You probably read that statement and thought, “That can’t be true.” You would be half right. The term “child abuse” was first used around 1960 and encompasses physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. These can occur, not just with babies and young children, but at any point in childhood, which, in most states, extends to 18 years of age.
The behavioral characteristics of child abuse have likely been ever-present features of human life across time and cultures. So, in that regard, you would be correct. However, a second component of our contemporary understanding of child abuse is quite new: the identification and valuation of these behaviors as morally repugnant and legally punishable. The first appearance of organized concern for the physical maltreatment of children was the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, founded in 1874. It was an extension of the already established Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.1
The concern for cruelty to children emerged in concert with the appearance of other concerns about children’s welfare, including child labor laws. Prior to the 19th century, the economy of most societies consisted of agriculture and handcrafts. Children worked on family farms, as indentured servants, in homecrafts, and some were apprenticed to trade guilds, typically between 10 and 14 years of age. Children were critical to family finances and the labor force, employed like adult workers, and essential for survival in a time of struggle and hardship. Children lacked legal rights or any recourse. Cruelty to children, and child abuse, were behaviorally integral to the social order; simply a part of life. However, there was no identification or valuation of these behaviors as moral or legal injustices.
It is difficult to appreciate that what is now so obviously, and profoundly, morally repugnant could have been invisible; an accepted fact of life. Differentiating the behaviors from their moral valuation allows us to better grasp how the dramatic transformation in material circumstances, political and economic contexts, and cultural values can reconfigure our moral universe.
Racism did not exist before the 20th century.
You probably read that statement and thought, again, “That can’t be true.” You would be half right, again, for the same reasons as that just discussed for child abuse.
The word, “racism” first appeared in 1902 to describe and condemn the practice of segregating a race of people from the rest. The current definition of racism, “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capabilities and that racial differences produce inherent superiority of a particular race”2 gained its full meaning in the 1930’s to describe the political ideology of the Nazi’s about Jews.
Although the term “racist’ did not exist prior to the 20th century, what did exist was the abolitionist movement that was propelled by the conviction that no race had the right to enslave another, and that freedom was a right due to everyone regardless of race. The abolitionists movement began in the 18th century and the first abolitionist organization in the United States was founded in 1775.
Slavery has been an ever-present part of civilizations since the first settlements in Mesopotamia, beginning about 3500 BCE, and has flourished on all inhabited continents since that time. Slavery in many societies was not always, or often, based on race. Slavery in Colonial America and, later the United States, however, was largely racial, as most slaves were brought from Africa by Europeans. Here, slavery and race were inseparably linked. The belief that one race, Whites, is superior to another, Blacks, was simply assumed (by Whites) as part of the natural hierarchical order. Behaviorally, slavery and racism were an ever-present given.
No systematic philosophical or religious arguments questioning the moral injustice of slavery existed in the West before the 18th century. It was simply a fact of life. So, what changed in the 18th century that lead to a moral awaking to the evils of slavery and racism; to the appearance of the abolitionists?
The idea that all individuals have rights that are not conferred by a divine ruler, privileged personages, or an institutional decree, but are intrinsic to being human, first appeared in the 17th century and was most powerfully argued by John Locke. Locke’s arguments provided the foundation for the American Revolution; a revolution that forged a radically new political, social, and moral order.3
The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, announces this new ordering in the very first lines: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These truths were NOT self-evident at that time. They challenged the existing self-evident beliefs that all are NOT created equal; NOT endowed by the Creator with rights; and do NOT possess the right to life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness.4
The Declaration was a missile aimed directly at monarchy. Rights are not innate to a divinely sanctioned ruler; they are conferred by the Creator to allindividuals, who establish a governmental order that derives its legitimacy from these individual rights. It inverts the social hierarchy. It shatters the political order.
We fail to appreciate the enormous risks taken by Jefferson and his colleagues—fortune, family, position, reputation, their very lives—were staked on a bold declaration to lead an insurrection against the world’s most powerful, wealthy, militarily strong country that controlled every corner of Colonial governments, every courthouse, every harbor, every form of authority and power in the land, and was supported by many passionate Colonialists. It was not only a declaration of war against British monarchial rule, it was a trigger for a civil war. These unlikely rebels had no army, no navy, no organized government, no currency, no allies. This was a wild, crazy, mad gamble.
Unappreciated by our country’s founders was how far reaching “All are created equal” would become; not only a bugle call to overthrow monarchy, but a clarion call for a revolutionary moral order. It is not an accident that abolitionist movements first appeared in human history at the exact moment as the revolution against monarchial order.
The 250 years since the Declaration have been marked a growing appreciation of the reach of the ethics of rights and equality. The abolitionist movement to end slavery has been joined by other liberation movements that continue to our day: civil rights, equality of women, the rights of children, of animals, gender equality, the rights of persons with disabilities. All these moral uprisings have involved struggle, hardship, sacrifice, and bloodshed. They continue. This history affords appreciation of the long, arduous, and tumultuous process required to wrench behaviors out of taken-for-granted darkness into the hot glare of moral injustice.
Our highest ideal, that all are created equal, is inherently disruptive, calling us to continually confront injustice and reaffirm our commitment to a more perfect union.
Jefferson a Racist?
Was Jefferson a racist? Of course. As was everyone else of his time—and before. The pointed critiques of how racism, sexism, and the other heretofore invisible injustices have shaped human history, and killed, maimed, and destroyed so many lives, is a necessary corrective to the blindness of the past. But simply condemning Jefferson and his brethren who championed equal rights, at great personal cost, without recognizing their contributions flattens the moral landscape; affords easy self-righteous moralizing at the expense of understanding.
250 years from now, will any of us escape the moral condemnation certainly due us “fossilists”5 for our wanton, headless destruction of the biosphere that may, perhaps, render human life extinct by then? How many of us have sworn off using fossil fuels; taken a Jeffersonian stance to create a revolutionary political, social, and moral order to save our species and our planet? Very, very few.
But damning climate patriots among us as equally morally reprehensible as the CEO’s of the oil and gas companies, and the commercial and political interests that denude, pollute, and destroy the planet’s forests, rivers, and oceans, flattens our moral landscape, obliterating the crucial differences between individuals that make a difference. This is how revolutions happen: Individuals, in the trenches, relentlessly, aggressively, tirelessly, in the face of long odds and bleak prospects, at great personal cost, confront and attempt to upend powerful vested interests. The future is forged by the efforts of courageous, imperfect individuals acting in the uncertain, messy present.
Jefferson and the other Declaration instigators were imperfect visionaries in their messy, uncertain time who championed ideals they were prepared to die for. They bequeathed to us a moral order that, ironically, we use to condemn them for their moral shortcomings. This paradox is their legacy. When we critique them, we need to do so with gratitude. And humility.
I had never given much care to genealogy, thinking it a form of navel gazing into a distant past that has no bearing on me, and my life, now. That changed after my mother died. My father’s family was Dutch and my mother’s was German and Scots-Irish—solidly Christian, White, and Northern European. Checks all the boxes. However, my mother’s father died in 1934, when she was 12, and she told us she thought he had a family secret, but didn’t know what it might be and didn’t want to find out. After my mother died, my sister did a genealogy of my mother’s family and discovered my grandfather’s secret—he was Jewish. He changed his name when he immigrated to the U.S as a 16 year old.
I was stunned. At a subterranean level, I felt very vulnerable. I certainly understood antisemitism and abhorred it, but from a position with my feet firmly planted on the “mainland”, waving with empathy at those on a close, but offshore island (e.g., Jews and the other “outsiders”). Now I share not only a past with some of those offshore, but given the long history of parsing ancestry to sniff out Jewish ”blood” for extermination, it changed my understanding of myself, my identity. The low rumble of antisemitism was now quite audible and personally menacing. The living power of the past, its relevance for my life in the present, and its possible consequences for my future—pile-driven home.
The seismic power of the past is also the engine of effective psychotherapy. We all construe stories about our identity; who we are, what formed us, who influenced us, what memorable events mark our lives. These stories compose our identity and are distilled into habits, assumptions, and reactions that reflexively govern much of what we believe, say, and how we act. The past is relived at the visceral level, guiding our present lives and our expectations for the future. When these guideposts falter or breakdown we can find ourselves unmoored; anxiety, angst, anger, and despair become our companions. Therapy, in its various forms, focuses on changing the visceral assumptions, and this often involves reexamining the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Therapy for trauma evinces this in its most stark form. Trauma therapy must directly confront shocking past experiences to forge new narratives, new habits, new reactions about the trauma’s meaning and its bearing on who we are. This therapy can be destabilizing, painful, and terrifying, requiring great courage. This is a major reason therapy is often avoided; the pain we know is less frightening than the destabilizing unknown pain that awaits. But the courage to confront the horrors of the past is rewarded with a reclaimed life and hope for the future. The only way out is through.
A similar process to therapy occurs at the national level. Our narratives about our past, which is the history that we tell ourselves about ourselves, forms our identity. These narratives, typically, are heroic; obstacles faced, challenges met, and adversity overcome at great odds. They are morality plays where, after grappling with demons for 40 days and 40 nights, virtue and righteousness triumph over evil. Our national pride is, after all, pride about our past, which defines who we are now and what we hope for our future; it shapes our political landscape and national conversations, our laws, institutions, legislation, and elections.
Slavery is a 400-year indelible stain on American history. It was integral to our country’s founding, essential to its economic viability and vitality, and intrinsic in its social structure. Unimaginable cruelty, brutality, suffering, and murder of slaves, and their descendants, have been routine in American life for centuries. The presence of the progeny of slaves in our midst—in their very appearance—is a stark reminder of the horrors of our past, evoking reflexive, habitual reactions conditioned by the longstanding narratives about race; about Black and White and what they mean.1
The current upheaval in our country about racism is a challenge to the dominant stories of our history, of our identity. As with therapy, and genealogy, our past is complicated, filled with facts—known, unknown, avoided, denied, and ignored— selectively highlighted and given structure and meaning by our narratives. Was Robert E. Lee the hero of the “Lost Cause”, fighting for “States Rights” and a “Noble Defender of the South?” Or was he a traitor leading a rebellion to preserve slavery and destroy the Union? The struggle over the narratives about our past is not simply an esoteric debate among academics; it is a struggle for our nation’s soul: Who were we? Who are we? Who do we want to be?
The Abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments, and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s are all landmarks of progress toward equality; achievements certainly worthy of note. Our narratives, however, only highlight these accomplishments, avoiding the 400 years of murder and misery. We comfort ourselves with hagiography to avoid honest history.
The power of the trauma at the very heart of our national identity—slavery— threatens the foundations of our body politic, our civil life, our personal engagements. We, collectively, face the same onerous challenge as many combat vets: Do we choose to continue with the pain we know, or do we have the courage to face the searing hard truths of our past, our moral failings of great consequence, and endure the disturbing uncertainties and disruptive pain that will result?
Germany offers a model of what this might look like. Monuments to their Nazi past are scattered throughout Germany, with an especially dense concentration in its capital, Berlin, marking the sites of momentous dark happenings, egregious atrocities , and homage to the victims who were tortured and murdered. These monuments testify to this past and bear witness to grievous moral failings. They also, however, are bold statements of Germany’s values, now, and their commitment to a future informed by this past. They display a unique kind of heroism worth emulating: moral courage.
National monuments to the past are values we hold, now, about ourselves, made visible.2
A Niagara of books have poured off the presses in recent years extolling the ever expanding opportunities available to the elderly and retirees. “80 is the new 60”, we are told. “Start a new business.” “Follow your dreams.” The AARP magazine carries pictures of aging movie stars, in their 60’s, 70’s, and sometimes 80’s, facelifts intact, smiling with perfect teeth, extolling the virtues and pleasures of aging.
There is some truth to this. Americans are retiring with greater health, wealth, and opportunities than ever before. Rarely acknowledged, however, is the black-hooded figure, circulating through this party, striking down revelers, sometimes mid-sentence, to the horrifying glances of other revelers. No one is exempt, and the most susceptible are those who cannot afford the books and magazines trumpeting geriatric wellbeing. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, much of the chatter about the joys of aging has subsided and the disparities and injustices in health, wealth, and happiness are now glaringly apparent.
Statistical Life Expectancy
We do, nonetheless, live in extraordinary times. The statistical definition of life expectancy is the average, across all births, of how long a person may expect to live at birth. Life expectancy, for most of human history, has remained remarkably constant. Based on the best estimates from the historical record, life expectancy, across all civilizations, from ancient Greece and Rome, to the Inca and Teotihuacan empires, to Renaissance Italy and medieval Japan—indeed, up to the mid 19th century, was around 30 years.1 These data lead to the obvious conclusion that 30 years is the biological limit of life expectancy for the human species. Every species has its lifecycle and this is ours.
Dramatic changes, however, occurred in the last 150 to 200 years. In 1850, life expectancy was 38 years; in 1900, 48 years; in 1950, 66 years; in 2000, 77 years.
This change in life expectancy for the world shows an even more startling increase. Prior to 1900, life expectancy was 30 years. By 2013, it had risen to 72 years. The global average today is higher than it was in any country in 1950. Life expectancy for the entire human population has doubled in 200 years! This is an astonishing improvement in human life.2
Why? Science. A radically new way to understand the material world, based on doubt, systematic methods of experimentation, and material explanations that can be objectively verified, was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. When this method began to be applied to medical conditions in the 19th century, astonishing discoveries and advances occurred. We now have the power to intervene in the course of nature, able to change our biological destiny.
The full benefits of this power are not equally distributed in the United States. Communities of color who have been targets of systemic racism and injustice, and those living in poverty have significantly lower life expectancies. We must ask ourselves, “Why?”
Semantic Life Expectancy
Life expectancy also has a semantic meaning: What do we expect from life? What do we anticipate for our future? What possibilities are open to us? Semantic life expectancy also has remained relatively constant throughout most of human history. The answer to the question, “What do you expect from life?”, was simple: Our fate is the same as our parents; and their fate was the same as their parents. Our birth determined our destiny, and little changed from generation to generation. And this fate was likely grim. 95% of the population were laborers, surfs, peasants and poor. Life was toil, suffering, degradation, and hardship. The most important semantic life expectancy in a nasty, brutish, and short life, was the question of afterlife expectancy; what fate awaits beyond this mortal coil of suffering.
Now, in our current times, the semantic question, “What do we expect from life?”, extends beyond the confined straightjacket of our birth, embracing possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors. Our youth is shadowed by the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, we experience “identity crises”, and spend the first 18 years of our life, and oftentimes much more, going to school; many of us spend almost the entire life expectancy of earlier times preparing for life.
We enjoy a surfeit of food, which is delivered to “super” markets in fleets of tractor trailers, miles of railroad cars, and a flotilla of ocean tankers from distant places, offering a cornucopia of choices. We travel at breakneck speeds across town, across the country, and across oceans. In our heated and air conditioned homes, we turn facets to shower and to drink purified water. Music, information, and entertainment to amuse and inform us are at our fingertips, 24/7. We enjoy comforts that would have made even royalty of bygone eras jealous. And after 30 or so years of work, many of us retire to enjoy 20 or more years of labor free life, embrace, “80 is the new 60”, and ponder: “What do I want to do with my life?”
This dreamscape is not evenly distributed. The semantic life expectancy of those outside the circumference of health, wealth, and opportunity is much grimmer and bleaker. The happy talk about the “Golden Years”, and the wrinkle-free faces and cheerleading smiles of aging celebrities are marketed to a select group; the fate of the impoverished and communities of color who have been targets of racism are airbrushed out of the picture. Again, we must ask ourselves, “Why such disparities?”
The answer to this troubling question about semantic life expectancy is, not surprisingly, the same as for statistical life expectancy: both result from the lack of good health care, nutrition, housing, education, opportunity, and employment.
The 19th century not only ushered in a dramatic rise in statistical life expectancy, but another startling growth: the size of the population.
This growth begins around 1850. We would expect that a population growth like this would usher in mass starvation and universal misery. It has not.
The exponential increase in life expectancy and in population trace almost identical paths. These have been accompanied by a host of other exponential growths, referred to in scientific circles as the “Great Acceleration”.3
This graph captures the costs on the earth’s biosystems of our long life of luxury, and includes atmospheric composition, stratospheric ozone, the climate system, water and nitrogen cycles, marine ecosystems, land systems, tropical forests, and terrestrial biosphere degradation. You can see the initial jump out of the steady state beginning in 1850, about the same time as the jump in statistical life expectancy, and biosphere destruction picks up steam into the 20th century
Great inequities lie behind these trends as well. Currently, 18% of world’s population controls 75% of world’s wealth, and consumes much of the world’s resources. The biggest consumer of the world’s resources is us in the United States.
This second graph traces trends in the socioeconomic factors contributing to our affluent life and includes economic growth, primary energy use, fertilizer use, large dams, water use, paper production, transportation, telecommunications, and international tourism. These make our remarkable lives possible.
The great acceleration of socioeconomic changes, as we can see in this graph, is much steeper than the prior one. It took a century of environmental exploitation to build the infrastructure that enabled the abrupt, explosive growth in socioeconomic benefits. The appearance of science and modern medicine, the dramatic rise in statistical life expectancy, the rapid industrialization, steep acceleration of socioeconomic factors, and transformation of semantic life expectancy are all interconnected, all of a single piece of a profound, historically unprecedented alteration in human life.
This all came together around 1950, as this second graph indicates. After WWII, the United States emerged as the only combatant nation untouched by bombs or invasion, the economy humming at war time production, and possessing a GDP that was equal to the entire rest of the devastated world. Rarely, if ever, in human history has so much of the worlds wealth resided in one country.
We have been living in this historically anomalous time, in this historically anomalous place, where many of us have enjoyed the bountiful life expectancies of our unique and narrow place-time envelop that could not even have be dreamed of by most humans who have ever walked this planet.
And it is ending. The entire edifice that undergirds our privileged life is unsustainable. The bill has come due on the costs: the biosphere is being degraded beyond repair, species are being exterminated at a rate unseen for 65 million years, essential resources are being depleted, and our planet is irrevocably changed. We are in the midst of rapid and profound changes to the entire biosphere that no previous single generation in human history has experienced.
There will not be a return to “normal”, as normal was decidedly not normal.
The pandemic is simply a baby-step dress rehearsal for the cataclysmic changes rushing toward us. The pandemic provides a preview of how capable we are to effectively respond to a known, impending catastrophe. We, in the United States, have failed. Miserably. We can’t even get cooperation on the simple inconvenience of wearing a mask. This response is a sign of a deeper unraveling of American society.
Furthermore, the life expectancies for our children and grandchildren are being dramatically altered. So too, for those of us who have come of age in the midst of 9/11, the 2008 financial meltdown, in the shadow of global warming, and, now, the pandemic.
Ethical Life Expectancy
Embedded in the statistical and semantic meanings of life expectancy is a third meaning: Ethical.
We now have the power to intervene in course of nature, able to change not only our biological destiny, but of that of the entire planet. It is a fearsome power with equally fearsome responsibilities. We live in an apocalyptic age. There are 2 meanings for this term. The one we are most familiar with is “the impending destruction of the world”. The second is the original Greek meaning: “A revealing of things not previously known”. This meaning beckons a response, poses a challenge to confront a new reality, to forge new paths, to plant seeds for new possibilities from the ashes of the of what has been lost.
Both definitions apply. We face the impending destruction of the world. We also are beckoned—courage, vision, and an unprecedented marshaling of the talents, energy, and collaboration of the entire human community are urgently needed.
Each of us must choose. We are at a high leverage point in time where actions now will have huge consequences for the future—even if there will be a future for our children and their children. The onrushing catastrophe of biosphere destruction, the appalling disparities and injustices between the wealthily privileged few and the impoverished many, and the societal unraveling, pose a most dire moral challenge:
How should I Iive? What is the nature of the Good? How should we live together? By what authority? These life quandaries, often not explicitly stated, have haunted humans from the time of our cave dwelling ancestors. Religion provides an explicit, sanctifying framework that situates our lives within a cosmic horizon, providing meaning, purpose, and moral grounding. Answers to fundamental moral quandaries are conferred by supernatural powers beyond the frail groping of humans—something clear, universal, unassailable, absolute.
Christianity and morality have been synonymous in the West for nearly two millennia, the Bible providing the moral pillar supporting church, state, and the grounding for adjudicating good and evil. The worst crime in Christendom was not murder (”Thou shalt Not Kill”), as punishment could be mitigated by circumstances1, but heresy, which usually could not. Indeed, heretics received especially intense condemnation and persecution, and for good reason. Heresy doesn’t violate a commandment. It is much more dangerous—it challenges the legitimacy of the commandments.
Not surprisingly, one of the deepest divides in contemporary American life and politics is between moral absolutists and their rivals, often called “moral relativists” by the absolutists. Absolutists, led by the Christian Right2, claim the country was founded as a Christian nation and therefore should adhere to Christian moral dictates. The “relativists”, in stark contrast, allow for a multiplicity of moral codes and religious beliefs. Indeed, they argue for respecting diverse moral orientations, and strive to be open and non-judgmental, acknowledging the claims of legitimacy of many, often competing, moral frameworks. Debate and disagreement are to be expected, but no one approach is inherently superior to another, should hold sway simply because those in power say-so. What is valued is a plurality of voices and possibilities.
The absolutists raise challenging questions about this seemingly all-embracing doctrine of fairness and acceptance. How are we to arrive at any moral certainties, to find any moral basis on which to act, to discover the answers to: “How shall I live?” “What is the nature of the Good?” And how, specifically, are we to address foundational political questions: “What should be the rule of law?” “By what justification?” It is easy to conclude that the “relativists” guiding moral principle is that none should hold sway, that morality is arbitrary, that “anything goes”—simply another name for amorality. It is also easy to understand the absolutist’s opposition, even militant resistance, to this apparent decent into the moral abyss.
The absolutist code, free of the confusions of mortals, offers the promise of clarity, safety and security. As alluring as this is, it begs the question: Whose moral code? Christians were among the first settlers to arrive in America, en masse, from Europe. Most made the harrowing journey to this distant shore because they were persecuted minorities in their country of origin, heretics to the ruling orthodoxy. Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Quakers, Mennonites, Huguenots, Catholics, and Moravians all fled to the “New World” seeking freedom to practice their unique orthodoxies without persecution.3 European history, that is, the history of Christendom, is written in the blood of the vicious slaughter of millions over disagreements about orthodoxy. The lesson to be learned from over a millennium of Christendom’s history is that Christian absolutism leads to absolute chaos, wanton murder, and brutal persecution of individuals whose sole moral failing is to believe a different interpretation of biblical text.
The framers of the Constitution of the United States, having just won a war of independence from a despotic monarch who was also head of the state church, were acutely aware of this legacy of Christian absolutism. They also were acutely aware they were creating a new order, free of absolutism. Monarchy was countered by an elected president and a system of checks and balances. Christian absolutism was countered by the first Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, understood “that the government sanction of a religion is a threat to religion: Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?4 God is not mentioned once in the Constitution.
America was not founded as a Christian nation. It was founded as a nation defined by the Constitution, establishing a form of government unlike any in human history5; one that has become a beacon for many other peoples across the globe seeking liberty. It is a radical alternative to absolutism in its many forms. It is more than a political document. The Constitution is a Revolutionary Moral Order. It allows a multiplicity of moral codes and religious beliefs, respects diverse moral orientations, is open and non-judgmental, acknowledging the claims of legitimacy by many, often competing, moral frameworks. Debate and disagreement are to be expected, but no one approach is inherently superior to another, should hold sway simply because those in power say-so. What is valued is a plurality of voices and possibilities.
This moral order is not “moral relativism”. It embodies the values of democracy, explicitly crafted to avoid the plagues of moral absolutism, religious warfare, arbitrary justice, and the gross mistreatment of the many by the few. It is a statement of ethical principles of relationship, of respect for each person. It is the basis for justice and order of a different kind than offered by absolutists; it forbids as much as it allows. It also is not the opposite of absolutism—it is an alternative. The opposite of moral absolutism, as well as democratic morality, is anarchy, the true morality of “anything goes.”
We live in a large multicultural society with untold number of congregations and believers ascribing to diverse, often absolutists, moral codes and commandments. We are confronted with the same urgent question as the American founders: How can we live together if there is NOT a superordinate moral and political framework that allows a multiplicity of moral codes and religious beliefs, respects diverse moral orientations, and acknowledges the claims of legitimacy by many, often competing, moral visions? Democratic morality allows each of us to live a moral life free from persecution, and in doing so necessarily results in disagreement, confusion, and uncertainty. It also can be quite distressing and disturbing, requiring strength, fortitude, faith, and humility. Living a moral life is never easy. But it is necessary. It is what living in a democracy involves. Living together peacefully, but with considerable discord, in the 21st century requires that we embrace, with courage and conviction, the demands of democratic morality.
History is a waste of time. Why bother with the past? What is the point of remembering dates, names and events of the past? What relevance can occurrences in the long distant past possible have for my life? I was determined, in my youth, not to waste my life on such irrelevancies. My dream, my obsession, from my earliest years of memory was to go to college, to become and engineer, and to traffic in the factual, concrete, immediate, and productive. No liberal arts dilettante was I to be.
I did achieve my dream. I did receive my engineering degree. But my career ended before I left the school door. I was swept into the whirlwind of war, political protests, civil rights marches and murders, the women’s movement and new morals, social unrest and burning cities, and assassinations of prominent leaders and activists that rocked the country in the mid and late 60’s. The comforting stability of my childhood and teens was shattered. I became aware of the importance of more than numbers and facts. Aware of life, its depth, its complexities, and its confusions that cannot be captured in numbers and facts; indeed, it is eviscerated by the clean certainties of engineering. Why are we in Viet Nam? Why are my age-mates being drafted and killed? Why must I be drafted and killed? What does it mean to be a man? A woman? To be White? Straight? An American?
All these assumptions, previously so transparently obvious, now so unclear and troubling. The transparent and the obvious was bequeathed by history. History was now powerfully, personally, present in my life, as I lived in a history-changing time of turbulence, upheaval, and change. The boundary between history, that dusty attic of the past, and my life, in all its concrete particulars, now erased. “What is a man?” It is a historical question. It is a cultural question. It is a personal question. It is something felt in the deepest regions of my being, in my blood and guts. So, too, the other questions of race, war, citizenship and sexual orientation.
Now, many years later, in my retirement, I am free to read anything I desire, and what I desire, almost to obsession, is historical fiction. The experiences of individuals long removed from my time and place, fictional to be sure, but if well written, quite real in their own sense, leap across the chasm of time and context, joining me to them, personally. We share a common humanity of hopes, fears, suffering, and joy. Their plight I understand. What we don’t share is the historical and personal context: living as a scholar in 18th century China,1 a courtesan in Renaissance Italy,2 or a Black cop in the post WWII American South,3 for example. The jarring differences disorient and sensitize me to the specific uniqueness of my historical and personal context.
I realize that I am being transported by authors’ imaginative catapults into the past that undoubtedly carry the baggage and biases of our own contemporary context. No worries. The past is a foreign country, largely inaccessible, and these leaps highlight the benefits of historical understanding, however imperfect, of our plight. The benefits are many:
Compassion.Compassion for all those whose suffering has been so great, whose lives have been so tragic, so brief, so impoverished. Compassion for those who have endured injustice of a most brutal kind: slavery, torture, murder, rape. For those who have endured illness and disease, poverty, privation, and war. For those whose lives have been marked by tragedy, loss, misery, and madness. The daily tidal wave of human suffering and misery brings me to silence and sorrow.
Horror. Horror at the capacity for cruelty and murderous brutality in the human heart. At the unending atrocities that litter every corner of human life and time. Horror at the callous disregard of suffering—indeed, the delight in watching and inflicting it. Horror at the consuming destruction wrought by greed, avarice, pride, and jealousy. At the indifference to all this.
Surprise. Surprise at the irrepressible humor, the joy, the playfulness that endures in every circumstance no matter how difficult or dire. Surprise at the resiliency of the human spirit that rises from the ashes of war, famine, pestilence, plague, and gross injustice.
Humbled. Humbled by the courage, strength, and fortitude of so many in times of unimaginable hardship. Humbled by their audacity, their sacrifices so others may live, thrive, and profit. By the generosity of those who had so little who gave so much. Humbled by those who have given their lives for the safety and health of others; given their lives for justice and for peace. By those who have loved in the midst of sorrow, loss, hunger, and privation. Humbled by the concern, compassion, and love shown by so many who have extended their hand, often at their own risk, to help others.
Gratitude. Gratitude for my privileged life. Gratitude to those who have gone before me, whose bounty I have been given, underserved, at my birth—democracy, modern medicine and clean running water; a cornucopia of foods, goods, and services within easy reach; metals, glass, plastics, indoor heating, cooling, and plumbing; etc.; etc. I am now sensitized to these, aware of their presence when I take a shower (a shower inside my house? Really?!) and go about my daily life.
Solidarity. Solidarity in belonging to the vast numbers of humans who have walked, crawled, skipped, jumped, and hobbled on this planet. Solidarity in the shared journey, from life to death.
Understanding. Understanding that our present moment of protest, racism, and injustice is a continuation of the “arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.”4 Understanding that I live in a history-changing time of turbulence, upheaval, and change that calls me to be responsible for the future, to be held accountable, to contribute to that long moral arc.
Astonishment. Each book situates my experience within the broader circumference human of life, deepens my appreciation of who I am in all its random contingency, and astonishes me to find myself, here, now, at this point in time and place for my brief moment.
Acceptance. Acceptance that I will soon join the past, fade from view, but happy to have been present and a part of the grand flux of it all.
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? This oft-cited philosophical question is an example of epistemology, which is the philosophical inquiry into the nature of knowledge, asking “What is true, what is real, and why can we say so?”
I first encountered this question as a freshman engineering major in an elective course I took on philosophy. I was utterly befuddled: “What are they talking about?” “What’s the point?” “Who cares?” The “tree-falling” query is also a source of ridicule about the absurdities generated in philosophy, so my befuddlement is widely shared.
I have since learned, however, the importance of questioning the truths we believe, and the reasons we do so. The answer to the “tree-falling” question, the one that makes sense to me, is that when it falls, it creates vibrations in the air, but if nobody hears it, then it makes no sound. There are physical consequences that are independent of a human presence (vibrating air), and social-psychological consequences that require human presence (sound). So, the answer is “no”, there is no sound, but “yes,” it is an event with physical consequences.
The “no and yes” answer undermines the common assumption of a singular, imperial Truth. Rather, it points to different kinds of truth: a natural kind of truth, which is not dependent on human presence, and a human kind of truth, which arises from human presence, often within a social context.1 What is considered real, what is deemed truth, differs greatly between these kinds of truth. Important practical, even lifesaving consequences, can result from appreciating these differences.
Malaria, tuberculosis, small pox, bubonic plague, cholera, and influenza are the most deadly diseases in human history, killing untold billions of people, bringing unimaginable suffering, and changing the course of human history. A host of other diseases, although not quite as lethal, have made their unique contributions to human misery and include AIDS, yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus, meningitis, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, and polio.
All of these diseases have been cured, prevented, or their effects have been greatly mitigated and managed through vaccines, sanitation, and other medical treatments. The estimated lifespan for most of human history, up to the 19th century, was 30 years of age. In 1850, it was 38 years; in 1900, 48 years; in 1950, 66 years; in 2000, 75 years.2 Prior to the 19th century, presumed causes of disease included the visitation of malevolent spirits, retribution rained on humankind for their transgressions by angry gods, alignment of the stars, imbalance of bodily processes, and miasmas. Cures included charms, amulets and chants; sacrifices, offerings and prayer; smoke, nosegays and herbs; potions, baths and purgatives; self-mutilation, bloodletting and witch-killing. Despite the many deeply believed causes and desperately sought cures, little worked. What did work did so by accident; the reasons were not related to the presumed cause.
What changed? Science. A radically new way to understand the material world, based on doubt, systematic methods of experimentation, and material explanations that can be objectively verified, was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. When this method began to be applied to diseases in the 19th century, germs were identified as their cause. Despite great resistance, astonishing medical advances ensued. Human life expectancy has doubled in the last 150 years!
Germs are a natural kind of truth. They are indifferent to human beliefs, have consequences that only derive from their physical properties, and are real whether we think so or not. Plagues cannot be stopped or mitigated by chanting, appeals to supernatural powers, or bloodletting. Human actions can, possibly, change how natural kinds of truth impact humans, for better or worse, but cannot change the their causal properties. The entire physical world is composed of natural kinds and causes.
Money is real and has very tangible consequences. If you do not have any, you are in very serious trouble, possibly life-threatening trouble. If you have a lot, then luxury, ease, and opportunity beckon. Money has a material presence, traditionally in the forms of coins and paper, and can be counted, calculated, and subjected to the most advanced, complex mathematical analysis. Nothing could be more real in our lives, more concretely manifested, with quantifiable properties and consequences.
But it is not a natural kind of truth. Its meaning, its value, its reality, does not derive from its physical properties. What makes money money, what confers its value, makes it real, derives from the communal belief that it is valuable. Money is money because we trust that others share our belief in its value, and trust the backing and assurances given by those who issue it. RAI stones, bottle caps, and shells are not money in our culture. They may, perhaps, be valued by some, and might be bartered, but they are not money.
During times of stability and general wellbeing, we go about our daily lives assuming the bedrock fiscal reality of money. The foundational nature of belief and trust as the source of value for money becomes distressingly apparent, however, during times of communal crises, such as war, fiscal collapse, and pandemics. Doubt about the value of money, and mistrust of the assurances and policies of those who issue it, can provoke hyperinflation or deflation, bank-runs, stock crashes, hoarding, and acquiring gems, gold and other and precious metals.3 They also reveal why trust in the leader of a society, especially in times of crisis, is so important, for trust is, quite literally, the coin of the realm, critical for surviving times when confidence and trust have been undermined or lost.
Money is but one example of human kinds of truth arising within a social context that are real, have concrete consequences, yet derive from shared communal belief. Our life is structured, organized, and populated by human kinds of truth: stop lights, building and legal codes, jails and juries, tools and toys, voting rights and election outcomes, democracy and despots, corporations, ego, intelligence—the list is endless. Many, if not most, have material properties, but their reality arise from communal beliefs and agreement.
I am amused, and deeply disturbed, when I see reports of the most recent poll assessing whether Americans believe in global warming—as if the issue is a referendum! It is not a human kind of truth; not a phenomenon that is amenable to belief. Its causal properties are not determined by popular belief or majority rule, and government proclamations banning the term will not make it disappear.4 Unlike money, or corporations, or election results, global warming is a natural kind of truth. It is indifferent to human beliefs. Global warming is happening, with evermore-likely catastrophic consequences. Human action can mitigate it, but only by taking the necessary steps that impact the material causal pathways governing it. Likewise, pandemics cannot be wished away, are not subject to politically opportunistic remarks, cannot be cured by beliefs in supernatural powers, or ended by leaders asserting that, “One day it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”5
Failure to distinguish between natural and human kinds of truth can have dire consequences. Many deaths result when pandemics and global warming are treated as human kinds of truth. It could be called murder if decisions are made by leaders who, knowing that it is, in fact, a natural phenomenon, but because it is unprofitable or politically problematic, promote policies and practices that exacerbate and accelerate it.6 Leaders who understand the difference between natural and human kinds of truth and seek to use this understanding for the public good, not personal gain, save lives and rescue societies in crisis. Electing those who don’t can be fatal.
We are now able to engineer machines to perform feats that were, only a few short years ago, thought to be very distant possibilities in an imagined future. Self-driving vehicles, medical advances that outstrip the diagnostic abilities of the most able and experienced physicians, robots capable of accomplishing tasks of great complexity, are some examples. These futuristic achievements resulted from a breakthrough in how to program computers perform tasks.
Computers are programed using algorithms, which are simply formulas that define the organization and order for systematically performing operations needed to execute a task. These, of course, can be very complex, as the tasks become more complex, but are typically also rigid; once programed, the sequencing organization cannot be changed unless the programmers make modifications. The learning—the altering the organization based on feedback from the results —is done by the programmers.
All this changed with the advent of “machine intelligence”, where learning occurs within the machine itself. The algorithms responsible for machine learning are not completely rigid. They can self-modify, based on the results of its action. Exposure to many, many, situations, creates many, many different outcomes that provide feedback, generating iterative adjustments (learning) that refine and perfect the performance. Machines become experts, capable of discriminations and decisions that can surpass the best human experts.1
The human brain is the model for how machine learning is programmed. The brain is composed of billions of neurons knitted together in complex networks. Each neuron operates like an on-off switch; it is either ‘on’—firing an electrical impulse—or ‘off’. The firing occurs when the electrical potential between neurons reaches a critical value, generating a spark that jumps the gap between the neurons. This becomes a link in a neural pathway that is part of an incomprehensibly vast web of networks. The networks are constantly changing as circumstances change. Habits create established neural pathways that occur when confronted with familiar circumstances. Learning occurs when feedback from familiar situations is sufficiently different from expected, prompting alteration of the response, changing electrical potentials between neurons, and thus changing the neural networks.
Machine learning is composed of silicon, rather than neural on-off switches, and the networks are very simple, not infinitely complex, but in both, feedback changes the firing potentials between switches, which alters the networks, which alters the responses.2 Simple, individual components capable of only the most elementary and inflexible on-off responses, when combined into complex networks of coordinated action, give rise to a system capable of solving impossibly complex tasks, and self-correcting as is goes. Thus occurs a promethean leap from silicon and neurons to intelligence and mind.3
What is this? It is not a sand hill. It is a termite mound. It is also housing for, and integral to, a mind; a hive mind. Each individual termite can perform simple functions, certainly more complex that an on-off switch, but quite limited in flexibility and function. The biology of the termite (reflexes, nervous system, exoskeleton, etc.) constrain the scope and functioning of individuals, but, most importantly, also encompass the ability to communicate and cooperate with other termites. This is a critical component for survival, for like the on-off switches of computers and brains, individuals become part of networks of collaborative action, which gives rise to a hive mind.
This mind is capable intelligent actions and evidenced in the termite mound itself. The structure is among the largest of any constructed by non-human species and acts as a huge lung, allowing the entire colony to inhale oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide, house underground cultivated gardens and specialized chambers, and is under continual alteration to adjust to changes in weather and humidity to keep a constant livable environment for the inhabitants. Single individuals are incapable of learning and lacking in memory. A hive is capable of both, in very complex ways; foraging widely for food and bringing it back to the hive, adjusting to changes in the environment, developing creative solutions to the problems encountered.4 The hive is made possible by the biology of the individual to establish collaborative networks. The survival of the individual is dependent on the survival of the hive.
What is this? It is not a metal and glass hill. It is a human mound. It is also housing for, and integral to, a mind; a hive mind. Each individual is certainly more complex than an on-off switch or a termite. Each possesses a mind capable of intelligent, creative actions and adaptive responses. Despite individual sophistication, however, they cannot survive independent of the hive.5 Biology (reflexes, nervous system, endoskeleton, etc.) constrains the scope and adaptability of individuals, but, most importantly, also encompasses the ability to communicate and cooperate with others. This is critical for survival, and like the on-off ‘switches’ of computers and brains, and the biology of termites, allows individuals to become part of networks of collaborative action that give rise to a hive mind. The survival of the individual is dependent on the survival of the hive. One becomes the many. The many protect the one.
The hive mind, that is, the collective capacity to understand and undertake projects that allow the human hive to adapt to demands and changing conditions that help insure the welfare of the collective, are beyond what any one of us could possibly conceive or execute. They also typically are hidden from view, in the background, as we attend to the foreground that preoccupies our daily lives. We drive to the market, unaware and unappreciative that every single act is made possible through the hive mind.6 What single individual could build a car from scratch; scratch here meaning, produce even a simple screw needed for the task? Indeed, the human hive-mind not only encompasses the hum and buzz of the living, but also resonates with the deeper register of the hum and buzz of the long past; those who learned to make metal from dirt, the physics of the screw, and the machine tools to make a screw, for example.
The Heroic Individual
We Americans are especially blind to the humming significance of the hive mind, as our model of the heroic individual pervades all aspects of our life, from economics, to politics, to psychotherapy. Certainly, individual initiative, determination, intelligence and adaptability are important attributes that can contribute to our individual accomplishments and fate. Often, however, the model also includes the assumption that the individual is pitted against the world—the collective “they”; that our fate is totally in our hands and we are solely responsible for our success or failure, and the collective is a barrier to achieving success.7
The Heroic Ones and the Many
Crises that threaten the hive, such as pandemics, most forcefully reveal the limitations of the individual, however able, to survive on their own. Our collective welfare, and survival, and our individual welfare, and survival, are inseparable. And the most heroic individuals are those who are ready to sacrifice their welfare, even their lives, for the collective; health care workers, police and firefighters, to name but a few. We use the term ‘heroic’ only for those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We understand, at a primitive level, that individual sacrifice that only benefits ourselves is not heroic. It may be admirable, encompassing individual pluck and initiative, but it is not “heroic”. One becomes the many. The many protect the one. The heroic ones protect the many.
Crises expose. Some crises are personal; a traumatic event, life-threatening illness, death of a loved one. Some are communal; war, economic collapse, pandemic. Crises rupture our everyday life, upending what we have taken for granted, rendering what we thought essential as trivial, forcing us to confront stark realities about our life—and the impending end of our life.
Crises cloud our vision, as anxiety and dread about our future, our fate, our survival disorient and overwhelm. The rupture of crises also expose, perhaps for the first time, the hidden undergirding that gives our life structure and stability. It can be a clarifying moment, if we open our eyes, allowing us to understand and appreciate what we otherwise failed to see.
The pandemic affords us this opportunity. What is important? Basic needs: food, shelter, health and safety. We discover that those who are essential for providing these are not sports ‘heroes’, media celebrities, or hedge fund managers. The heroes are nurses, health care workers, doctors and hospital cleaning people; truckers, delivery people, mail carriers and supermarket employees; police, firefighters, utility workers and trash collectors. They risk their lives for the greater good, and have performed these tasks, every day, before the pandemic—and with few exceptions, have been invisible, unappreciated, and underpaid.
The previously simple act of driving to the market to buy supper is now a considered act of anticipation (when is the best time?), hope (have they run out of…?) and consternation (will I be able to feed myself and my family?). It is also an act made possible by a dense network of rules, regulations, policies, and fiscal commitments by the government. The extent of this is so enormous that only a small set of examples are needed to make the point.
Get in your car. There is standard, mandatory equipment, critical for travel, such as breaks, headlights and taillights, windshields, wipers, etc., etc. Driving requires everyone to follow an array of rules and regulations, otherwise commerce and travel would be nearly impossible; stay on the righthand side of the road, ‘stop’ on red, ‘go’ on green, etc., etc. All drivers are required to be licensed to guarantee universal understanding and competence. Once we begin our drive, the hidden governmental structures making possible the roads we travel also fill volumes—and we have not even arrived at the market, which possesses its own vast edifice of governmental structures and supports. A simple drive to the market, so critical for sustenance and now a conscious focus of concern, is supported and made possible by the “deep state”. And this is only a single, simple act. Almost everything we do in our modern life would be impossible without government, which enables complex collaboration, commerce and exchange among over 300 million citizens. The past 40 years has been marked by the rise of a powerful political movement that has marched to the slogan, “Government is not the answer, it is the problem”. One of the aims of this movement have been to dismantle programs that arose during the New Deal, such as Social Security, and subsequent programs, such as Medicare. “Wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary resources given to the undeserving” is chanted under this banner. It has been more than 75 years since the Great Depression and World War II, when we were confronted with a global crisis like the pandemic1.
Individual initiative, drive, and intelligence, as well as corporate profit-making and market forces are powerless to effectively confront the challenges posed in these times of crises. Government is not only the answer, it is the only answer. Massive marshaling of resources, creation and coordination of agencies to address a single aim, and new agencies and regulations for banking, commerce, fiscal markets, and corporate conduct are needed, as is deficit spending and government programs to provide food, shelter, health and safety.
The pandemic, like previous global crises, requires massive government intervention, unprecedented deficit spending, and a new “rulebook”, which is in the process of being written as we go. Very few of either political party object, and there is near universal agreement of the necessity to multiply the size of national debt. And who is at the head of the line, hat in hand, demanding a governmental handout? Captains of industry, CEO’s of investment firms, small businesses owners, and other ardent proponents of “Government is the Problem”.
This post contains explicit sexual images and material.
The intent of this post is to pander to prurient interests and alert to the pan-sexual nature of life. While prurient, this post also introduces an admittedly crude reclassification of the familiar. To de-nude, if you will, our usual nomenclature. But offered in Latin, for scientific purposes.
Shame and Embarrassment
Freud was right.1 We spend enormous mental energy denying, repressing, and sublimating our primal preoccupation with sex. Sex inhabits us, pervades us, surrounds us; it is in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the decorative patterns we desire, the gifts we give. We engage in elaborate mental gymnastics to transfigure the explicit erotic and sexual nature of our activities, while also joyously continuing our active, enthusiastic participation.
We are a curious animal; singular in our shame about the act of procreation, idiosyncratic in our embarrassment about our genitals. Ironically, we also use our shame and embarrassment to heighten sexual attraction and desire. Mass nudity, ubiquitous undress, bores. But put patches over our genitals, design alluring coverings, pouches, and peek-but-not-boo adornments, we then create “private parts”. The mundane is transformed to the mysterious and highlighted as off-limits. And, thus, is eroticized.
Genitals of the Universe
The depictions above are the imaginative work of B. Kilban, a noted cartoonist for Playboy magazine in its heyday. The cartoon is funny because it draws attention to the bizarre, weird, and ludicrous shape of human genitals. Oh, what devilish humor doth random mutation possess! And no wonder the embarrassment—for that species possessing a bit of self-awareness.
Kilban’s genitals of the universe bring into relief awareness of the fantastical shape of our own genitals. But we need not speculate about extraterrestrial sex organs to gain this appreciation, for the riotous forms of terrestrial genitalia, and the sexual activity that abound among those with whom we share the planet, are beyond our wildest imaginings—should we care to notice. Indeed, these cartoon genitals are but pale, simple sketches when compared to what occurs in our midst. We do not notice because we use “formal wear” in our language, which serves to cloak our participation in the bumptious debauchery of life. To fully appreciate this debauchery, we must disrobe the “formal wear”; hence this post. Many beautiful, strange, outrageously bizarre forms of genitalia, and the manner of their use, flourish, but space limitations require parsimony.
LABIA MAJORA FLOS.2 (Conventionally called ‘flower petals’) (Often accompanied by an alluring fragrance to enhance sexual contact). There are a number of varieties including:
Each day, the newspaper publishes the pollen count, giving the values for pollen levels in the air of the various plants and trees that can cause respiratory and allergic difficulties. These, of course, are sperm clouds that we inhale with every breath.
SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS14 (Conventionally called tree seeds). A cousin to SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS, these are the reproductive missives that float through the air, helicopter from the sky, and rain down from tree branches.
SEXUS INTERSPECIES.15 We are appalled, and alarmed, at the thought of humans having sex with other animals; bestiality is the common word used, and it is a crime in most localities. However, cross-species sex is a fundamental strategy for the propagation of life. The proverbial birds and bees, along with butterflies, ants, beetles, bats and flies, engage in interspecies sexual commerce that enables much of flowering life to reproduce.
Next time you buy flowers for a loved one, or to beautify your house or garden, or take time to nestle your nose in the petals to ‘smell the roses’; next time you pick a floral pattern to wear or decorate; next time you go to the grocery store and squeeze the grapefruit for the juiciest, fondle the apples for the ripest, or sip your morning orange juice; next time you savor your berries and nuts; next time you quaff your milk, nibble your buttered toast, or indulge yourself with ice cream; next time you devour your omelette, or delight in your cookies, cake, brownies, or pie; next time you sneeze, wheeze, cough or your nose runs; next time you admire a hummingbird licking nectar from a flower, a butterfly slowly undulating its beautiful wings on a bloom, or bees humming from blossom to blossom—AWAKE! We are intimates in the throbbing, surging urgency of life on this planet, seeking to thrust itself into the future.