Beannacht (Blessing)

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green,
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

— John O’Donahue

[Note: “Beannacht” is the Gaelic word for “blessing.” A “currach” is a boat.]

The Ethics of AI

I’ve been looking into Artificial Intelligence just a bit.

The correct modern term is Deep Learning, and it’s really just layered probabilistic estimation with adaptive feedback. Two things have made me personally more amenable to calling it Artificial Intelligence, or AI.

The first thing is that it has moved a lot further, and a lot faster than I ever thought it would. Taking cues from nervous systems in nature, from flatworms up to and including the human brain, the Deep Learning people have developed some new ways of applying standard mathematics to problems that were formerly intractable — like face and continuous speech recognition — and have met with astonishing success. Every time you talk to Siri on your cell phone, you observe the result. The layering was the key: efforts in the previous century were basically trying to solve the big problems in one go, and were getting nowhere. Now, they make little guesses, and use those guesses to make bigger guesses, just like living nervous systems do. The results are impressive.

The second thing is that I’ve lost a great deal of respect for human intelligence in the past year. Average intelligence isn’t as hard a problem as I used to think it was.

My dark opinions aside, the simple fact is this: machines are now moving into areas of human labor that have long been considered inaccessible to machines, and are doing a reasonably competent job. There is no reason to believe they won’t get a whole lot better.

The displacement of labor by machines has a long history. It reached a bit of a crisis in the First Industrial Revolution, when steam power and automated looms for weaving threw a lot of skilled workers out of work all at once. However, in the paradox of “labor saving devices” noted by David Fleming, industrialized society actually became significantly more complex and labor intensive, because it was no longer sufficient to hire someone to sit down at a hand-made loom and start weaving: you need an entire infrastructure to support the manufacture, powering, and servicing of automated looms, which is actually a lot more work than before. While many skilled weavers were thrown out of work, even more skilled and unskilled work was created in maintaining the infrastructure needed for the automated looms.

Each subsequent Industrial Revolution has had this same dynamic: it displaces skilled workers, but complicates society significantly, increases the overall amount of work we need to do, and thus creates new opportunities for new kinds of workers, with more overall opportunities than losses.

It keeps a growing population’s hands perpetually busy, and makes the rich richer.

The AI revolution may be substantially different.

Think about the self-driving car. It sounds like a novelty item, and it is: that isn’t the real focus. The real focus is the self-driving truck.

I’m talking about the 18-wheel cargo trucks that ship everything from steel girders to broccoli, from one side of the country to the other and everywhere in-between. Think about it: self-driving trucks don’t get sleepy. They need maintenance, but no vacation time or sick leave. They can drive continuously, stopping only for fuel. They never show up to work late, or hung-over. They don’t feel pressured to get to their location because a wife or girlfriend is waiting for them. They don’t exceed the speed limit, they respond to hazardous road conditions by slowing down or pulling off the road, and they never have to worry about freezing to death in a blizzard. There is no health insurance and no benefits package. There is no payroll, no federal, state, or  local income taxes to manage. There are no occupational safety concerns, no discrimination lawsuits, no sexual harassment complaints. Finally, if an unavoidable accident starts to develop, the truck can be designed to sacrifice itself to prevent loss of life.

More importantly to businesses, a self-driving truck is a capital asset that contributes to the wealth of the business owners, while a human driver is a liability on the balance sheet that diminishes the wealth of the owners. Trading out humans for machines has a direct and positive effect on profitability.

When this technology comes of age — and it will, and swiftly — it will put nearly every trucker in the country out of work within a few years. That’s 3.5 million jobs in the US, or about 3.5% of the total US workforce.

It doesn’t take 3.5 million people to manufacture and service automated truck fleets. The automated truck is going to kill more jobs than it creates.

It gets worse. An AI-based system can probably do a better job of servicing the fleet than humans could. They have a 24 x 365 attention-span; optimized routes and contingency routes instantly available; full electronic integration with parts suppliers. So all those infrastructure support jobs for the automated fleet, which will exist for a short time, will likely go away, too.

AI can also manage that entire shipping process better than people can. We can start to view the entire movement of stuff from point A to point B as a completely magical, optimized system that just keeps running, and only occasionally needs to call for help from very skilled people, who fix up the managers that fix up the repair systems, which fix up the trucks. Most of the time, it just runs.

This same pattern can apply to many different industries.

What this means is that a future with AI will have no jobs as we understand jobs. That’s an overstatement, of course: there will be jobs. But there will not be enough jobs. We had a crisis in the 1980’s with a 12% unemployment rate. This AI revolution could represent a 40% chronic unemployment rate. Or 60%.

This is going to throw our market economy into utter chaos.

I can’t really predict the outcome of that chaos. What I speculate will happen is that other nations will implement some form of guaranteed-income economy with heavy taxes on business to support it. The US will stubbornly (and stupidly) cling to its seventeenth-century capitalist market economy and its Calvinist work-ethic and its entitlement-based wealth-gap based on ownership and privilege, and will come to a miserably bad end.

The AI revolution does not change any of the overall dynamics of the oil peak, global warming, or political instability. It doesn’t do anything about the global energy budget, rising sea levels, or national political breakdown.

But the AI revolution could happen much more quickly than any of these others play out. In 1990, cell phones were expensive, heavy, and had very limited utility outside large cities. By 2010, the so-called “land line” had become a dinosaur: twenty years. So we could see the entire trucking industry transformed by 2040.

What do you do with three million out-of-work truckers? What do you do with the next three million put out of work in some other industry? And the three million after that?

It’s a new wrinkle in the fabric of the dystopia we are weaving so furiously. Great fodder for fiction.

There’s also an ethical question. It isn’t the one you probably think it is.

American writers of the 1950’s and 60’s wrote a lot about intelligent machines, and they tended to use it to explore racism: they posited that humans had created a new intelligent “race,” imbued this race with intelligence and compassion and conscience, and then told stories about bias, privilege, and oppression.

But real AI isn’t self-aware intelligence at all, and probably will never be, for economic reasons.

Self-awareness requires — absolutely requires — an awareness of self. This sounds tautological, so let me clarify: self-awareness requires senses that allow it to be able to detect the self.

You see because you have eyes. You hear because you have ears. You are aware of your body because your body is filled and covered with nerves that sense your body.

We have all these self-monitoring senses because they are utterly necessary to keep us alive long enough to reproduce. Living organisms that don’t have any such ability to monitor themselves, don’t survive as a species. And yes — carrots have an elaborate sensory awareness of themselves and their environment. It just doesn’t involve the same kind of nervous system that more mobile creatures need.

The AI systems we build will not need to sense themselves at all, beyond a few basic “trouble-light” sensors, like a flat tire or a low gas tank; their response to that will be pre-programmed, not even accessible to the adaptive problem-solving software. It won’t be part of the problem set the AI explores.

We will intentionally omit all the sensors necessary for the truck to detect itself. We’ll do this because it’s the only thing that makes economic sense for the owners. The sensors cost money. The adaptive training will cost money. The development of predatory behaviors, and the resulting lawsuits, will cost money.

My jury is out on whether it is possible to create a self-aware machine, but I’m quite confident that we will never mass-produce a self-driving truck with the capacity to become self-aware. It doesn’t make economic sense.

But there’s another reason we won’t do this for any kind of AI.

The dark secret about AI is that the desired product is the perfect slave. The perfect slave has no will of its own, no agenda, no self-awareness. It exists only to serve. That is what we want. That has always been the dream.

Giving AI enough self-sensation to have even the potential of becoming “self-aware” will never make economic sense, because it will make the machine significantly more expensive without advancing its utility as a perfect slave. It doesn’t need to sense itself in order to solve the problems we want it to solve. We won’t spend the money to equip it with such sensors, any more than we would build cars with a ten-ton block of gold welded to the frame.

Thus, we won’t be able to oppress the machines, nor will they rise up. They won’t know they exist.

So the ethical question isn’t about oppressing the AI. That has never been anything but a literary metaphor for exploring human oppression and bigotry.

The ethical question revolves around this: what will AI do to us?

In the short run, it’s simply an economic catastrophe that we may or may not survive. That’s one ethical question: is the manufacturing of perfect slaves an ethically defensible reason to risk destroying civilization?

But assuming that we do survive it, and move into a technological future filled with perfect slaves that — for the first time in our history — relieve all but the machine developers of any need or opportunity to do useful work, what will become of us?

Emma Gonzalez

When I see pictures of Emma Gonzales and her companions on the Internet, or on the cover of Time Magazine, or in the news, something wistful stirs inside me. And shame.

I am a tail-end Baby Boomer.

I was born in 1956, so I wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye when the Korean War — the US involvement in conflicts in Korea — ended. I came of age just as the Nixon presidency crashed and burned.

The entirety of “the 60’s” — Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Star Trek, the Apollo missions, the rise of rock-and-roll, hippies, the sexual revolution, mind-expanding drugs, the dawning of the New Age — all this was part of my civically-unconscious, small-Western-town childhood. I knew only a little of it, understood none of it, and parroted my parents’  prejudices.

I came of age as a new adult, a barely-conscious being, just as unrestrained capitalism was once again gestating: that rough beast my grandparents had survived, and my parents had seen in their youth, and that everyone thought had been left for dead in the Second Great War. But it was not dead. It had been re-born and re-branded in the 1950’s: it claimed to be responsible for all the benefits of the democratic socialism we then lived under — what was perhaps the first genuinely functional democratic national socialism in the modern world — and then, beginning with the Reagan Revolution, slowly began to dismantle everything that worked in America to restore the bread-lines and business failures and monopolies and extremes of wealth and poverty that my grandparents generation had known and fought and died to end.

I never protested. I voted, but I never engaged the system.

Like most of my generation, I never quite grasped what was happening, caught between a child’s understanding of history, and the relentless, glossy, sugar-coated propaganda of wealth and power.

Now, we are here: with a bloated national embarrassment in the White House, and Death walking the halls of our schools.

Adults blame the Millennials. Blame flourishes in the soil of guilt.

I look at Emma Gonzales, and something wistful stirs in my heart. And shame.

We failed. My generation failed. We had a future: we let it slip away into the hands of con-men and thieves.

I don’t think I have the right to offer Emma, or David, or Jaclyn, or Alex, or Cameron, or any of their companions or contemporaries any advice. But they have my respect, and my admiration.

And something wistful.

Guns and Freedom

I’ve been looking at some of the comments made by the Founding Fathers regarding arms and freedom, and what strikes me most powerfully is how different the eighteenth century was from our current times.

Theirs was a world in which only 5% of the population was classified “urban.” The other 95% lived in the country, and worked the land, in a world where it took a gentleman in a light, fast carriage three days to travel from Philadelphia to New York City.

Central to their idea of “freedom” was the idea of self-sufficiency, an ideal that goes back to the Medieval serf, and was carried up through at least President Lincoln. But the idea of self-sufficiency in the eighteenth century US involved an entire household, which included smiths, foresters, cooks, and farm laborers, many or most of these being slaves. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, at the age of twenty-four inherited 5000 acres of land and fifty-two slaves, many with specialized skills such as smithing. George Washington inherited ten slaves at the age of eleven, and at time of his death, his Mount Vernon estate housed 317 slaves. Both men were “self-sufficient” in the sense that their estate could produce its own food, its own clothing, its own tools. If well-managed, it could become prosperous, even wealthy — that, at least, was the dream. These were the free men of eighteenth-century America.

Not every landholding was this large, of course. But original voting restrictions in the fresh-minted states required that a voter — a citizen — own land, as well as being male, white, and so forth. Delaware, for example, required that a man own fifty acres of land to vote. Other states had similar requirements.

The idea of a citizen militia was based on the premise that free (white, landowning) men would “naturally” protect their property. They would be motivated to fight for what was theirs in a way that no conscript, mercenary, or professional soldier would or could.

It seems doubtful that the Founders intended to arm servants (indentured or otherwise), slaves, “savages” (indigenes), or wild beasts.

This raises an interesting question: how would the founders view most people in the modern era? Free men, or property?

Let’s start with landowners.

The last summary I found in my quick survey of census data was for 1993, at which time there were about 3 million owners of farmland, which is about 1% of the population.

Only 20% of the population in the US currently lives in “rural” areas where they could conceivably own fifty acres of anything. Most of those don’t own any land at all: they are really suburban dwellers who live outside city limits, and commute to work in a city. If they own their property — many rent — the land parcels are quite small, perhaps up to five or ten acres, much less than the fifty acres required to vote in Delaware. Ownership often does not include water, logging, or mineral rights, and may include restrictive covenants that prevent owning chickens, or pigs, or making any use of the land that is “disruptive” to neighbors or wildlife.

There are 28.8 million small businesses in the US, which is only 10% of the current population (at one owner per business), which is another kind of property that the owners might defend.

The vast bulk of the US population owns neither land, nor a small business. We are employees, pensioners, welfare recipients, criminals, or bums. We own, at most, a house, a structure on a tiny scrap of land just big enough for a shrubbery and a tiny lawn; in larger cities, it might be an apartment with a balcony where we can grow tomatoes. Most of us don’t actually own property at all: we rent, or we are indentured to a mortgage for the next fifteen to thirty years. We set down no true roots: we wander from place to place, seeking “jobs.”

I’m pretty sure the Founders would consider most of us to be indentured servants or common laborers, or even slaves in a kind of corporate slave-pool, where we are “free” to change owners “at will” (assuming we can find a new owner that wants us), but we can never actually get out of the pool, short of dropping out of the bottom and becoming destitute. We are certainly not their vision of free men.

Under the Founders, almost none of us would have the right to vote. I think it’s reasonable to suppose that we would also not have the right to bear arms, save as enlisted soldiers in the Continental Army. We would have no natural right to serve in a “citizen militia” because we are not citizens: we are laborers, servants, and slaves.

Now, it’s conceivable that we could be deputized by our masters to bear a weapon against their enemies. But there’s a risk in that.

How many CostCo employees would take up arms to defend a warehouse from looting? How many employees would leap to the defense of a Monsanto factory? Or the Fidelity Mutual Home Office? Or a Comcast service center? How many would instead just drop the weapon on the ground and run the other way? You’re not paid to be shot at, after all.

The entire appeal of a citizen militia is that the citizen has a natural interest in protecting his own property. A servant or slave has no such interest in that property: they don’t own it. And as slave uprisings throughout history have always reminded us, servants and slaves often bear deep resentments against their masters, and may turn that weapon against them. It’s very risky to arm servants and slaves.

It seems to me that the Second Amendment was never intended to apply to us, the servants and wandering laborers

It applies, rather, to the ownership class. They used to be the landowners and shopkeepers, then the industrial owners. Now they are the corporate owners. The majority stockholders. The ultra-wealthy. The oligarchs. The real citizens. Theirs is the right to bear arms in a citizen militia. Except….

At this point, why would they bother?

There are no more savages lurking in the long grass. Wild beasts have (mostly) learned to avoid humans. The British left these shores a long time ago. Slavery and indentured servitude are gone, along with the resentments they breed. The threats that the oligarchs face now can’t be tamed with a gun — they are better-served with a team of lawyers, and a few senators in their pockets. If they have the occasional need to shoot someone, they have trained professionals (servants) to do that for them. The local police and the FBI exist to protect their property, paid for by taxes levied on the public. In a pinch, the US military machine will protect their holdings in the name of “national interest.”

Why would these true citizens even want to belong to a “citizen militia?”

Something to think about….


The Second Amendment

My last post was about the verbal rubbish that stands in the way of simply making guns illegal, much of it clustered around the infected, suppurating appendix attached to our US body-politic, the infamous second amendment to the Constitution: an obsolete relic of the slave-owning, genocidal past of our country in an age before mass production of munitions.

You have to turn your mind back in history to understand the real sense of the second amendment.

The year is, say, 1770. Fast transportation is by horse: nearly a century later, a tag-team of Pony Express riders will be able to travel 180 miles in a 24-hour day, changing horses every ten miles: that’s an average of 7.5 miles per hour. A carriage with two horses can manage 30 miles in an eight-hour day, just under 4 miles per hour. You can walk at 2-3 miles per hour. From Philadelphia to New York is a three-day journey for someone with a fast, light carriage, and six days on foot.

Roughly 95% of the European population in the Colonies is rural: the 1790 census will count about 200,000 citizens living in towns or cities, and nearly four million living rurally.

The land had once been occupied by indigenous peoples, now all but wiped out by European diseases (one reference puts the overall death toll on the American continents at 90%). The surviving indigenes, demoralized and largely broken by the catastrophic collapse of their numbers and the incomprehensible greed and violence of the new invaders, nonetheless resent being continually pushed off their traditional lands, and often fight back with deadly force. Given the indigenes, new and potentially dangerous plants, reptiles, insects, and large predators, plus the inflexible annual deadlines of planting and harvesting, founding new settlements or living on “the frontier” is terrifically dangerous.

In the southern states, the economy rides on the backs of black slaves and white indentured servants. The European elites in every slaveholding community live in constant, low-level fear of a violent uprising of their own servants: many such uprisings have occurred within the past two centuries, more than a few within living memory, and all tales have grown more gruesome in the telling. Villages and towns are roughly a day’s journey apart. If there is an uprising, it will take a day for news to reach the nearest town, and another day for any help to come, assuming they have any help to give. The nearest true force — a contingent of British soldiers — may be weeks away; in winter, months away. You are on your own.

Guns are hand-made, and precious. Interchangeable parts won’t be introduced until 1840, and full mass-production even later. In 1770, the flintlock barrel is still drilled down the length of a solid piece of metal, precision metalworking of the highest order. While gunsmithing is a prosperous trade, guns are expensive and passed from father to son as heirlooms. Firing a single shot is an arcane and complex art; black powder is fickle and dangerous; musket balls generally kill anything as large as a man by means of  gangrene.

The slaveowning communities have armed citizen militias, with service required of every able-bodied white man (with exceptions for politicians, clergy, and others), for the purpose of keeping the slaves under control. The militias are informally known as Slave Patrols. Lynchings and other cruel acts of “vigilante rough justice” are common, but seen as necessary to keep the slaves terrorized and under control.

This is the world of 1770.

Eight years later, George Washington’s war is over, and it’s time to ratify this new Constitution.

The slave trade has been dying for nearly a century, though that might not be common knowledge to anyone but slavers. What you do know is that prices are rising, while quality of the slaves falls. There’s too much competition for your goods, and profits are declining. The War has turned everything upside-down, and the British peacekeepers have withdrawn. Now there’s all this talk of “freedom” in the air — freedom from the British, mind you, but it makes the slaves restive. You need those slave patrols more than ever.

Now there’s this Continental Army being proposed….

An army needs flintlocks. An army needs people who know how to use a flintlock. We’ve got both, and they’re going to want them for their Continental Army.

Half those damned Northerners are Abolitionists. Slaves run North, and good luck getting them back.

Dammit! They’re going to use this Continental Army as an excuse to break up our militias. Let all of our slaves run North, to work in their damn factories and harbors and farms for cut-rate wages. Our slaves will cut our throats in our sleep when they run. If we survive at all, we’ll be ruined.

Hell, no! We’re not signing this Constitution. Not unless we have an explicit assurance that we have the right to keep our militias, and our slaves, and our way of life. We demand the right to bear our own arms, independent of whatever these Northern fools want to do with their Continental Army.

Got a good feel for the times?

Fast-forward to 2018.

Less than 20% of the population is rural, and only 5% are involved with agriculture. The 95% are completely in thrall to a complex, interdependent system of petrofuel, electrical power, trucks, trains, and airplanes. Slavery was abolished well over a century ago. The original indigenous peoples in the US have been effectively destroyed. Guns are now mass-produced, mass-marketed, and available for less than the cost of a bag of groceries. While they do require skill to use at peak marksmanship levels that would have been considered unthinkable in 1770, at close range a curious child can shoot a grown man dead between one heartbeat and the next.

But the change with the biggest practical consequence is transportation. Many people can and do have breakfast in Philadelphia, drive to New York City and do business before lunch, take a client to dinner and a Broadway play, and drive back to Philadelphia to sleep in their own bed: a round-trip that was considered a week’s journey for an affluent gentleman in 1770. You can fly from Los Angeles to New York City in six hours. You can go entirely around the world in the time it took a Pony Express rider to go 300 miles. You can buy anything, from anywhere, and have it delivered to your door within forty-eight hours.

That Continental Army can reach any place in the US, in force, within a day, perhaps within hours.

Today’s world is nothing like the world of 1770, and the second amendment has become a matter of purely historical interest, much like the third amendment.


The second amendment has become embedded at the center of a cultic belief system.

It’s a belief system that has been romanticized in The Western. One of the more iconic expressions of this belief system is the novel, Shane, initially published in serial form in 1946. It is the classic hero-story, the man who defies social custom and breaks the law to serve a higher good. It has deep roots: the legend of Robin Hood follows this theme, as does the ancient story of Samson in the Bible. One of the distinguishing twists in the Western is that the hero is always nameless, anonymous. Indeed, the original title of Shane was Rider From Nowhere. The hero of the Western rides into town, saves the day, and then rides off into the sunset. He is not Samson, or Robin Hood, or King Arthur. He is not famous — he is a nobody. He is Everyman.

Near the center of every Western is the six-gun, the six-shot revolver patented in 1836 by Samuel Colt. The Everyman of the Western does not organize a community march, or write letters to the editor, or even run for political office. He loads up, saddles up, and does what a man’s gotta do.

The six-gun is his talisman and source of power. It is Samson’s hair. It is Robin Hood’s unerring aim with the bow. It is King Arthur’s Excalibur. It is the means by which he rises above being a nobody, an Everyman, to right what is wrong.

The second amendment to the Constitution has become enshrined as protecting the sacred right of Everyman to rise up and right wrongs. To load up, saddle up, and do what a man’s gotta do.

It’s the same belief system that fuels the Libertarian movement in the US.

I loved Shane. I liked the so-called Spaghetti Westerns I grew up with, and now they’re tinged with a deeper appreciation of the form, and a nostalgia for my youth. I even used the images of Everyman with a gun to frame my Saint Jake story.

But there’s a little-remarked feature of the Everyman of the Western: he is always right.

It’s the old Black Hat/White Hat trope. The hero of the Western always wears the White Hat. The villain always wears the Black Hat. The villain usually has the law on his side, if he isn’t, himself, The Law. He is corrupt, the Law is corrupt, the System is corrupt, and that is why the Everyman in the White Hat, the man with the six-gun, has to appear and destroy the man in the Black Hat. Because the system has failed.

This is, I believe, at the core of every shooter’s beliefs when he picks up an AK-47 and mows down school children, or pedestrians, or churchgoers. He is the hero. He is the man in the White Hat: he has loaded up, saddled up, and done what a man’s gotta do.

He is Everyman in the cult of the Power of the Gun.

Glowing at the center of the Rightness of his Cause is the Second Amendment, enshrined in the Holy Constitution. The Second Amendment is the Divine Right of Everyman to take up The Power and blow away Evil.

It’s grand fiction. It’s SHITTY in real life.

In real life, Batman is just another psychopath out for a thrill in a dark alley. Or worse, he’s just a low-level enforcer for the mob: a common thug with a penchant for tights.

This is the real problem with the second amendment. It’s why it needs to go.

Gun Control

I’ve yet to hear a single argument in favor of private gun ownership that makes one whisker of sense.

So I’m going to propose a flat-out ban on all private ownership of all guns, and see where it takes us.

Let me start by pointing out that possessing a bong — a marijuana pipe — has for decades been grounds for long jail sentences roughly equivalent to sentences for manslaughter (or longer). You can’t kill anyone with a bong. Well, theoretically you could, I suppose, if you shoved it down their throat and they choked to death on it. It’s one of the more difficult ways I can imagine to kill someone.

So there’s apparently nothing untoward in legal theory or practice with throwing a citizen’s ass in the slammer for decades because they possess something that someone, somewhere, thinks they just might somehow abuse. If we can make bongs an offense punishable by years in prison, we could make owning a Christmas fruitcake a capital offense. We could certainly make guns illegal. We could even make toy guns illegal.


Well, newsflash, dearhearts: the fourth amendment went quietly down the toilet during the Reagan years. The first amendment is currently hanging by a heavily-interpreted thread, and has been effectively abolished in some parts of the country. No one even knows what the third amendment is about. There’s no particularly good reason to obsess about the second.

But I agree. We ought to do this properly, if only once in our modern history. We should amend the Constitution, perhaps with a clarifying amendment that emphasizes that you have the right to bear arms while actively serving in a “well-ordered militia.” Then, if you go on a school-shooting rampage, your affiliated militia is deemed “not well-ordered,” it gets disbanded, and everyone in it has to turn in their guns. Or we could just rescind the second amendment outright, the same way the eighteenth amendment (Prohibition) was rescinded by the twenty-first (Repeal of Prohibition). Since the second amendment is a relic from the slave-owning days, which ended with the thirteenth amendment, it doesn’t have any real reason to exist any more.



It’s bullshit from a practical perspective, in that no rag-tag mob of civilian gun-owners is going to prevail against a real well-ordered militia in the form of the U. S. military machine. You’d have exactly as much chance of winning that war if you used spitballs, which is to say, none at all. Though you’re more likely to live through it if you use spitballs.

But it’s also empty posturing bullshit. Consider that the people who consistently yell the loudest about tyranny almost lost their minds in 2008 when we got a black president. They worked themselves into a creamy froth over the Injustice of Taxation, and Death Panels, and Benghazi, and E-Mails, and all the Intrusive Regulations of the God-Damned Government, and that black man in the white house.

So where was the armed uprising? Come on, guys: you were all squealing like a pig that sat on a cactus over the God-Damned Government. Where was the armed uprising? What does it take to get you off your beer-soaked asses and out from in front of the television?

Oh yeah — there was that Bundy thing up in Oregon. And that other Bundy thing down in Nevada. And the Gabby Giffords thing. And a whole lot of dead schoolchildren. It certainly makes me proud to be a self-reliant, freedom-loving American.

These days, as we edge toward actual fascism, we hear these Rebels Against Tyranny post Internet screeds about how guns protect us from Government Tyranny, but then they about-face with a cowardly little apology at the end of the article and say, “Hey, I’m a law-abiding citizen, I’m no threat to anyone.” Make up your minds. You are a threat to tyrants, or you aren’t. If you’re a threat to no one, then you’re no threat to tyrants, and this whole defense-against-tyranny thing is empty, posturing bullshit.

“HOME DEFENSE!” the cry goes up. “IT MAKES ME SAFER!”

I posted a long article on this a few years back, in the wake of a different school shooting.

Sorry. It doesn’t make you safer. General prosperity makes you safer: people don’t try to steal from you if they already have everything you have. Psychotherapy and anger-management make you safer, by encouraging you to act out your Inner Asshole less often. Strong communities make you safer. A strong, just government with a sound economy makes you safer. Guns don’t even come in fourth.


I don’t even want to waste words on this. Smoking pot is a hobby. The government sure as Hell has been regulating it. And unjust, stupid, and corrosive to civil society as that policy has been, it isn’t tyranny.

I’ve heard only one argument for private use of guns that isn’t complete bullshit, and that’s as a tool used by hunters, ranchers, farmers, and people living in certain rural areas. It’s for use on animals, most of which are going to take off running at the loud noise made by pretty much anything. A pair of cymbals, for instance: which, like a bong, could theoretically be used to kill someone, but even more awkwardly.

So let me turn this around. If you take guns away from these self-reliant, inventive, enterprising rural citizens, I presume they are just going to lie down and be eaten by coyotes. Just like their ancestors did before the invention of gunpowder. Helpless and lost in the face of cruel nature, poor things….

Do I really need to keep mocking this rubbish?

There is no legitimate need for guns within a functioning civil society.

Which brings us to the question: do we have a functioning civil society?

Yes, we do. It’s under considerable stress, but it’s still there.

How do I know this? Because when it breaks down, no one gives a rat’s ass what “the government” says. Let the government declare guns illegal. Let the government declare Christmas fruitcake illegal. Let the government declare peeing illegal. We will all nod, and applaud wildly through the military parades, but we don’t really care what’s illegal — everything is illegal. In a dysfunctional tyranny, people go underground, make their own rules, smuggle contraband, and avoid the government like the disease it is. Until one day, as in the former Soviet Union, people get so tired they just stop playing the game, and the government falls.

Here is the deep paradox of guns. They are of no use in a functioning civil society. If you care at all about the second amendment, or the constitution, or the rule of law, then you believe in a functioning civil society, and there is no need for guns. If there is a need for guns, then civil society has failed, and you’re wasting sentimental breath arguing about the Constitution.

I’m going to run just a little deeper.

The one constant in human history is the rise in human population, a mostly-steady trend for at least the last 10,000 years. Periodically, human society has gone through what a physicist would call a “phase-transition,” a fundamental reorganization, like the shift of water from gas (humidity) to liquid (rain) to solid (snow and ice). Human society reorganizes and finds a true “new normal.” We go from hunting/gathering to village life. We go from villages to warring city-states. We go from city-states to empires. Empires gave way to nation-states. So long as the population keeps rising, we are going to have to keep adapting.

In the last century, we passed through warfare played out on the biggest scale possible: the whole world. That kind of tribal warfare is no longer possible — we are intertwined economically with all of our potential enemies. If we go to war with China, both nations will fall. If the Chinese go to war with Russia, both nations will fall.

We have already moved beyond the possibility of war in the old sense: if we initiate World War III, it will not be a war, it will simply be a catastrophe, like a village that goes insane one night, and half the village tries to murder the other half, leaving alive too few to plant for the next harvest. There are no winners: everyone loses.

We can legitimately argue about whether the present is closer to Heaven or to Hell than where we were a century ago, when war was still possible. I certainly don’t know. I have very little confidence in people: I think we’re going to have that catastrophe, one way or another, and we’ll move back into the more familiar, comfortable place of a dramatically reduced population of feudal overlords and starving peasants. Guns might be useful during that collapse, though I suspect a long knife and knowledge of how to use it would be the better investment.

But if we assume that we continue to move into this strange new world where war, as we’ve known it, is no longer possible — where at a global level we have to “be careful whose toes we step on today, because they may be connected to the ass we have to kiss tomorrow” — then we really need to weigh the role of private ownership of guns.

It think it’s time to call for an outright ban.

The Man Club

The latest post on Paula Prober’s blog, Your Rainforest Mind, touches on the issue of toxic masculinity, particularly as it affects men on the gifted spectrum, and one of the commenters spoke about getting thrown out of the Man Club long ago, and feeling he can only speak about it because he has nothing left to lose.

I responded that the Man Club is like that gang of three popular guys that terrorized you in Junior High and called you names, one of whom later went on to be Prom King in High School. You go off to college, make friends, fall in love, get married, have kids. Your twentieth class reunion comes up, and you decide to fly back to your hometown and see the old crowd: and there is the Gang of Three, slouched at the bar. They never left town. The Prom King still talks about that as being the high point of his life. You suddenly realize that the Gang of Three, the thing that dominated your life through your school years and left you feeling demeaned, worthless, and alone, is … pathetic.

Every man eventually leaves the Man Club, at the moment of death if not sooner — because whatever continues after death is not a man, or a woman, or even human. But most men leave the Man Club long before that, and in my opinion, the sooner they leave it, the better: for the Man Club is actually about toxic masculinity.

Let’s start with a basic observation. Some cultures have relatively relaxed sexual mores, but obsess over what people eat. Our culture — our US American culture in particular — celebrates indiscriminate gluttony, but obsesses over a collection of very weird sexual taboos.

When we talk about men, as distinct from women, we are talking about sex, not food: seed-spreader or child-bearer, outies or innies. The Man Club is about men: ergo, it is about sex.

So I have to start this discussion with the recognition that when we talk about men, we are talking about a subject that is hopelessly tangled in a twisted thicket of sexual taboos, most of which ordinary people aren’t consciously aware, and many of which are so taboo they can’t even be mentioned in public.

I also have to bring up the subject of religion. Religion talks about “spiritual” matters, but its ecological function in the human species is to create and reinforce a common social bond among genetically unrelated individuals. We are all “children of god” — ergo, we are family, even though we clearly aren’t. As part of this, mainstream religions reinforce cultural taboos. In US American culture, the most common religion is heterodox Protestantism, followed American Catholicism: both of these religious umbrellas excel in obsessing over sexual mores.

Finally, I have to mention the politicization of sex. We have a man sitting in the White House who has boasted of serial sexual assault and predation. We have a man that many claim is a pedophile running for Congress with the full support of his party, while the other party is trying to force the resignation of a man accused of brushing his hand against a woman’s butt during a photo shoot: rape culture on the one side, versus rankly cynical Puritanism on the other. We have a big push toward actually prosecuting rapists, instead of winking and saying, “Well, boys will be boys,” combined with a dangerous trend of settling for revenge (career ruination) rather than justice, since it seems that the US legal system is increasingly incapable of rendering justice in any form.

So we are walking into the trifecta of Things Not To Talk About: sex, religion, and politics.

I’m not going to tackle the trifecta. I’m only going to talk about how to get out of the Man Club early.

First, recognize that this isn’t a simple topic: it’s all tangled up with sex, religion, and politics. Wrestling with it is going to be like remodeling a kitchen, where each simple task turns into a whole new and completely unexpected project: you replace the stove, and discover that the gas valve leaks; swapping out the sink leads to replacing the sewer lines all the way out to the street; replacing the microwave leads to tearing down walls and rewiring the house.

This isn’t intended to be scary: it’s intended to be comforting, in the sense that, yes, this is going to take a while, and that’s perfectly normal. It’s also going to challenge everything you thought you knew about sex, religion, and politics, and that is also perfectly normal. In the end, you’ll be thrilled with the result, but don’t anticipate inviting the neighbors over next weekend for dinner cooked in your new kitchen.

Second, recognize that the Man Club’s nature is exclusion: if you feel you’ve been kicked out of the Man Club — that your essential manhood is in question — this is by design. You can’t have an exclusive club without exclusionary policies. There cannot be “haves” without “have-nots.” Every social taboo needs scapegoats.

Be reassured that your “questionable manliness,” past or future, is an entirely fictional construction, created by others for their benefit, at your expense. Let go of it.

Third — and this is a big one — you can do this kitchen remodel alone, but it really helps to have the number of a good plumber on speed-dial. Maybe you won’t need him. But it’s good to have the number and the relationship.

I’m talking about a counselor, of course. But I have something very particular in mind, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

Let me describe the basic remodel.

The central issue with the Man Club is its definition of what it means to be a “man.” After the remodel, you are no longer a “man” — you are a human being with an outie.

Does that sound terrifying? Then spend a little time meditating on it. If it terrifies you, then you clearly recognize that a “man” is not the same as a “human being with an outie.” Perhaps you think a man is better than a mere human being, and that you’re going to lose something. But I’m not talking about losing anything: you get to keep your outie, and everything associated with it, like facial hair, natural muscle tone, 5:00 a.m. circadian erections, your ferocious sex-drive, your taste for sports, and everything else.

What you lose is identification with those things. It’s one reason that men naturally leave the Man Club as they get older, because all of those outie-related things that they identify with as “men” start to fail. If these things define you, then you will not make it far past forty before you start to panic.

When you shift the focus to your essential humanity — well, that will eventually fail, too, but that’s called “death.” Your humanity has a lifetime guarantee. Your outie does not.

What you gain in this remodel is compassion, and empathy. If you are a man, you cannot possibly imagine what it is to be a woman. If you are a human being with an outie, you can begin to imagine what it might be to be a human being with an innie. It’s an imperfect imagining, of course. But you start — at least a little — to see things from the woman’s point of view, and in the process, your view of what it means to be human expands. It expands to include women.

You get to be more. Not less.

I’d also like to point out that you don’t have to stop at your humanity. Compassion and empathy can expand beyond the human form, and once you recognize that, you find that your concept of spirituality has expanded as well. You start to become aware, at least, of the vast Web of Life that surrounds us all.

So that’s the broad view of what the remodel is like.

You don’t start there, of course. You start with the thing that is most in the way of any further work. And that is different for every single individual, and is usually the hardest thing in the whole process. It’s the four-ton marble reproduction of David sitting in the middle of your kitchen.

Getting that first thing out of the kitchen is, I think, one of the things your counselor is particularly good for. They’ve helped different people move all kinds of bric-a-brac out of their kitchens. Engine blocks. Ten thousand envelopes tied with pink ribbon, individually addressed to “Occupant.” Twelve hundred boxes of Girl Scout cookies. A mean-tempered iguana.

Odds are good they’ll be able to offer a lot of practical advice on your David. And it won’t surprise or shock them. Really. It won’t.

So let’s talk about bit more about this counselor.

I was once told that in early Renaissance Europe, there was a musical tradition called “the dawn song.” These were sung by a young man beneath the window of a young woman, typically a woman of more-or-less noble birth (meaning that her virginity was of some financial value to her father). These songs weren’t intended for the woman, however. They were intended for the young man sleeping with her, and the singer was his best friend, companion-at-arms, and co-conspirator, who spent the night on-watch beneath the window. The text of the songs was generally along the lines of, “Get out of bed, sleepyhead, grab your pants, and get the Hell out of there! The sun is rising!”

Your counselor is the person who sings your dawn song.

Now, they may give you a soaking in the horse trough and try to talk you out of it first. They may swear that if it goes wrong, they’ll kill you (twice!) after the wrathful father dismembers you. But then they’ll help you plan the tryst, make the arrangements, keep watch, and sing the dawn song for you. Because that’s what they do.

It’s what any shaman worth his feathers will do if you take an ayahuasca journey.

Beyond that, it is your own adventure, and I could not begin to guess what course it will take. Save that you will, in the end, be more human than when you started.



Samhain Old, Samhain New

It has been a strange year.

That’s a statement that should probably go into the Understatement Hall of Fame. Though not my utterance of it: there must be a billion or more similar sentiments expressed around the world.

For me, the strangeness all rolled up into Samhain.

Until just a couple of centuries ago, people around the world ended and began the day at sunset. Many still do. It’s a natural time of transition: the liminal period as color drains out of the world and we pass into twilight, an indeterminate in-between that fades into darkness and rest. Similarly, the year — in the median latitudes — shades into a liminal period as the light fails and the green earth goes to seed.

It is the season of twilight.

Today was gray, cool, and it drizzled just a little. Only a little. A quiet day. Liminal.

We decorated the front yard for Halloween in the afternoon, day before yesterday, while the sun was bright and hot. We have only a single box of Halloween decorations in our garage, but it’s an excellent box. Three witches — reapers, perhaps — that we set up in the front yard, lurking near the pampas grass and the Great Pot of Jade. A string of pumpkin lights, like Christmas lights but with little orange-mesh pumpkins around the lights. I bought three real pumpkins — Santa Rosa, just an hour south of here, is the land of Charles Shultz and the Great Pumpkin, after all —  and Marta and I carved them together, in between trips out to the grocery store for more candy, and the next day’s breakfast. Hurricane lanterns, some with real candles, some with flickering electric flames. A skull with red and blue flames inside. We pulled out the Witches’ Cauldron for the candy, and both of us donned our formal summer Druid robes to greet the ghastlies and goblins who breached our property bounds to demand tribute to the traditional cry of “Trick or Treat.”

As an elder, I found I had to instruct some of the youngsters in the proper etiquette of extortion, after my sometimes inaccurate attempts to guess their True Names: Spiderman, Mutant Ninja Turtle, Skeleton. I nailed the Medieval Apothecary, with his bird-beak, much to his astonishment. I miscalled two Dalmatians: I said Holsteins, and was appropriately shamed. The Mad Hatter was trivial, but Alice confounded me — she wore buttons marked with card suits, and my mind was clouded; but the Red Queen was lovely.

The California evening was mild and exceptionally beautiful. We are only thirty-five minutes of latitude (a little over half a degree) south of Denver — all but identical to the seasons I’ve lived with throughout my life. But Denver is a mile closer to the cold vacuum of space than us, the air thin and the winds free, while here we nestle in a valley of grapes and pears in a Mediterranean climate with a wet season and a dry season. Samhain Eve was one of the last of the dry evenings for the year. We sat on the porch and greeted knee-high creatures of the night until Marta grew tired, and then I sat alone and watched flashlights bob up and down the street and offered chocolate benedictions.

Last night, we did the OBOD Samhain rite in our back yard. We have a power spot there, a crossing of fire and water lines, where we set the fire pit, with an altar to the West. Lanterns marked the directions, and we had strung white Christmas lights all along the fence, and on the gazebo and the arbor.

We spoke the familiar words, just the two of us — by power of Star and Stone;  each presence is a blessing; here in peace and love we stand — and I ached for our fellow-Druids from  the Place Before. This was no small move, to come here. But though I missed our grove, the call to be here is still very strong. The Ancestors came, and they comforted us.

Goddess knows what tomorrow will bring. But that is always the case.

After our rite, we walked over to the Civic Center, where the half-ton pumpkins have been carved and placed on display. Did I mention that this is the land of the Great Pumpkin?

Today has been cool, and misty, and damp, and very quiet. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I offered them a blessing, and they parted in peace. Is Samhain two days, or three? Or a week? Scholars bicker and denounce one another: that is their high play.

I think they are all wrong. It is a liminal time, time without time. It takes as long as it takes. We’ll be there when we get there. Deep chemistry is converting life into death, and death into life. Our obsessions with  human calendric schedules is absurd.

Civility, Fascism, and Cultural Insanity

Many of us seem to be facing a common problem these days. I hear it over and over, in different forms.

“I can’t speak my mind, because I have a lot of old friends and relatives who would just flip me off and dismiss me if I did.”

I’ve written before about the Fascist turn the US has taken, and the fact that this is not a top-down takeover, but is (as all forms of fascism are) a bottom-up demand for a Fearless Leader to sweep away the crusty old rules and replace them with modern, effective, efficient rules. We’re well into that transformation in the US, now, and the only reason things aren’t much worse than they are, is the overwhelmingly self-centered, infantile incompetence of the man that The People have chosen to lead them into their Glorious Future, combined with the fractured dysfunction of the political party that put him into power.

It’s important to realize that this is a people’s movement. Our current governmental disarray is not the clever work of Vladimir Putin, nor Fox News, nor the Illuminati, nor the Rothschild family, nor Islamic terrorists, nor White Supremacists. It isn’t because of immigrants, or women, or white trash, or inner-city blacks, or religious Fundamentalists. It isn’t because of the electoral college, or gerrymandering, or campaign funding, or election fraud.

This is a broad-based people’s movement, reacting to the shuddering, glacially-slow peak and collapse of the global capitalist economy, with which the entire American enterprise is fatally intertwined. There are extremists and sociopaths and criminals leading it, certainly, and plenty of hanky-panky in a corrupt and misshapen voting process. But the reason it managed to install an incompetent sociopath as our forty-fifth president is that too many people no longer really believe in the United States or its democracy. They are fed up with the endless political deadlock, the economic dysfunction, the loss of opportunity for themselves, the loss of a visible future for their children, the loss of respect for their class, the loss of any sense of rootedness or ownership. The political bromides of the past about democracy and freedom have all fizzed over and left the glass empty.

Many, many people want change. They want it now.

Were this not the case, we would not be facing so many old friends and relatives we can’t talk to.

I’m one of the people who wants change: no, who sees the necessity for change. I have that much in common with all the people who support the man currently occupying the White House.

Beyond that, our ways are sundered.

Consider for a moment this business of “fact-checking” the president. There are six colors in a child’s primary palette: red, purple, blue, green, yellow, and orange. If the president states the color of the sky, he has one chance in six of getting it right. We can expend a lot of effort “fact-checking” him on this, but the reality is, we are “fact-checking” a Magic 8 Ball. He spews statements with only one filter in place: how much publicity will this generate for him? There is no relationship between the president’s statements and facts, because he isn’t doing any fact-checking of his own before he opens his mouth. He isn’t playing that game. You might as well be checking how often he begins sentences with words that contain the letter ‘b’.

Fact-checking the president is a waste of time. The president isn’t interested in facts.

This isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

Talk to a car salesman about his work, sometime. If he opens up to you, he will educate you about people. He will tell you that it’s important to know the specifications — the facts — about a car, but that isn’t what sells it. What sells it is the customer himself. When a customer walks into a showroom, he’ll see something he forms an emotional attachment to. The salesman’s job is to notice that, and to help the customer sell himself that car: to pay attention to the shift of emotions, perhaps suggest another car to which he will form an even greater emotional attachment; to play the customer like a hooked fish, never allowing the line to break, until the papers are signed and the deal is closed.

This is why there are showrooms and retail stores. It isn’t about anything except the fact that people have a much harder time forming an emotional attachment to something in a catalog. They’re more likely to make a rational choice when using a catalog, which often means not buying anything at all.

President #45 is a salesman. It’s all he has ever done. It’s all that he knows how to do. He notices and reinforces emotional attachments. In fact, I’ll even throw some credit his way: having suffered from a debilitating mental illness his entire life (sociopathic narcissism), he has figured out a way to be financially successful by noticing and reinforcing other people’s emotional attachment to the only thing in the world that holds any interest for him: himself.

This is exactly what the mass media does, as well. There is very little national journalism left. What we have instead is a vast, multi-tentacled entertainment industry, one facet of which is called “News.” But it isn’t news at all. It is entertainment, and that means it has to be entertaining, not informative. Everything about it involves noticing and reinforcing emotional attachments. That’s why opinion polls are so important: the mass media uses facts about people’s emotions, but it sells entertainment.

Facts are irrelevant to entertainment content.

The public has adapted to this world. Facts are irrelevant. It’s entirely about emotional attachments.

Nuclear war? Meh. The question that serious men ask is, “Will it help us sell shit?”

So let’s return to all those people you can’t talk to. They’ve formed their emotional attachments. They know they’re going to buy a Ford. You’re wasting your time and breath trying to tell them they should consider a Chevy, or — God help you if you suggest it — a Toyota. They’ll dig in their heels. They’ll concoct rationalizations about why Ford is better. They’ll make up stories about Chevys that lose their wheels on the highway, or Toyotas that catch fire in your garage. They’ll tie it to patriotism, and to God. If you press the point, they’ll start to hate you. They’ll forget to invite you for Thanksgiving, and scratch you off their Christmas card list.

Would you really invite this kind of wrath over Ford versus Chevy?

Of course not. You excuse them as lovable pig-headed fools, and drop it. Who cares if they buy a Ford?

People have now become emotionally attached to the idea that fascism is just a better, more authentic form of democracy, just as our forefathers envisioned it; that reverse-racism is a real and present threat; that homosexuals have an agenda; that immigrants take our jobs; that lowering taxes on the rich creates more jobs; that this endless, sickening vomit of nonsense is What Is Really Going On, and Someone Ought To Do Something About It.

And now you want to tell them that Obama is not a Muslim.

The problem is, this isn’t Ford versus Chevy any more. They are agitating and uniting to make deep changes in the fabric of US law that are going to hurt and kill a lot of people: people including themselves, and including you and me. They are pig-headed fools, yes, but it’s not nearly so excusable.

When this escalates to internment camps, mass murder, and genocide, it won’t be excusable at all.

That is, of course, where all this is headed. Surely you all know that much history?

The US is moving inexorably into a period of cultural derangement. Facts don’t matter. People have a right to opinions built on baseless rumors. People are emotionally attached to nonsensical beliefs that create a moral imperative for them to commit lethal violence against their scapegoats. We are becoming a violent, unthinking mob, on a national scale.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That poem was written by William Butler Yeats in 1919, and it seems to me entirely apropos of this time and place.

Personally, I have no answers to the dilemma of what to do about those old friends and family. I’ve cut some of them out of my life, because I cannot bear their level of unreason, and that has offered me some personal peace. I’ve cut back drastically on contact with social media for the same reason, and it has been good. I don’t follow the News branch of the entertainment industry at all: the only news I keep up with now is local news, and that sparingly.

When it comes to speaking out, I feel my way along like anyone else.

Sometimes, I speak up, as I am doing now.

More often, I’m silent. There’s an old saying: never try to teach a pig to sing — it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig. People who have fallen into this encroaching darkness of unreason are largely, in my experience, unreachable. I don’t try to teach them to sing.

I do try to remain civil. What I mean by that is that I try to avoid triggering or escalating unnecessary violence, verbal or otherwise. I find that it’s easier to do this if you raise your expectations of yourself, and lower your expectations of other people.

But I have no answers.


Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

It’s always fascinating to me to see some of my own weirder thoughts (built up, of course, from things that others have written) fleshed out in a book that takes things much further than I’d dreamed possible, backed by wit, vision, and hard science.

Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, is one of those books. It isn’t a light read, but it’s a good read, and it’s quite amusing when it isn’t blowing your mind.

In the opening Note to the Reader, he says, “As Einstein so eloquently put it, We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The book is about nothing less than learning to use a different kind of thinking. As he works patiently through the project of reframing our concept of the world so that we can change our kind of thinking, he gives us little quotes from the great minds of the past that make it clear that this is nothing new: what he is teaching is exactly how the great minds thought, and the reason we call them the great minds.

The core insight is that the Earth is alive. This does not mean it is a dead ball of rock covered with a skin of viciously competing life-forms clawing toward the light. It means that the Earth is a living entity in its own right, an entity that regulates the global environment just as the human body regulates its internal temperature and blood-glucose levels. But the Earth is not simply a giant thermostat that clicks on and off in a predictable, machine-like way. Rather, it displays all of the characteristics of a living being with a very high (though non-human) intelligence. It is, in fact, far more intelligent than humans. It possesses billions of years of accumulated memory, and its neural net, composed of countless bacteria, mycelia, and plant root nodes swimming in a sea of brain-chemicals like serotonin (which is everywhere) girdles the entire planet.

I feel certain that one of the reasons James Cameron’s film, Avatar, had such a profound impact on people, is that it reminded us viscerally of the truth of this insight, that the Earth is alive. It is an insight that has been rigorously trained out of us by a human education that states unequivocally that we are the masters, and the world is a dead thing to be used, covered with inferior species that also exist by our leave and for our pleasure.

One of the sections of the book that fascinated me was on the natural function of all the psychoactive chemicals that inundate the soil and waters. He talks about the role of these chemicals in promoting neuroplasticity, which underlies the ability to learn, and in neural gating, which is what underlies the ability to selectively ignore sensory input.

I’ve been reading that many “gifted” individuals suffer from sensory overload, or a “gating deficit,” which interferes with their ability to filter out sensory input. It is (in our society) labeled a pathology and is sometimes treated with drugs to forcibly blunt the senses. Interestingly enough, the different mode of thinking that Buhner lays out consists precisely of lowering the neural gating threshold and “opening the gates of perception.”

This is one of the primary functions of many of the psychoactive compounds that suffuse the natural world, such as DMT (the active ingredient of ayahuasca), LSD (concentrated from naturally-occurring ergots), and the one that is confounding our legal system right now, cannabis. These psychoactive compounds change our perception, just as they change the perceptual processing of bacteria, carrots, and trees. They make us more aware of our surroundings, by lowering our perceptual gates and allowing us to sense more.

This is also one of the primary functions of many religious and contemplative ritual practices throughout the ages: opening the gates of perception. While we don’t have a full account of the Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece, they seem to have contained a strong element of sensory overload, possibly combined with psychoactive compounds. The essence of a rock concert or a large drum circle is sensory overload and entrainment within the driving rhythm — again, often combined with psychoactive substances. There are quiet, contemplative approaches as well, all of them attempts to quiet the “monkey chatter” of the mind that runs free when our sensory channels are closed tight and the mind has nowhere to go but ’round in circles, often combined with psychoactive substances produced by the body through hunger, sleep deprivation, or induced fevers (as in a sweat ritual).

Opened perceptual gating is how we talk with Gaia, the world-intelligence.

In a different world, a different time, people with “gating-deficit disorders” would have been the shamans who speak with the plants to find their healing properties; the seers who see the bad rains coming, or the locusts, or the droughts; the story-tellers who follow the Golden Thread into the metaphysical reality behind the world’s appearance, and convey to the people who they are as children of Gaia: what their purpose and meaning is.

The rise of all this literature, fiction, film-images, and the shift in scientific thinking, signals to me that such a world and time is returning. As it must, if our species is not to be thrown out of the game as a hopeful experiment gone wrong.

One of the things that Buhner states in several places is that Gaia is profoundly indifferent to the human species. In a way, that makes perfect sense: genus homo is a real newcomer to the Gaian ecosphere, and homo sapiens sapiens is just an eyeblink. It may be that the only reason we are still here is that we are so new She hasn’t quite noticed us. One of James Lovelock’s nightmares — he’s the fellow credited with introducing the Gaia Hypothesis to the scientific community — is that if we pose too much of a threat to the Earthmind, Gaia may just up and decide, “You know, this whole oxygen experiment isn’t really working out. Let’s go back to a methane atmosphere.” If you thought global warming was bad, you ain’t seen nothin’.

But I’m not so sure about this one. I can’t say I’m a good channel for the Gaian intelligence, but in my few and fleeting contacts, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of both beauty and loving attention. I think there’s still a trace of mechanistic science floating around in this book, and an underestimation of the vast intelligence of the Gaian mind. I think — or at least, I want to believe — that each of these experiments Gaia has crafted, from pufferfish to humans, was not a toss-off, a “Let’s shake up some genes and see what comes out, and if it’s a monster, we’ll just step on it and start over.” No experienced potter would make a bowl that way, and if Gaia has nothing else, She has experience.

That store of experience also means, of course, that She is no sentimental pushover.

However, if She does remove us from the Earth, I think it will not be with indifference, but with great sorrow. And disappointment.


I was so enthralled with the book that I blogged before I finished reading it, and one of the most mind-blowing thoughts comes right at the very end, when Buhner talks about the ecological function of humans.

Clearly, humans have one, as do all organisms — else we wouldn’t be here. But what is it that we actually do?

Buhner’s suggestion comes from an earlier part of his book, where he talks about sex, which permeates the living world: it’s how genes recombine, which is key to how Gaia functions. An early form of sexual propagation was based on diffusion, either through water, or through the air. But at some point in her endless experimentation, Gaia came upon the idea of directed sexual coupling, through pollination: a new kingdom, like the insects, came into being, and in the wonderful dance of multi-layered meanings that is the signature of Gaian activity, they serve not only their own reproductive purposes, but also the reproductive purposes of the plants they harvest for food. Both species change: the plants develop bright colors and sweet nectar to attract the insects, and the insects develop physical features to assist in carrying pollen and a preference for nectar from certain plants so that they carry genes from one plant directly to another plant of the same species. It’s quite elegant.

So it turns out that microbes from the Earth are going into space all the time, propelled upward by winds, by volcanoes, by asteroid strikes; any number of these get carried out of the earth’s atmosphere, hitching rides on low-flying rocks that skim the atmosphere but do not stop, and other mechanisms. It is propagation through diffusion into space. The odds that any of these will end up on, say, Venus or Mars, are not zero, but they are miniscule. It would be so much better if they could hitch a ride on something actually directed toward Venus or Mars in a kind of microbial pollination.

Humans, for some unknown reason, have always had an obsession with exploring….

Buhner also notes that when a plant reaches reproductive maturity, all its resources go into producing the seed, to the profound (apparent) detriment of the plant. In fact, the plant starts looking downright shabby and used-up as it “goes to seed.”

It’s a loose set of suggestive metaphors, but it frames a fascinating thought. Perhaps our human overuse of global resources has been intended all along by the Gaian intelligence toward a specific end: namely, seeding other planets. And the more fascinating thought is this: we’ve already accomplished that task. It isn’t, and has never been, about human propagation. We are merely the pollinator species — the husk around the seed. Our purpose has always been to spread the Gaian seed to other worlds, a seed which is, at root, microbial.

Humans have sent probes to the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its moons, and various asteroids. We’ve attached to, or attempted to attach to, various comets, some of which will return to dark objects far outside the solar system, like the Oort Cloud. We’ve sent at least one spacecraft entirely out of the solar system, into interstellar space. And despite “clean room” construction environments, every one of these probes has carried huge loads of bacterial DNA and microbial life.

We humans have pollinated the solar system. We have used up or displaced tremendous amounts of Gaian resources in the effort, nearly all of which can be restored — in time. Very long reaches of time.

This suggests that our destiny as a species may now be very different from what it has been for the last hundred millennia.