into the warming soil.

Let’s celebrate May Day on this fecund Earth as a day of renewal, revival, and rededication to saving what little is left of the wild, not just for future human generations, but for itself and its own well-being.

Parks Without People

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In a recent thoughtful opinion piece in Sierra magazine, the house organ of the Sierra Club, editor Jason Mark tentatively floats the concept of “parks without people,” areas where human beings are not allowed, where natural processes can proceed without human impacts or manipulation.

This is not a new idea, as proponents of wilderness have grappled with the concept for decades, struggling to find a balance among political and economic expediency, ecological reality and human cultural history. Wallace Stegner’s 1960 “Wilderness Letter” clearly laid out the case for the benefit of wilderness to the human psyche. In his 1991 book, Wilderness on the Rocks, Howie Wolke thoroughly explored the concept of wilderness, the contradictions inherent in its definition and application to the real world of natural ecological relationships and human profligacy.

“Wilderness” is a fragile, human defined concept, that is complicated by a detailed examination of a world in which every square inch is influenced and modified by overwhelming human domination of the planet.

Nevertheless, the idea has merit, not as Mark explains in the subtitle of the article: “What if we were to create nature preserves that were strictly for science?”, but in its idealogical purity.

What if we were to create nature preserves strictly for the place itself, for the natural habitat, for the species who live there as their only home?

Isn’t the preservation of biodiversity, habitat and non-human species of merit in its own right, regardless of its benefit to humans? Or can value only be communicated as a human concept that has no meaning in a non-human context?

Mark points out the range of practical difficulties of promoting and developing this approach in the economic and political society that dominates management of undeveloped lands today, with quotes from a government bureaucrat and a scientist:

Jon Jarvis, the former director of the National Park Service: “… the establishment of protected areas and parks are a political construct, built on public support. If you don’t have some level of public use, you won’t have public support.”

Arthur Middleton, a UC Berkeley wildlife biologist: “We need baselines, some ability to know something about what happens in the absence of people. But to be blunt, it doesn’t seem within the reality in the US.”

Another side argument to this discussion is that humans are a part of nature and therefore if we preserve wilderness and natural habitat, we benefit humans as well. The E. O. Wilson Foundation’s Half-Earth Project takes this middle ground approach “to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.”

Meanwhile here at home in Our Fair County, local government officials sprinkle their Strategic Plans with meaningless buzzwords and aphorisms, such as “sustainable,” “climate disruption,” and the most dreadful “vibrant environment,” all the while conducting business as usual, widening highways, building more and more insanely tall, glass and concrete apartment houses, parking garages and million dollar single family homes.

Despite the flood of rhetoric and neologisms, everything humans do is, of necessity, anthropocentric. “Parks” must have people, because that’s what the word means: “an area of land, usually in a largely natural state, for the enjoyment of the public, having facilities often owned, set apart, and managed by a city, state, or nation.” In order to demonstrate relevance to potential funding sources, bureaucrats describe all projects in human terms. Thus, natural areas are referred to as parks, and developed as parks for human use, because there is no perception of any bureaucratic or economic justification for saving undeveloped land for itself.

Balancing human needs and desires with the intrinsic needs of natural ecosystems, habitats and species requires a revolutionary change in our relationship with the biosphere in which we live and from which we obtain everything we need and desire. This revolution cannot be achieved until we change the way we think about the natural world and our place as one species among many.

The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.  Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Why Start the New Year on January 1?

It’s the night before the New Year and all through the town, all the people are stirring, getting ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve. It’s an old custom, ingrained in our culture, seemingly as natural as night and day.

But why January 1st? What’s so special about this day that we celebrate it as a new beginning?

The easy answer is that the first month of the year is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman God who looks both forward into the future and backward to the past, just as all the pundits have been doing for the past week. Julius Caesar created a calendar with Janus’s month at the beginning, named after himself as the Julian Calendar, which was used from 45 BC until the 11th Century.

We don’t use the Julian calendar anymore, because it didn’t agree with the exact time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun, thus getting further and further out of date with the seasons as time wore on, as it often does. This was inconvenient and verily it troubled many of the new Enlightenment thinkers of the time.

So Pope Gregory started a new calendar in 1585, that inserted a leap year to keep the seasons and the calendar in sync. We use the Gregorian Calendar today, with January 1st as the first day.

But wait, why did my ancestors in the Olde Country start their year on March 25th, thus messing with the heads of future genealogists trying to pin down vital records of their distant 11th Great-Grandfather?

Well… as you might already know, pagans and other non-Christian folks counted their days, nights and years by the seasons and by celestial phenomena, which we retain in our culture as the Winter and Summer Solstice and the Spring and Fall Equinox. There were lots of other nature based holidays to celebrate as well, which helped a lot of medieval folks get through some pretty tough times.

Originally, the new year was celebrated either on the Winter Solstice, when daylight hours once again began to lengthen and the ascent from a long dark winter was begun. Others chose the Spring equinox as the time of renewal, and growth of things green and warm, a suitable occasion to start the new year.

When the Christian religion spread from Rome to the hinterlands, wily Christian theologians discovered it was more effective to co-opt the old pagan holidays and rename them to match the new belief than to try to do away with them altogether. Thus, the Winter Solstice became Christmas, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, and the New Year was set to begin on March 25, marking the Annunciation, the announcement that Jesus Christ was born, starting the whole Christian year.

This went on for some 600 years, until, in 1752, ecclesiastical squabbles over the true date of Easter resulted in resetting the date of the Gregorian New Year back to the old Julian January 1st.

So here we are, poised on the cusp of a new, Gregorian, January 1st New Year!

Have a Happy New Year whenever you start it!

The Past is Prelude

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When I first saw the image on the right of Donald Trump, our newly elected President of the United States, it immediately brought to my mind the striking portrait by Arnold Newman of industrialist Alfried Krupp, who oversaw German factories during World war II that were largely worked by slave labor from concentration camps. The devilish image of the millionaire industrialist, taken in 1963, has long haunted my increasing concern for rising fascism in the United States.

The Trump election just concluded is not a victory of populism over elitism, as the Trump team has portrayed. It is a victory of ignorance, fear, intolerance, xenophobia and nationalism over rationalism, critical thinking, and engagement in democracy and community.

The Trump campaign has mobilized millions of people who feel disenfranchised from the political and economic processes. The Great American Dream has become a nightmare for many, and recent politicians have done nothing to engage the people of this country nor even acknowledge their needs and fears. As Greg Palast has noted, we have The Best Government Money Can Buy, and with a political system dominated by corporate funding, only those who support the economic status quo are allowed entry into the process in any meaningful way.

Does Donald Trump’s election mean that fascism has triumphed in the United States? It remains to be seen if candidate Trump will continue unmodified as President Trump. It remains to be seen if the United States’ system of checks and balances has survived recent Neocon attempts to strengthen the independent role of the President. It remains to be seen how millions who voted for Trump will respond to the reality of President Trump. It remains to be seen how millions who voted against Trump will respond to the challenge of a fascist insurrection.

There is some of candidate Trump’s rhetoric that I agree with: abandoning global trade agreements, tighter controls on immigration, cooperative relationships with other countries, abandonment of US imperialism, global economic hegemony. These positive propositions are seemingly at odds with Trumps overt xenophobia, misogyny and intolerance, so it’s difficult to reconcile his bombastic public appearance with any rational government foreign policy.

But then, the government is much more than its titular leader, and the proof will be in Trump’s selection of cabinet and informal advisors. Judging by the ghosts of politics past hovering about the President-elect’s flamboyant hairdo, the future looks grim indeed.

Trump had it right that the election was rigged, probably because he has the receipts. Trump represents a Neocon victory far greater than that of George W. Bush, in that it is a victory of one Neocon darling over another. The fix was in on both sides of the ballot; the outcome was preordaned.

Krupp’s fascism was destroyed in the ashes of World War II. Whether or not it rises Phoenix-like in the new guise of President Donald Trump depends on the engagement of the people of the United States in the day to day political process of Democracy.

“Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.” Aldous Huxley