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On a comment thread of a map of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, one poster was adamant that it was completely inappropriate to refer to the Holocaust experienced by those peoples at European colonists’ hands as “genocide,” making very unconvincing legalistic and semantic arguments. After a bit of back and forth, he finally got very angry, and let loose with a rejection of the very notion that there was anything about that conquest that anyone should feel in anyway ashamed of. This was my response:

After all the meaningless noise, we get to the truth: It isn’t the word you object to after all, but rather the acknowledgement of the magnitude of the historical brutality and inhumanity that went into the formation of this nation! We can’t say “genocide,” not because its role as a legal term prohibits us in casual conversation from using the word in a way in which it is commonly used (oops), not because it is an insult to Jews (oops), but because, by god, how dare we insult your ancestors and nation by emphasizing the brutality of its formation!

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? You oppose the use of the word not in SERVICE to “truth,” but in OPPOSITION to it; not because it’s too imprecise, but because it cuts too close to the bone.

We are determined to emphasize, and you are determined to de-emphasize, the very real brutality of the conquest of this enormous nation and the clearing away of the indigenous population, a brutality whose magnitude is not adequately captured by ANY word. You resent the use of the strongest word available, because it gets us one step closer to a sense of the true magnitude of the inhumanity involved, rather than, as you prefer, keeping us one step further away, in the ideologically convenient haze of historical semi-amnesia.

You don’t want to own the past because you DO want to own the present and future. The more we acknowledge the brutality of the past, the less free we are to continue it. That’s what this is all about: A battle of narratives, whether to be the jingoist chauvinists we have too long been and too many want us to remain, continuing to blithely trample on humanity while surrounded by the arrogant and self-serving halos of “American exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny,” or to be a people aspiring to true greatness of spirit and consciousness, recognizing without diminution the errors of the past in service to doing better in the present and the future.

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Writers and rebels, earnest young activists, starry-eyed romantics and unrequited lovers all have one thing in common: They yearn. Yearning, untempered by reason and humor, is pathological, the author of many unnecessary tragedies and many lonely, painful lives. But reason, and even humor, untempered by yearning is empty and often cruel, the stuff of a heartless and oppressive existence. Yearning is pain, but its absence is not pleasure; it’s absence is soullessness.

The early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber wrote much about the rationalization of society, its evolutionary force, its greater efficiencies, but also the trap that it sets for us. It is, Weber said, an iron cage, from which we cannot escape. Like the people caught in the cogs of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the savage trapped in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or McMurphy lobotomized as he flew over Ken Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest, the machine of society eats us alive.

But these all emphasize how that oppressive force is imposed from without, at most glancingly alluding to the way in which it is accepted from within. The Frankfurt School of Sociology, synthesizing Weber, Marx and Freud, and perhaps a touch of Sartre as well, into something richer and more insightful than any of their paradigms were on their own, came closest to focusing on this dynamic, on this internalization of the seductively oppressive machine which envelopes us. But, if anything, they erred by underestimating its real benefits, and the difficulty of preserving those benefits while minimizing its spiritual costs.

The machine is neither bad nor good in and of itself. It is a robust producer of wealth, in ways that evaporate if that machine is dismantled. But without spiritual and emotional yearning to give that machine its soul, the comfort it offers is the comfort of a living death.

Long before authors and philosophers shined their light on the machine which encompasses us, they shined their light on the poetry of our existence. Humanity’s first epic stories, indeed, our first philosophies, were epic poems, with loving and angry gods favoring and disfavoring our struggling heroes, magic and monsters enchanting and challenging them, glory or horrible failure always in the balance, neither certain, either one possible.

The Hercules we’ve forgotten in our Disneyfied distillation of world folklore and mythology was a violent hot-head who murdered his entire family in a fit of divinely-imposed rage and died in horrible agony by donning a poisoned cloak. And yet he was one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. Heroes before the machine weren’t sanitized human beings who we loved because we wrote them without flaws, but rather were yearning human beings trapped in the passions of existence, who we loved despite their flaws.

This classical humanism, celebrating the complex beauty of human existence, was reborn in the Renaissance, after Europe’s Medieval excursion into a world imaginarily reduced to saints and sinners, nobles and peasants, chivalrous knights and infidel villains. Shakespeare knew that all the world’s a stage, and we but actors upon it. He knew that we were just spirits, and that our cloud-capped towers, gorgeous palaces, and solemn temples all appear and disappear in a dance of our creation and time’s destruction.

Of course, in every time and place there is, in reality, a bit of both forces at work, the forces of repression and the forces of liberation, the former sometimes co-opting the latter’s name (as in our own current time and place). There are always those engaged in the dance of consciousness and aspiration, and always those engaged in the implicit opposition to it. But a time and place, a culture, is defined by the balance among these two, by which is more honored and which is more reviled.

The real project of modernity, the real goal of progress, is not to honor one and revile the other, but rather to appreciate the value of each, and the best ways to articulate the two. Strange as it may sound, repression isn’t all bad and poetry isn’t all good, but, though we don’t understand that, we still manage to err on the side of too much repression and too little poetry.

I contrast “repression” with “poetry” rather than “liberty” because liberty, real liberty, is a function of a blend of repression and poetry, not the complete absence of either. I am not now using the word “liberty” in the narrow political sense born of the late 18th century Enlightenment era political revolutions, but rather in the sense of the liberation of the human spirit from the shackles that we impose on it. Ironically, that narrowly defined political “liberty” has evolved into an ideology which stands largely in opposition to that more profound spiritual liberation, a vehicle of spiritual repression rather than of spiritual liberation, negating what should and could be the ultimate goal of our existence, insisting on the contraction of human consciousness and the dominance of extreme individualism rather than the ever-increasing realization of our humanity.

But that subtler, deeper liberation of the human spirit, something accomplished not just in mutual isolation, nor just in concert, but rather a bit of both, requires both the repression of mutually imposed discipline and responsibility, and the poetry of passionate yearning and a tolerant appreciation of one another’s humanity.

Though our prevalent ideology rhetorically dismisses repression as an unmitigated evil, it actually embraces it in practice as an unmitigated good, for we live in a time and place that smirks at the poetry of life, and believes only in the machine. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing the government, but the two are far from synonymous, government sometimes counterbalancing other parts of the machine in ways which reduce its oppressiveness. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing corporate capitalism, but those two, as well, are far from synonymous, corporate capitalism being a vital part of the drama of life, and the government we invoke to oppose it really not all that poetic itself.

And there are those who think they oppose the machine by belonging to enterprises, often nonprofits, that work toward reform, but, unless their minds liberate themselves from the machine as well, unless they appreciate the value of yearning and the poetry of life, they, too, are trying to change the machine by being the machine, and the changes, though they may be beneficial, will not be revolutionary. 

But to the extent that all of these sectors do comprise aspects of the machine, that does not mean that our duty is to oppose them. Our duty, rather, is to make them all more subservient to our souls, to our poetry, to our spiritual and emotional yearnings. We do not cure the machine by being the machine; we do not humanize one part merely by championing an equally dehumanized counterpart. And to do that, to champion more poetry to invigorate and humanize the machine on which we depend and which we should not strive to discard or dismantle, we need to be conscious of the ways in which our current algorithms, our current methodologies, serve efficiency at the expense of imagination, and, by doing so, actually reduce efficiency in the process.

The poetry of life isn’t just a necessary component of our humanity; it’s also a contributing factor to our efficiency and effectiveness. Weber’s iron cage of rationality presupposed that ever-increasing rationality, in the sense of an ever-more machine-like existence, is an unstoppable evolutionary force because it produces ever-increasing efficiency, but we’ve seen much evidence that there is a point of diminishing returns, a point at which more liberation of human imaginations yields more productive outcomes, and too much regimentation diminishes rather than increases the full realization of even our narrow economic potential, let alone our human potential more broadly conceived.

We waste our valuable human resources, our valuable consciousness, by assigning only those who satisfy our check lists of qualifications to the tasks to which those checklists apply, and relegating those who are less well regimented to the margins of society, where their often extraordinary potential is simply wasted, and their lives unfulfilled. Businesses and nonprofits, enterprises of all sorts, need to look beyond their checklists, need to look beyond the machine of which they are a part, and consider the less easily reducible qualities that some could bring to their endeavors. The gains in productivity and creativity would be enormous.

The poetry of life is a value too little considered, too poorly understood, too infrequently invoked and cultivated. It cannot replace the machine, for poetry does not put food on the table. But the machine cannot replace it, for mere economic production does not satisfy the yearnings of the heart and soul. Nor does economic production achieve maximum efficiency when the poetry of our lives is completely disregarded, for that poetry, that imaginative, yearning, passionate aspect of who and what we are, is a creative force, one which has practical implications and benefits when harnessed to that purpose.

We do not exist merely to exist. Our consciousness allows us to pursue purpose, and that purpose can and should be more than mere prosperity, mere political liberty, mere participation in the rationalized mechanisms of our collective existence. The growth of our consciousness, of our compassion, of our wisdom, and of our ability to take care of one another and offer one another opportunities to yearn meaningfully and functionally, to sustain ourselves both materially and emotionally, to discover the full depth and breadth of our humanity, is something truly worth living for.

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A post on (former Denver mayoral candidate and current Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President) James Mejia’s Facebook page about a drunk driver totaling his parked car reminded me of my similar experience about nine and a half years ago, and the lesson I learned from it about the moral and ethical deficiency that comes from the commodification of responsibility.

This essay forms a counterbalance to my essay on Political Market Instruments, which was more favorable toward another form of commodification of responsibility: the commodification of collective or shared responsibilities that serves the purpose of addressing the collective action problems involved. The potential benefits of some degree of commodification of shared responsibilities is that it converts the burden of meeting them into a monetarily lucrative one, and allocates that burden according to who can best bear it, transforming the value of meeting it into a tradable commodity. The commodification of personal responsibility, conversely, serves to insulate the individual from the moral or ethical dimensions of their obligation, reducing it to a market transaction in which an undue burden can fall on an innocent victim of another’s error.

When my wife and I moved to Colorado, we stayed with friends in Lakewood while looking for an apartment, our car parked on a quiet residential street. In the wee hours of the morning we all heard a commotion, and discovered a drunk driver had totaled my old but reliable Plymouth. State Farm, the young drunk driver’s father’s insurance company, tried to low-ball me (not considering the value of work done in Mexico for which I had no receipts, for instance, and offering me a settlement of about $1000, which was insufficient to buy a running car to replace the one I had), it being inherent to their business plan to try to pay the least possible, despite the fact that, morally and ethically, when a drunk driver totals your parked car, they really have a pretty unambiguous responsibility to make sure they make it completely right.

To the father’s enormous credit, when I wrote him a nice note about my predicament, he kicked in an extra $1000! So, in this particular instance, the outcome was a model of an individual taking personal responsibility despite the commodification of that responsibility insulating him from it. But it’s clear that that is exceptional, that the norm is to let the insurance company handle it, and that voluntarily assuming the moral responsibility which the insurance company insures people against is a rare occurrence. (In fact, the father mentioned in his reply to me that virtually everyone he knew counseled him to let the insurance company handle it.)

The system could certainly be tweaked to diminish this defect, without either eliminating the indispensible service of insurance or making its cost exorbitant. One way to diminish it, for instance, would be, in circumstances of absolute responsibility by one party for a harm suffered by another, a requirement that insurance companies accept the highest independent estimate of the value of the property destroyed (with perhaps some government certification of the those qualified to make such assessments, to prevent collusion between victims and those doing the assessments), since the injured party, morally and ethically, should get “the benefit of the doubt.” In general, when one person has an unambiguous moral responsibility to make another whole after inflicting some injury on them, their insurance company covering such liability must be held to the same moral standard that society would hold the individual. That is not currently the case.

Of course, we do have a recourse in place to ensure this result: Legal action. Unfortunately, legal action comes at a a cost to all involved, in time, stress, risk, and just general imposition. It is expensive, a form of transaction costs which get in the way of arriving at optimal solutions by making the process of arriving at them more costly than the benefits of arriving at them. There is also, in this case, grossly unequal institutional power between the insurance company and the individual challenging it, with the resources the insurance company has at its disposal to defend against legal action far outstripping the resources the individual has at his or her disposal (not to mention that accessing legal counsel may impose a cost on that individual that that individual should not have to bear.) Therefore, whenever possible, we, as a society, should prefer, whenever possible, to implement more seamless, costless mechanisms to arrive at optimal outcomes.

The commodification of responsibility, whether of the collective responsibility commodified by Political Market Instruments, or of the personal responsibility commodified by liability insurance, is not necessarily a bad thing. We only need to be careful that we are not erasing, or insulating the individual or collective from, any portion of that responsibility in the process.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Schede (Scheherazade) and Buttercup; Love at first sight.

I’ve been sleeping on the floor in the hallway outside the kitchen for the past week, on a pile of blankets that do not add up to a mattress. My almost-eight-year-old daughter, Scheherazade (whose nickname is pronounced “sheh-DAY”), joined me one night, and fared far better than me, which is a testament to the greater resilience of an almost-eight-year-old than an almost-fifty-two-year-old (our birthdays are a day apart, or, more precisely, one day less than 44 years apart).

The reason for this unenthusiastic return to something similar to the childhood wonders of camping out under blanket tents held up by encyclopedias (from the days when encyclopedias were big fat books rather than skinny little disks) was not nostalgia, nor a fight with my wife, but rather a new puppy named Buttercup. Buttercup is a rescue puppy from Texas, apparently brought up to Colorado in a great puppy drive, perhaps with puppyboys on stick horses rounding them up as they made the treacherous trek northward to their new ranches…. Or maybe they were transported in some modern vehicle that imposes less of a burden on the puppies themselves. Probably something more like the latter.

The puppy loves us, and we love her. She loves us so much that she can’t stand to be parted from us for the night, and we can’t stand to let her roam free in the more comfortable portions of the house where I would prefer to sleep but we’d all prefer for her not to…, you know, do what puppies do. My wife is even more adamant than Schede or me that Buttercup not be allowed to turn our house into a puppified den of odors and stains, though I think her love of the puppy is softening her fear of the inevitable gradual contamination of our indoor (and backyard) environment.

And, being the chivalrous lover of puppies and children that I am, I am the family member elected by unanimous mutual spontaneous consensus among the other two human-language-speaking members (as I seem always to be in such circumstances), and possibly by the one non-human-language-speaking member as well, to sleep on a pile of blankets in a narrow hallway outside the toddler gates containing our lonely little puppy in her linoleum tiled kitchen.

My wife Lolis, Buttercup, myself, and Scheherazade

It’s a happy duty to perform, uncomfortable sleep and morning aches not withstanding. There’s something about a furry little critter wanting and needing your attention that more than off-sets the minor inconveniences involved. And I firmly believe that every child should have a pet, preferably a dog (and certainly something more than a goldfish or a gerbil). It’s a chance to learn to love, and to care about others, in ways that children aren’t likely to learn in their relationship with parents they know are there to protect and nurture them. In other words, nothing is more humanizing than having someone who depends on you, and whom you love enough to ensure that they always can.

 I’ve always been a bit intrigued by the human-pet relationship (because, of course, I’m a little bit intrigued by most everything). In some ways, it resembles slavery, with the animal being the property of the “owner,” and the owner lording it over the animal (“NO! SIT! COME!”). There was a time in my youth when I tended to consider it immoral for this reason.

But I have since come to see the world in a more nuanced light, and recognize that this is a type of relationship that has evolved over millenia, like many other symbiotic relationships in nature, and offers many mutual advantages to the species and creatures involved. Those animals, even wild ones confined to zoos, arguably have a pretty good deal, at least if the zoo is a particularly good one. It’s nice to be able to bask in the sun without worrying about predators, and to enjoy a meal that you can rely on. Of course, as to wild animals in captivity, a strong counterargument can be made as well, that their lives have simply been reduced in quality for our benefit, that they live most fully in the wild, predators and all.

But domestic and domesticated animals fall into a different category altogether: Their existence as species, as we currently know them, is a function of their having been domesticated. Dogs, in fact (according to what I believe is the most well-respected modern theory), domesticated themselves, by hanging around pre-historic human garbage dumps. In a sense, then, they made the overture, that humans accepted, to form an interspecies partnership, one which both sides seem to enjoy and benefit from.

I know that I’m benefiting from this one. Buttercup is a sweet and lovable little bundle of warm puppydom, a bouncing, slipping and sliding, shoelace pouncing, tail-wagging, hand-chewing source of joy and laughter. And I know that by adopting her into our family I owe her a happy and healthy life, to the fullest extent of my ability to provide it. It’s a small price to pay for such a rich source of the one thing there’s just never enough of.

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Of the many ideological debates we have, what we do least often and least well is to dig beneath the surface of conflicting ideologies and clearly identify the underlying values and attitudes informing them. Even those who adhere to a particular ideology are often unaware of what is at its core when you peal back enough layers of the onion. And that is how the rise of vicious and inhumane ideologies is possible, how it circumvents the cognitive dissonance imposed by countervailing moralities. Those who participate in that rise are either convinced that they are participating in something just and right, or have simply managed not to measure their beliefs by any moral standard.

There is nothing historically exceptional about viciousness and inhumanity. It is not the occasional violation of a norm of rational goodwill dominating our lives, but rather at least as potent a force, erupting into orgies of mass violence at frequent intervals around the world, but also ever-present in every society, percolating below the surface, sometimes bubbling upward and gaining force. America today is in such a moment of its history, allowing a vicious and inhumane attitude to gain prominence, to dominate public discourse and public policy formation.

Nor is it only those “others” who are to blame. It is not the fault of just one ideology. There are few who have not contributed to it. Regrettably, I cannot name myself among those few, for my own defects as a human being have too often and too greatly led me to serve my own emotional gratification at the expense of this ideal of a more rational and humane society to which we all should strive.

I don’t admit that gratuitously, but rather to make two sets of  points: 1) One does not have to be perfect to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to encourage us all to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to identify the most robust ways in which we as a society are failing to strive to be better; and 2) we do not most successfully strive, as a society, to be better, to do better, by laying all blame on others and exonerating ourselves, but rather by recognizing that we ourselves are all implicated in our failings as a society, and that the ideology across the aisle we respectively blame for all public sins may have its own virtues and we our own vices.

Most importantly, like Batman and the Joker, we create each other, and if we perceive in “them” something hostile to humanity, then we also must perceive in ourselves what we do to produce and maintain that hostile force.

Having said that, and recognizing that the hostility and anger and blind ideological rage on the Left is a contributing force to our growing inhumanity (rather than, as those who engage in these follies desperately wish to believe, a bulwark against it), the inhumanity itself is funnelled through and given voice by their counterparts on the Right. While we all need to strive harder to exemplify and exude a sincere commitment to reason and compassion and universal goodwill (which is not synonymous with complete pacifism or non-confrontationalism, but which does temper the degree to which our emotional inclinations too readily embrace hostile expressions of our ideological convictions and various interests), we also all need to recognize the growing inhumanity of our nation’s most prominent and vocal contemporary ideological phenomenon.

It is not wise to reduce this to individual substantive policy positions because, to be honest, it is not automatically the case that such positions, that on the surface appear inhumane, actually are: There is sufficient nonlinearity in our social institutional ecology, and a sufficient number of counterintuitive truths, that such assumptions aren’t warranted. But beneath those policy positions, informing those policy positions, is an attitude in which this inhumanity can clearly be discerned, an attitude of extreme individualism, of indifference to the realities of social injustice and unnecessary human suffering, an attitude stripped of real compassion or concern for those less fortunate than the holder of that value, an attitude which blindly blames all those who have not fared well on the basis of an arbitrary and more-frequently-than-not erroneous assumption that people get what they deserve, that we live in a meritocracy and those who do not succeed do not succeed as a result of their own failings. It is within that attitude, rather than within any particular substantive policy positions, that our growing inhumanity as  a nation, as a people, resides.

I have written extensively on the irrationality of many of the substantive positions and ideological certainties that have grown in the soil of this essentially inhumane attitude (see, e.g., “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, The True Complexity of Property Rights, Liberty & Interdependence, Real Fiscal Conservativism, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V)). And I have alluded to the parallel between the sense of personal well-being and joy associated with striving to be compassionate, socially responsible, generous human beings on the individual level, and the similar benefits to our health as a society when we strive to institutionalize those attitudes through our pre-eminent agent of collective will and action (see, e.g., A Political Christmas Carol). Certainly, I have not been bashful about identifying our current right-wing ideological movement as one which is analogous in too many ways to that which we revile most as one of history’s worst eruptions of inhumanity (see, e.g., The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy and Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding). But we need to be explicit and urgent about what it is we are talking about: The rise of an ideology of inhumanity.

It seems to me that there was a time, not long ago, when virtually no American would argue against the proposition that we have a shared social responsibility to reduce poverty to the best of our ability. Yet today we are in the throes of an ideological passion that says that poverty is not our shared responsibility, but rather a matter of individual choice (which, as those who have any knowledge of history or economics realize, means not addressing the issue to any significant degree at all, since it involves a collective action problem which is surrendered to by eliminating the notion that we have to address it through public institutions).

Despite the abundant statistical evidence that the legacies of historical injustice are reproduced in current distributions of wealth and opportunity, this ideology simply disregards any commitment to fairness, to trying to maximize equality of opportunity by facing the simple reality that it is not currently maximized, by insisting that any use of government is an act of violence against their individual liberties. It is an ideology informed by the obscenity that those who benefit most from our current political economy have no enforceable responsibility to those who benefit least, despite the fact that the disparity between the two is many times larger than it is in any other developed nation. It is a socially disintegrative, callous, and inhumane ideology. And it is has a significant and possibly still growing hold on us as a nation.

Those of us who recognize this, and recognize how imperative it is to confront it effectively, need to divert a little of our time and energy and resources away from arguing on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, and toward arguing on a fundamental, underlying moral basis. We need to make clear in every word and gesture and deed and effort that what we perceive as wrong is not, for instance, the suggestion that we may have to reduce our long-term accumulation of public debt through some combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but rather the underlying attitude that while we are doing so our commitment to those who are most vulnerable and who are benefiting least from our social institutional arrangements still merit our collective attention and our collective commitment. We need to argue not only that this or that specific immigration reform is right or wrong, but far more emphatically that vilifying other human beings who are merely migrating toward opportunity in the only way they can is wrong, period. We need to argue not only that this law or that regrading marriage is just and right, but that burdening people with any inferior status on the basis of their sexual orientation is just one more form of bigotry, just one more way in which some human beings justify hating other human beings, and that that’s not who and what we are or who and what we want to be.

We need to define our political battles as a fight for our humanity as a nation and as a people, because it is our humanity that is very much in jeopardy. Let us be committed to respecting the dignity and rights of all human beings. Let us form our identities more inclusively rather than more exclusively. Let us always strive to do better as individuals, recognizing that that is part of what it takes to do better as a nation and a people. And let us be humble about substantive policies on complex issues (e.g., economics, energy/environmental, foreign relations), admitting that it’s a complex and subtle world, many aspects of which require in-depth analyses to arrive at well-informed conclusions. But let us never let up in our insistence that those analyses, that that  humility, be directed toward the end of benefitting humanity, because to stand for anything less is an act of violence and a cause for eternal shame.

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As the author of a fantasy fiction novel, I carefully avoided the good v. evil dichotomy, because the narratives we use to capture it routinely fail to, reinforcing oversimplifications that are already too thoroughly embedded in our consciousness. Instead, the dichotomy at the center of my mythology was Order v. Chaos, with each being in some ways “good” and in some ways “evil,” but their interplay occupying a more sublime role in the definition of our reality.

However, as I shift my focus from the descriptive to the prescriptive, from analyzing to advocating, the need to define “good” and “evil”  becomes more pressing, the reality that some notion of what serves humanity’s interests v. what doesn’t has to inform both our personal choices and our public policy preferences.

The ways in which I am about to use the word “evil,” and perhaps the ways in which I am about to use “good” as well, may seem exaggerated. The familiar meanings of the words are reserved for more extreme instances, more exceptional degrees. But the point of this essay is to emphasize what an error that really is, that those extreme instances and exceptional degrees are comprised of and catalyzed by all of the small, almost trivial, instances of “good” and “evil” that fill our daily lives and our moment-by-moment choices.

The traditional meanings of the words, and the weight given to what they represent, may also create a false impression that the identification of so much ubiquitous “evil” is oppressive, that it takes life too seriously. This customary reaction to these new, more encompassing, and more useful definitions of “good” and “evil” also has to be revised; the struggle to do “good” and avoid “evil” is a constant of life, embedded in the minutia, and therefore should be taken as much in stride as the struggle to live a healthy life, to earn a living, to be a good spouse and parent and child and friend. We should be able to laugh at ourselves when we fail, even knowing that our failures in this regard make some marginal contribution to the sum total of “evil” in the world. And we should reward our own and others’ successes, as small as they may be, with the acknowledgement due to having truly contributed to ” the good”.

In some ways, we lack the vocabulary to identify the goals that define “the good.” If I say that it is the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human happiness (and thus of acting in ways which contribute to them), someone will say that it is something more than happiness that we seek. So I’ll co-opt a word to encompass that “something more,” including all that it might entail: Well-being. That which is “good” increases the quantity, quality (breadth and depth), distribution, and sustainability of human well-being. In fact, I would say that it involves increasing the well-being, along all of the aforementioned dimensions, of all conscious entities, to the extent that they are conscious.

For those who want to apply reason and goodwill without any preconceived constraints, this creates a very functional focal point. It avoids both the insinuation of mystified abstractions into our morality, and the convenient biases of various “-centrisms,” including anthrocentrism. It takes nothing for granted, but provides a framework through which to discover a morality which serves the well-being of all those who have any consciousness with which to experience it.

“Good” is comprised of all instances of adherence to this ideal, while “evil” is comprised of all lapses. An important point of departure is to realize that we are all some mixture of the two, all defined by some successes in committing ourselves to the ideal of the “good” as I’ve defined it, as well as by some lapses. I, for instance, recognize that my definition of “good” probably recommends vegetarianism, since when large mammals are slaughtered for my dinner, it is an act which ends the well-being of a somewhat conscious creature. But I am not a vegetarian. By my own definition, I am somewhat “evil.”

“Good” and “Evil” are not a dichotomy, but rather values on a continuum, with higher values comprised of and catalyzed by the accumulation of smaller values. Every horrendous act of violence occurs in a context rather than a vacuum, a thousand trivial cruelties having fed into it. Every glorious act of generosity or nobility occurs in a context as well, one built up from numerous small acts of kindness. To reserve the concepts of “good” and “evil” only to the exceptional dramatic culminations embodied in a few, of all the mundane and trivial choices by all of us over the course of our lives, is to disregard the responsibility we all have for both, and the ways in which our mundane daily choices create both.

But this raises another counterintuitive facet of the paradigm of good v. evil that I am advocating, one which is a rather enormous departure from past conceptualizations: “Evil” is not the inexcusable extreme that our religions have tried to make it, but rather the accumulation of mere ordinary lapses. Our traditional conceptualization of evil as the cackling villain who delights in others’ suffering is both too exclusive, and too routinely disregarded as something trivial and acceptable when it in fact occurs (as it so frequently does). “Evil” is nothing more or less than the surrender to our baser natures, while “good” is nothing more or less than the on-going effort to act with more reason, humility, and goodwill instead.

We should not beat ourselves up for our lapses, or beat others up for theirs. But we should hold both ourselves and others responsible for them. They are ordinary, routine, such a pervasive part of our lives that they become normalized, accepted as just the way things are, often even justified as good clean fun. This happens because we do not want to impose on ourselves the oppression of constant recognition that many of our own actions are in fact small instances of “evil,” and so define their evilness out of existence. Or, in some cases, we recognize that it is evil, and delight in it, knowing that we lack either the will or the discipline to alter our behavior, and so instead, to reduce our cognitive dissonance, alter our judgment.

But these choices erase the opposition to “evil” within ourselves, and instead projects all opposition onto others. Instead of being forgiving of both ourselves and others, we perceive nothing to forgive in ourselves, and no need to forgive it in others. Instead of gently holding both ourselves and others to a higher standard of conduct, we hold ourselves only to the standard we have become comfortable with, and hold others to the standard we are comfortable imposing on them, never noticing the double-standards that inevitably ensue. We lapse into in-groups and out-groups, with those defined as “the other” meriting no tolerance, while both ourselves and those with whom we are identifying meriting no criticism (the classic expression of in-group/out-group biases).

These thoughts are inspired today both by the amount of vitriol directed against me in some places (currently only by people who have never met me), some of it deserved and some of it not, and by the amount of vitriol I have directed at others, usually in reaction to provocations of belligerence, but still lapses that can’t simply be defined out of existence. One thing is certain: We should never experience joy in inflicting harm on others, whether we believe they deserve it or not. And the blogosphere has become a place where recognition of that obvious truism has apparently completely evaporated. Though it may sound hyperbolic, the internet, which has accelerated and amplified so many aspects of our existence, has accelerated and amplified this ordinary “evil” as well. It is a breeding ground of our baser natures, and a place where people inflict harm on others with glee, rarely if ever pausing to be ashamed of having done so.

I am not going to become a vegetarian, at least not yet, but I am going to make a redoubled effort not to feed my own inner-demons, not to acquiesce to my own aggressive or defensive instincts in my interactions with others, particularly in this medium which is so conducive to casual brutality. And, in this moment, I feel no anger toward those who have similarly erred, with whom some mutual antagonisms have grown, who take such continual delight in trying to “take me down a peg”.

This is our true shared endeavor: To seek to lift one another up rather than knock one another down. To forgive ourselves and others quickly. To admit to our own errors more eagerly than we criticize or ridicule others for theirs. To take no delight in others’ weaknesses, but rather to help them find their strengths. To be more committed to acknowledging and addressing our own foibles, without losing our sense of humor in the process. To laugh with one another rather than at one another. To refrain from inflicting suffering as a form of entertainment. To sincerely strive to increase the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human (and animal) well-being. To be good, and to help one another be good, in our shared effort to improve the quality of our lives.

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Natural disasters and economic crises are not what plagues humanity; humanity is what plagues humanity. Humanity plagues humanity in the obvious ways, in acts of terrorism, in rogue-state escalations of tension and threats of military violence, in genocides and riots and acts of mayhem large and small. Humanity plagues humanity in contested but fairly apparent ways, by clinging to platitudes and engaging in the politics of ignorance and belligerence, of xenophobia and homophobia and a general fear of the “other”. But humanity also plagues humanity by indifference, by a lack of will, a lack of perseverance, a lack of commitment to confront the enemy within and defeat it each and every day, each and every week, each and every month, year, decade, century, and millennium. Humanity plagues humanity by failing to step up and contribute to the solution, even if never having contributed directly to the problem. Humanity plagues humanity by sitting on the sidelines and surrendering the field to the most ruthless, or the most enraged, or the best mobilized by the best funded but least altruistic. 

Not only is the Tea Party the incarnation of our own worst enemy, but so too are the vast numbers of reasonable people of goodwill who can’t be bothered to stand up to them. The Denver Post reported today on “the enthusiasm gap,” assuring us that it is real, and tht it may be decisive (http://www.denverpost.com/ci_16367341). And when the Republicans take the House, and maybe the Senate; when they undermine through an assault of defunding and riders and amendments which chip away at the modest Health Care Act we fought tooth and nail to pass, and complained bitterly about it not being enough; when they turn the clock back a few years to the days when W made most of us ashamed; all of us who weren’t excited enough to keep it from happening will be to blame.

It’s not just those who do violence to the public interest that are responsible for the damage done, but also those who sit by and let them do it. We’ve got somewhere between zero seconds and  15 days to avert a political disaster. I suggest that each and every one of us spend just about every waking moment for the next two weeks doing every last thing we can to avert it. Don’t wait for the clarity of hindsight to recognize how urgent it is. Don’t forsake hope just because it didn’t serve you breakfast in bed the day after the honeymoon; you’ll miss it desparately when it’s gone.

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