Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Enacting Democracy

The recovery of reason, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, has implications that go well past the obvious. One of the examples that comes first to mind is also directly relevant to the theme of this series of posts, and it unfolds from an experience that many people have mentioned to me in recent years:  the inability of Americans with different beliefs to sit down and have a constructive conversation about their disagreements.

Those of my readers who have tried to do this any time recently, unless they were very lucky, will have found stalemate the all but inevitable outcome. Each side trots out its favorite talking points, most of them sound bites culled from popular media of one kind or another. When these fail to have the expected effect on the other side, both sides try again, with similar results, until finally one or both sides withdraw into frustration and hostility.

Though it’s unpopular these days to point this out, both sides in the current American culture wars follow this same wearily predictable pattern. Yes, I’m familiar with the recent flurry of liberal psychologists who insist that conservatives are just too irrational to accept what liberals see as self-evident truths; I don’t buy their claims, not least because I’ve watched liberals behave with exactly the same degree of illogic in parallel situations. The problem on both sides, as I see it, is the debasement of thinking discussed in last week’s post:  the malign transformation of our inner discourse into a set of arbitrary linkages between verbal noises and simple emotional reactions. If a verbal noise produces warm fuzzy emotions in one person and cold prickly emotions in another, they are not going to be able to communicate unless both are able to get past that unthinking reaction—and getting past that unthinking reaction is something that very few Americans these days are able to do.

There’s another useful way to speak of the confusion of language in today’s America, and that’s to point out that nearly all our collective discourse has been reduced to phatic communication.  That seemingly exotic phrase describes a very familiar process:  the use of verbal noises to signal belonging and readiness for social interaction. When two men sit down in a bar here in Cumberland, and one says to the other, “So, how about them Ravens?”—we’re halfway between Baltimore and Pittsburgh, so in football season it’s either that or “How about them Steelers?”—the question needn’t indicate any interest in the team in question.  Rather, it’s a formal way to acknowledge the other person’s presence and claim membership in a community.  In a different context, the question might be “Nice weather, isn’t it?” or some other equally vacant utterance. The form varies but the content—or more precisely the lack of content—remains identical.

Much of today’s political discourse serves exactly the same purpose: it signals readiness for social interaction and claims membership in a specific political subculture, and that’s basically all it does. The verbal noises that get used for phatic communication in that context vary even with fairly small shifts across the political landscape, but if you sit in on a discussion among people who more or less agree with each other’s politics, you can usually figure out pretty quickly what the relevant warm-fuzzy and cold-prickly phrases are, and once you’ve done that you can identify yourself either as a member of the community or as an outsider with a very few words.  It’s an experiment I recommend, partly for the entertainment value, and partly because there are few better ways to learn just how much of what passes for political thought these days is a set of essentially content-free signals meant to define the boundaries of a group.

It’s really quite remarkable to watch the range of things that get turned into phatic labels for political subcultures these days. Not long ago, for example, "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" were equally content-free phatic utterances used from the middle of November to the end of the year across most of American society. These days, "Merry Christmas" has been turned into a phatic badge on the rightward end of the contemporary culture wars, and "Happy Holidays" is well on its way to becoming a phatic badge of equal force on the left.  Myself, I have no problem wishing my Christian neighbors a merry Christmas—that is what they’re celebrating, after all—and wishing a happy Hanukkah, a blessed solstice, or even a merry Krampustide to those who celebrate these other festivities; one of the benefits of being able to use language for purposes other than phatic communication is that, when a phatic noise is the right thing to use, you can choose your signals deliberately to get the results you want.

It thus probably needs to be said that there’s nothing wrong with phatic communication. Human beings are social primates, with the normal set of social primate instincts and reactions, and casual comments about football teams and the weather are no more objectionable in themselves than the grunts and postures baboons use to accomplish the same ends.  The problem here is simply a function of the fact that human language has functions other than phatic communication, and when those other functions are of crucial importance, staying stuck in phatic communication doesn’t help much.

There’s an old word, dialectic, that may be worth introducing here. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with Marxism; long before Hegel’s time, it was used for exactly the kind of communication that’s most lacking in American society these days, the kind in which two or more people sit down and say, in effect, “let us reason together.”  The ancient philosopher Plotinus described dialectic as the most precious part of philosophy, and the point’s a valid one; the ability to sit down with someone who disagrees with you about some important issue, discuss the matter, determine what common ground exists and where the differences of opinion lie, and either resolve the disagreement or sort out the questions of fact and value that have to be settled in order to resolve it, represents a high level of the practical wisdom that philosophy once upon a time was meant to cultivate.

Dialectic is a learned skill, and not a particularly difficult one, either.  Anyone who can tell the difference between a fact and an opinion, recognize a dozen or so of the standard logical fallacies, follow an argument step by step from its premises to its conclusion, and forbear from dragging the discussion down to the level of personal slurs, can pick it up promptly given a competent teacher and a little practice.  In the ancient world, dialectic was the way that philosophy was taught: a teacher would start a conversation with a couple of senior students on some specific theme, and go from there. If the dialogue that followed was any good, it wouldn’t simply rehash existing knowledge, but turn into an adventure of the mind that broke new ground; those of my readers who are familiar with the dialogues of Plato, which were meant to imitate dialectic at work, will have some sense of how this worked.

Pass beyond the circle of students around a teacher, and dialectic merges into rhetoric. That’s a word that gets plenty of use these days, nearly always with a heavy cargo of cold pricklies attached to it. Until quite recently, though, rhetoric was well understood as one of the essential skills of citizenship: the ability to stand up and explain, in clear, concise, and compelling language, what you think about a given issue. Of all the  skills of democracy, it’s hard to think of one more thoroughly misplaced than this one. How many times, dear reader, have you heard people bemoaning the fact that people in America aren’t willing to listen to one another?  There’s a reason for that, though it’s not one you’re likely to hear; it’s that next to nobody in this country seems to be able to make a cogent, sensible comment on an issue—on any issue—and then sit down, shut up, and let somebody else take the floor.  It seems to have been completely forgotten nowadays that competent rhetoric makes the listener want to keep listening.

Rhetoric is another learned skill.  There are plenty of good textbooks on the subject, ranging from ancient Greek texts to online tutorials packed with the latest buzzwords, and there’s also a voluntary organization—Toastmasters International—that teaches rhetorical skills via a network of local clubs.  It’s not particularly difficult to learn, either. The great obstacle here is the terror of public speaking that’s efficiently instilled in American schoolchildren by the culture of bullying that pervades our public schools, and that can be outgrown; I had a world-class case of it not all that many years ago, for example. The benefits to learning it are not small, and are far from limited to its crucial role in fostering democracy, but we’ll stay focused on this latter for now.

When citizens can stand up in a meeting and present their points of view in concise, thoughtful, and convincing words, democracy becomes possible. When they can’t—when the only thing that takes place in a meeting is a collection of verbal noises denoting "warm fuzzy!" and "cold prickly!" to those others present who happen to link noises and emotions in the same way the speaker does—democracy is not an option, because it’s impossible to establish any shared basis for communication between those with different emotional reactions to any given set of verbal noises.  Transform those noises into words with mutually agreed meanings and you can get past that barrier, but transforming verbal noises into words with mutually agreed meanings is a skill very few Americans know any more.

The ability to converse in a reasoned and reasonable fashion, and the ability to present a viewpoint in a clear, cogent, and convincing manner, are thus among the core skills of democratic process that have been lost by contemporary American society and need to be recovered in a hurry.  Add these to the basic capacity to reason discussed in last week’s post, and you’ve got all the foundations for democratic process. You don’t yet have anything built on those foundations, but that’s the next step.  Democratic process itself comprises one more set of skills—the skills that allow a group of  people to meet together, discuss controversial issues, and agree on a collective response to them.

Those skills are not to be found in the so-called consensus methods that have kept activists on the Left spinning their wheels uselessly for three decades now.  I trust my readers remember the flood of self-congratulatory verbiage put forth by the Occupy movement in 2011; that movement vanished with scarcely a trace once the weather turned cold last year, and despite loud claims that it would pop back up again in the spring, it did no such thing. There were a good many factors behind its failure, but among thwm was the manipulative behavior of activists who seized control of the movement using a supposedly egalitarian consensus system that placed all effective power, and a great deal of donated money, in their unelected and unsupervised hands. 

After months of circular debate that never quite managed to result in meaningful action, the vast majority of the protesters were convinced that their concerns would not be addressed and their efforts were wasted, and simply went home. This would be significant enough if it was new; in point of fact, it’s been the outcome of nearly every attempt at organized protest since the early 1980s, when the current suite of manipulative pseudoconsensus methods were adopted across most of the activist Left. If you want to know why the Left accomplished next to nothing for thirty years, while activists on the right were getting candidates into office and laws on the books, that’s an important part of the reason.

This is all the more embarrassing in that the toolkit of democratic process has been sitting on the shelf the whole time, waiting for somebody to notice that liberal and radical groups in the past used to use methods of organization that, however unfashionable they have become, actually work.  There are a lot of details, and entire books in fine print have been written on the minutiae, but the core elements of democratic process can be described in a paragraph. 

This is how it works. Everyone has an equal voice and an equal vote, but the right to participate depends on willingness to follow the rules, and members can be ejected for abusive behavior; the chairperson of the meeting, and the handful of other people needed to make it work, are elected to be impartial referees of the process, and can be overruled or removed by vote if they abuse their positions; one person speaks at a time, and the chairperson determines who speaks next; an overly longwinded speaker can be told to shut up by the chairperson, or by vote of the members; once a vote takes place on any issue, the issue can’t be brought back up for debate again without a 2/3 majority, to keep a minority with an agenda from holding the meeting hostage; and the goal of the meeting, and of every part of the process, is to come to a decision, act on it, and get home at a reasonable hour.

That’s democratic process. It evolved organically over many centuries from its origins in the rough but functional practices of Anglo-Saxon tribal assemblies, and like other organic systems, it looks much sloppier but works much better than the idealized abstractions cooked up by radicals on either end of the spectrum. It’s easy to compare it unfavorably to one or another of those idealized abstractions, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating; those who want to demonstrate that some other system is as effective as democratic process are welcome to use that other system on smaller scales, with voluntary organizations and local communities, and prove that it works. That was, after all, how democratic process emerged as the default option in the Western world: in actual practice, in an assortment of voluntary organizations, local communities, political parties and protest groups, it proved to be more effective than the alternatives.

I should say, finally, that even the most lively revival of the core skills of democracy isn’t likely to affect the political sphere much for a couple of decades at least; if nothing else, the sheer inertia of a political dialogue debased as far as ours has been will take at least a generation to pass off. The point in reviving these things now is to lay foundations for the future.  Right now, in the fading years of the Age of Abundance, it’s fairly easy to learn the things I’ve discussed in last week’s and this week’s post; the intellectual resources needed for such a project can be found readily in libraries and on the internet, and a great many people have enough spare time to invest in such a project that much could be done.  The further we proceed into resource depletion, infrastructure breakdown, environmental instability, and the rest of the bubbling witch’s brew we’ve cooked up for ourselves in the cauldron of the near future, the less true that is likely to be. Thus any effort to make democratic process and the skills that make it possible available to the far future has to begin now, or soon.

It’s a good season to keep such logic in mind.  Those of my readers who have gardens, or are planning to plant one in the new year, will already be glancing through seed catalogs and roughing out, at least in the mind’s eye, what they will need for the spring planting.  In the same sense, though on a larger and more daunting scale, those of us who are watching the stormclouds of a greater winter gather on the horizon should be thinking about what seeds they intend to store for a more distant springtime. To my mind, at least, there is no greater challenge and no more important work to be done.

In the meantime, I wish each of you a blessed solstice, or whatever other festival your own faith or traditions assign to this time of year.  Next week, when winter is here and the partying is done, we’ll have a lot more to talk about.

End of the World of the Week #53

The last months of 1999, the subject of last week’s End of the World of the Week, were in many ways just a running start for one of the most wildly popular apocalyptic dates in history, the year 2000. An astonishing number of predictions of all kinds clustered around that impressively round number. For decades beforehand, in fact, the odds were pretty good that any projection of trends in the fairly near future would begin, “In the year 2000...”

Apocalyptic prophecies were among the many notions that clustered around that year, with the widely ballyhooed Y2K bug only the most heavily publicized among them. As far back as the 13th century, the Catholic theologian Peter Olivi predicted that the Second Coming would take place that year.  Isaac Newton made the same prediction in an early prophetic work, before settling on 2060 in his later writings.  Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards, author of the famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, tapped 2000 as the beginning of Christ’s millennial reign, as did Edgar Cayce and Sun Myung Moon.

Plenty of more exotic apocalypses were pinned on the same date. Popular psychic Ruth Montgomery proclaimed that the Earth would be knocked off its axis. Melody Mehta, a less widely known figure in the same business, insisted that a comet would knock Mars’ moon Phobos out of its orbit and send it careening into the Earth. On a less cosmic scale, financial writers Peter Jay and Michael Stewart predicted economic collapse and the rise of dictatorships in Europe and the US in a book somewhat unoriginally titled Apocalypse 2000. No matter what kind of apocalypse you were in the market for, 2000 had something on offer.

Except, of course, that none of them happened. In fact, the vast majority of all the predictions made for the year 2000, from the most exotic to the the most prosaic, landed with a thud.  The fact that so many predictions clustered around that date, it turned out, showed only that when people try to predict the future, some dates are more popular than others.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Leo said...
Explains why they teach public speaking here in schools. Each year we have to do at least one oral presentation (in standard English). Probably not effective enough, but at least its there.

The rise of democracry from small and local organisations is sign in its favour, afterall localisation and decentrialisation are whats expected.

I'm not entirely sure what Machiavelli means when hetalks about corruption in cities and republics, but i'm sure that the political debasment of America counts. Fixing that and restoring the virtues/skills of Democracy, its a good start.

Also, i've put up the first post on Indonesian Migration.

Not the last post, i've got some things to go through first.

A Blessed Solstice to you and your family.

12/19/12, 10:10 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Wishing you and Sara a blessed solstice!

A while back I quit a local volunteer community group because of the infighting, time wasting, grand-standing, lack of community, speaking for half an hour when a couple of minutes would have sufficed... What I felt was that my goodwill was being used up rather than nurtured and that the group had simply forgot why they were there. Perhaps it is easier to create dissent and rabbit on about some rubbish than actually implement core goals? I don’t actually know the answer, but have thought on it a bit since. Still, I put it down - at the time - to reflecting a dysfunctional community into the sphere of the group. Your post has given me much to think about as usual.

I've also seen the occasional business where people at the top of the chain deliberately cause difficulties because it is easier than doing their paid responsibilities. It also provides them with a convenient scapegoat. This is rare though and these places of employment are to be avoided.

Still, at the same time I'm also wary of those that claim their bosses are idiots. I come across these people fairly regularly and they make me nervous as I always wonder when they’ll be saying that about myself or other people that I know!

Public speaking to a critical audience is good experience as it provides incentive to keep the presentation and/or discussion interesting! You can tell when you are losing the audience.

PS: I made an awful mistake a couple of days ago, by mentioning I don't really celebrate Christmas. This is an unfortunate way to put up a flag which says, "I'm an outsider". Oops! Won't be repeating that mistake.

Regards and I hope that you have lovely weather for the solstice activities.


12/19/12, 11:12 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Vale End of the World Week. We'll miss you when nothing happened day arrives! hehe!

Regards and thanks for including these.


12/19/12, 11:14 PM

Avery said...
I would trace the failure of American civil disobedience to 1968, when the "student movement" at Columbia occupied the school with no apparent goal other than to show how angry they were. They got a telegram from a group in Paris doing the same thing: "What do we do now?" They didn't know how to answer. Such an enormous gulf between the college students and the rest of the world, and a total failure of communication. Things have only gone downhill since then.

On the other hand, I was interested to see that dialectic is taught in Japanese elementary schools today. I've seen posters in 6th grade classrooms giving examples of facts and opinions and what sort of information can be derived from each. In those communities, and in groups like Toastmasters (which I've recently joined), people continue to pursue the goal of common ground and articulate discussion. This gives me some amount of hope.

12/19/12, 11:38 PM

Johan said...
Interesting to see you mentioning an American terror of public speaking. Over here, Americans are often considered much more capable of that than most Europeans. It's usually attributed to plenty of practise in public speaking in school.

It seems likely that one of the reasons for this is that we usually meet a rather special subset of Americans.

12/20/12, 12:41 AM

Thijs Goverde said...
Funny you should mention philosophy. I remember having discussions with my fellow students, mainly oin epistomology, that all ound down to the good old warm-fuzzy/cold-prickly business. We all had years of studying formal logic, the Platonic dialogues and the shebang under our belt, and we dug pretty deeply, but when we hit rock bottom we could only conclude that we were still standing on different rocks, scratching our heads and wondering whuy on earth the other fellow would want to stand over there.

The reason for that being, of course, that logic and reason are wonderful tools, but in the end they are just tools, just means to an end; the end you choose to pursue cannot be chosen using logic any more than a hammer can help you decide on which wall you want to hang up a picture.

Which is why rhetoric, to be convincing, must always appeal to emotions as well as to reason.
In that sense, democracy might be defined as the political system in which the rhetor who succeeds in playing on the emotions of the largest group of people gets his way.
All that being said, I certainly agree that it is much nicer and more civilised to have discussions in a thoughtful, reasoned manner.

Two minor itches I need to scratch: I think your view of the origins of democracy is needlessly anglocentric. There have been several democratic traditions that arose without any help from Anglo-Saxon tribal customs: The Icelandic Althing(Nordic, not Anglo-Saxon) the Dutch Republic (Largely arose out of local water management councils)and, you knew it was coming, Athens. There are no doubt others. Sveral of these traditions have been more or less influential in shaping democracy as we know it.

Second itch: the Platonic Dialogues. Urgh. Dialectic, my foot! Especially the later ones are mostly Socrates explaining 'his' views and everyone else going 'Oooh, by Dog, Socrates, you must be right!'

12/20/12, 1:08 AM

Cam from Oz said...
Hello John, I don't know how you keep turning out such interesting and thought provoking essays each week but I sure am thankful that you are.

I just received a copy of the EcotechnIc Future and After Oil this week (as well as some for presents). I am only half way through After Oil but the stories are diverse, well written and interesting.

Happy Solstice and thankyou for your continuing inspiration.

Cam from Oz

12/20/12, 2:37 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
Anecdotes are not data. Even so, they can be telling. Here's a telling one.

For forty years I was an active member of the faculty at an Ivy League university. Every month we had a faculty meeting, run according to Robert's Rules of Order. These rules provide that when a motion is under consideration and an amendment to that motion has been proposed, you vote first on the amendment to the motion (whether to amend it or not), and then on the motion (either in its original form or as amended, according to the previous vote). Logical, yes? Simple, yes?

In all those forty years, no matter how many times and how carefully it was explained to the faculty present at the meeting, a significant fraction of the faculty would end up thoroughly confused by this simple and logical procedure, and claim that they could not be sure what their votes "meant" under that procedure. -- And these colleagues of mine are generally ranked among the brightest of our nation! Alas, Babylon!

12/20/12, 2:37 AM

Jason said...
Side question JMG: last week you mentioned that democracy doesn't necessarily work everywhere. Why is that and where were you thinking?

John Gray has said for a long time that the Middle East isn't going to "get" democracy, and I don't believe he's changed his mind after "spring".

12/20/12, 2:41 AM

CGP said...
I agree that dialectic and rhetoric are useful skills to learn and are valuable to democracy. However, the challenge in motivating people to want to learn these skills is huge. In my experience most people do not want to actually invest their time in learning these sorts of skills and in doing the reading, research and so on required to develop a solid understanding of politics, world events, and history and so on.

For example, recently I was conversing with someone about politics and world events and her eyes literally glazed over at the mere mention of these matters. Her response was along the lines of "I do not know about these matters but I am fine, so why should I care?" Now this came from an educated person doing a PhD so she presumably has the intellectual capacity to understand these matters. What she, and so many others, lack is the motivation to actually engage with these issues. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that they really are emotionally challenging issues to grapple with for various reasons ranging from the fact that it can be deeply unsettling to truly confront the predicament of industrial civilisation, the corruption and cruelty endemic to the world today, to the fact that people in the industrial world often benefit from unsustainable, cruel and corrupt practices. These people do not have an incentive to allow their happy and comfortable bubble to be pierced by reality. Therefore, they will probably only ever bother to really engage with these issues and start to think critically after the situation has become much worse rather than taking action now as you counsel. More likely, though, is that they will embrace some demagogue or revitalisation movement that promises simple easy ways to restore the status quo. Hence, what we are really looking for is a motivated (hopefully large) minority that is willing to make sacrifices for a future that they will not necessarily see or benefit from. I guess that is the story of history though - motivated and idiosyncratic minorities making sacrifices for the greater good and posterity.

12/20/12, 2:54 AM

Odin's Raven said...
Let's hope that the seeds of democracy which you are planting will be fertile and genetically unmodified.

Have a happy Apocalypse!

12/20/12, 2:58 AM

Jeffrey said...

We are in a bit of a paradox or conundrum as I see it. Trying to identity the catalysts out there which will shift us toward a more reasoned and less emotional approach toward the democratic process, the best ones I can come up with are the very threats you mentioned; environmental instability, infrastructure breakdown, crop failures, resource depletion etc. etc. And yet the time for a reasoned approach is now.

I believe in the catalyst of consequences as breaking the impasse. I can't see any other way that we can become a more reasoned people and pull together in common interest.

It will be the horrific consequences of human overshoot that will finally make us a more reasoned people while many may say that these very consequences are what will rip us apart. I am somewhat ambiguous about this question.

In this sense I think we are putting the cart before the horse if we think we can head toward a more reasoned governance without the catalytic effect of these consequences.

Those of us that can recognize this process and break the impasse before the consequences happen are certainly at an advantage but I fear that this phatic communication will remain dominant and will not break without the systemic breakdown and consequences of oversoot acting as a catalyst to bring us to reason.

12/20/12, 5:00 AM

Spirited Raven said...
JMG, another excellent and very much appreciated offering. I'm involved with a group here in upstate NY trying to effect a ban on hydro fracking drilling on the township level. For many of us this our first true foray into participatory democracy. And from the reaction of the old men sitting on our town board, theirs as well!!

Could you offer at least one resource relating to the 'rules of engagement' you so succinctly summarized?

As per usual, I am grateful for your earnest contribution!

12/20/12, 5:57 AM

João Carlos said...
I think you need create a Foundation and a Second Foundation. Hary Seldon...

12/20/12, 6:35 AM

ando said...

I guess Rhetoric and Dialetic are not big in colleges anymore, because they are not desired job skills?

Have a blessed solstice and a peaceful new year.


12/20/12, 6:46 AM

barath said...
JMG -- Are there any books you'd recommend on the subject of how to set up and maintain small-scale organizations along democratic lines that are effective in the way you describe? (And/or books that describe historical instances that have succeeded / failed.)

As a side note -- a couple of years ago I learned about New England's town meeting system that's still used in small towns (like the one I was living in). I got the sense that it really keeps the community engaged and as a result of the dialog that the town meetings enable, people don't tend to stew in their differences.

12/20/12, 6:57 AM

Robert said...
Damn right about democratic procedure versus the nonsense consensus methods that wrecked Occupy. As to the money yes I wonder what happened to it? Any organisation of that kind needs an accountable treasurer.

The three key roles are chairman, secretary and treasurer. They needn't be charismatic personalities just honest and competent. Let all those brilliant intellectuals do their stuff and be inspiring but leave the practical stuff to the practical people.

12/20/12, 7:14 AM

Brian said...
I heartily endorse your arguments for the return of reasoned discourse. I'm currently reading "Classical English Rhetoric" by Ward Farnsworth, a good, simple guide jam-packed with examples from the best English writing and speaking.

However, I take issue with your comments on the Occupy movement, which seem calculated to make it sound rather flippant.

First, the Occupy movement did not vanish "with scarcely a trace once the weather turned cold". It was brutally suppressed by the State, and it did not vanish. It is quite active in a number of areas. There are many Occupy groups, such as Strike Debt and Occupy Together, organized around the country and building a network - the kind of network that can respond quickly, such as Occupy Sandy, which has been providing relief to the victims of the storm that the State has not been able (or willing) to provide and is now organizing in the Rockaways politically to fight rapacious landlords and the government's refusal to deal with the poorer areas affected.

Is Occupy making the kind of rapid political or social changes we might like to see? No, of course not. But I find the simple fact that it exists, is functioning, and is growing, quite encouraging. While some groups at some times may be co-opted by a few folks who can use phatic discourse to seize some momentary power, the Occupy movement was learning how to recognize that and fight against it - when the militarized State forces suppressed it. They are continuing to learn. Considering that we're educated NOT to know how to combat or even recognize that sort of discourse, I find this especially encouraging.

I hope you'll give that some thought. Thanks for another great essay.

12/20/12, 7:15 AM

AA said...
I'm not sure Toastmasters helps with rhetoric -- it's exclusively about building self-confidence when addressing strangers, with a concomitant emphasis on projecting image. In other words, it's about empty packaging with no core content, whereas rhetoric is about the packaging and styling of some substantive content. Americans are generally unable to distinguish between form and content. Hence the success of such hollow and mendacious politicians as Obama.

12/20/12, 7:17 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Leo, that's good to hear. I'll check out your blog as time permits.

Cherokee, the sad thing is that the community group you left might have been able to accomplish much if its members had simply had the skills that are needed to avoid the common problems you mentioned. Not that it was your job to teach them, mind you, and once a dysfunctional pattern of leadership gets set into place in an organization, it's often impossible to pry it loose.

Avery, that's quite plausible. Congrats for joining Toastmasters, by the way!

Johan, very much so.

Thijs, remember that I'm talking about America, and thus about American democracy, which is primarily rooted in English models (with a significant contribution from Native American sources). Of course there are other models in other parts of the world. As for Plato, of course some of the late dialogues descend into lecture, and some of the early ones are little better than parody; it's a rare writer that can stay at the top of his style all through his career.

Cam, thank you!

Robert, that's far from surprising to me. Sad, but not surprising.

Jason, there are two issues here. First, the specific forms of representative democracy that evolved in western Europe and north America are culturally specific, and while the forms have been adopted elsewhere they don't always work the same way in a different culture -- I think of the various attempts to impose that system in Africa and the Middle East. Second, if the foundations I've discussed in this and the last post aren't available, any attempt at democracy is going to be more or less of a charade -- as it's increasingly become in the US.

CGP, that's why I commented in the last part of this week's post that this is not a project that will change society in the next decade or two; the glazing-over effect is one manifestation of the inertia of debased thinking I mentioned. I don't expect to reach a large minority, either -- a modestly sized one would be enough, as it has been so often in the past.

Raven, that's the plan. Have a happy Nothing Happened Day!

12/20/12, 7:33 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Jeffrey, but those who want to get past phatic communication need to get to work learning the skills now, so that they've got the toolkit solidly in hand before it's needed. The logic here is the same as the logic behind the Green Wizards project: it's a lot easier and more practical to learn the skills you need now, when you don't yet have to rely on them for survival!

Spirited, find out what version of the Rules of Order your town board uses; it's probably Robert's, but there are a few other options. That's the bible of democratic process. Learn it inside and out, and ask yourself at every step along the way, "What is this meant to facilitate or forestall?" Then you'll be ready to roll.

João Carlos, I wish I had that kind of funding!

Ando, exactly. Our universities these days have abandoned education in favor of job training, generally for jobs that don't exist.

Barath, up through the Sixties there was a flurry of books with titles like "How To Run A Meeting," which were easy introductions to democratic process and got you ready for Robert's Rules of Order. I'll have to see what can be found online these days.

Robert, er, I let your comment through despite the profanity; please tone it down next time. As for the content, exactly.

Brian, "brutally suppressed"? The kind of treatment that caused Occupy to crumple didn't faze the protesters in Tahrir Square, to name only one example. More broadly, it's true that there are still small groups of activists waving the Occupy banner and doing things that don't expose how few people actually support them, which is probably a good idea. Still, the dreams of a mass movement so loudly proclaimed in 2011 have turned out to be empty wind -- and the manipulative pseudoconsensus methods imposed by activists on the rest of the participants are a very large part of the reason why.

12/20/12, 7:45 AM

John Michael Greer said...
AA, are you actually familiar with the Toastmasters program? That's certainly not my impression -- while the confidence-building exercises are important, to help people get past the terror of public speaking I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of work on communication methods and rhetorical forms later on. It's precisely because so few people have that latter background that we get the sock puppet politics we have today.

12/20/12, 7:48 AM

AA said...
My wife was a member of Toastmasters for a year. But this is out here in the sticks (Minnesota). Perhaps the best way to learn debating skills today is the school debating societies (which exist in some of the better private schools).

As you indicate, there are good books on rhetoric available -- I've slowly built my own collection over the years. The problem with rhetoric is that it's not only about effective communication but also about deliberately making a certain impact on the listener. It can be called low-tech propaganda, which has been largely supplanted by the propaganda and disinformation our current technology makes possible.

En passant, and perhaps only tangentially related to your theses, I might recommend Gerald Graff's "Clueless in Academe," which explores the chasm between the way academic converse and argue versus the way their undergrad students do.

12/20/12, 8:13 AM

Steve Morgan said...
I've done the phatic outsider experiment plenty of times, but mostly it's been by accident. For several years I'd find myself in groups whose members aligned politically with me, and occasionally the topic would turn to politics. Someone would bring up a few phatic verses, and I'd mistake them for points worth discussing or debating. It took me a while to realize why some people thought I was a nice guy but couldn't stand to talk politics with me; they were looking for validation that they were among allies, and I thought that they wanted to discuss or debate issues. One of the most poignant was a bus ride with lefty get-out-the-vote activists (mostly college students) years ago, when someone made a comment about how people on the right fear "the gay agenda." Everyone laughed, and I asked what "the gay agenda" was, thinking someone would bring up civil rights, equal protection, or the like. Instead I got blank stares, turned shoulders, and a noticeable chill.

Ah well, it's nice to have that mystery cleared up a bit. Best wishes for a joyful Winternight, and I'm looking forward to the next batch of good things to discuss and reflect on.

12/20/12, 8:30 AM

John Roth said...
I think I'm looking at Occupy from a different perspective. It managed to inject the phrase 1% into the public discourse and the fact that some of the groups wised up to the way the activists were taking over is another good sign. I'm tempted to consider grander expectations as sort of apocalyptic thinking.

Anyway, thanks for continually reminding us that progress is going to be a long slog.

12/20/12, 8:38 AM

Dan L. said...
"Yes, I’m familiar with the recent flurry of liberal psychologists who insist that conservatives are just too irrational to accept what liberals see as self-evident truths; I don’t buy their claims, not least because I’ve watched liberals behave with exactly the same degree of illogic in parallel situations."

Are you talking about the sociological research on RWAs? If so, you're either misunderstanding or misrepresenting it. Hint: RWA personalities in the Soviet Union were ardent leftists. Liberals can be RWAs but objectively in the USA there are fewer liberal RWAs than conservative RWAs -- for obvious reasons if you simply take the research as seriously as it warrants.

"and "Happy Holidays" is well on its way to becoming a phatic badge of equal force on the left."

I've seen no evidence of this and almost everyone I know is a liberal. Have you been watching O'Reilly Factor or something?

"that movement vanished with scarcely a trace once the weather turned cold last year, and despite loud claims that it would pop back up again in the spring, it did no such thing."

Only if you take "Occupy" to mean sitting in a park with a bunch of hippies and anarchists. The Occupy movement has been doing lots of stuff since then. You can argue that they haven't been doing anything useful, but arguing that the movement simply disappeared flies in the face of the evidence on the ground.

Agree with the general thesis but try to keep it honest. You're really starting to seem to strike the same pose of false moderation that's becoming so popular in political discourse these days.

12/20/12, 8:40 AM

Richard Larson said...
Only one day left! :-)

Perhaps, its quite natual, the politics of the left and right have just made a simple business deicision in using phatic communication to get elected. Afterall, and no matter what business you are in, the costs are just as big a number as the revenue. Speaking strictly in terms of the political parties here, and not the pseudo-government/money making enterprise.

Those in a position to reap the winning rewards will have more profit if they can harness their particular electorate on the cheap.

If these people were confronted by 50,000 educated and finely-tuned practicing electorate - every listening session - things might change. At least this is your hope?

I continue to think this is a lost cause, but I 'spose anything can happen...

Bought a lot of seeds late summer at a steep discount, I'll test them out before committing to them. Otherwise, I am going to add to my fruit tree and berry bush wild back yard!

12/20/12, 8:50 AM

Justin Kase said...
I agree mostly with your points, but think it will be much longer than twenty years before the damage can be undone. Students are no longer taught how to think, but to believe and repeat what they are told. Few develop the ability of independent critical thinking, and they are handicapped by authoritarian information filters and propaganda in their search for truth. (ie. all "facts" from government, academia, foundations, media and other corporations are suspect.) Those who are open about their critical thinking usually also have to deal with social ostracism.

IMHO It appears the oligarchy decided it can no longer afford the expense of actual debate and real opposition. The actual left and right have been reduced to heretical schisms to be eliminated in the interest of a soon to be mandatory state (world?) political religion. They have been replaced with actors who follow direction. It seems unlikely this can be turned around this side of its inevitable disaster.

12/20/12, 9:09 AM

ganv said...
Thanks for another outstanding example of excellent rhetoric about substantial ideas.

Your essay made me think about why democratic community organizations have been so greatly diminished, and I suspect it has a lot to do with the rise of businesses to run many of the civic spaces in our society. The real competitor to democratic process may not be 'those idealized abstractions'. It may be corporate profit maximization. In the short run, democratic process seems to be losing, but I agree with you that in the long run democratic process will remain as one of the most effective, and essentially the only egalitarian way to organize people.

One other thing related to how we got into our 'confusion of language', which as your last post showed is significantly worse than 150 years ago. A major role has been played by the post-modern over reaction against positivism. The positivists tried to make language about scientific precision. The post-modernists correctly showed that this can't work, but went too far and left us with toxic idea likes 'all language is a tool for exerting power over others.' Many on the academic left don't like to admit it, but their excesses in the past 50 years have played a big role in creating our modern inability to communicate.

12/20/12, 9:12 AM

Joel Caris said...

Spot on. Back during Howard Dean's run in the 2004 Democratic primary, I started following liberal political blogs. I became immersed in the world for awhile but eventually burned out on politics and then--over the last few years, as I started to farm--began to discount the utility or worth of American politics. I still consider myself liberal in many regards, but I no longer live and die by the size of the Democratic caucus in Washington D.C.--and, indeed, no longer think it much matters at all.

But I do still visit some of the political blogs that I so fervently followed in the past, and it's fascinating to view them with a somewhat more detached eye. Daily Kos is probably the biggest liberal political blog on the internet and one that allows any and all of its users to publish their own posts. What's absolutely fascinating about it is how often you can find people there pillorying conservatives for doing the exact same things that they themselves do.

A sort of diary that regularly pops up on the blog is of someone going to a conservative blog or news site, finding some sort of silly or irrational behavior or argument, and posting it for group mockery. Many commenters then pat themselves on the back, noting how much more reasonable, logical, realistic and fair they are than their conservative counterparts.

Of course, the hilarious (and depressing) part is that for every one of those diaries casting stones upon conservative behavior, you can easily find numerous examples of the exact same behavior reflected through a liberal prism on that very site. It's all the same behavior; it's just the terms and signals that are different.

Of course, I could see that far, far better once I was able to distance myself from my emotional investments in the political scene being discussed. At that point, the parallels became obvious and glaring.

(continued below . . . )

12/20/12, 9:17 AM

Joel Caris said...
(. . . continued from above)

It's fascinating, too, to see an issue that's not universally agreed upon come up for discussion on such a site. There, too, the phatic communication becomes evident. I remember posting a diary once about raw milk--which is a very contentious issue, oddly enough. It was pro-raw milk, but it was more in the vein of me writing about why I'll pay extra for raw milk as opposed to regular milk, looking more than anything at the system behind the production of raw milk in comparison to pasteurized milk and what that supports (such as small farms, local communities, care and individuality.) A number of people there wanted my head for arguing in favor of raw milk and believed me an anti-science nut attempting to get others killed. Another group proclaimed my support the gospel truth and argued vociferously against pasteurization and large, industrial dairies. Both sides grouped together and mostly clung to a set of arguments that they wrote over and over again in increasingly exasperated textual tones. I attempted to respond reasonably to both sides, though I did at times slip into the pro-raw milk group, seeing as I do have strong opinions on the issue. Still, it was fascinating to see the same talking points coming from different people, the intractability, the my-life-depends-on-this nature of the arguments. Everyone talked past each other and few people attempted to find common ground. In fact, common ground seemed almost a blasphemy, as though ceding any agreement was a moral failing.

And all about raw milk! I mean, this hardly seems the greatest issue facing us. But what I find so fascinating--especially in the context of your post--is the different ways you can see this phatic communication taking place. There's the macro of liberal against conservative and then there's the micro of disagreements within the liberal world. But they all take on the same form and sets of behavior, and they're repeated on both sides. Occasionally someone may try to break in with an attempt at critical thinking and actual discussions, but it mostly boils down to finding your group and your argument and sticking with it, no matter what anyone else says.

I've been guilty of it myself far more often than I care to say. I thank you for the last few posts, as they've provided me a number of tools to apply to my own communication behaviors. I'm going to be far more aware of my own phatic communication tendencies from here on out.


P.S. Last week, I mentioned picking up an abridged version of Toynbee's A Study of History. As you inquired, it is indeed the 1972 illustrated edition. Glad to hear you like it. I've only read the foreword so far, but I'm looking forward to the full text.

12/20/12, 9:17 AM

Loch Wade said...
Yes critical thinking, dialectical speaking skills and a working knowledge of democratic processes are desperately needed and in short supply.

The difficulty, even for people who claim to have such skills, is that each of us inhabits a reality of one.

Anyone who is married knows this is true.

It has been my experience that the only way to bridge the gap is to have a compassionate viewpoint of the other person's alien reality.

The phatic conversations you mention are an attempt to bridge the gaps between realities. It's a stopgap at best, and once beyond the banalities of reality overlap, who agrees on anything at all?

If, however, I am willing to accept that you have a legitimate right to your own reality, and if I can say to myself, "John's reality is indeed bizarre, but not only does he have a right to it, but it is just as true as mine, even if I do not understand it at all," then maybe we can have a conversation.

This is what the Founders meant to the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It's the right to inhabit one's own hall of mirrors, and not someone else's.

State and religious ideologies however, do not recognize this right, and this is the genesis of thoughtcrime.

Our current devolution in America leads inexorably towards thoughtcrime. In the age of indefinite detention, all we can do is develop these skill son a personal level- the chances we will be detained for non-approved reality grows every single day. Hopefully, in the depths of the gulag, we will, paradoxically, be better able to engage in dialectical conversations because all possibility of there being any consequences will have been removed by the State.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

12/20/12, 9:29 AM

SLClaire said...
I enjoyed your very thoughtful post that is itself a model for what you are teaching. Thank you for being a teacher; it's a role I have great respect for.

From 1995 till 2001 I was involved with and eventually was secretary of a very small local nonprofit organization that claimed to be using the consensus process. I was not impressed with the results. The major project the organization was formed for, to develop a set of indicators for the region, never did get accomplished. I think the poorly-conducted meetings were one factor in the indicators remaining undeveloped, though there were others as well.

On the other hand, another very small local nonprofit group for which I was president and chaired the meetings for a total of eight years actually did accomplish its purposes and did so more effectively as we all became better at the kind of meeting process that you describe. Meeting attendance rose as our meeting process became more powerful and more time-effective as well. I wasn't always comfortable as meeting chair - it did sometimes involve reining in members who wanted to monopolize the time, a process I found emotionally draining - but I got better over time at that aspect as well. I also did my best to identify and train a replacement for me, and she's doing a very good job, I think better than I did.

Oddly, even though I'm quite introverted, I have always enjoyed speaking in public and crafting an effective presentation. That skill has come in very handy many times! It's a skill well worth acquiring for those who don't already have it.

12/20/12, 9:33 AM

Mark said...
Dialectic rather than phatic communication is certainly valuable, but it has its limits. My father is a conservative Republican and I am a reluctant liberal Democrat. (I'd rather be something like a communitarian socialist, but that isn't really an option in our system.) When I was young, my father and I used to throw phatic fuzzies and pricklies at each other until we both cut off communication angry and frustrated. Eventually, we came to see that that kind of exchange was fruitless and actually quite boring. Recently, we have been able to engage in something like dialectics. We agree on things like the importance of community building, the problems with some aspects of popular culture, and the nefarious influence of money in politics (though he thinks it is mainly union money that is harmful while I think it is mainly rich people's money that is harmful). However, we always reach a point where we cannot agree because we have fundamentally different values. He believes that there is no acceptable role for any unit of government beyond policing, judiciary, and military functions. He believes that the United States should dominate the world militarily. Economically, he believes that every family should be completely self-reliant and should even be allowed to starve to death if they can't support themselves, though he has no problem with private charity. He feels that any contribution to another's well-being should be voluntary. By contrast, I believe that government's primary responsibility is for the well-being of its people, including their economic well-being (though I do think that government serves people better by assuring that there are useful jobs for them than by giving them handouts if they're able-bodied). I believe in minimizing government's military ambit to protecting its citizens from attack on their own territory and that government should not try to project military power globally. So on these fairly fundamental points, my father and I disagree. I don't see a way for dialectic to get around such fundamental disagreements about values.

12/20/12, 9:50 AM

Alex Boland said...
I'm not quite as pessimistic as you that if this whole project isn't done now, it won't work. Simple reason:

Television and other such technologies are the culprit. The amount of information out there and the way it's distributed means that anything that's more than a sound byte gets drowned out by noise; especially when we add in that people can be immediately taken out of context. So, less technology might mean less noise; and this whole thing might actually work out.

As for the notion of "dialectic", that helps me pin down what my issue was with the Lincoln-Douglas debates being used as an example of "better thinking skills." The vocabulary was different, and abstruse given what we're used to, but it seemed to be loaded with the same sort of phatic rhetoric; which one could see with Douglas' use of ridicule to diminish Lincoln's position on slavery.

12/20/12, 9:53 AM

escapefromwisconsin said...
I’m a bit skeptical that the average man was ever that much a master of the skills described herein; I suspect there has always been acrimony based on emotion amongst the general public to some extent, but it’s worth noting that the people who sat at the top of society did possess them thanks to an education in the classical trivuium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Only “educated” people were elected in the halls of power, and education in those days meant the trivium. This, along with a certain sense of noblesse oblige among the elite, meant that at the end of the day politicians of both stripes ended up in compromises that are all but impossible to imagine today. How many times have we heard about the death of “civility” among our two warring parties, and how recent it is? Rather than “educated” men in the halls of power today (it is representative democracy, after all), political paymasters have instead funded radical Jacobins with no such training who brook no compromise and see politics merely as war by other means. They are backed by a massive propaganda apparatus modeled, ironically enough, on those the left had initially developed, and co-opted by authoritarian movements in Europe.

As to the sad state of affairs described above, there is no space here to discuss the death of the trivium and its devolution into today’s public “schools” designed to churn out a passive obedient, homogenous consumer “product” designed for rote industrial work based on the Prussian model rather than thoughtful, individualized citizens. Readers who are not already familiar with John Taylor Gatto or Gene Odening are encouraged to use the Google machine to find out more. I suspect the trivium may make its appearance on this blog in due course.

But the fundamental question is cui bono, who benefits from this state of affairs? Who benefits from each side split into its own warring camps immersing themselves in confirmation bias where not even basic facts are agreed upon? I would suggest it benefits those with the most control over the means of information, and that is the corporate right. I would also posit that this is the real source of their success – being able to control the cognitive mindspace of the public and squelch alternatives as “unrealistic”, even alternatives which once existed in practice (such as the economy before neoliberalism). Please note, the “war on Christmas” is entirely a creation of Fox News. I suspect much of what considers itself the “left” is also controlled from this same source.

It is the foundation of modern advertising to associate products with emotional states. This was further developed by people like Edward Bernays who created the “science” of public relations. This is now how all politics in America is conducted – who is the better emotional manipulator, perfect for a nation of “consumers.” I advise you to watch campaign films available on YouTube, preferably with the sound off, to see this in action.

Happy Festivus and Merry Krampustide to all!

12/20/12, 10:02 AM

Maria said...
Great series of posts, JMG! I was at a cocktail party the other night with a bunch of middle-aged Lefties of varying types. People were commenting on how warm it had been that day, and how mild the whole month of December has been here in Little Rhody. I piped up with "See? Global warming isn't as bad as it's cracked up to be" just to see what would happen. Without fail, everyone shouted some variation on "cold pricklies!" My favorite was "I HATE global warming... but I like its effects." Nobody corrected me on my terminology, or mentioned that climate change has any effect besides being able to be out without a coat in New England in December.

Almost nobody caught what I was doing -- they were too busy participating in a contest of who can express their dislike of global warming more stridently and thereby establish moral superiority. It was rather hilarious. The one person who saw what I was doing was a young barrister from New Zealand who is working on a second law degree at Harvard. Apparently one doesn't reach that level of achievement without learning having some skills in the observation and thinking departments.

12/20/12, 10:07 AM

elsiereally said...
JMG, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading The Archdruid Report.

I wanted to comment on something that CGP wrote about the person whose eyes glaze over when discussing politics. The quote was "I do not know about these matters but I am fine, so why should I care?"

I suspect that many people are turned away from politics from the "if it bleeds, it leads" style of media reporting. Even shows like The Daily Show lead with some thoroughly depressing story about some political outrage that even Jon Stewart can't sweeten. Modern media grabs listeners by spinning worst-case scenarios.

This has gotten to the point where I've read some psychologists recommending to people suffering from depression that they detox from television news media. I suspect that a lot of this "turning away" from politics has a linkage with the state of mental health in this country. People are laboring under monstrous stresses and people don't want to engage in politics because their lives are depressing enough already, diagnosed or not.

I can't offer a solution to this problem, save for the depressed to only visit quality on-line media and television news - most of which, sadly, is located overseas.

(Side note: I have moderate depression myself; once I followed the advice above things became much better. I refuse to even watch The Daily Show, funny as it is.)

12/20/12, 10:35 AM

vera said...
A fine argument. I would add only two points. The old "chairman"-run process too has its problems, and I think in the best sense, the early consensus people were trying to come up with something less top down, less hierarchical. But then, they quickly turned their iffy solution into dogma. Sigh.

And the other thing is... democracy needs to begin over the fence, at the pub, at the card table and where ever a few people congregate and have friendly conversations... out of these informal conversations then can successfully emerge community solutions in the big meeting. It is too much to expect that wise solutions will emerge out of any large group process peopled by folks who never talk to one another any more about politics or religion.

Happy winter, everyone!

12/20/12, 11:12 AM

sgage said...
Happy Nothing Happened Day, All!

12/20/12, 11:28 AM

Justin Patrick Moore said...
Public speaking also used to be a lively form of entertainment pre-television and radio. I've gotten over some of my own public speaking jitters because of my show on the local community radio station, but they are still in need of quite a bit of sharpening.

One of my own pet projects is the exploration of the classical seven liberal arts -rhetoric and logic among them. I figure I can give myself a better education in them as a college drop out, than I could in a "university" -minus the debt. On my blog at I've sketched out a few articles for a longer series about how individuals can pursue the seven liberal arts on their own.

At the library I work at they have a wonderful series of audio books called "The Modern Scholar" on all manner of subjects. While I do dis the contemporary college system, I have no bones about listening to recorded lectures by professors who know their material. Michael C. Drout is one and his collection of lectures on rhetoric called "A Way With Words" for The Modern Scholar is a valuable introduction to the subject. For those who prefer printed material, I can recommend Farworth's English Rhetoric.

Knowing even a little bit about rhetoric can help you disengage from reacting to warm and cold fuzzies.

I've also been reading a collection of letters, translated from the Latin, of Marsilio Ficino. I think the "noise" that occured was less when written letters were the norm as opposed to the internet for long distance communication. Besides that, the epistle has a long and worthy tradition in literature in and of itself. I don't see many volumes of "the collected emails of so-and-so" on the shelf.

12/20/12, 11:46 AM

Robo said...
Here in Western New York, the standard phatic utterance used to be "how about them Bills?", but things have been so bad for the Buffalo team lately that most public discourse has faded into a glum silence that's only occasionally broken by muffled grumbles about Kodak's demise or O'Bomber's treachery.

In the responses of Maria, Alex and Escape I recognize the underlying theme of media control of the American political and social dialog. Who benefits indeed! It's a triumph of marketing that leads straight back to the Public Relations work of Edward Bernays.

American political discourse has been reduced to the substance and style of a television sports broadcast. In loud, booming voices we keep detailed score of the ongoing contest between the Red and Blue teams, Us and Them, lusting for the thrill of victory and dreading the agony of defeat. Our votes are no longer so much an expression of political choice as they are bids to be on the winning team. Nobody wants to back a loser, regardless of policy, because that makes you a loser too. Bet on the winner! Don't waste your vote!

Americans are trained from birth to seek victory and avoid defeat. If you buy the right product or support the right team you too will be a winner. The cheering championship celebrations on the big screen obscure the increasingly bleak conditions of real life for most consumers. We're no longer even afforded the dignified and responsible rank of 'citizens'.

I agree that it will take generations to regain the vocabulary and discipline necessary for democratically governed societies to flourish, at least here in the USA. Thanks again, JMG, for your continued thoughtful cultivation of the 'mindspace' that you maintain here. It's a very good start.

Happy Holidays!

12/20/12, 12:14 PM

Steve in Colorado said...
Thank you! for this one.

"The problem on both sides, as I see it, is the debasement of thinking discussed in last week’s post: the malign transformation of our inner discourse into a set of arbitrary linkages between verbal noises and simple emotional reactions. If a verbal noise produces warm fuzzy emotions in one person and cold prickly emotions in another, they are not going to be able to communicate unless both are able to get past that unthinking reaction—and getting past that unthinking reaction is something that very few Americans these days are able to do."

I see everyone do this: Liberals, conservatives, radicals, anarchists, me. "Political debate" amounts to repeating talking points gleaned from one media source or another. And this is true whether the talking points are evening news soundbites or complicated intellectual nonsense culled from The Journal of Bourgeois Grad Student Faux-European Obscurantism. The process seems to come down to: Encounter Bad Thoughts; repeat magic words until the Bad Thought dies; repeat.

I realized this in the last year-- I guess it says something that I can repeat a mental pattern over and over without noticing it! I don't know what it's like for anyone else, but for me, for a long time, encountering an idea I disagreed with would almost cause *physical pain.* I accumulated an enormous pile of smart-sounding talking points in order to scare the Bad Thoughts away, but they were all just magic beans.

So in the last year I've been trying to get away from this. I took part in the Occupy movement, but at some point I realized that I really didn't understand either the "capitalist" system I claimed to be opposing, or the "anarchist" system we proposed to replace it with. So I went out and got a pile of books on the topic. I started with The Wealth of Nations (a Harvard Classics edition, as it happens), and I worked my way through Marx (who I'd rejected entirely before) and Keynes, Von Mises and Bohm-Bawerk and Murray Rothbard. I read Lenin's "Imperialism" and Kropotkin's "Fields, Factories, and Workshops" side by side (they both propose communist alternatives in light of the development of monopoly capital at the end of the 19th century, but those alternatives are as different as night and day) and Hayek's Road to Serfdom for good measure. (Reading two authors that disagree with each other at the same time is something I highly recommend, by the way.)

The result is that I get the Cold Pricklies less, and I can more easily sit with different views. But I still regularly fall back into the mental trap of only reading things I agree with. I have to regularly force myself to go and find different perspectives, and to sit with them, rather than hurling magic words at them.

This post is becoming overlong, but one last thing: I mentioned the Occupy movement; I've also participated in a number of other activist groups and movements that apply "consensus." And I want to thank you for your criticisms of it. In my experience, the whole thing amounts to a big mask for what's really going on, which is a hierarchy structured basically like the nastiest clique in a high school. This may explain why activist movements on the left are almost always dominated by people between the ages of 18 and 24...

12/20/12, 12:23 PM

Brent Ragsdale said...
A blessed winter solstice to you also.
Thank you. I very much enjoy and appreciate the Archdruid Report. It is thought provoking and educational and has helped me grow. I hesitate to comment now because I fear that even with your amazing capacity to digest, as your site traffic grows, at some point you won’t be able to keep up. As the number of comments goes up each week, I’ve come to wondered what drives you. This post in particular gives insights into your motivation to engage and educate. You are simply modeling the kind of civil and meaningful discussion you would like to see more of. Bravo. I hope and believe your seeds of wisdom, so broadly cast, will surely bear some fruit.
It seems to me the ultimate cold prickly is to suggest unlimited growth can’t happen on a finite planet.

12/20/12, 12:37 PM

Lee said...
@ Mark

As I see it, the purpose of dialectic is not to achieve agreement about fudamental values. It's purpose is to allow indivuals and groups with disagreements to find common ground that will create functional community/government.

My father and I had a similar relationship. We were able to arive at an understanding of the others' posistion which resulted a much less contencious relationship. Neither of us changed our core values however.

12/20/12, 1:07 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
ganv wrote:

"The post-modernists . . . left us with toxic idea likes 'all language is a tool for exerting power over others.'"

This is older than post-modernism. It was a common claim back in the '40s and '50s within sectors of the "old left" in California, namely, those sectors influenced by the Communist party of that time and place. By the late '60s and the '70s it had become common property of much of the "new left," who usually had no idea of the back-story. Now it is everywhere on college campuses, on the right as well as on the left.

12/20/12, 1:19 PM

Sleisz Ádám said...
I think the conversation between people with different beliefs and opinions is crucial not only in a democracy but in every society planning to stay together. To accomplish this, they need to separate the logical consequences of reason from the unjustifiable axioms of their respective culture, religion or what have you.

If the built-in differences are not confronting directly, the parties can recognize the space of possible solutions and live together in dissensus regardless of emotions. If their very foundations are clearly on the table, they can fight each other with cold heads. But if nobody can choose, they will bath in anger and hatred without the hope of any meaning in all this. The last is paralysis and it seems the most dangerous to me. It can destroy things that are unreachable any other way.

12/20/12, 1:29 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
escapefromwisconsin wrote:

"I’m a bit skeptical that the average man was ever that much a master of the skills described herein . . ."

It depends on who counts as "the average man." One of my wife's great-great-grandfathers, Benjamin Randall Jordan, spent his life farming and doing small odd jobs a rustic town (Newfield) in Southwest Maine during the first half of the 1800's. He had less than three years of formal schooling in the town schools: reading, writing and arithmetic through the rule of four. Nonetheless, he was a clear and logical thinker, with a good command of verbal persuasion. He was also a competent poet, who was once even payed good money by another poet (one Thomas Randall) to prepare the latter's work for publication in the 1830s. We still have BRJ's library, his handwritten volumes of poetry and thoughtful essays, and the chronicle he wrote of his life. They strike me as more thoughtful and better written than many of the undergraduate essays I had to read and grade during my academic life.

You could argue, if you like, that these facts prove he was not an "average man," despite his lack of education. But he was not an uncommon man for his day and place, and that seems like what "average" should mean.

12/20/12, 1:34 PM

GuRan said...
Sir and Druid,

Your one-paragraph potted summary of democracy shows with great clarity why, provided that most of the participants are able to engage in dialectic, democracy is such a useful system: if it works properly it guarantees that the group wisdom is greater than or equal to that of the wisest individual within it.

As you've been explaining for the last couple of weeks, this is certainly not the case if the intelligent discussion doesn't happen.

Happy solstice to you and yours!

12/20/12, 3:04 PM

latheChuck said...
If you're looking for a venue to learn the practice of democracy, the governing board of a small non-profit corporation is one way to get your feet wet. I've been on (and presided over) our neighborhood swimming pool board, and my (ELCA- Lutheran) congregational council. We use Robert's Rules just to guide our way forward (not to Change The World), and though we may not always comply with the forms, they are there as a reference if looser forms threaten progress.

Whether or not you believe in God (or swimming), preserving such institutions is worth the price of admission, in both time and money. A board member may be slightly less powerful than a Congressman, but is infinitely more powerful than a couch potato. I'm not referring to the "power" to tell others what to do, but the power to combine efforts with like-minded people to accomplish things you cannot accomplish alone. It may be the power to enjoy swimming in a pool that we didn't dig, or the power to erect a building that will shelter others long after we are gone (or so I hope...).

12/20/12, 6:32 PM

Dwig said...
I don't consider consensus and democratic process as being dichotomous; in fact, in my experience, they've gone hand in hand during the most effective meetings that I remember. As a software developer for half a century, I've spent much of my professional life in meetings, mostly with small teams needing to decide what to do and/or how to do it. In such cases, a 60% majority overruling a 40% minority would indicate an unresolved issue and a threat to the result of the project -- whatever the outcome, we all not only had to live with it, but to contribute to making it a success.

In my more recent experience with a local neighborhood council, we do follow Roberts (sometimes awkwardly), and do vote on motions that represents the council's position on an issue or action to be taken. Most of the dialogue leading up to a typical vote, however, has a consensus-seeking character, and we do get unanimity fairly often. (Of course, some of Los Angeles' neighborhood councils have a rougher time, especially in neighborhoods that have deep divisions among groups. All too often in such cases, whatever process is supposed to be used gets badly corrupted.)

I should add that I'm using "consensus" in a fairly colloquial sense. If you dig below the fuzzy/prickly (delete whichever is inapplicable) connotation of the word, you find a robust topic, worth considerable exploring. Wikipedia has a healthy article (and talk page) on "Consensus decision-making", as well as one on the way it's understood and used there (Wikipedia:Consensus).

Generally, the conversations I've had with NC activists (and earlier, with my fellow software team members) have been largely free of the kind of degraded discourse described in this post. I attribute that at least in part to the large shared area of concerns, and the explicit and implicit commitments to accomplishing shared goals. I've done some reading into the work on "common pool resources" by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, and I have the impression that a similar dynamic has operated in those stakeholder-managed commons that have survived for centuries.

Based on that, I'd guess that the best situations to "plant the seeds" of effective group processes would be in places and among groups where managing a common resource over long periods of time is critical to survival. (Examples: watersheds, soils, local roads.)

@Jason: thanks for the pointer to William Irwin Thompson; I've been enjoying his essays (and those of his Lindisfarne colleagues), especially his explorations of the intersection between science and spirituality. One good takeaway I've already gotten is his reference to Jean Gebser's treatment of efficient and deficient manifestations.

12/20/12, 6:50 PM

Brother Kornhoer said...
Steve Morgan -

You asked for references about the American midwest turning into desert with increasing temperature (something our host Mr. Greer has mentioned a couple of times) - on page 29 of Mark Lynas' book _Six Degrees_, the author discusses the Sand Hills of Nebraska, which were apparently desert sand dunes as recently as the Medieval Warm Period. Lynas references Wolfe, S. et al, 2006, in the journal _The Holocene_, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 17-29, and Mangan, J. et al, 2004, in the journal _Climatic Change_, vol. 63, pp. 49-90, as sources.

12/20/12, 8:38 PM

Alice Y. said...
Thanks for this series, and I hope you have a blessed solstice, too. I'm coming from what’s probably a different perspective: reading bell hooks, Paolo Freire, Parker Palmer, to about critical thinking skills in a community context, and build democracy out of that.

It’s interesting (as usual) reading your definition of an aspect of the predicament. I previously thought that the definition of rhetoric was 'a set of manipulative tools to essentially conceal the substance of speech', similar to what you call thaumaturgy. With a different understanding, I can learn more about rhetoric.

Since I'm commenting, I hope you will be encouraged to hear that the compost heap is repelling the frost nicely, the community food-growing group have secured access to an acre of good land with a secure lockup tool store and kitchen space, a small group of friends meet to sew using a treadle machine, and my studies in bringing science home are proceeding via soap-making using my novice slide rule skills. The recent discovery of a beautiful early C20th microscope that I may get the use of is an exciting development (my professional background is in microbiology).

Coincidentally, recently I have begun studying dialectics, because I observed an excess of hostility and point-scoring in public discourse. That contrasts sharply with the sincere search for truth in company with others of different opinions, which I only recently learned is, as you state, the platonic definition of dialectics. I wonder if attending with an agenda of watching for logical errors and attempting to facilitate good thinking might provide me with the fortitude to bear the mixture of tedium and hostility in local public meetings. Perhaps I need to practice my democratic skills in the small food-growing group for a few more years before I can attempt larger public meetings again.

12/20/12, 10:02 PM

John Michael Greer said...
AA, that's why rhetoric needs to be combined with a knowledge of democratic process and dialectic, and the ability to think your way out of a wet paper bag to make a solid foundation for democracy.

Steve, it's a common experience! I got to the point of being able to do it deliberately, and with relish, only after a lot of practice and some serious training in magic.

John, the problem there is that the privileged upper middle and middle classes are now using the 1% mantra as a thoughtstopper to justify their own extravagant lifestyles. I've literally had people ask me why they should give up their SUVs when the very rich have luxury yachts, etc.

Dan, yes, I thought I'd get at least one hissy fit from the left, complete with several good examples of the arbitrary identification of verbal noises with cold pricklies I've been talking about. That phrase "false moderation," by the way, in plain English means "how dare you point out that I'm doing the same things as the people I hate?"

Richard, again, I'm not aiming for the near term. The goal is to keep the elements of functional democracy going in the hands of those few who value them, until the rubble stops bouncing a bit and new possibilities open up.

Justin, never blame on conspiracy what can be quite adequately explained by stupidity.

Ganv, that's a good point. Positivism itself did a lot of erasure of meaning, since its quest for precision ended up excluding a lot of unquantifiable but real human experiences. Still, as a survivor of a university with a bad case of postmodernism -- I still tend to think of deconstruction as what jackals do to dead lions -- I'm not going to dispute the role played by postmodernist cant in all this.

Joel, excellent! You get tonight's gold star; the key to all of this is the ability, not to mention the willingness, to apply these points to one's own thinking and speech.

Loch Wade, I'd disagree on both points. First, there's a lot more overlap between one human reality and another than you've suggested -- and I say this as someone who's been married to the same woman for 28 years; second, the unraveling of our political and religious institutions is proceeding at a pace that, as far as I can see, makes any but the most temporary of gulags a forlorn hope of would-be tyrants. Chaos rather than totalitarian control is far and away the more likely endpoint of the current trajectory.

SLClaire, exactly! I've had the same experience: groups run on a consensus basis either dissolved in endless bickering or had a covert hierarchy that could not be held accountable for its actions; groups run by democratic process tended to get things done.

12/20/12, 10:06 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Mark, the point of dialectic is not to convince the other person that you're right, or for that matter to be convinced -- though both sometimes happen. As often as not, it reveals core differences of values that cannot be reconciled. By doing that, though, it allows the participants to figure out what common ground they do have, and that in turn allows whatever projects appeal to both to be pursued jointly without constantly being slammed back into the same disagreements.

Alex, do you expect television to be gone 20 years from now? I wish I was so optimistic.

Escape, yes, we'll be talking about the trivium in due time. As for the rest, again, I'm loath to credit to conspiracy what can be more than adequately explained by stupidity.

Maria, too funny!

Elsie, I haven't had a television in the house in my adult life. That's given me hours a day to do more useful things, and I suspect it's also contributed to my emotional balance. That is to say, I think you have a point.

Vera, no argument with your latter point. As for the former, if a meeting's run according to democratic process, the chairperson isn't in a position of power -- he or she serves at the will of the meeting and can be deposed by vote if he or she gets out of line.

Sgage, that's still my favorite cartoon about the 2012 follies.

Justin, excellent! I'll have much more to say about the seven liberal arts, and possible redefinitions thereof, in a future series of posts.

Robo, that's a bleakly accurate description. In response, I recall the way a bunch of my friends and I would sneak away from the mandatory pep rallies in high school, hang out in the room where the debate club met, and find more interesting things to do with our time. It didn't stop the mindless yelling, but at least we didn't have to sit there and wait for it to finish.

Steve, okay, I don't usually award two gold stars in a single night, but I'm going to make an exception. Piling into the books to figure out what's going on behind the sound bites is a response I wish I saw much more often. As for the resemblance between consensus-run groups and high school cliques, you're spot on; the actual effect of current consensus methods is that they make it impossible to discuss, or rein in, the hierarchies that inevitably develop.

12/20/12, 10:21 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Brent, thank you! I'd like to get at least a few people to the point of realizing that the end of growth can be a warm fuzzy instead of a cold prickly...

Sleisz Ádám, exactly. When the process works, it allows differences to be brought up for discussion, recognized, and accepted, so that it's possible to go on to something else.

GuRan, precisely. You have to be able to think in order to function in a democratic system, and that's democracy's most serious flaw.

Chuck, that's excellent advice.

Dwig, in a colloquial sense, consensus is the goal of any competent user of democratic process; you want to find the options that the largest number of group members will support, with 100% as a goal, partly because the work will go better if everyone's committed to it, and partly because in the horse trading that's inseparable from democratic process, the more people you can please, the more people will support you on some other issue where you'll need their backing. That's why I've repeatedly said that I'm talking about manipulative pseudoconsensus, or current consensus-based methods, rather than consensus in the abstract.

12/20/12, 10:41 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Alice, excellent indeed. I'm glad to hear that while so many people are sitting around waiting for the world to end, there are those who are getting out there and doing what needs to be done.

12/20/12, 10:44 PM

Mean Mr Mustard said...
Sir and Archdrood,

Firstly, a most happy solstice to you and yours.

I just caught a online newspaper headline that said 'if you're reading this after 11.13 am, the Mayans got it wrong'. 10.00 here now, so it looks like I'm spending my last hour learning new things and enjoying commentaries from a attentive and polite gathering of followers. (But he's not the Messiah, you know...)

Cherokee - Regarding not really celebrating Christmas - I'm one of a determined counterculture - proudly wearing a black bobble hat emablazoned with 'BAH HUMBUG' - but handing out the mint sweets too. People laugh and do seem to get it.

So to the lot of you I say -

Bah Humbug!


12/21/12, 2:15 AM

phil harris said...
News filters through from America. Your Mayor Bloomberg does intellectually coherent rhetoric. We heard him on climate change after ‘sandy’, and on gun control after the recent massacre of innocents. We remember our own massacres: 'Dunblane', when a gun-nut with a frustrated and excruciating ‘need’ to control children ran amok, and 'Aberfan', which buried a school in negligently controlled coalmine waste. Bloomberg sounds more like a reforming emperor (an irredeemable plutocrat for a start), but he has a talent for making his positions very clear while standing in front of the ‘polis’? Could be a spell-breaker?

12/21/12, 2:46 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks for saying that as I have been wondering about it.

I'm unsure how to write this next comment, so I'll tell an anecdote from my past and then explain the significance and hopefully people will read and understand the last part - maybe.

Years ago, in my corporate days, I took on a very senior role with a dysfunctional group. The previous incumbent had been up to quite a bit of mischief some of which was illegal - but that is another story.

Anyway, I commenced my role as a healer establishing systems, routines, responsibilities and boundaries. This worked for a while until the inevitable tensions - and feelings of hurt - surfaced not too long afterwards.

At this point, I switched tactics, faced them all down and within hours identified the ringleader of my opposition - who incidentally was also the most obstreperous - and then publicly walked that person from the office. I then split the office into two functional areas and nominated two assistants (i.e. lieutenants) to supervise the remaining staff and then never had another days trouble.

What the above example is trying to illustrate is that the major entities within our society (corporations, military, religious etc.) are not democratic institutions, they are in fact hierarchical. These are currently effective entities too, on many different levels.

Given the sheer influence these entities all have on the day to day structure and thought within our society, it is impressive that we have as an effective level of democracy as we currently enjoy.

This point seems glaringly obvious to me, but it is rarely addressed or discussed in public. Those entities are given license to operate within and for the benefit of society, but I would suggest that in some respects they have abused that license.

Thought provoking stuff.



12/21/12, 3:10 AM

عواد الجبال said...
Morning Archdruid (well, afternoon here),

Your blog has been one of my regular reads for quite a while now. I have you to thank for introducing me to some precious writings (the late Culianu's come to mind-- so many thanks!). Anyway, having noted how dutifully you respond to these comments, I feel it's time I joined in. Though I should warn you: this is mostly because you have decided to wander into the strictly political realm, and since then I've found myself particularly unmoved.

I'll start with your analysis of the crisis in "democracy", in this message, and save praxis, values, and such final-cause things for later. Those things are meatier after all, so this might serve as a warm-up.

My primary issue here is that your analysis of the problems with our political (lack of) communication leaves much to be desired, and references key players such as mass-media only obliquely. The notion of phatic communication only contributes so much. Yes, the current discourse is very much a machine fueled exclusively by emotionally charged buzzwords. I would posit that even the machine itself is already aware of this. But I don't think escaping this state is so simple as some return to a rational democratic past (which I think for the most part is utterly mythical, which I can get into later).

What, after all, is this implicit proper approach to, and degree of, phatic communication? Who is the "we," necessary to all political conversation, that is being invoked here? And why? So far it seems like you are addressing American citizens who have "warm fuzzies" for "democracy" and "the USA."

Even if that's not the case, I think this framework is ossified in a fully and exclusively Western, even (as another commenter pointed out) Anglo-centric discourse, based on the historical ground and vocabulary. This is not to my tastes, and I have to wonder about it, especially considering the troublesome fact that soldiers under banners of "democracy" have eradicated a number of peoples substantially freer and more "democratic" than they were.

I could be mistaken on your notion of "we" so I'm looking for some clarification. You seem to be lukewarm toward left-wing radicalism-- but, and here's where my stance comes in-- abandoning its explicit internationalism (and anti-nationalism) is unequivocally tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Please, let's allow our obsession with kinship and colored flags die where it should have died: in the trenches of the Somme.

Looking forward to elaborating a fruitful dissensus.

- 'Awad

12/21/12, 3:37 AM

Approliving said...
Further to elsiereally's comment:

Following political news really is one of the most effective ways to give yourself the blues. Especially if your attitude is one of "look at how stupid and corrupt these politicians are, yet they have all the power and I have none!"
If you feel you have to follow politics, a better attitude to hold is something along the lines of "this may be a bad situation, but what can I do to help make matters even a little better?" Otherwise, it is better to not follow it at all rather than allow yourself to get all outraged and depressed about it. You can be happy or you can be on your high-horse, but you can't be both.

12/21/12, 3:49 AM

Wolfgang Brinck said...
JMG, your agenda to rediscover lost skills of reasoned discourse is laudable. However, there are obstacles.
Perhaps the greatest erosion of former skills has been caused by the invention of TV and the development of advertising, aka, propaganda.
What advertisers discovered was that appeals to emotions, prejudice, primitive urges, tastes and other facets of the reptilian brain are much more effective than appeals to facilities housed in the cerebral cortex. Given that most voters are now appealed to on TV, those methods used to sell deodorant and toothpaste are now also being used to sell political ideas.
It seems to me that unless TV and by extension, new internet media go away, old fashioned reasoned discourse does not stand much of a chance.
But even so, reasoned discourse can be had only in an environment where we all hold some amount of shared premises. Logic fails as a device in a system that allows contradictory premises. Without shared premises, discourse is reduced to a mutual attack on each others premises which at its worst degenerates into name calling.

12/21/12, 8:03 AM

Cathy McGuire said...
To JMG and all - blessed Solstice. This post is a very good one, and I hope I will be able to get some friends to read it... someone mentioned, though, that too many who are still comfortable (ie: not already going through the Long Descent) act like they just want to shut their eyes until they can't (which is far too late).

This morning, I walked the Labyrinth in my backyard and meditated on the wonder of Nature, and of a civilization that could plan a 5,125 year calendar (whereas the US can't seem to plan past the next fiscal quarter). There is so much richness when one drops the trivia of society! I found a couple of quotes that I wanted to share, from George Monbiot, who has his followers and cynics here, but in this is right on:
For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.
…Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.
George Monbiot

12/21/12, 8:16 AM

Dan L. said...
"Dan, yes, I thought I'd get at least one hissy fit from the left, complete with several good examples of the arbitrary identification of verbal noises with cold pricklies I've been talking about. That phrase "false moderation," by the way, in plain English means "how dare you point out that I'm doing the same things as the people I hate?""

I certainly didn't realize that the comment constituted a hissy fit or that I was being motivated by cold pricklies. I'm curious how you came to these conclusions.

Since I really am trying not to be a partisan moron I would really appreciate some help understanding where I went wrong in my comment -- if you have the time and inclination, of course.

Judging by the characterization of the comment as a "hissy fit" I must assume you took the comment as much more adversarial than it was intended. I apologize for being so inflammatory. I will try to be more mindful of my tone in the future.

12/21/12, 8:56 AM

Jason said...
@Dwig: thanks for the pointer to William Irwin Thompson; I've been enjoying his essays (and those of his Lindisfarne colleagues), especially his explorations of the intersection between science and spirituality.

Oh you're very welcome! Yes that became one of his specialties as Lindisfarne unfolded. The Gaia hypothesis was hashed out in Lindisfarne meetings I believe. Sadly Lovelock has lost the plot a little since then, but a lot of the original meetings that drew in people like Varela, Margulis and Oyama too, persuading them to think both mythically and practically, are still very interesting stuff.

One good takeaway I've already gotten is his reference to Jean Gebser's treatment of efficient and deficient manifestations.

Yes that's a good one and another predictor of "dark ages". In his books he lines all that stuff up with Marshall McLuhan as well as things like yoga. He should really be mentioned alongside the great writers on myth in the 20th c. as well (Jung/Campbell/Eliade) and is the only one who actually spent 3 hours a day meditating much of the time, which gives him real applicability in my case who am similarly engrossed. :)

12/21/12, 9:04 AM

Alex Boland said...
"Alex, do you expect television to be gone 20 years from now? I wish I was so optimistic."

You wrote in the long descent a "probable world" in which the grid finally went out for good circa 2030. So this just seemed to be the logical conclusion of that.

Even if you've changed your dates a bit, you're still expecting the energy supply of America to be greatly diminished within that time-frame, right?

If that's the case, then there would still be TVs, but there would be fewer of them actually running because of the energy costs. TV on its own isn't the end of the world--it's whether or not we're being blasted with a continued excess of noise.

What I'm hoping for is a far less noisy society--hopefully resulting from something other than a horrid energy collapse. I think that what's happened with food and obesity is happening with information. Just like overeating can come from an overabundance of noise (the constant sight/proximity/smell/intake/etc of food, particularly processed carbohydrates, is throwing off our metabolic processes), stupidity can come from an overabundance of "information."

12/21/12, 9:11 AM

blackwingsblackheart said...
Delurking briefly to wish you and yours a happy Solstice! Also, adding to what Robert said in reply to escapefromwisconsin, I offer an excerpt from Bill Holm's most excellent essay, "The Music of Failure," the whole of which I highly recommend (apologies for the lack of tags):

They accumulated no coffee cans full of bank notes, no hidden treasure, nothing of any genuine monetary value; the Bardals were in that regard truly poor. But not poor in mind and spirit! They owned books in three or four languages: Plato, Homer, Bjornson in Norwegian, Snorri Sturlusson in Icelandic, Whitman, Darwin, Dickens, Ingersoll, Elbert Hubbard; piles of scores by Handel, Bach, Mozart, George Beverly Shea, and Björgvin Guðmundsson, old cylinders of Caruso, Galla-Curci, Schumann-Heink, John McCormack; cheap books reproducing paintings and sculpture from great European museums. There was an organ, a piano, violin, and trumpet; manuals for gardening, cooking, and home remedies; the best magazines of political commentary and art criticism next to Capper's Farmer; the Minneota Mascot, and the Plain Truth; dictionaries and grammar books in three or four languages; books of scientific marvels, Richard Burton's travel adventures, old text books for speech and mathematics, Bibles and hymn books in every Scandinavian language; Faust, Reader's Digest, and Sweet Hour of Prayer. That tiny house was a space ship stocked to leave the planet after collecting the best we have done for each other for the last four thousand years of human consciousness....What one realized with genuine astonishment was that the Bardals piled this extraordinary junk not only inside their cramped house; that house was a metaphor for their interior life that they stocked with the greatest beauty and intelligence they understood. They read the books, played the instruments, carried the contents of that house in their heads, and took it with them at last into their neat row in the Lincoln County graveyard.

The family Bill is remembering emigrated from Iceland to rural Minnesota in 1880. Few could aspire even to high school in that region in those days--my adoptive mother, for instance, wanted very much to go but couldn't because it meant boarding in town, which meant money, which the family didn't have in the depths of the Depression. Yet, I suspect the Bardals' interest in matters of mind and spirit were not unique in their day. For one thing, when a large percentage of your recreation is talking with other people, it really does help if you have something to talk about; the weather, the crops and the children will only get you so far.

12/21/12, 9:29 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Just popping to wish our host (and any others who observe the solar holidays) a merry Yule and a happy new b'ak'tun on this sunny 12/21/2012 a.k.a.

12/21/12, 10:01 AM

Stu from Rutherford said...
First, a blessed solstice to you and to all the readers. Mam Gaia reminded us who's in charge last night but (most of) the trees are still standing (the weak ones already got blown over this year.)
Second, I'm no friend of consensus myself, but recently encountered an interesting counterexample in the work In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander. (Which I read on the recommendation of someone on this blog - perhaps yourself(?)) He describes a council in the Haudenosaunee ("Iroquois") confederation that is run by consensus, and frequently takes days or even weeks to come to a decision. This does not matter all that much, though, since the society is so conservative that the underlying assumption is that nothing needs to change. I.e., proposals which incorporate change are few and far between.
Another method I've seen used occasionally is one in which members of a meeting can also state how much they care one way or another. Sometimes it works: for instance, when compiling the platform of a political party or campaign there are many issues about which I would vote one way but not really care all that much. If others care a lot and the vote is close (and if the people who care have studied the issue), I'm happy to let it go the other way. It is, however, easy for this to get abused.

12/21/12, 1:17 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
"RWA"... some suggestions from Wikipedia and Google:

Romance Writers of America
Rotating Wave Approximation
Royal West Academy
Rot Weiss Ahlen

Undefined TLAs are extremely unhelpful to a general audience.

12/21/12, 1:50 PM

Renaissance Man said...
If it's any gleam of inspiration, a disparate group of farmers, aboriginals, townsfolk, and other assorted citizens have spent the past 4 years fighting against a plan by a $25B Hedge Fund that wanted to dig a giant open-pit aggregate mine in the centre of southern Ontario. It would have utterly disrupted all the water flows above and below ground in the entire region and required a perpetual pump to keep the water out.
We won.
Stop the Quarry succeeded in producing democracy. Or at least a successful protest movement.
So the skills aren't entirely lost, at least not in this neck of the woods.

As for the Y2K bug... that non-event was due to a multi-billion dollar, ten-year effort to reprogram every linked computer system and it was successful. Tests 10 years earlier demonstrated the probability of massive chaos. Just look at what happened to all the GPS systems in Japan after a computer bug fix, for example. Despite being warned and contacted repeatedly for 6 months beforehand to bring their equipment in for an upgrade, people didn't and when the date rolled over... the systems stopped working. Chaos.
Your offhand comment illustrates exactly the popular attitude towards people who do prevent, if not disasters, then at least major problems, and why wise people get so much less credit for avoiding problems in the first place than those idiot-heroes who let the disasters unfold and swoop in to 'rescue' us in the aftermath. Brian Tobin and the Newfoundland fisheries disaster, for example.
"He's a hero! He saved us" Huzzah! Three Cheers! Parade down Main Street. Action by a decisive leader!
Nobody says "What a clever leader to have avoided the Problem in the first place. Thank you!"
Instead people say "...what was all the fuss? Nothing happened... must be a conspiracy, must have been a crock, must be Microsoft making us by new computers for profit! What a Chicken Little. Boy who cried Wolf." &c. &c.

12/21/12, 1:58 PM

Hal said...
Happy Third Week of Advent, everyone!

This post could not have been more timely, JMG. I hope you don't mind that I shared it on Facebook. Right now the CPs and WFs are flying freely over the issue of gun control on my feed. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of seeing that they all have a point, and that they all make major errors of logic. Not to mention too much flat-out deception.

Also spend way too much of this vacation day reading up on Greek foundations of the dialectic. I have so much to learn...

12/21/12, 2:07 PM

Solomon Buccola said...
Eh. Public speaking skills will return when there is a forum or context where they actually matter. If we had a participatory democracy, where we had to understand the issues in our community in order to run it, then we would figure out how to talk and to listen. And we'd do that pretty quickly. People are smart. As it is, there is no reason to do laps around the Toastmasters track, so for the most part people are not going to.

I also think that your simple preference for representational, committee-style democracy over consensus-based institutions is simplistic. I acknowledge that consensus does not work well for large groups, but rule by committee has its own problems, mostly relating to lack of flexibility and a tendency to lose dynamism. In the context of the Occupy movement, there are some good reasons that rule-by-committee would not be a good option: 1) Who gets to vote for committee members? No-one knows who is and is not a member of the movement, and in fact its membership was changing rapidly. 2) Centralized leadership makes an oppositional movement vulnerable to decapitation and/or corruption. 3) A big part of the reason for Occupy was not really to accomplish some set of practical objectives (i.e. sit in a certain park), but just to get people out of their living rooms and to recognize themselves and each other as the people who should be running the country. 4) If the movement ever did overthrow the existing system, the committee would instantly become the new Communist Party, which was clearly considered an undesirable outcome.

My preference is for organization based on small units (neighborhoods, cells, etc) which do operate by something approaching consensus. These units can then ally and cooperate voluntarily within larger movements or governments when desirable. Occupy had the right idea in having each city's Occupy exist as an independent but allied institution which could follow its own desires. It just should have followed this direction even further.

12/21/12, 3:23 PM

Leo said...
Whenever you have the times fine.

A lot of those skills are surprisingly simple, for such a big effect.

12/21/12, 3:57 PM

Steve Morgan said...
@Brother Kornhoer:

Many thanks for the references. I'll be sure to look them up soon when I'm at the university library next. So much learning to do, it's really quite exciting.

12/21/12, 5:03 PM

YJV said...
I am a frequent follower and first time commenter. As recent high school graduate (going to university soon) socialist Indian living in NZ, I find your blog thoroughly interesting and eye-opening.

Many people here have talked about the reluctance of even intelligent people in discussing politics. I have encountered similar responses from many of my classmates. In my opinion dialectic thinking and discourse starts from school. I am very grateful to the education system here for fostering such important skills, supplemented by my time in schools debating. I find that people respond the same way to me as some others have described: "I don't get why what you're bringing up is important to me" or "don't wind him up again."

In regards to the warm fuzzies and cold pricklies, I have seen that it is an endemic problem with most on the left as well as the right. Thus I have a thorough distaste for many of the marxists I follow on Tumblr. I have found that in reality there is no-one with whom I can totally agree with. Nevertheless, dialetic discourse has led me to have discussions with many on the far-right too.

In my time serving on many committees and being a prefect I have realised that there are some very distinct types of personalities that tend to control or hinder any public discourse. However high-school politics here, like everywhere else in the world, revolves around a personality cult. It is really fascinating to see that regional and national politics are in a way a direct imitation of the flawed system I was a part of in school. The school curriculum here is changing quickly to copy the failed model of the US. In a way I might be from one of the last batches to learn some of the key thinking skills that have kept the NZ education system near the top of international rankings.

Another interesting point you brought up was the fact that not all forms of democracy are entirely compatible everywhere. I think the failure of Indian democracy is due to the fact that the first Prime Minister (Nehru) tried to force a western model onto what was a very different type of country. Also recognizing that ancient India had its own democracies and its distinct way of thinking which were in some ways quite different from the west.

I find your blog gives the weekly reality check which is very important. I hope your engaging weekly articles continue, I have learnt a lot from them.

Happy Solstice!

12/21/12, 5:06 PM

Fritz Tucker said...

I am the person whose article you referred to, when talking about "the manipulative behavior of activists." Your article is excellent. Your paragraph about a democratic system is simple, which is how it should be.

I was wondering if you are aware of Participatory Budgeting? It started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and now exists in over 1,000 cities in the world. The neighborhood I grew up in––Park Slope, Brooklyn––started doing this last year, and I've been part of the process this year.

There are obvious limitations, like the fact that the million dollars given to District 39 by its assemblyman can only be used on public infrastructure, and the Board of Education and Department of Transportation are not compliant. Also this is a somewhat idealized version of democracy, figuring out the grand direction society should take is not on the table for discussion. However, it is a great way of spending taxpayer money, and is an essential component in the democratization of society.

Two things I noticed that have made this process different from the one at Occupy Wall Street:

1) the process is almost completely intellectual. Nobody gave riveting speeches. And most of all, there were no twinkle fingers in order to display one's "warm fuzzy" and "cold prickly" feelings. Experiencing this made me realize how much the OWS process was designed to instill group-think. In District 39's PB, we broke down into groups, compiled lists of potential projects, and very quickly read these out loud to the entire assembly. It was up to each person to think about each proposal, and decide, over the course of six months, what they want to vote on.

2) My hatred for facilitators vanished. The facilitators were people who were not from the district, and while not uninterested, were thus disinterested. They made things run incredibly smoothly. The meeting was an hour and a half, with a half-hour dedicated to giving the participants a background with PB. Over 100 people were there. Every single person made suggestions for potential projects. We were all home by 9pm.

There is a great book on the history of Participatory Budgeting: Militants and Citizens by Gianpaolo Baiocchi. I will hopefully be writing my masters thesis on Brooklyn's Participatory Budgeting next year.

As I've said before, democracy marks the end of dialog, the synthesis to the dialectic when an agreement cannot be made and things need to get done. Therefore, democracy without dialog and dialectic is as worthless as dialog and dialectic without democracy. Occupy Wall Street did a great job at creating a "town square" where an incredibly variety of people came to have political discussions. That wonderful atmosphere, however, was almost completely wasted by the insistence on the consensus method by the leaders of that oh so leaderless movement.

Keep up the good work,

12/21/12, 5:52 PM

Kieran O'Neill said...
Something which appears to be lost in all the anti-union sentiment that seems (from an outside perspective) to be pervading your country right now is the fact that unions are thoroughly democratic entities. In fact, they're probably one of the few types of large organisations in the USA still run on democratic principles. The left seems quite keen to throw them under the bus, however, and the right remains steadfast in its ongoing and outright rejection of them.

12/21/12, 10:57 PM

JessicaYogini said...
Phatic communication: Perhaps in America, political identity is a substitute for ethnic or regional identity. Therefore, establishing membership in the group is more important that the nominal goals of the group.
In many parts of the world, many people are shifting their identity to smaller units. In Europe and the former Soviet Union, people are turning to regional identities that had been subsumed within a nation-state. Right now, this is happening in Scotland and Catalonia for example.
But in the US, such regional identities have less strength. So perhaps identifying with a political philosophy is more about having a smaller, more familiar, more reliable identity that the national one. That would also explain why both sides support groups that so often lose on their behalf.
Yes, the NRA may have been more successful than climate change groups, but conservatives have also lost the battles against abortion, gay marriage (and homosexuality more generally), and secularization.
What I can not explain is why this rise of smaller-size identities has not resulted in more overt Southern or New England or Texas regionalism.

About US education: Yes, the capacity to think for oneself is less developed, but certain technical kinds of functions are quite highly developed. One reason for this is that universities have changed from being oases of alteratives to corporate culture into being functions within corporate culture. As the source of profit has shifted from things to knowledge, knowledge production (in a very broad sense) has been integrated more thoroughly.
On top of that, knowledge production has been integrated within the old thing-production system. The result is that knowledge production is more about creating opportunities to extract rents and less about useful information.
This also helps explain much that is twisted about left-wing politics, because it is knowledge producers, with their contradictory position in the social structure, who dominate the left now.

About dissensus: Wow. Thank you for this. This is so useful.
The concept of producing democracy and consuming it is very powerful too.

12/22/12, 2:37 AM

CGP said...
In my first comment I mentioned a conversation I had with someone whose eyes glazed over when I discussed politics and world events and responded along the lines of "I do not know about these matters but I am fine, so why should I care?" Another commenter (“elsiereally”) then responded (to paraphrase) that this lack of interest in politics and world events may be a defence mechanism against engaging with issues that are presented in the darkest possible light by the media on television and so on as a means of avoiding depression and other unpleasant feelings. I agree that television is a toxic influence and that some people may become depressed paying too much attention to the mainstream news and therefore must avoid it to prevent an exacerbation of their depression. However, I do not accept this as a universal explanation for the widespread disinterest shown in politics and world events including by people who should be more than intelligent enough to have at least somewhat of an understanding of these matters. Rather, I would point to personality factors such as callousness, selfishness and outright narcissism and even psychopathy in explaining this.

To expand on the anecdote I told in my first comment, that person did not seem particularly depressed or vulnerable to depression. What she did seem to be, though, was determined to preserve her happy, shallow and convenient worldview at all costs. Yes, this is an anecdote but it speaks to the fact that one cannot simply point to depression or debased thinking to explain a disinterest in politics and world events; rather one must also look to a debased morality to understand this. To provide some more anecdotal evidence I have come across people who do actually pay attention to and understand politics and world events but are still as callous and selfish about these matters as someone who does not understand them.

Moving from anecdotal to some empirical evidence, there is evidence to suggest that there is a growing prevalence of narcissism, especially among the young, which can obviously explain why so many people are simply too selfish to care about politics and world events even if they have an intellectual understanding of them. Given that the world (governments, corporations etc.) is largely run by psychopathic individuals and institutions, and that often bad behaviours are rewarded and good behaviours punished, this growing moral debasement, callousness and selfishness should surprise no one. Please do not make the mistake of assuming that intelligence and knowledge always give rise to morality and decency. I would assume that most people here would know that.

12/22/12, 4:45 AM

Odin's Raven said...
Yesterday was a 'nothing bad happened day'; but perhaps there was a positive apocalypse, a revelation or unveiling of something hopeful.

Here's a suggestion that we should be able to stop worrying about running out of oil and coal as plentiful cheap energy may be available from a new understanding of physics. That would be a nice Christmas present to the world.

I don't know anything about it's validity, but it's amusing to think that you might be able to complete your series on failed bad apocalypses with an account of the failure of the 'running out of energy for civilisation' prediction.

Back to the Christmas Spirit, and as Happy a New Year as you can manage.

12/22/12, 6:24 AM

Karim said...
Seasons' Greetings to all!

JMG wrote: "it’s been the outcome of nearly every attempt at organized protest since the early 1980s, when the current suite of manipulative pseudoconsensus methods were adopted across most of the activist Left."

My question is why did the activist left choose such dysfunctional modes of questioning? And why does it still cling to them? To my mind it sounds like a fascinating historical question!

JMG also mentioned " I'd like to get at least a few people to the point of realizing that the end of growth can be a warm fuzzy instead of a cold prickly..."

Isn't that a form of Thaumaturgy or psychological manipulation that is being attempted here? Is it something that ought to be advocated?

12/22/12, 6:51 AM

Robert Mathiesen said...
What blackwingblackheart said about the Bardal family of Bill Holm's essay! Formal education need not have much of anything to do with learning or culture at all, much less with intelligence. This is a really important point.

I mentioned that we still own my wife's great-great-grandfather's library, put together in rural Maine in the first half of the 1800s. It is similarly eclectic, though all in English (his only language). There are Pope's translation of the Iliad, Butler's Hudibras, Dryden and Congreave's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, each in two small volumes, printed with what must be 8- or 10-point type. There are William Ward's thorough and fairly dispassionate "A View of All Religions and the Religious Ceremonies of All Nations" (the last *half* of which is devoted to what the author calls "Pagan" religions), Goodrich's History of the U.S., Worcester's Dictionary, and so forth. From their condition all of these volumes have been thoroughly read and reread more than once. Nowadays it would be hard or impossible to get most Ivy-League college students to read any books like these with care or understanding.

12/22/12, 8:15 AM

Juhana said...
Good, thoughtful writing. You make me evaluate my own actions as human being with your writings, and that is very rare reaction indeed. Thank you for that. My personal, humble opinion still is that religion is more important factor molding society than political system. Political system is born from deeper structure of society (mostly religion), not other way around. What kind of faith, that kind of society. Religion is the ultimate narrative that molds how people see universe. In the West, many have lost connection to any faith bigger than themselves, and just see how f***ed up western world is right now. Individualism is sure path to failure. Ideologies are just religions in disguise. They are making quite poor job, as they are stripped from any deeper, mystical view of the world. I have this deep belief that faithful shall prevail in the end of Age of Abundance, democracy can be nice ornament crowning it all, but not THE most important thing.
Anyway, to celebrate birthday of the Son, here is truly mystical song from 14th century, representing living mystical and religious tradition, unlike artificial constructs of modern paganism. So enjoy.

12/22/12, 9:06 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Mustard, and a happy Bah Humbug Day to you too!

Phil, I don't expect him to be a spellbreaker, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him pursuing power on a scale much larger than New York City's.

Cherokee, hierarchy is as natural to human beings as it is to all other social primates. That's why consensus systems either have a covert hierarchy or tear themselves to pieces trying to establish one. The point of democracy isn't to eliminate the normal human tendency to define a pecking order -- it's to make the pecking order public, accountable, and less burdensome for those toward the lower end of it.

'Awad, it's not surprising that you'd find the nation-state unappealing; in the part of the world you're from, it's a late and artificial import. Where I'm from, it's an organic growth. This is one of the reasons that, as you noted, I'm addressing Americans primarily in these essays; having never lived in another country, I don't feel myself to be qualified to make proposals for the rest of the world (and the rest of the world has had far too many clueless Americans telling it what to do for too long, anyway).

Approliving, may I take that last sentence of yours, have a blacksmith put it on the business end of a branding iron, and apply it to the backsides of a great many people I know?

Wolfgang, that's why individuals and small groups need to cultivate reasoned thinking now, learn how it's done, and develop the degree of self-awareness that allows them to recognize when thoughtstopping gimmicks of the sort used by advertising and the like are being directed against them.

Cathy, I've grumbled quite a bit about Monbiot's more dubious thinking, but that essay's good. Many thanks for sharing it!

Dan, thanks for a very civil response. Here's your homework, if you will: find every phrase in your earlier comment that has no relevance to the point under discussion, and serves only to stir up negative emotional reactions. Here's an example -- your suggestion that I must be watching "O'Reilly Factor," which I assume is some kind of right wing TV show. If you've been reading this blog at all, you know that I haven't owned a TV in my adult life; thus the only purpose of that phrase was to establish an arbitrary linkage between the idea of mine you wished to denounce and a verbal noise ("O'Reilly Factor") that generates cold pricklies in those readers who share your set of emotional reactions. Now find the rest of them -- and when you write another comment, do the same exercise in advance, and delete all the phrases that do the same thing, as well as those that make linkages to irrelevant warm fuzzies.

Alex, I expect the major national grids to have suffered serious breakdowns by that time, but more local grids to have partially replaced them. As more Americans lose access to grid power, in turn, I foresee the coming of a new business model -- the TV cafe, where people can go sit around and watch television when they don't have power at home and can't afford a TV anyway. Eventually those will be limited to reruns and videos, but it'll be a while before the last of them flickers out.

Blackwings, many thanks for sharing this!

12/22/12, 10:18 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, the host of one of the radio shows I was on yesterday was wishing all her listeners a happy Mayan Fools Day, which I think sums it up nicely!

Stu, consensus can work if it's done in a community with shared values and a means of excluding people who try to game the system. Quaker meetings are good at that, and so were many Native American peoples, the Haudenosaunee among them. Again, it's the manipulative pseudoconsensus methods used by so many of today's activists that are the problem, not consensus as a whole.

Bill, I was wondering about that as well. "Republicans With Attitude" was my best guess.

Renaissance, as I've pointed out repeatedly in this context, it was perfectly reasonable to worry about the Y2K bug in 1996 or so, when it was by no means certain that the necessary resources would be mobilized to fix things. It was no longer reasonable to insist that the world was going to crash in flames in the autumn of 1999, when every computer geek I knew in the greater Seattle area was buying a new car, house, or yacht on the proceeds of three years of overtime at sky-high wages fixing everybody's computer systems, and when people in the tech industry were quietly admitting to me that they were letting the hysteria roll on because it was just so lucrative to them.

Hal, if you're reading up on the Greek foundations of dialectic, you're way ahead of the game. Good for you.

Solomon, notice that your initial claim -- "if we had a participatory democracy...we would figure out how to talk and listen" -- puts the cart squarely before the horse. If we want to have a participatory democracy, we have to learn how to talk and listen first. It's the implied notion that somebody ought to give us a participatory democracy, and then of course we'll know how to use it, that's most of the problem. As for the rest, if that's what you want to try, by all means go out and try it -- but I'd remind you that the activist left has been doing the (pseudo-)consensus thing for decades now, and the results have been consistently bad.

Leo, they may be simple, but simple is not always the same thing as easy.

YJV, thank you! I expect to keep at this for the foreseeable future, for whatever that's worth.

Fritz, thanks for commenting! I've used your post several times in this blog, as it brings up some crucial points. I have nothing against facilitators as such, so long as they're not trying to force their own agenda on the group, and so long as the group has some means to replace a facilitator who abuses the position. As for participatory budgeting, I'll check it out as time permits.

Kieran, no argument there. I'll need to discuss that one of these days.

12/22/12, 10:34 AM

JP said...

"JMG also mentioned " I'd like to get at least a few people to the point of realizing that the end of growth can be a warm fuzzy instead of a cold prickly..."

Isn't that a form of Thaumaturgy or psychological manipulation that is being attempted here? Is it something that ought to be advocated?"

The first question is whether the current conception of growth is based on a mathematical/physical impossibility based on boundaries that cannot be altered by man.

If the answer to that question is yes, the only way that you will get people to *look forward* to and to *plan* for such a future is to show that there is some component of the future that will be a "warm fuzzy".

It's either inevitable or it isn't.

The end of growth as we know it, that is.

12/22/12, 10:42 AM

sgage said...
@Odin's Raven,

I would be willing to bet that before anything useful comes of "Free Energy", the Pink Unicorn Fleet from Zeta Reticuli will land on the White House lawn and reveal to humanity the secret of limitless fusion power, and throw in the cure for cancer as a bonus.

But then, I'm just an old-fashioned guy ;-)

12/22/12, 2:28 PM

CGP said...
RWA = “right-wing authoritarian”?

12/22/12, 2:38 PM

Mary said...
Happy Yule, JMG and all of you!

Brian, I agree. I know a member of Occupy, who occasionally updates us on their activities. From stopping foreclosures, to Occupy Sandy (they delivered hot meals into the hardest hit areas for several weeks before the government arrived, to the Rolling Jubilee, they have evolved into an ad hoc organization that is winning many supporters. I recently heard a radio interview with an Occupy spokesperson on the Rolling Jubilee. They have started purchasing "bad" debt on the cheap. Instead of being hounded round the clock by debt collectors, the lucky indebted are being freed to start over.

JMG, I could be mistaken, but seem to remember that US democracy was modeled closely after the Algonquin nation, moreso than Greek or other versions. But I don't remember where I read that, so can't provide a reference. It is an old memory, lol.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed the solstice and the turning of the Mayan calendar. Wishing you all a happy and healthy Yuletide season.


12/22/12, 2:50 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jessica, you should go visit Alabama or Mississippi sometime. You'll encounter a very lively sense of local identity, though I suspect you may not like it much.

CGP, that seems plausible. Have you read Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism? Might be worth a look.

Raven, good heavens. You've fallen for that hokum?

Karim, not at all. I'm not manipulating people by way of warm fuzzies and cold pricklies; I'm trying to point out to people that they themselves can choose which emotional tone to place on one of the immovable facts of our future.

Robert, I'll have to read Ward one of these days!

Juhana, that last comment of yours was really quite rude, especially when you know I belong to one of the faiths you've dismissed so cavalierly. Like most Druids, I'm wearily familiar with the kind of Christian whose insecurity in their own faith constantly drives them to put down those of others, and I see no reason to tolerate that behavior here. You have every right to believe that your religion is better than mine; you even have the right to be a jerk about it, but if you do so, you may expect to be shown the door. If you would like to continue to participate in the discussion here, an apology will be required; otherwise you may take your bad manners and go somewhere else.

CGP, that may be it.

Mary, it was specifically the structure of the Haudenosaunee ("Iroquois") Confederacy that played a significant role in the thinking of the founders of our Constitution. As a very rough generalization, it was one-third that, one-third English common law and parliamentary procedure, and one-third the distinctive form of democratic process used in Freemasonry that went into the pot in Philadelphia.

12/22/12, 3:12 PM

Mary said...
I almost forgot, I wanted to go off topic a moment and address Redneckgirl. While I've been unable to locate any straight desertbred arabs here in the east, there are straight Davenport breeders in Oregon and British Columbia. There are also 2 Davenport stallions for sale right now, one in Texas and I forget where the 2nd is (maybe the middle of the country). While the mares are more likely to be held for preservationists, you should be able to acquire a stallion. If you are open to desert crosses, Belesemo breeds high quality arabs for their ranch, crossing mostly crabbet with polish.


12/22/12, 3:26 PM

CGP said...
No, I have not read "The Culture of Narcissism" but it definitely looks interesting and like something I should read. In fact Christopher Lasch seems to have quite a few interesting books. Thank you for your recommendation.

12/22/12, 3:48 PM

Approliving said...

Please go right ahead - foreheads and t-shirts are fine too :)

I think it's one of those life lessons which seems obvious, but only in retrospect. It might actually turn out to be less painful for some people if they were branded with it today, rather than suffering through years of unhappiness and frustration before they catch on (if they even catch on at all).

Apologies if I'm getting a bit too tangential to the main conversation here. However, trite as it might sound to some, having a positive and constructive attitude towards other people and life in general is going to be even more important in a world of decline than it has been up till now.

12/22/12, 4:03 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Ahh, the use of the word hierarchical in my last comment skewed the focus away from the central theme.

The central theme was that some of the major entities influencing our society (corporate, religious, military, public service etc.) are not democratic institutions. Extending that concept further, it is amazing that we have as an effective democratic process as we actually have. It also provides a glimpse - well I believe it to be the case - into why our democratic processes are withering away under the guise of culture wars which serve the purposes of some of those major entities.

Dunno, could be wrong, but I reckon there may be something in it.

Back here in peasant land though... Today is hot, really hot. It's now 36 Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit) outside in the shade with a top of 39 Celsius (102.2 Fahrenheit) predicted.

Christmas Down Under is weird because icons of snowmen, reindeer and fat guys in heavy suits with impressive facial hair are just odd in this context. Somehow we need to adapt, maybe? How about a mob of kangaroos pulling a cart full of presents? I don't know much, but the kangaroos would definitely be very unhappy in this situation and most unwilling to co-operate! hehe! Incidentally as an interesting side issue, barbequed kangaroo meat is on the menu here on Christmas day.

So despite the weather, yesterday, today and tomorrow is and will be devoted to making Apricot and wild plum jam and also bottling (I think you guys call it canning?) Apricots, Nectarines and Peaches, for the coming year.

I entertained some tourists yesterday who approached me by the side of the road to see what I was up to whilst picking the wild plums. Strangely enough they asked me if I knew about the tree by GPS co-ordinates. I thought they were joking, but they were remarkably earnest, so I guess not. Ahh, the worlds between us! It looks like a plum tree and the fruit ripens about now and it has been there for years….

What becomes quite clear during these food preserving activities is just how far ahead you have to plan in terms of quantities, equipment, methods and storage. The industrial food system really simplifies the whole process for the majority of the population, but if you do it yourself, then you discover just how complex and vulnerable that Industrial system is!

The other thing that is interesting about it all is that you start to get a feel for how much you need to preserve for the future. I ran out of preserved food last year by about a month and a bit and hopefully this won't be the case again next year.



12/22/12, 7:16 PM

wiseman said...
JMG said
I'm addressing Americans primarily in these essays; having never lived in another country, I don't feel myself to be qualified to make proposals for the rest of the world (and the rest of the world has had far too many clueless Americans telling it what to do for too long, anyway).

Thank you for your words of wisdom. Far too many people think they can advise anyone on anything. But you will find that people from other countries/cultures besides learning something from Americans here also have valuable insights to offer on your blog.

On a similar note since it's not explicit many first time visitors (like me) would think that you are talking about the whole world in your blogs, might wanna put a disclaimer on the top. This will be important going forward as your blog attracts more and more attention.

I am from India.

12/22/12, 7:49 PM

Hal said...
I doubt that Juhana got very many people to listen to that music, BUT, speaking of rudeness:

If Jessica or anyone else wants to visit Mississippi, she just might find that not only does she like some of the local identity, she's not the only Yogini hereabouts. We have 'em, and probably a few Druids, to boot. ;)

(It's OK, we're used to it.)

12/22/12, 10:00 PM

John Michael Greer said...
CGP, I'd recommend it! Lasch's The True and Only Heaven was a major influence on my skepticism toward the myth of progress -- definitely a thinker worth reading.

Approliving, exactly. Once you have to give up the myth of progress -- the fantasy, that is, that the world is getting better and better as a function of the mere passage of time -- taking action to make your life and the world a better place is one of the few things that makes it easy to get out of bed in the morning.

Cherokee, that's got to be weird in the extreme: winter imagery in a midsummer festival. Why not put Santa in swim shorts and have him surfing into Sydney harbor with a big sack of presents on his back?

Wiseman, yes, I'd picked up that you're from India. I don't know that a disclaimer is the best way to do things, but will consider the options.

Hal, did you think I was being insulting? That was the opposite of my intention. I've simply noticed that people who claim that America has no regional identities tend to be hostile and dismissive when they encounter the ones we've got -- notably, the deep South, which has a stronger sense of local identity than just about anyplace else.

I'm quite aware that there are Druids down your way, btw -- I've shared more than one beer with Druids from well below the Mason-Dixon line. It's an odd feature of the order I head that we get most of our membership from the so-called flyover states, very much including the deep South.

12/22/12, 10:28 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi sgage,

Who would have thought that Zeta Reticuli was the star system that the horror sci-fi film, "Alien" was set in? As a really small child, I had some serious nightmares after seeing that film. I reckon the Aliens would have smashed the Pink Unicorn Fleet though, or maybe developed a new Alien/Unicorn hybrid monster. Now that would be something to see - from a respectable distance of course! hehe!

Hi Mr Mustard,

Haha! Bah Humbug to you as well! The hat sounds very cool. Actually, a couple of friends are dropping by which should be lots of fun, thus the meat and barbeque (which they're bringing). Have a lovely holiday.


Quote: "Rather, I would point to personality factors such as callousness, selfishness and outright narcissism and even psychopathy in explaining this."

Yes, these are indeed the rewarded traits in the corporate world. They are not particularly useful traits within society though, especially if the majority of the population displays them. Perhaps it may be that our culture has been influenced by these major entities in our society? I don't really know, but am wondering about it.

I do know that many people confuse liberty / freedom with license. I'm not saying this to bait the neo-liberals in the audience, but the concept of limitations on a finite planet is an under discussed topic in our culture. What perhaps you are commenting on in the quote above is an observation of individual’s behaviours to the closing of the gap between expectations and resources. This seems to be to be at the core of a lot of tensions within society.

Certainly there is more to it all than meets the eye.



12/22/12, 10:37 PM

Juhana said...
My sincere apologies of any crudeness in my comment. And this go to other readers as well whose feelings were hurt. I had no malign intention in my comment; writing with foreign language, sentences come out very blunt and seem to be more "extreme" than I mean. This has been pointed out to me earlier by persons who can follow discussions in my native language too; I sound harsher in English. I don't like harshness, so I feel little bit embarrassed now.

Paganism is very fascinating subject, and I have no problems with people following these modern forms of it. What I meant was that modern shamanism is quite young project, started with Thelema, Wicca and Adonism (and Franz Sättler) I guess..? After a hundred years from now, maybe you have rooted into world new religion, and with such nice subjects as organic gardening in roster that is not bad thing to happen. After all, Christianity was new religion also some millennia ago. With term "artificial" I just meant this newness and historic discontinuity I personally observe in neopagan movement. This newness has some consecuenses though. You guys are pioneers in new religion, in good and bad. Most self-proclaimed neopagans I have met have no deep internal belief, they have mostly political or other secular reasons for their worldview. So they don't really BELIEVE. But on the other hand, how many persons out of six-seven billion have I met? Very few. Animism and/or Tantric Buddhism of Eurasian Steppe is closest to old-school, organically growth paganism I have encountered, this being just my personal opinion. Those animist Buddhist rituals, and now I don't mean Richard Gere type of thing but buryats and mongols waiting for next Bogd Khan, they are quite scary. Visiting Seven Towers Temple in Hohhut; and afterwards listening western neopagans; you just notice huge difference between their views of shamanism. But like I said, what do I know? Very little indeed. So, to all good people, have a good solstice/Christmas/happy holidays and be careful out there!

By the way, I am not devout Christian. Just coming from very traditionalist background, and seen total hollowness of modern society, I actually have no idea what to believe right now. I just honour my ancestors by respecting their faith, because being loyal to your own is the most important thing in this chaotic circus we call planet Earth.

12/23/12, 3:09 AM

Cox said...
This is all the more embarrassing in that the toolkit of democratic process has been sitting on the shelf the whole time, waiting for somebody to notice that liberal and radical groups in the past used to use methods of organization that, however unfashionable they have become, actually work. There are a lot of details, and entire books in fine print have been written on the minutiae, but the core elements of democratic process can be described in a paragraph. <

Could you perhaps give a list of these books on workable democratic methods? I'd be very interested in reading up on this. Thanks.

12/23/12, 3:25 AM

Approliving said...
JMG, your reference to the myth of progress reminds me: upon reflection I am starting to see optimism and positive thinking as two distinct things.
Optimism is the expectation of a favourable future outcome. Positive thinking is appreciating the good, be it be in a present situation or a possibe future outcome (regardless of its favourability). Positive thinking is closely related to constructive thinking, which is making the best out of the good, bad, and neutral aspects of any situation.
This distinction might be obvious to some (yourself included I'd imagine), but I reckon most people would regard "positive thinking" and "optimism" as synonymous. Because of this conflation, many people are both reluctant to get involved in civic life and too scared to comtemplate any future which doesn't involve progress.
The key point I'm trying to make here is that perhaps its possible to be positive and constructive about reviving democracy - or any other worthwhile endeavour - without setting one's heart on achieving a favourable outcome.

12/23/12, 3:51 AM

Liquid Paradigm said...
I decided to ignore Juhana's ill-informed festival of weary insults and give the music a chance on its own merits. I found the people of the 14th century apparently also suffered from the scourge of amateur synthesizer work, rigid quantization and AutoTune. Imagining their dismay and horror, I confess I did briefly feel a certain sense of community with them.


I'm glad to see you survived the prophesied alien invasion and/or giant monster attack which has left the fevered imaginations of conspiracy theorists and mystic dilettantes in smoking ruins. I do confess I think it's a shame the sudden, widespread enlightenment of all mankind (whatever that means) anticipated by the more benign eccentrics didn't pan out.

This week's post was a much-needed bucket of cold water over my head, as listening for the familiar hoots and cries of one herd to the exclusion of all else is a continual temptation. Especially when it seems that so few others offer anything other than a variation on the same thoughtless, manipulative theme. Still, I endure.

An ideologically neutral and emotionally sincere Merry Whathaveyoumas to everyone!

12/23/12, 7:54 AM

Hal said...
Thanks for the clarification, John Michael. No, I wasn't really offended, and tried to make my post playful. But one does hear an awful lot of references to our culture in negative terms, and thought you might be conjuring the usual images of ignorant rednecks and Massa on the front porch with his julep cup.

Not that we don't have our share of the former and not that there aren't those who would be the latter, of course. They're both going to make the future down here a bit challenging, no doubt. But I also think that, if their worse features can be moderated, and combined with the awesomely resilient and resourceful African American culture, that this region has as much chance of getting through the coming times with some semblance of participatory governance intact as any. (Whew, finally brought it back, sorta, to the subject of the column.)

Take that, James Howard Kunsler, if you're listening....

12/23/12, 9:56 AM

Anselmo said...
It´s good to teach public speaking skills of the people, but i think that it´s useless if they are unable to think, and i know that a lot of people is not trained for to employ his brain (“El Criterio”; Jaime Balmes), or who really don´t want to think by himself (“the fear to freedom”; Erich From)

12/23/12, 11:00 AM

Beren Khagan said...
Hello JMG

This is a response to a comment made by Alex Boland on the survival of TV.

My opinion, after thinking about who pays for American TV, is that it is not the limitations of energy cost or availability that will end the “TV Zombie Fest”, but an economic collapse brought about by a failing financial system dependent on cheap energy to function.

Nearly all TV in America is paid for by corporations paying for advertising. A collapse would wipe out most of the corporations, impoverish most of the audience, and severely reduce in numbers several target audiences i.e. the ill, the old, and the disabled (see daytime TV). There is no point to mass marketing if there is no mass market, and TV is expensive mass marketing, so TV will collapse along with the rest of the corporations as their markets and incomes shrivel. The small niche channels will go down with the big boys as they ride on the physical broadcasting infra-structure of the big media corporations

The business that will replace the national and global advertisers will be mostly local and regional, and due to energy constraints will not have the cash or the need for an expensive mass marketing industry i.e. TV. I see a revival in local radio and press as an efficient (cost effective) advertising medium. Internet advertising may go either way it depends upon whether the search engines survive.

I am using the term ‘collapse’ to signify a sharp/large contraction in complexity and energy use in a society, not a single step from space age to stone age, rather one of JMG’s step downs in the long descent.

Of cause I could be completely wrong!

State Socialist TV anyone!

12/23/12, 3:36 PM

Juhana said...
You never know what you can learn during a new day. I actually thought I had good understanding of neopagan movement, and now I have to admit that was not the case. I aknowledged that umbrella term of neopaganism emerged in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, born from wider occult movement... Containing as separate sects as ariosophy and thelema. What I didn't know was that your religion, neodruidism reaches back as early as 1717. I also confused term shamanism to wide variety of different groups, probably because people communicating with drum and dance with supernatural world of Underside is what I am most familiar with. If you know what other person believes, you know vaguely how he/she thinks. So I am literally lost in the dark here, connecting you to wrong branch of historical tradition. My apologies for that. Still my original claim holds true: before tradition is solidly build, it's under construction and in state of constant flux. Only after equivalent of Nicaea/Chalcedon councils it is possible in any religion to be born inside edifice of faith; so that narrative is so strong you don't even recognize it, you just live by it. Word religio actually means proper performance of veneration, as you surely know; without agreed and stable structure there is no possibility of true religio. But of course, once the world of ideas has been transformed, reality cannot hold out for long. It is all about how people see the world; good and evil and purpose of existence always being created anew. Maybe some form of neopaganism can become one of few grand narratives in this world during forthcoming problems; maybe not. But it was fascinating to learn something new. After this I abstain from commenting your blog; English language is the weakest of three foreign languages I speak, and I have already caused ill-will and annoyance with my blunt use of it. Keep on writing this stuff, and I keep on reading it.

And even if synthesizer work in Stella Splendens was little out of place, that was not the point. Point was that song being part of direct line of tradition descending through 600 years. It is wonderful this kind of traditions can stay alive even in plastic, future-oriented West, where history is normally thrown to trashcan. In the Scythia it was possible to meet families counting their succession from voyevoda under taxation of Zolotaya Orda from 13th century onwards; it kind of gives you purpose in life, belonging to that kind of tradition. I have this feeling that belonging to something solid is going to be valued again in not so distant future.

12/23/12, 4:59 PM

Red Neck Girl said...
Please Juhana, do not stop posting! I thought at the time I read your post that while you have an excellent vocabulary you may not have meant to offend. The small differences in words, tiny weights of emotion or meaning that are different from the flat translation of one word/language to another can even trip up an exchange between two native speakers with different dialects. The conversation between one American dialect to say an English or Australian can be any where from hilarious to bordering on obscene or offensive to either party.

In America (at least in the western half) we call it suffering from foot in mouth disease. I have managed to nearly 'swallow up to my knee' occasionally. I have a big mouth and an occasional tendency to speak before I think that makes that too easy!

I enjoy your view point and you aren't a surface thinker plus you have a (to me) unique view of the worlds situation at this time.

One of the difficulties modern Pagans face in America is a tendency to be disrespected by mainstream religions. If I were to follow the religious beliefs of my American Indian ancestors I would possibly get more respect but I don't believe much, from Christians. And it's a moot point since the policy of the federal government was to assimilate all tribal peoples by doing many things to destroy traditional life, religions and languages.

So please reconsider your decision, it would be practice in clarifying your understanding of such an illogical language as 'English'.


12/23/12, 11:20 PM

Glenn said...
Merry christmas everyone. And remember, Axial Tilt is the reason for the season.

Marrowstone Island

12/24/12, 11:46 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Ha! The surfing would be fun to see and probably make a lot more sense in this context.

Hope he's good with the sharks though...

Hi Wadulisi,

Yeah, misunderstandings can happen very easily. I interpreted Juhana's comment as an attempt to Troll our host here and was a bit taken aback at the sheer audacity of it. Still, on reflection you can see that English is not that persons first language. It is not the error, but the response to the error that is the true measure of the person.

At one time, I had three ladies of Scottish descent working for me (Australia is a nation of immigrants, despite what some may say) and there were times I had trouble understanding what they were saying despite us all speaking the same language. What was difficult for them was that their families were accusing them of taking on an Australian accent!

I've got some friends from New Zealand who do a great parody of the Australian accent!



12/24/12, 3:51 PM

CGP said...
Cherokee Organics, it is correct that certain traits (narcissism, psychopathy etc.) are adaptive in some contexts but maladaptive in others. I would imagine that selfish and destructive traits would not be adaptive in societies built around small communities with high levels of interdependence (e.g. hunter-gatherers). However, in our overpopulated modern societies such traits are unfortunately rewarded too often. This probably has something to do with our overpopulated societies being overly atomised, individualistic and competitive making such traits helpful in “getting ahead” and making it harder to hold people directly accountable for destructive and selfish behaviours, not to mention that often these traits are confused with confidence and other desirable traits. There would be many other factors as well. As for corporations given how dependent modern societies are upon them (e.g. we need petroleum, pharmaceuticals, financial credit etc.) it is unsurprising that corporations would be able to affect and influence society in many ways including through political contributions shaping policy, ownership of the mainstream media and by modelling psychopathic behaviours that tend to get rewarded which sets a bad example. Once again I am sure there are many other factors as well.

As for freedom I agree that this is a concept that is often misunderstood and abused. I think the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was extremely insightful when he wrote that “the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty”. I found the book “The Freedom Paradox: Towards a Post-Secular Ethics” by Clive Hamilton (an Australian intellectual), which discussed freedom from this sort of a perspective, an interesting read.

12/24/12, 5:08 PM

Juhana said...
@Red Neck Girl and Cherokee Organics:
After my steadfast decision to abstain from commenting, I find myself answering to your courteous texts. My ex-wife would be happy to find out how extraordinaly strong-willed I am :). It is refreshing to find out that you CAN have conversation via internet between persons with widely different backgrounds, and keep it polite. Even if some mistakes are made, like I obviously did. I would like to understand how you think little bit more. Let's barter; I tell something about my worldview, and I hope to get answered. In my country we have this popular saying "vanhassa vara parempi", roughly translated as "older ways are better than new ones". Working system should never be changed; ideals brought to real world more often than not lead to massive bloodshed. What works in real world is the thing that has always worked in the real world. There is nothing new under the sun, and mankind has not evolved anywhere from where we have always been. Behind the border, in the Rus, this feeling of conservatism runs deep; liberal modernists are tiny minority of academic world. There are more Rus wishing heavenly czardom making comeback and leading nation once more as Third Rome, than people dreaming about liberal democracy. Eighty years of political experiment paid by blood sacrifices has kind of whipped this in: never trust anything new. I don't share this monarchist worldview, being Finn myself, but I respect reasoning behind it. What I share with them is deep suspicion towards liberalism and progressive ideology; I see them as utter failures when building stable society. All religions, all narratives that give some form to disturbingly formless world around us are artificial (?) constructs of human mind; time and age are best tests which of them truly works. When system is old, it means it has already survived and worked very long time, evolved organically to its current state. It actually works in this perfectly unperfect world of ours. Example from daily life: deeply traditionalist and religious couples I know tend to stick together, produce more children and raise them to be wellbehaving human beings. Liberal couples, agnostics (like me, unfortunately) and all kind of "progressives" tend to divorce more often. Small number of children they produce suffer more often than children in religious families from mental disturbances, rootlesness and simple bad behaviour. This is no insult towards anyone, just obsevation. Other model works in real world, other doesn't. It doesn't matter what ideological politruks of West say about it. Couple of hundreds years is shortest time even worth mentioning when testing endurance of some idea; everything else is just buzz of the fly in the ear of hearer. This is how I view time; I have deep suspicion of present time, I abhor the future being presented to us by liberal Western politicians and I trust and respect past. To me, Western generation of sixties and liberal discontinuity of tradition it represents is greatest tragedy that mankind has ever encountered.

Hoe do you view these things? How much you keep in touch with your extended family, are you for example ready to sacrifice your career choices to serve your parents if they are ill? Is there something greater in your life than illusionary satisfaction of animal instinct of self? Is future more important than past, and how you evaluate what works and what works not in society? These questions are indeed very nice Christmas present, but that is the way I am, always so light-hearted...

12/24/12, 11:20 PM

sgage said...

English as a second (or third) language must seem very odd, when you consider that people around the world with English as their first language can be unintelligable to each other, and not just accents, either.

Some wit once said (can't remember who):

"England and the United States - wo great nations divided by a common language."

12/25/12, 8:07 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Juhana, thanks for your apology. I may well have overreacted; it's just that it's very common for Christians to use the kind of language you did as a casual put-down. As for the modern Pagan movement, more on this in response to your later comment below.

Cox, your best bet these days is to Google the following search string...

how to run a meeting roberts rules

..and then read half a dozen of the web pages that offer an easy introduction to the process. You can get a good basic rundown on democratic process that way, and then proceed. I learned the process by way of fraternal orders, and haven't yet had time to go looking to see what's available in print.

Approliving, excellent! Yes, that's a crucial difference. It's the difference between hope and a sense of entitlement, in effect.

Liquid, funny! I'm not a great fan of synthesizers either, for what it's worth.

Hal, you're not the only one who finds Jim's endless cracks about Nascar fans and Cheez Doodles wearing, for what it's worth. I think you're quite right that the South has a better chance of coming through this with intact social systems than most other parts of the country -- and it's a source of some amusement to me to note the reaction of people in the leftward end of the peak oil scene to the thought that they're not the only ones who might relocalize!

Anselmo, er, did you read the post before this one? I covered that point in some detail there.

Beren, whether it's a sudden discontinuity or a slower unraveling, the production of new TV programs will doubtless come to an end for exactly the reason you've suggested: if it can't pay its way, it won't happen. Still, I suspect that there'll be a lag time, possibly an extensive one, in which recorded shows, videos, etc. are still available to those who have the electricity and the TV to use it.

Juhana, it's a mistake to assume that the paradigm of Christian history can be applied across the board. Most other religions never saw a point in having an equivalent of the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, and remained far more flexible and open to new ideas long after the initial phase was over. Druidry's a good example. Our formative phase was mostly in the 18th century, though it drew on older movements rooted in the pagan revival of the Renaissance; by the early 19th century, much of our core philosophical and ritual material was in place; yet the movement has continued to enrich its body of practices and teachings all along, and we're seeing quite a bit of new ground being covered (as well as a very respectable upsurge in active membership) in recent years. There will never be a Druid Nicene Council, because dissensus is a core value of the tradition and we've learned to provide ample room for our visionaries and innovators, as well as those who preserve and transmit the core materials of the past.

Glenn, funny.

Cherokee, why not incorporate them into the imagery? Tiger the Christmas Shark is Santa's inseparable companion; when children are good, they get toys from Santa, and when children are really awful, Tiger the Christmas Shark eats them. He's the Down Under equivalent of Krampus, the devil who goes around with St. Nick in central Europe, and whips naughty children with a birch switch.

12/25/12, 3:28 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

JMG wrote, "Stu, consensus can work if it's done in a community with shared values and a means of excluding people who try to game the system. Quaker meetings are good at that, and so were many Native American peoples, the Haudenosaunee among them."

One could add to that list a smaller and newer organization, The Covenant of the Goddess. CoG is a US-based organization of witches, founded in 1975, which operates on a modified consensus basis (election of officers and adoption of budgets by voting; all other decisions by consensus.)

Most people who've met more than a few witches think "organization of witches" is an Irish Bull; the metaphor "herding cats" comes up right away. CoG's bylaws aim at the attributes listed in your first sentence quoted above. It's relatively hard to join the Covenant and individuals or groups who are consistently difficult to work with eventually get kicked out. CoG has survived, grown modestly in size, and sometimes does useful work.

12/25/12, 7:41 PM

Unknown said...
(Deborah Bender)

@Kieran O'Neill--I have been a member of one private sector union and one public sector union, in which I was briefly a shop steward and served on the local's election committee.

American unions vary greatly in how democratic they are. Union bylaws can give rank and file members a lot of influence or almost none when it comes to choosing their officers, choosing their shop stewards, deciding how their dues will be spent, choosing whether to go on strike, and conducting and settling strikes. Setting aside instances of outright corruption, in some unions ordinary members have a say in those important decisions. In others, indirectly elected regional or national officers ("union bosses") or unelected staff make all or most of those decisions in a paternalistic way.

The relationship between organized labor and the American leftists is estranged for a variety of historical reasons. Among them:

1. Sometimes the economic interests of the dues-paying members of a union are not the same as the interests of non-unionized workers or the working class as a whole.

2. Union members are not necessarily liberal in their political or social views. A large number of union members and at least one major union, the Teamsters, supported the Vietnam War when the entire Left opposed it. Unions have had a mixed record on racial and gender equality.

3. In the 1930s and 1940s, many union activists were affiliated with socialist or communist political groups. In the 1950s and 1960s, the allegiance of those activists to the United States came under suspicion and most of them were purged from the unions. At the same time, President Eisenhower and the larger U.S. corporations made a deal with trade unions whereby union members would receive higher wages and benefits and job security in return for the unions giving up any say in achieving broader social goals.

4. Organized labor is a major and reliable donor and source of volunteer labor to the Democratic Party. Those leftists who see the Democrats as opponents rather than allies in achieving their goals see labor unions in the same light.

12/25/12, 8:05 PM

Alvin Leong said...
@Robert Mathiesen:

To your knowledge, how common is the actual practice of magic among the researchers in this field? According to an Amazon review, Richard Kieckhefer takes a dim view of practitioners, which is apparently shared by most academics. You, however, seem to be interested in actual practice, as did Culianu.

Tibetologists, who have the advantage of studying more widespread and well-documented living magical traditions, seem to be divided. Quite a few prominent researchers however are also practitioners and make no secret of the fact.

You might find this blog post by Rob Mayer interesting:

If you think this is more suitable as a personal email, could you please forward it to Robert Mathiesen? Thanks!

12/25/12, 8:32 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Stories are important and in need of writing and preserving. Maybe the Bunyip would be good too?

The history of the krampus is really interesting too - I'd never heard of this before.

I agree about this type of thinking being hard wired into our beings from the very first paramecia (nod of the hat to yourself for that one!) as there are so many examples.


Our host here on this blog has also echoed the same sentiment as the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Years ago, I would have dismissed such sentiments, but now this seems true to me as well. This is a bit eerie, but I wrote about Clive Hamilton in last weeks comments. Spooky!

Hi sgage,

How funny is that! hehe!

Hi Juhana,

Quote: " I would like to understand how you think little bit more. Let's barter".

Before proceeding, I'd like you to think about a riddle and provide some thoughts: In a barter economy (excluding references to science and currency), how many kilograms of salt can be traded for how many kilograms of honey?

The only restrictions I place on the riddle are that you must keep your answer simple and therefore workable.

Quote: "Working system should never be changed"

This is untrue – even in your country. In Finland, since the 1950's the methods of agriculture have clearly changed and Industrialisation has progressed. Adaption is part of the human condition.

Quote: "When system is old, it means it has already survived and worked very long time, evolved organically to its current state. It actually works in this perfectly unperfect world of ours."

This is no guarantee of future success, but merely an observation of history. Societies and cultures that are too rigid can be more likely to fail / collapse during a crisis (or at a critical moment) than more adaptive cultures. The Druids are wise to follow the course of adaption to circumstances and information.

Remember the riddle.



12/25/12, 9:14 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thought you may be very interested in this:

Greens soften policy stand

The Greens are the third wheel in Australian politics.

What did the Who sing in the classic song "Won't get fooled again":

Yeah Meet the new boss Same as the old boss



12/26/12, 10:33 AM

Juhana said...
@Cherokee Organics:
Good riddle. I am going to try open it with my quite humble logical capabilities during next days. And yes, you are right. System cannot become too inflexible. I personally believe that during forthcoming contraction most solutions will come from pre-industrial past; but I admit it is not going to be enough. We need fresh ideas also. It is one reason why I enjoy reading this blog; there are practical tips and new point-of-views to consider. To be such a dull, patriotic reactionary as me, I am surprisingly adaptive to learn new... If "new thing" is small, practical and comes with no high ideals. You just have to have some boundaries, eh?
And I am impressed: you actually know something about Finland. There was very big societal change in this country during late 50s/early 60s, breaking down our small-scale, labour-intensive and largely horse-powered agriculture, replacing it with agrobussiness. That change also flooded our small cities with rootless workers succumbing very often to alcoholism. My granparents were part of that migration from land to city. You see why I am such a conservative..? I have lived large part of my life some 30 kilometres away from border zone to Russia, and I probably am more connected to whereabouts of that big bear of East than most Finns. So I probably have soaked some conservatism from there too. But you had a good point in that.

Law of engineering: you should never change working system, without calculating all possible outcomes. All changes must be tried out little by little and carefully. It is all about control theory and about mathematics dealing with the behavior of dynamical systems with new inputs. I believe that society reacts similarly to changes as closed-loops systems, so we need feedback controllers for transfer functions... Sorry, my English is just not enough for that conversation. But yes, some changes are needed time to time, but they must be small and very, very anti-revolutionary. No grand experiments like globalism or mass immigration or socialism or fascism, thank you. We had culture revolution in sixties, and in large parts of Europe we are having this radical counter-revolution as reaction against it right now, especially in the East. Revolution leads to bloodshed, sooner or later, and now is later. Revolutionarism from right or left, from all political colours in general is scary and bad thing, and I am very, very phatic in that one.

I keep on trying that riddle!

It is good that apology was accepted. I am actually quite eager to learn little bit more about druidism. It was little shameful to be so ignorant, and still commenting. Reading tips would be nice, for further learning. But you understand, most neopagans I have heard about or met, well...they have quite heavy political leanings to certain directions. There is this this new, I would say surprisingly big and popular wave splashing around many Eastern European countries right now... You can imagine my feeling of cognitive dissonance when I found your blog through Oil Drum and tried to connect your paganism to this movement... Here is link for you, to estimate personally this blend of paganism/mystic orthodoxy (?). I suppose druidism has to engage into debates with these guys here in Europe in not so distant future. You are claiming same historical heritage, you just don't agree about contents. Paganism is not universalist, it is localist, and as such semi-nationalist with mystic leanings. Certain universalist morality of old-school Christianity (orthodoxy and papists of Rome) is blessing that is going to be missed when lost. You will see.
And to hammer point into less-gifted readers of your blog, I don't have any connection or enthusiasm to ideas represented in following link, just following my time... After all, I am following druidic blog also and sending JMG texts as links through internet regularly, and I am no follower of neodruidism either.

12/26/12, 12:57 PM

Dan L. said...

Thanks for your patience. I'll cop to "O'Reilly Factor" and "false moderation" as items of phatic communication. I'll also apologize for having used the phrase "misunderstood or misrepresented" as it's an unfair (and silly) rhetorical ploy.

One quick word in my defense: "Partisans believe X; therefore, X is false" is not a logically valid inference. One cannot conclude a proposition is false merely because some people may believe a proposition for bad reasons. This is what I had meant by "false moderation" but similar phrases are used heavily and much less equivocally by a great many liberal idealogues and so I shall try to find a better way to say this.

My father tends to be more "conservative" than I am in his political opinions but when I talk to him I find our superficially contradictory opinions are quite often based on very similar values. When we take the time to talk through issues on which we disagree we often find each other objecting to particular uses of language rather than having any sort of fundamental disagreements. This is to say I found more to agree with in your post than to disagree; I regret having emphasized the disagreement, especially on such small and tangential issues.

12/26/12, 2:37 PM

Dakota de Sinope said...
A big part of the story of OWS, wrapped up nicely (if not explicitly) in a neat little nutshell:

"...the State often decides the best people are the worst people..."

12/26/12, 9:47 PM

Garrett said...
Brent wrote: "I hesitate to comment now because I fear that even with your amazing capacity to digest, as your site traffic grows, at some point you won’t be able to keep up."

Related to your point and the discussion as a whole, I think, is Dunbar's Number. Communication will break down (you may even say democracy becomes impossible) when a group reaches a certain size. Link:

I highly recommend A Theory of Power by Jeff Vail, which can be read online.

Those involved with the transition movement, myself included, often say that increased localization is inevitable due to the interrelated trifecta of environmental, economic and resource collapse. Well, in addition to being inevitable, I think localization provides the only hope for enacting direct democracy.

I have not yet read the many comments beyond Brent's, so I apologize if I'm unnecessarily repeating what others have said.

1/1/13, 1:15 PM

phil harris said...
JMG & Bill Pulliam
re '1000 sq ft garden'
I was rushing to go out before I sent off my comment with my calculation. Either that or I am getting old!
Teaches me not to accuse a man of bad arithmetic!
4840 sq yds to one acre.
9 sq ft to a sq yard
43.56 x '1000 sq ft plots' to an acre.
A good 'average' yield of 3 tonnes of high-yielding wheat to an acre = roughly 9.7M kcals per acre or ~220,000 kcals per '1000 ft plot'.
So 'the man' is claiming at least the equivalent of more than 6 tonnes of grain equivalent per acre, which could only meet a highly calories restricted daily intake. This could be achieved possibly with a very good yield of corn (maize) or potato, but is higher than has been achieved for real within the tight constraints of the Chinese village I quoted having two crops in a year, (rice and wheat) and is not likely to be sufficient or sustainable - see previous comments - Bill's mainly.

Not as wild as I wrote previously, but still not realistic, IMHO.

BUT SORRY - I DID HURRY HOME to correct my error!

1/2/13, 3:03 PM