Thursday, July 12, 2018

DEMOCRACY: THREATENED OR THREATENING? - Part II - Presidential Electors

These posts are not concerned with the U.S. Constitution in its entirety but rather with the distillation effect it has on its democratic process. In this post, I will consider  the inherent vulnerabilities in the democratic process found in U.S. Constitution as they relate to presidential elections.

In my last post, the U.S. Constitution was likened to a distillery in which the voice or will of the people is refined as it moves through the various levels of government.  I also noted that while the Constitution acts as a refinery that defines the democratic process, democracy has a way of shaping the Constitution itself.  This is both necessary and problematic.

I am not a fan of constitutional originalism.  Treating the Constitution as if it is the inerrant Word of God is constitutional blasphemy.  Trying to concretize every word and punctuation mark in the articles and in the amendments of the Constitution as the infallible and unquestionable meaning of the text neuters the Constitution's fecundity.

The intent of the Constitution is clearly stated in the Preamble. It is the Preamble that serves as the touchstone by which anything in the Constitution and any issue related to the Constitution must be tested.

Having said that does not dismiss the value of considering what the framers intended  by the democratic process they defined by creating the Constitution.   The value of such consideration is  whether within the original ratified format there is something pragmatic to be garnered from what appears ambiguous in its historical context that has more application today then it did when  conceived.

It is obvious the framers did not have all the answers nor could they foresee all the pitfalls that would arise over time.  Their brilliance is that they didn't try to do the impossible but rather intended to give shape to something that would take shape, and therein lies the Constitution's strength and durability.

THE INADVERTANT WEAKNESS OF THE "ELECTORAL COLLEGE"

This brings one back to the topic at hand, the democratic process. What has proven to be the greatest vulnerability within the Constitution is in the democratic process, as it relates to electing the U.S. President.

I believe the framers of the Constitution were on to something that could have spared us the presidential dilemma we, in the United States, find ourselves in from time to time had they better defined electoral process for choosing a president.  I am not finding fault with them.  They were writing in an age when the nation was hardly a nation; when the various states had more loyalty from their citizens than the United States did as a whole.

It made sense, at the time, to allow each state to determine who their presidential electors would be.  The framers were on a tight-rope trying to hold a tenuous union together.  It proved to be a balancing act; hoping that wise minds in the various states would prevail in choosing able executive leaders.

Early presidential elections were messy affairs with the President and Vice President frequently representing opposing political and ideological views.   Presidential campaigns became partisan from the beginning and the choice of electors unfortunately fell in line with this partisan trend.

The issue of the President/Vice President divide was resolved by the creation of the party ticket in which each presidential candidate chose a running mate for Vice President. The practice of electors electing the nominated ticket winning their state's presidential election was to certify their votes by separately electing each person on the ticket as a formal nod to the Constitution's requirement.

The number of electors each state has is based on the number of representatives and senators each state sends to Washington D.C..   Currently there are 538 electors with three representing the District of Columbia. Unfortunately,electors are wedded to presidential  nominees.  With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, who assign electors based on which nominees a win a congressional district of their state, all other states use a winner-takes-all approach to choosing who their electors are.

As a result, presidential campaigns are huge affairs because the popular vote in each state determines its electors.  Technically, the voters are voting for electors, but most average voters give have that in mind when they go to the ballot box.  In fact, some states no longer require that the electors names are printed next to party's nominated ticket.   As such, the role of the elector is more a matter of form than function.

This has led many voters in the United States to advocate for the abolition of what is known as the Electoral College in favor of a strict popular vote for president.   Democracy trends towards favoring the popular or majority position regardless if that position is the result of well-informed voters or not.  This is what concerned the framers of the Constitution.  A strict popular vote for a singular executive position like  a president lends itself to populism and populism tends towards sensationalism, popularity, and the selection of a savior figure or demagogue to rule the moment.

VOICES FROM THE PAST

It's worth listening to the voices of some of our founding fathers with regard to the problems they saw with selecting a president by strict popular vote.  In the The Federalists Papers No. 68 , Alexander Hamilton expressed concern about electing someone to such a high office who possessed the qualities of being drawn to "low intrigue" and prone to exercising, "the little arts of popularity."  No wonder that the current administration has little appreciation for the musical, "Hamilton."

James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 10 was concerned with an " interested and overbearing majority" and "the mischiefs of faction  ...who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to  the permanent and aggregate interest of the community."

Unfortunately, the Electoral College has long ceased to have a meaningful function apart from ratifying a state's popular vote.  It does not prevent populism from dominating an election season by rising above the influence of faction in order to discern who best would serve this nation's needs and who best would protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

THE WEDDED BLISS OF DEMOCRACY AND CAPITALISM

The election of a president also provides "key" states - States with more electors  to shape the executive branch of the federal government; thus some smaller states jockey for influential primacy by holding their primaries early to set the nominee stage and give emphasis to that state's importance. This not only makes political sense, but offers a boost to that state's economy via campaign spending.

The idea of campaign reform; particularly, with regard to presidential campaigns has been a can kicked around for at least two decades.  Yet, there appears to be no incentive to do so. In fact corporate money, via Supreme decision, is given its own voice in fostering  campaigns.  No where else is capitalism and democracy so wedded as in a United States presidential campaign.

The reason this marriage between money and presidential campaigns is so prominent is the need to prompt the popular vote in a given state to secure its electoral votes. This results in a media blitz of information and misinformation.  Without trying to be cynical, most presidential elections are not determined by who has the best credentials to be president, but who has the best charisma, who makes the people feel most hopeful, who has the least political baggage, and most importantly (in recent elections) who is the least scary.

CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS IN THE MAKING

It would appear that the vast majority of voters have very little interest in whether a nominee is devoted to the Constitution he or she is sworn to defend.  This is not say that those who have taken that Oath of Office were not serious about defending the Constitution.  We have been fortunate, for the most part, that most presidents throughout U.S. history were. 

The 2016  Presidential election, however, has exposed the vulnerabilities the Constitution has with regard to distilling the democratic process in electing the President.   The 2016 election is likely to go down in history as the election that exposed a constitutional crisis that has been brewing for some time.

If the Constitution was designed to be a distillery of the democratic process, as I proposed in my previous post, it's weakest filter was in its lack of definition regarding the role of electors in choosing the President and the Vice President. If the intent of designating electors from each state was to reduce the influence of populist passions on the holder of this high office, it failed at the state level.

Since lacking specific constitutional duties, the role of the elector has been to act as a rubber stamp in validating the selection of the ticket that won their state's presidential election.  Being tied to a political party's nominee, they really serve no other personal function than their position being tallied in determining who has won the requisite number of electoral votes to be the next president.

Yes, electors can dissent or refuse to cast their vote, but there is no true collegiality amongst them as a "college" of electors; no coming together as a group to debate or discern whether the person who  won their state's popular or indeed won the nation's popular vote merits their personal vote and most importantly no duty to ensure the most qualified nominee is selected as the President.  It is no wonder, that many Americans are in favor of eliminating electors altogether and simply choosing a president by popular vote alone. As it stands , the electoral vote is seen as a manipulative device used by political parties to get around the popular vote.

What seems to have been the original intent in identifying electors is based, in my opinion, upon the democratic process that was shaped by the Constitution.  What is derived from that view would indicate that the selection of a president and vice president by electors was originally intended to be a relatively non-partisan decision.

This  lack of constitutional definition regarding the responsibilities of the electors has rendered the Constitution vulnerable and has led to increasingly unscrupulous campaign behavior by both major parties that has reached a pinnacle beginning in the 2000 presidential election where paper chads on the Florida presidential ballots resulted the election being decided by the Supreme Court.  In 2016, we have seen how vulnerable an election of the President is to foreign influence, especially when the election takes a populist turn.

It seems reasonable then that most Americans are increasingly in favor of the Electoral College's elimination and would prefer to choose presidents by strict popular vote.  The problem with the "Electoral College" is that few, if any, care whether the electors have a direct, constitutional function in choosing a president.

WHAT IF?

I, for one (and maybe I'm the only one), believe that President should be elected by independent electors whose sole job is to ensure that the persons elected as President and Vice President possess the qualities necessary to fulfill  the executive needs of the nation.  I am not advocating that the voting public should have no say in who is elected.  They must have a say to the extent that nominees are chosen, but once chosen, the public campaign should end and the Electoral College's serious work begins. Being that such work was left largely undefined now would be a good time to define the job of an elector as vetting and selecting the persons best suited for these high offices.

In my next post, I will ponder some views as to how this might work.

Until next time, stay faithful.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

DEMOCRACY: THREATENED OR THREATENING? Part I - The Constitutional Distillery

Among many things, Winston Churchill is famous for having the commented in a speech to the British House of Commons on November 11, 1947, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those that have been tried."  In that same speech Churchill also said, "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise." 

I quite agree with Sir Winston's comments.  I would clarify that democracy is technically
a tool of government used by constitutional republics, commonwealths, and monarchies in determining leadership and the course of government.

Churchill is right in implying that democracy is wrought with problems of its own.  It is not perfect nor is it all-wise and yet, here in the United States, one could be led think it so.  We, in the United States, hear almost daily that Russia's attempt to influence the last presidential election is a threat to "our democracy" as if it is tantamount to a direct attack on United States.  But is it?  If it is, in what way is it a direct attack on our nation? 

Or... 

Could it be that democracy lends itself to manipulation and is prone to undermining the very governments that constitutionally define its use?

In order to explore these questions, it is necessary to take a quick course on the use of democracy by constitutional based government like that of the United States of America in its earliest stages of existence.  Democracy, as the primary means of governance, has a short life-span. Without definition, democracy, as rule by the people (meaning the majority), tends to become quickly unbalanced,  anarchic, and devolves into handing power the control of government over to an oligarchy or a dictator. This was evident in ancient Athens.

The founding fathers of the United States understood this very well in establishing a system of checks and balances by constitutionally creating three branches of national government.  An additional balance to the government was the establishment of a federal republic in which the various states that made up the United States had the ability to choose their own leaders  make their own constitution and laws, and send representatives and senators to serve in the Federal government.

The concept of the "majority rules," which some Americans naively believe leads to perfect and all-wise decision making, must have given the founding fathers some sleepless nights.  They were well read and well informed.  They understood that raw democracy as government would ultimately devolve into government by the few and for the few or handing the reigns of government to a tyrannical strongman.

DISTILLING DEMOCRACY

What the founding fathers believed would preserve  the liberty they fought hard for was to exercise liberty by a nation whose citizens owned the decisions distilled from their collective voice and made on their behalf.  Democracy became the means by which to distill the collective will expressed by the many into the will of one nation. The Constitution became the distillery through which that was accomplished.

Who should have a say in governing was also a concern for the founding fathers.   Democracy works best if those who have a vote are well informed or are capable of being well informed. Initially, the United States Constitution did not mention who was eligible to vote.  This was largely left up to the state's. In many of these states, however, voting was initially limited to male landowners.  The obvious thought behind this decision was that people who owned their own property were likely to be educated, could read, or had enough principled sense to make an informed decision.

Originally, on the federal level of government, the citizen voter from each state could only vote for  those serving in the House of Representatives.  Senators were chosen by their state legislators, the President was elected by electors chosen by the states to form what is known today as the Electoral College, and justices to the Supreme Court were nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  Distilling  democracy was accomplished through a process of electing local and state officials who, in turn, selected and elected federal officials.

To keep democracy from devolving into tyranny, the office of the President and  those of Senator and Representative were given varied term limits.  The only exception was the position of a Supreme Court justice, who could serve for life, but this was balanced by having nine justices who make decisions by majority  opinion.  The process of government is democratic throughout, but the higher up the governing ladder one goes the more distilled it becomes. At least, that appears to have been the original intent.

The founding fathers didn't stop there.  Their concern with democracy extended to their fear that to get to an end product, an elixir vitae that would energize government, keep it alive, and protect the Constitution's democratic processes, required a variety of voices fermented in the tumultuous vats of politics and then carefully distilled like a fine brandy into laws of the land that would appeal to and appease the democratic palate of the masses, while protecting the varietal minorities.  This, it was hoped, would preserve the fragile unity of a newborn nation.

The value of distilling unity out of diversity is inherent in the idealism that created the United States.  While, initially, not every citizen had a right to vote, every citizen had a right to address government; a right to express their own opinions, which led to the Bill of Rights.  Liberty is quickly lost where voices are readily silenced and the will of one can be trampled underfoot by an unprincipled mob.  These are the basic seeds upon which the republic of the United States was established. 

THE TUMULTUOUS VATS OF PARTISAN POLITICS

True democratic processes require a catalyst to begin the fermentation of ideas and a delivery system to distillery of government.  That catalyst is politics.  Politics is often uncouth, divisive, generally ill mannered, and ill informed which led Churchill to observe, "The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter."  Nevertheless, there can be no true democratic process without the mash and sludge of politics.

Partisanship in the form of  political parties is the first stage of turning crude opinion into something usable; for within the diverse opinions of the people resides a resource that can be refined to energize a cohesive nation.  As government generated by democratic processes begins to grow, it generates more political fodder for the public to chew on and ferment over.  As a result, a pendulum effect is created in the legislative process.  Legislative actions create political reactions that create increasingly similar actions and reactions.

This left/right momentum actually results in progress if there is a sense of balance and rhythm within partisan debate.  At some point, there must be a consensus or at least a temporary acquiescence to majority opinion in order to maintain civility.  If not, the pendulum of discourse begins to act erratic and tends to swing more in one direction than the other or begins swinging too far left and too far right and eventually the legislative branch of government is incapable of moving anything forward and comes to a halt, leading to civil strife or increasing the role of the executive branch to govern arbitrarily to keep government moving.

This certainly was experienced in the United States during its Civil War period and is evident in today's polarized Congress.   It takes extremely devoted leaders to the nation's constitution to avoid its being destroyed democratically and to restore the balance needed to preserve the democratic system it defines.

While the Constitution serves as the distillery of its democratic processes, raw democracy remains the crude substance that generates political power and partisan politics.  To garner support political parties of various stripes  have attempted to manipulate the flow of this crude power source to their advantage.  Who should vote and where they should vote remains to this day a constant in political maneuvering.

HIERARCHICAL DEMOCRACY

Over time, the democratic processes are likely to shape the very distillery designed to refine it.  I believe the original intent of constitutional government in the United States was to curb the volatility inherent in what is known today as populism.   As the distillation of raw  democracy is increasingly filtered  through the legislative process to becoming the law of the land, the more elite and select the filters become.

I believe the intent of the founding fathers was to limit, as much as possible, the influence of  partisan politics on most offices held at federal level, like senators, Supreme Court justices, and the President.  These offices we're originally intended to be positions that answered to a limited constituency.  The one exception was the congressional office of representatives.  Representatives answered to their local constituents, senators were answerable to their state legislatures, the President answered to Congress, and the Supreme Court justices answered to no one. Refined as it was, the democratic process was identifiable throughout the process with exception of the President who has limited arbitrary powers as Commander in Chief of the military.

This system would change over course of U.S. history.   The framers of the Constitution allowed for change and restructuring through its amendment process.  The framers were inventing something that would have to take on a life of its own.  As brilliant as the Constitution is, it has vulnerabilities.  Although the framers of the Constitution did their best to create a balanced government that provides checks on abuse and misuse, they knew of no perfection in human endeavor that guards against human weakness and its proclivity for corruption.

This awareness is most evident in the oath of office the President takes, "to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."  It is even more evident in the oath taken by members of both congressional houses and one of two oaths sworn by Supreme Court Justices, "to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States  against all enemies, both foreign and domestic."

Such oaths are recognize that the biggest threat to the Constitution is its vulnerability to abuse and misuse by the very people sworn to uphold and defend it.  It also implies that the Constitution is vulnerable to attack by the very people whose voices are protected by it.

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As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the purpose of this series of posts is the examine the question of democracy can be threatened or is it a case that democracy lends itself to manipulation and undermining the constitutions that guide its use.    In the next post we will examine some of the vulnerabilities  inherent in the United States Constitution. 

Until next time, stay faithful.

Monday, June 18, 2018

FUTURE-FEAR - Part V - A Perspective Offered by Jesus


In this post, I reflect on a perspective that can be gleaned from Jesus's treatment of individuals, his sermons, his parables, and his comments on end times to determine how Jesus addressed the subjects of past, present, and future.    I have purposely avoided calling this a Christian perspective because I'm not at all sure that many Christians would agree with my interpretation of Jesus's teaching.


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"Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. "  Jesus as quoted in  Matthew 6:34 (KJV)

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This quote from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount sums up Jesus's way of facing the future:  Don't worry about it.  The future will have a whole new set of issues to address, so deal with them then.  In other words, don't get ahead of the game, focus on today. 

This seems to be sage advice for the times in which we live said by a man who lived in and at an extremely uncertain and polarized time and place.   It was a time in which many of the people of Judea longed for glorious past of King David which was projected into the future as the hoped for Messiah that would bring such longings to permanent fruition.   It was in this environment that Jesus famously stated that  house divided against itself cannot stand - a prophetic statement that was dramatically played out as a major factor in the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE.

 DEALING WITH THE PAST

Jesus's approach to this longing for an idealized past was to address it by focusing on the present. While he did not argue against this longing and kept his finger on its pulse, he demonstrated that the Kingdom of God they longed for was present now, and that it was brought into realization by how people of his time treated the least and most vulnerable.  For Jesus, the past was not something to idealize or idolize but rather to forgive it in tangible ways.  For example, the chronically sick and the social outcast were considered products of a sinful past. They or one of their relative supposedly did something sometime that resulted in their infirmity. 

Jesus did not verbally argue against such ideologies, rather he demonstrated the injustice in them by first forgiving the sick and then healing them.  Jesus understood that people learn through experience more than through intellectual discourse.  A person forgiving another person's sins was considered at the time an outrageous affront to God's authority, much more so than actually healing the person.  In doing so, however, Jesus was removing the person's past and bringing the person fully into the present as a person whose sin was no longer before her or him or before anyone else as a psalmist once suggested was always the case. 

COPING WITH THE PRESENT

Jesus's approach to the present was in embracing its everydayness and to see life as empowering in its own right. "Consider the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air," says Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. Then there are the Beatitudes which serves as a preface to this sermon where blessedness is not defined in terms of those who wield power or possess wealth but rather by those who don't - the humble, the meek, the peacemaker, and the persecuted - people who don't draw attention to themselves and largely go about  or try to go about their lives unnoticed.   Jesus approached the "evils of the day" by forgiving and healing people - by addressing what is and who was presented to him.

The healing of one person is, at some level, the healing of all persons.  Contrary to all appearance, we are not different from each other in substance or being, merely in the manifestation of that substance or being by the life conditions we find ourselves in at this present time - where we live, the culture we are part of, and the ideologies we adopt and adapt to.

It seems Jesus understood this very well.  Jesus's approach to coping with the injustice, the evil of the day was to forgive, heal, reset, and restore justice one person at a time.  Yes - he addressed the injustice of his day rhetorically, but he also did something about it one person at a time.  He did not raise an army to vanquish an enemy army.  Rather he loved the enemy, one person at a time and where this was received, reconciled that person with himself.   In the end, he became the foundation upon which the world's largest theistic religion was built - one person at a time because the perspective Jesus worked from was that each individual is valuable; a child of God, a brother or sister of his.

Jesus was a prophet of the present, as most prophets are.  As a prophet, he pointed out the ignored obvious, which most prophets do. As such, tomorrow is not the issue, today is.  Jesus did not forecast a future, but explained the trajectory of current human behavior. 

FACING THE FUTURE

The future of Jesus's day was largely caste in apocalyptic hues, which seem to satisfy the frustration people in every age have with the age, the suffering and injustice they feel is being done to them or being played out by those who wield authority at the time.  Jesus did not waste time trying to change people's minds about their apocalyptic beliefs.  He may have shared them, but if he did he brought relevance to them by making them a concern of the present not only for the powers that be, but for every individual who listened to him. 

In spite of all the apocalyptic imagery he used, Jesus largely treated the future as the blank page it is in the present, a tabula rasa on which would be written the deeds of today.  The future flows from the present as the present flows from the past.  In the synoptic gospels Jesus admits he doesn't know when or how the end will take place.  He advises his audience not to get caught up in signs or with those who claim to be a messiah.  Jesus doesn't dismiss signs nor does he advise his audience to go into hiding or sell off their property, rather he advises them to stay awake and treat each other well.

Jesus's approach to history is that it indicates compassion, forgiveness, mercy and loving reconciliation will stand and anything less than that will become meaningless and nonexistent.  The implication is that should the human species fail to engage in seeing this trajectory come to fruition, the world and our species will become meaningless and nonexistent.  One does not have believe in an apocalypse to understand that when it comes to what we humans do, we hold the keys to our annihilation as well as our salvation.  This has never been so evident as it is today.

I don't believe Jesus preached a message that ever relieved us from our humanity; from our responsibilities of doing justice, showing mercy, being compassionate, being forgiving and engaging in reconciliation.  In his reported discourses on judgement, Jesus attaches what we do to each other rather than what we believe in as the true measure of faith and salvation.  Read Matthew chapters 24 and 25.

It is important not to encase these metaphorical stories in concrete and make them strictly about goats and sheep, good guys and bad guys, and so on.  There is such a thing as forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and reconciliation that can occur now and in each and every day hereafter. While we live we have the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven, to show mercy and be recipients of mercy, to show compassion and be shown compassion, to reconcile and be reconciled.

During his time, Jesus was setting an example of how to address the problems we are living with at the moment of their occurrence.  What was and remains unsettling about Jesus's teachings and his actions was his intense focus on the present - on what he referred to as the Kingdom of God, which was not something coming around the next bend but was at hand and here for the grasping.  Our treatment of the present is like reading a good mystery novel and wanting to skip to see how it all ends instead of wading through the plot as it unfolds.

There is no mystery behind the world ending.  The universe will end.  That's a  trajectory based on scientific fact.  It is no mystery that, for the most part, we are the cause of our own misery; that we inflict mental and physical pain on ourselves and others. We are witnesses to this fact's blatant display via the news media every hour of every day. 

The essence of Jesus's teachings is when it comes to living now what we do now matters now.  In doing what is just, merciful, compassionate, forgiving and reconciling each other to the truth of love in each and every opportune moment removes much of the human based reasons for fearing the future.  In my opinion, the trajectory that Jesus's teaching has on human understanding is that we have less to fear of God's judgment and wrath than we do the judgment and wrath of our fellow human beings.  God is merciful.  We humans are less so, and that remains an every day problem for now.

Until next time, stay faithful.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

FUTURE-FEAR - Part IV - A Judeo Perspective


In this post on Future-Fear, I will ponder the theological implications of what I have been writing about from a Judeo perspective. What inspired me to undertake this journey into how time is understood and used today was reading Rabbi Jonathan Sach's commentary on the Book of Numbers, "Covenant and Conservation, Numbers and the Wilderness Years."   Rabbi Sachs brings the Book of Numbers alive and relevant in our own age.  The entire commentary is worth reading, but what caught my attention was his comments throughout this book on Moses sending spies into the land of Canaan that became a turning point for Moses and the Israelites of his generation.

I will not go into all the details of this story, which the reader can do by reading Numbers chapters 13 and 14 along with Rabbi Sach's excellent commentary.  What I find intriguing is this particular story's broad metaphorical implications regarding how we deal with the past, cope with the present, and face the future.  I say metaphorical because all history, over time, becomes metaphorical in application. It is this metamorphosis into the metaphorical that allows us and allures us to use the past when coping with the what is, the present. I strongly suspect that the authors of the Hebrew scriptures understood this about their history and use it to great effect in their formulating their scriptures.


SPIES AND LIES

What I have not discussed in these posts on future-fear is the element of faith.  In this turning-point story of the Israelites' forty year  sojourn in the wilderness, we are presented with a classic example of the clash between belief and faith.  Of the twelve spies sent to check out the land they were to occupy, only Caleb and Joshua saw the situation for what it was - ready, with God's help (faith), for the taking. 

As I mentioned in my other posts, the past is never recalled with precision; particularly, when the past is colored by belief. We see this played out dramatically when the encamped Israelites hear and accept the account given by the ten spies who gave their report about giants and the fortified cities rather than Caleb and Joshua.

What the other ten saw was seen through the lens of what they may have heard about the people who currently occupied the land; an ideological based belief that they were giants descended from the legendary, quasi-divine race called the Nephilim.  They also saw fortified cities that recalled power of Egypt during their slavery and assumed the inhabitants were powerful like the Egyptians. It is probable that what they believed about the current residents of the Promised Land was what they were looking for, based on what they had heard. Ultimately what they believed they found is what they believed they would find.

The questions their report raises are:

Had they ever experienced giants?  Why the reference to the Nephilim? 

Was this a belief handed down through the generations during the 400 year period the Israelites lived in Egypt? 

Was the Israelites' acceptance of the worst scenario simply based on the majority of the spies having agreed with each other that entering the land would be a disaster?

Was that a shared belief the spies possessed before entering the land?

Here the writers of Numbers demonstrate the little appreciated fact that it is our beliefs rather than our actual experiences that are more influential in shaping our visions of the future.  According to Numbers, the Israelites not only expressed a longing to return to the reliability of past which was most recently their slavery in Egypt but also threatened open rebellion against Moses and Aaron for bringing them into the wilderness.  In addition, they threatened Caleb's life for giving them a report that didn't coincide with their fear-based beliefs.

Hadn't they witnessed the plagues, the Passover event that set them free, and walking through the Red Sea?   These all required a high degree of faith in God and Moses.  Wasn't that enough to convince them that wherever Moses would lead them they would be safe because God was clearly on Moses's side?

Apparently not.

According to Rabbi Sachs, the issue was that these freed Israelites had not yet adapted to their freedom.  Up till the the time they reached the border of the Promised Land, they were not responsible for their freedom.  Once they crossed the border they would have to take possession not only of the land but also the responsibility to remain free, and they weren't ready to do so.  The Book of Numbers backs that assessment. It is their apparent weakness to take responsibility that motivates Moses to plea for them to be spared and results in their wandering in the wilderness for the next forty years.

Beyond that, the authors of Numbers strongly hint that their lack of faith in themselves and God was also connected to their beliefs about the inhabitants of the land - that what caused them to rebel was their belief-based fear that they would face an enemy of super humans who would treat them worse than the Egyptians; a belief confirmed by the report by ten spies who believed they found what they feared.

The important distinction between belief and faith made in this story is defined via reference to the Nephilim, a mythic race mentioned in the Book of Genesis.  The authors of Numbers don't question the belief; they merely state it as a major factor in the Israelites' desire to abandon their newly obtained freedom.  The distinction between belief and faith may not have been a conscious concern at the time Numbers was written, but one can clearly trace the distinction between the two terms in this story.

The distinction is simply this:  Faith is a matter of the human spirit  -  an act of trust exercised in the moment.   Beliefs are matters of the human mind - thoughts that shape our understanding of the past, our perceptions of the present, and our vision for the future.  Beliefs can serve to define the basis of one's faith, but faith is not dependent on belief.  Humans can act from faith without the thought of belief and frequently do.

Living through the plagues, the Passover event, and the parting of the Red Sea involved acts of faith. The Israelites in those moments did not have time to form beliefs about what was happening. Those moments required trust in coping with "what is" - with what was happening at the time. When they fled Egypt they didn't have time to think, they had to flee as they were eventually pursued.  They didn't have time to squander in doubt, they had to exercise faith in something they were just getting to know.

After spending a few weeks in the dessert wilderness of Sinai  before arriving at the border to the Promised Land, they had forty days (the time allotted the spies to check out the Promised Land) to think and talk about what to expect once they crossed that border.   The expectations they had were clearly shaped by their preexistent beliefs about the inhabitants of the land, a belief shared and confirmed by ten of the twelve spies.  Only Caleb and Joshua were able to set aside these beliefs and see things for what they were.

As Rabbi Sachs points out in his commentary, fortified cities were not considered a sign of strength, but rather weakness and I would add a sign of division.  Neither Caleb nor Joshua mention giants that eat their own, which begs the question why the others did.  Were they intentionally lying? 

The saying, "Seeing is believing," holds true if one does not possess an a priori belief one is seeking to see.  In most cases, people tend to see what they believe.  For example, if one believes in the paranormal one is more likely to experience and see the paranormal at work.  If one believes in conspiracy theories, one sees all kinds of speculative evidence to support them.  Such beliefs can and frequently do alter perception on both a personal and a societal level to "what is" occurring at the time.

FOUR CENTURIES,  FORTY DAYS, AND FOUR DECADES

You would think that a book called Numbers would indicate that numbers means something.  I would venture to say that is correct. As I have mentioned in past posts, numerology was readily used  in scripture as a code to broaden its meaning without having to resort to lengthy commentary as we can easily do today.  Numbers mean more than their simple numeric value. In numerology, numbers 1 through 9 and multiples thereof have cosmic and mystical connotations.

The Torah  uses the number 4 and multiples of 4 to suggest formation or what I have referred to as transfiguration in past posts.  In Genesis, there are the forty days and forty nights of the flood.  There is Abraham being informed that his descendants would dwell in Egypt for four hundred years.  This presumably happened, and we can assume that for most of those years the Children of Israel lived in peace and prosperity until a pharaoh came into power who did not know their history. 

How many generations lived in slavery is not known, but what we can deduce from this story in Numbers is that it was not too many generations as they can recall a history of the good times their ancestors enjoyed in Egypt; a time in history they thought possible to return to while waiting at the border of Promised Land.  What led them to think so is a mystery, but I suspect it is that the hardship of the traveling in the desert for several weeks, causing generalized fatigue and anxiety with regard to what to except when the spies returned. 

Then there was a forty day waiting period at the border to allow the spies time to check out the land.  There is an implicit question that forms in one's mind as to why there was a need to check the land out before crossing the border.  After all, didn't God lead them out of Egypt and swallow the pursuing Egyptian cavalry in the Red Sea?  Why stop now?  Why the hesitancy? 

The answer is coded in the use of 40 days.  They were made to pause in the liminal edge between present and future.  This was meant to be a moment of transfiguration, but were they ready?  Up until this point God had provided them everything, but this overt intervention is not God's usual way of doing things (or so the writer's of Numbers are suggesting).

According to the Book of Exodus, God kick started the exodus from Egypt by utilizing a new pharaoh who took the throne of Egypt and did not know about Joseph or his association with saving the known world from starvation during his time.  This new pharaoh's enslavement of the Children of Israel put them in a position to accept the Exodus. 

As you recall, it was God who hardens Pharaoh's heart.  Why?

One likely reason is that the Children of Israel had become complacent in their slavery.  They accepted it as their lot and were not motivated to leave it.  I am not suggesting they liked it, but rather that they became disempowered by it and could not realistically see a way out of it, at which point they became like a domesticated animal to the Egyptians; totally dependent on them for survival.  As such, they took the position of not trying ruffle the feathers of their task masters. They found themselves on the fringe of civilization.   What gets lost in such an environment is the ability to desire, to remember a better but lost past or hope for a better future.

According to the Book of Exodus, things had to get tougher for them in order to rekindle the fires of desire, which brings back the memories of a promised land.  The ten plagues serve not only to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites but also ( and more importantly) demonstrates to the Israelites that God is with them and is their defender.  They needed a reason to hope and move beyond their victimhood.  Witnessing plagues repeatedly leveled against the Egyptians replanted the seeds of hope.

Camped on the border of their future, at the edge of the Promised Land, the question became a matter of their readiness to face the blank page that was their future.  Did they have enough faith in themselves to exercise faith in God to carry them through in their own endeavors as a free people?

They didn't.

They were physically freed from their enslavement in Egypt, but remained spiritually domesticated by that experience.  They remained mentally enslaved; fearful of the unfettered other and remained dependent on the strongman like Moses or God for sustenance as exhibited in wanting to Moses replaced by someone who would lead them back to Egypt.  To remedy this ingrained enslavement to the past, we are told that the Israelites of that generation and of a certain age would not be permitted to cross into the Promised Land. As such, they had to remain in the wilderness for forty years.  Ultimately, the only two people of that generation to be allowed to do so were Caleb and Joshua who saw the present for what it was and were willing to engage the future faithfully.

RELEVANCE

The Hebrew scriptures transcend the merely historical.  History, the past, is recorded in scripture only if it has a meaning and presents a continuum of relevance in each and every age it is read and studied.  This is particularly true of the Hebrew scriptures.  What one encounters in the Hebrew scriptures is an exploration of the human experience juxtaposed against an evolving theology of Being  (God) in the story of a particular group of people called the Chosen People.  The point of their story being told is its relevance for all people of every age.

The story of the spies is a window into the universal difficulties all humans have in dealing with our past, in coping with the present, and  in facing the future.  What is obvious in their tale is less obvious in the unfolding story of our own time. 

All of us stand on the liminal boundary between today and tomorrow, the present and the future.  All of us are challenged by the beliefs we possess or that are in possession of us.  All of us are tethered to a past that shapes our understanding of the present and that colors our vision of  the future. 

Like the freed Israelites, we find ourselves, throughout our history having to contend with our beliefs, which particularly avail themselves during moments of uncertainty.  Fear magnifies the unkown and the unexperienced possibilities that our minds struggle with; the blank page of the future, the void, that is yet to filled, but how and with what?

As mentioned in my last post, fear produces two seemingly polarized responses, despair or hope.  The generation of freed Israelites had learned to live with despair.  Despair became their "go to" emotion.  Their ingrained feeling readily confirmed their beliefs as they did not fully understand nor had they experienced or acquired an understanding of hope's strength or the motivation of faith to act.  They never had to deal with themselves as a free people.  As such, they had to incubate and inculcate such abilities into the fabric of their being as a people during their sojourn in the wilderness.  It was in the wilderness that they began to become a community of hope and faith and a place where they would form the bond of love between themselves and their God that would enable the next generation to cross into the Promised Land.

APPLICATION

Reacting to the future remains a polarizing experience of despair and  hope in every age.  The story of the spies becomes a metaphor for our own age on how are coping with the present and how we perceive the future.  Hope and faith appear at low ebb right now as lying as a tool of government is creating a sense of despair; particularly in the United States were enslavement to the past is evident.

"Making America Great Again" is a fallacious lure that suggests an unfounded problem with the recent past.  It appears on the America's landscape as a play for power by a scheming few.  It has caused those who subscribe to it to fear the trajectory of progress that has been made throughout the world in the last several years and abandon principles and principled behavior that is the hallmark of any well established and secure nation, such as the United States.  It has enabled its adherents to ignore the present, and long for a past that cannot be returned to and most likely never existed as they believe it did.  It is a meme intended to mentally and spiritually enslave a following in order to secure the reins of government by a few - a meme that has to be fueled by conspiracy theories and outright lies in order to maintain its hold on the enslaved. 

How long this fear will keep us in the wilderness of an isolating nationalism remains uncertain, but standing on the border between the what is and what's next is not the place or the time to react preemptively from despair and abandon principles and principled behavior - to fight fire with fire.  Such a conflagration may take generations of healing. 

Rather, it seems to me, to be a time and a place to act from faith and with hope in the goodness that has always been part of who we human beings are and are meant to be.

Until next time, stay faithful.
 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

FUTURE-FEAR - PART III - Facing the Future

WHAT IS.

If you have been following my posts on Future-Fear, you have probably noticed a pattern with regard to my discussion on time.  The past cannot be replicated in the present and the present cannot be understood without dealing with the past at some level. As such, the future cannot be prepared for without coping with present as the present.  This may all sound rather mundane and obvious on the surface, yet I would suggest that there are subtle nuances at play regarding how we understand and utilize the concepts of past, present, and future in dealing with "what was," coping with"what is" and  facing "what next."

The nuances I am referring to is related to our capability to be objective and our proclivity in being subjective with "What is."  They are subtle because we rarely stop to assess whether our thinking and our observations are objective or subjective because we feel so much about the things that are currently swirling around us.

The further one looks back into the past, the more objective one is likely to become, as the further back one looks into history, one has no personal recall of the events nor a personally vested interest in them and must rely on data that has been subsequently supplied over time.  Any subjectivity regarding the past can only be accomplished through a current ideological perspective of it. 

The present is more likely to be a subjective experience.  Nevertheless, it can be viewed objectively if one can calmly step back and take the time to look at things for what they are ("What is") at the time without giving them an ideologically-based meaning or judging them strictly in the light of past events and experiences. This is much easier said than done.

One of the benefits of the current age is we are familiar with scientific approaches to understanding things and occurrences which are likely to be objective.  The science of the present may not have all the answers, but it does have the methods and the means to make us more objective about what is happening at the time.  Science, in all of its forms (physical, medical, social, economic, etc.) can identify patterns in the current and give a sense of an immediate trajectory as to where things are headed at present.

Looking ahead to the future is almost a totally subjective endeavor and depends on where one is at in life at the moment as to how one envisions it.  In reality, the future is a blank page; there is nothing there to be objective about. Subsequently, we largely view the concept of the future ideologically.

A time in which one no longer exists is almost unthinkable at a younger age, but it quickly becomes increasingly thought about as one gets older  As mentioned above, we deal with the future largely along ideological lines as a surrogate means to conceptualize the future "objectively."  In other words, we entertain beliefs that have been handed down to us or that we acquire through speculation about what the future beyond us would be like, but there is very little to be objective about adhering to beliefs and speculation about something that has not occurred.

We do this because we, like nature, abhor a void, the blank page that the future really is.  As such, we tend to talk about the future in terms of feelings - of feeling despair or hope regarding it.  Both despair and hope share a common denominator, fear.  We fear the blank page we face when looking toward the future.   Fear gives way to despair if hope is not factored in.  Without fear there is no need to despair or to hope.   The irony is that these are projected feelings that only exist in the present about something that does not yet exist.

We project these feelings based on our understanding of the past as it relates to the present and in seeing how events of the past led to or are connected to the outcomes we are currently experiencing.  We cannot help but think in terms of cause and effect and to conceive of an endless chain of events  that will be linked to one another well into the future, and herein lies the source of our fears about the future.

WHAT NEXT?

Humans long for that which is reliable.  That which appears reliable is also considered under control; primarily under my or our control.  We think less about the future when things are under our control.  Lose that sense of control and the future becomes an  immediate concern; as expressed by the question, "What next?"

We fear things that threaten the reliability to which we have become accustomed to or we fear that some form of  chaos in our lives will emerge and threaten our way of life, if not our very existence.  In the first case, we tend to resist change.  In the latter case, we seek it.  In both cases, we become very focused on what links in the chain of continuity are being broken and what links are being forged in the immediate future.  In the first case, the urge is to preserve an immediate past that seems to be disappearing or is perceived as having disappeared.  In the latter case, the urge is to escape an imminent chain of events that threatens the very notion of having a future.

Our current world seems to be caught in a clash of these two perspectives as change is always upon us. Change is rarely sought on a substantive level, and most often substantive change is thrust on us by events beyond our control.  In this sense, the ancients were correct that the future comes from behind and sneaks up on us.

We can readily grasp this when it comes to natural disasters. We can make limited preparations to mitigate their impact, but we never are sure what type of natural disaster will occur. The most devastating are likely to be the ones we don't see coming.  As a whole, we tend to be more empathetic towards victims of natural disasters than those created by humans.  I can think of all sorts of evolutionary reasons why that is, as you can also deduce, but I will leave that for a future post.

Fearing Displacement as Replacement

Human caused disasters are viewed insidiously by most.  Disasters that become prolonged, such as, wars and organized terrorism against civilians results in displacement of these populations who have no choice but to leave or face the real threat of death to themselves and their loved ones.  Ironically, there is a sense, at some level, that whatever caused their plight at the hand of others is somehow connected to what they, themselves, have brought about.  As such, the victims of wars and human violence of all sorts are likely to be treated less empathically than victims of natural disasters for the simple reason that getting involved risks being linked into a chain of events that will change the course of our future.

Sadly, the victims of war and violence frequently end up further victimized because the change that is forced upon them is frequently viewed as a contagion that threatens the comfort of those who could help the most.

This has been played out for some time in the civil strife throughout the African continent and in the Middle East.  Few nations want to get directly involved unless compelled to do so for reasons of national security or the security of one of its allies.   If there is no immediate economic or military advantage to becoming involved, the victims of these war-torn, violent areas are largely left to fend for themselves and often find themselves corralled into the leper colonies of our age, the refugee camps that are on the remote outskirts of normalcy and the threadbare fringe of civilization; where facing the future is either a luxury one cannot afford or a curse one cannot bear.

This is also being played out in Central America where the atrocities of organized gang violence threatens civil and family life that has motivated thousands to flee their homelands to seek the security of more stable nations like the United States.  In the United States, we have engaged a self-protectionist approach to their plight.  We fear the contagion of chaos that has brought them to our borders as something that threatens our way of life and has prompted voters in the United States to elect an administration that has promised to build a wall to protect "our way of life."

The "way of life " being protected in the United States can be largely understood as a romanticized version of the dominant white, protestant culture prevalent in the United States during the early 1950's.  Here the fear of a losing a lifestyle that for the most part consisted of sham displays of civility and morality has warped the present through the distorted recall and futile attempt to regain a past that no longer exists. "Make America Great Again" is an apt hashtag for the fear it expresses and a meme of the desperate who fear of losing a past lifestyle and are engaged in willful blindness as futile means to regain it.

One wonders if and when there is a mass migration of people from areas struck by the human caused natural disasters resulting from global warming that those who have will be willing to welcome and help those who do not. At present, the emerging tribalism that is being expressed in the nationalistic trends seen in some industrialized nations indicates that nations will be reluctant to do so.  The underlying angst that appears present in the reluctance to aid the displaced is the fear of being replaced; that in welcoming the displaced there will be a clash of cultures, that the displaced will not assimilate, but dominate, replacing the current status quo; replacing the reliability of "what is" with the uncertainty of "what next.

The irony in all of this fear leveled at the displaced is that it is the displaced who have been replaced.  The fear that is felt regarding them is largely fomented by those who are in no real or tangible threat of being replaced, who do not see that it is the causes of displacement that pose a threat, not the displaced themselves.

Fight and Despair

As mentioned above, future-fear produces two reactions despair and hope.   The primary response to immediate fear is the familiar fight or flight response, but since there is nothing immediate about one's fear of what the future holds, the response elongates from fight to despair and from flight to hope.   One might be tempted to reverse this order but bear with me as I ponder how the future shapes our response to fear.

What we can't immediately fight or contend with opens us to the domain of despair and acts of desperation.  The temptation is to become preemptive, to strike first before the other side sees it coming - to head off a perceived enemy, to block their way, to build a wall.

Flight and Hope

The other response to immediate fear is to flee, to avoid a fight, to save one's self for another day.  In the animal world, animals instinctively know when they're overmatched and will seek a way to avoid a fight.  We see this as a smart move on the part of such creatures.   The human animal's response to fear is more complex. Unless the perception is that one is completely outnumbered, flight as an immediate response is seen as either being cowardly or devious. 

Weaponry has increasingly enhanced the human ability to act preemptively.  In recent times, the capacity of a single weapon to cause massive casualties has deluded some with feelings of invincibility and grandeur.  As such, they do not see a reason to hope as they become paragons of despair.

Flight, in relation to future-fear, elongates to hope because there is nothing to flee from other than flee to the refuge of longing for better tomorrow.  As such, hope serves as a stopgap to becoming preemptive.   Hope is an admission that the future is a blank page; that the current trajectories do not necessarily result in given outcomes; that things can change in hopefully good ways. We see hope exercised on an international scale as diplomacy and on a personal scale as collegiality and negotiation.

Hope permits us to put our fears of the future in check so that we can  address "what is" without trying to address a speculated what's next.  In this sense, hope affords one the ability to be proactive in addressing the present rather than being preemptive in addressing a future that does not exist.  Hope appears to allow one to seek the potential for goodness that can emerge from facing and working on the current challenges that are present.

To effectively face the future, one has only to be present with what is.

Until next time, stay faithful.

Friday, May 4, 2018

FUTURE-FEAR - PART II - Coping with the Present


Presently, we live in a time when there is so much information being thrown at us on a daily basis, that it is almost impossible to process everything that is currently happening.  References to the past as being relevant to what is current abound and prompt us to use such references to project future outcomes.  As such, it is hard to stay present in the present; in what is currently going on in our lives and in the world around us.  In this post, I will examine the challenges that exist in coping with present.

BEING CURRENT

As defined in my previous post, the present is made up of moments that quickly decay into the past.  As such, it is difficult to talk of the present in a strict linear fashion.  In terms of time, what we consider the present is a generalized collection of moments that are measured in days, weeks, months, and years.  We also conceptualize the present in terms of ongoing activities or functions. For example, we talk about the current administration, current economic indicators, current weather patterns, and current events.

Given this generalized understanding of the present, the past becomes defined as that which is no longer current or ongoing.  The present, however, cannot be strictly understood as isolated from the past or the future.  Most see and treat the present as a bridge between past and future and herein lies a difficulty in coping with the present.  We cannot make sense of the present without referencing the past and projecting that reference into the future. What poses a problem in our doing so is that  our recall of the past, our memory of it, is imprecise and in many cases incomplete.

Ironically, the recent past is more problematic in this regard than the distant past.  Recall of the distant past is a product of collective distillation.  By that I mean, over time, the distant past takes on meanings that are generally accepted and readily applicable to current situations which are similar in nature. On the other hand, the recent past is raw, has not been subjected to the distillation of time, and has not acquired the depth of meaning that events of the distant past have acquired. 

In many cases there exists general disagreement as to the interpretation of the recent events being recalled.  This is particularly evident in the times we currently live in; where facts are mutable and recall tainted with creative interpretation, if not wishful thinking.  One has only to listen to the  political pundits on various news networks interpret and speculate as to what currents events mean to understand this reality. 

Frequently, it takes a century or more of fermented thought before distilling and settling on a general interpretation of events begins because meanings are derived from the outcomes; the future events caused by or related to the initial event which are not readily understood until a significant amount of time has passed to enable one to objectively see the connections and the disconnects.  Distillation removes many of the factors that are deemed irrelevant to an event's meanings and that is why the past can never be completely or fully replicated.

CURRENT DISTORTION

Coping with current events frequently results in coping with personal and societal angst, particularly where there is confusion about what has taken place.  When facts are skewed to fit a particular agenda motivated by politics, for example, societal angst increases and there is a sense of collective disorientation regarding what is reliable information. History is full of such moments which cannot be fully understood until the passing of time; until the passing of a generation or two lessens the subjective reaction evident at the time of an event's occurrence. One only has to recall the recent Balkan wars to see how sublimated ethnic conflict quickly exploded after more than seventy years of that area being under one nation rule first as kingdom and then as a communist state.

Subjective awareness is always a concern in coping with the present. Individuals going through a particularly stressful current event are prone to find solace in seeking a collective opinion that matches their subjective views; to engage in groupthink.  In doing so, we often fail to recognize that such opinions are themselves subjective; that a number of people sharing similar opinions or viewpoints does not make such opinions or interpretations about something objective or accurate. While this appears readily observable in a group that doesn't share one's subjective viewpoint, it is less noticeable in seeing it in one's self and the group that one personally identifies with.  Subjectively, we are all prone to think of ourselves as being objective in our ideological views.

This is observable in the current political scene occurring within the United States and it is why so much of what is occurring is due to political polarity that is both fostered and perpetuated by intransigent thinking by individuals who are deluded with the idea that they are objective while being the in the grips of a societal angst that is largely subjective.  Populism is frequently the offspring of such occurrences, and in the last presidential election, populism was evident in both political parties.

Populism appears to arise when there is a sense of disorientation about the present, when there is movement towards something different, a societal shift or a change that appears to be a break in continuity with the past.  Depending on one's ideological perspective, one can view such changes as something to fear, as in losing something in the present, or as something to welcome, as in moving away from something perceived as currently hindering progress.

UNPRECEDENTED

The term we hear reflecting this sense of disorientation in the news media of today  is "unprecedented" which often leads to skeptical reaction by news commentators.   What becomes evident in this sense of disorientation is the inability to find meaning in what is occurring at the time. The temptation, however, is to assign meaning based on past reference. Nothing illustrates the imprecision of the past than when it is strictly applied to what is currently happening.  As mentioned in my previous post, occurrences may have a similar flavor but are concocted differently.

A current example of this would be the scandal surrounding the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's emails by Russia and the alleged collusion by the Trump Campaign in this matter.  The immediate past reference is, understandably, Watergate because they share the same flavor; subverting a presidential election, but that is where the reference ends or should because they are concocted differently.  In other words, the details are different.  Currently, the jury is still out with regard to what is now being called the "Russian Investigation."

Watergate (an unprecedented event at the time) acts as a gold standard when it comes to election tampering in the United States.  Events evoking its flavor are naturally measured against it as being like it or being worse than it or not measuring up to it. This is similar to the gold standard of a presidential administration's first one hundred days set by FDR's first one hundred days in enacting many social changes as president (unprecedented at the time ) in measuring within that timeframe the effectiveness of every administration since that time.  It is assumed that every presidential administration will have one hundred days to demonstrate its effectiveness which is then used to predict and project its effectiveness or lack thereof into the near future.

What can become lost in past reference and future speculation regarding current events is the experience of the present.  If the experience of the present invokes so clearly the flavor of a past event, the present experience can be subsumed by the recall of the past.  As such, understanding the current experience, as it is, becomes lost or hindered.  The risk inherent in such situations is the tendency to engage in self-fulfilling prophecy that will result in the same outcome as the referenced past.

The past, however, is not prophetic.  While a current and past event may share the same flavor and the current situation may appear to be headed in a similar direction, the situation is circumstantial rather than prophetic.  Past and present circumstances, however, are rarely, if ever, identical.  The past cannot be replicated and current events possess enough nuance that over time the outcomes, traceable to a current event, will become increasingly less like the past being reference.

CURRENT DENIAL

Another challenge in coping with the present is when there is nothing in our collective memory of the past to reference. Historically, this is a recent phenomenon that is the result of science, particularly, theoretical science's ability to understand the present in ways humans have not been able to before. When new knowledge is presented as theory (as unprecedented), the initial reaction is to treat it with a great deal of skepticism even if there is mounting evidential proof of it.

As mentioned in previous posts, most human beings are experiential learners.  That is one of the primary reasons why the past is so readily referenced.  An experience in which there is no past to reference tends to disorient us to the present and cause us to scramble to find some semblance in the past to reference.

A primary example of this is climate change and its connection to global warming.  This has quickly moved from being theoretical to experiential as every continent is experiencing its effects.   Yet, there are many, especially in the United States, who deny the science behind the experience.

Living in the State of South Dakota, where people are use to experiencing dramatic changes in weather quite frequently, occludes the realization that these dramatic changes are becoming more extreme and common place elsewhere and have a human fingerprint as to their causes.  During a recent, early spring  blizzard in which the temperature was winter-like I heard two gentlemen say to each other derisively, "So much for global warming" - a common statement amongst individuals in this part of the county which belies an unintentional awareness and fear that cannot be spoken of directly because that would be considered politically incorrect in a red state.

If we didn't have access to global news, I might have found myself agreeing with them.  I too have experienced throughout my life the periodic extreme of South Dakota weather, but while these gentlemen were talking about the extreme cold for the time of year they seemed totally unaware that two states south of us, in Oklahoma, people were experiencing wildfires that threatened whole communities.  The fact is scientists, with almost uncanny precision, warned us almost to the year when such anomalous weather would occur and that it is linked to human activity. The scientists' ability to do this was due to being able to assess the present for what it is from a strict scientific analysis of the elements involve; that was independent of the need to rely on historical knowledge of the past.  In fact, their discoveries in the present clarified the history of earth's weather in the past.

In this case,  being able to recall periodic extreme weather experiences of the past has numbed many to the growing reality of human activities link to global warming's effect on weather by relativizing constant extremes with extremes that were, just a few years ago known as a once-in-five-hundred-years events. Such increasingly frequent events are becoming normalized and, in this case, the recollection of past experiences is leading some to a denial of the present thus inhibiting doing something now to ensure a future.

The past is always before us. The past has always been the yardstick used to measure the present, even though science is offering other means to understand what is happening now.  Coping with the present then becomes a matter of knowing how to use the past correctly; knowing its limits in defining the moment we're in.  Coping with the present is also benefited by sincere consideration of knowledge that seems new to one's ears, accepting that we are learning new things from science, to  engage in  truly objective analysis that is independent of historical experience with regarding unprecedented occurrences involving ourselves and the world we live in.

Coping with the present is also benefited by letting the moment  be just as it is (for the moment) in order to step away from the angst, and to orient one's self to the immediate present without measuring it, adding to it, or subtracting from it without analysis; to experience in the moment what goes unnoticed, the sun shining, the breeze, the temperature of the air, the sounds of nature, one's own breathing and being right now.

Until next time, stay faithful.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

FUTURE-FEAR - PART I - Dealing with the Past

TIME AND TIME AGAIN

Time has no intrinsic substance; no force, per se, that can be substantively manipulated. Time is merely a conceptual tool for measuring the rate of movement and the measurement of decay from the point of view of a select moment in time.

The past, as we use it, is a compilation of recollections of a nonexistent present.  The present is nothing more than a series of elusive moments that quickly become conceptualized as the past.  The future is a compilation of  anticipatory moments conceptualized as not yet realized.  In terms of linear time, the future decays to the present and the present decays to the past with the past being the place of no-time, eventually becoming the point where time runs out, the point of singularity.

It is important to keep these definitions in mind, because we tend to imbue time with a force it does not possess.  The fact is we  humans are obsessed with measurements. We can't help it.  It's what we do.  After all, we're the differentiators, the namers of things, the measure-ers of them, the ultimate discriminating animals who identify same and different, and we struggle mightily with all of that. To that end, we have come to identify time as a measurement and differentiate it into past, present, and future, moment by moment.

Time is one of humanity's greatest conceptual achievements that almost all humans accept as a real entity in our lives. What we consider the force of time is in actuality movement.  We're always moving.  We're always active even if we sit still; we're still moving and wearing out. We see this in everything around us and we feel it in ourselves. At the same time, we experience movement as heading towards something, which we call the future.  While we wear away, we anticipate that more shall come after us.

This differentiation of time into its various categories of past, present, future, seconds, minutes, hours, days weeks, years, eras, seasons, etc. has given it a hold on our perceptions and cognitive capabilities. Time captivates the human imagination as a reality we cannot escape until, perhaps, we're dead.  Even then, the living mark the graves and memorialize the deceased by measuring the span of deceased's life as a moment in time and celebrate events of a loved one's life as if they're still subject to time.

PUDDLING THE PAST

Our relationship to time is largely bipolar.  When thinking of time, we largely think of the past and the future.  The present almost always gets us to think about where we've been and where we're headed.  Our minds rarely stay put in the present.

Of the two poles, the past appears the easiest to comprehend.  We may not adequately know where we're at in historical terms or where we're headed, but we think we know where we've been.  The polarity of time, however, is merely conceptual.  Past and future are not strict polar opposites.  They are  interrelated concepts, with the past casting a long shadow into the future.

The further back one looks at time, the more one tends to puddle events by confining them with generalized or specific dates and giving them distinct names like the Axial Period, the Dark Ages, Medieval Times, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.  History is our attempt to domesticate time by categorizing the random and unpredictable feelings that we associate with time as illustrated in Dickens' opening  sentence in A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... ."  Time is also domesticated by identifying events as recurrent seasons,  as illustrated in Ecclesiastes 3:1,  "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven."  

 History does not preserve the past but rather it is an attempt to keep the collective memory of what has passed current.  There is no way to accurately replicate the past, no way to accurately capture what people at the time felt or thought about the events swirling around them as they occurred.  We can only speculate and reference them imaginatively through our own  present-day thoughts and experiences.

In fact, people who lived through a recent event; experienced it first-hand and can remember it as if it just happened cannot replicate it exactly because all the elements of the time in which it occurred no longer exist as they have moved on and memory becomes imbued with meaning very quickly which creates a curved lens through which recall occurs.  One's recall may be categorically accurate, but it can never replicate the exact experience because certain elements of that experience pass with the moment in which it occurred, which is a long way to say that memory can never produce an exact replication because time is not something that can be replicated and the human mind takes the million, if not billions, of pieces of information and stores them categorically.

Pragmatically speaking, time can only be recalled as the measurement of an event - "It started at this time and ended at this time" or "It took about so long."  In other words, we puddle the event in the context of time passed.   Memory is largely about meanings, and time, in recall, contributes to one's sense of meaning as a defining element.   Every historian knows this.

THE CURSE OF HISTORY AND THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

There is a saying attributed to different people that goes something like "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." A historian, whose name I unfortunately cannot recall, made an intuitive adjustment to this statement by saying history repeats but not in like. This cautionary insight helps avoid the tendency to concretize the meanings of history as a binding cause and effect relationships, "If this happens then this must occur."  This type of thinking leads us to ignore the ever-elusive present.  When events occur there are perhaps millions, if not billions, of factors that affect it, that give it its particular flavor. 

The past, however, has a tremendous influence on how we interpret the present and how we forecast the future. We distill lessons from the puddles of the past that give definition to the events and situations of today and what we are looking for in the near future.  What is problematic in using the past to interpret the present and in forecasting the future is imprecision.  What comes to mind is the "butterfly effect,"  the possibility, if not the probability, that some isolated, unnoticed occurrence or series of occurrences creating a wave of causation that has a direct impact on current events.  In retrospect, some of these butterfly moments can be discovered in a generalized way, but most cannot.  

My cautionary approach to historical application is that humans are subject to engaging in self-fulfilled prophecies.  History is very important in understanding  where we've come from, but it is not prophetic.  It cannot tell us with any precision where we're headed.  Why we feel it does is because we can reference current events as being like past events.  The problem is that current events are not past events. They may recall a certain flavor, but they're not concocted the same way.

NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."  Ecclesiastes 1:9 KJV  

This verse from the Hebrew Scriptures has likely shaped much of the West's thinking about the historical relationship between past and future.  The fact is there have been  a number of new things under the sun since that was written: industrialization, locomotion, air travel, space travel, telecommunication, the internet, advances in medicine to mention a few.  What the "Teacher" was getting at and which is  relevant to this discussion is that humans haven't changed  much since that  time.  In  fact,  Ecclesiastes is a good read regarding the relativity of time in conjunction with the finitude of existence and the apparent immutability of human behavior.

But are we perpetually stuck with engaging in recurrent behaviors? 

Does the concept of time, particularly the past, confine us to behavioral patterns that we are destined to repeat?

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes seems to be saying yes.  For all practical purposes, this appears evident.  Human history appears nothing more than an exhibition of repetitious behaviors within the context of variable circumstances.  Our ability to scientifically examine the past, however, says maybe not; that repetition is merely a cog-like action in an expansive evolutionary system; that while we seem to behaviorally spinning our collective wheels, human behavior, in all probability, is slowly evolving.

What prevents us from seeing this, I believe, is our attraction, if not our addiction, to the past.  As individuals we have difficulty in letting go of our personal pasts, especially that which has wounded us in some way; the things done and left undone to us and the things we have done and  left undone to others.  One of the  Hebrew psalmists captured this sense of being wounded in Psalm 51:3, "For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me."  The psalmist is not talking about the sin that will be committed but rather the sin that has been committed and about the person who cannot find a way around it.

I read somewhere that the ancient Greeks believed that the past is always in front of us; that the future comes from behind and sneaks up on us.  The psalmist reflects this sense of the future; that in looking ahead we look through the lens of the past and that it is our past behaviors that are projected ahead of us as we speculate the future, and for many, if not most, it paints a grim picture.    

Future-Fear, as I am using it in these posts, is connected to a fear of repeating the past or the past repeating itself.  Such fears are based on our knowledge of the past; that from this knowledge we know what we are capable of doing.  Unfortunately, what sticks most in our collective memories is not the good we have demonstrated a capacity for but rather the bad which has placed us on more than one occasion near the brink of universal devastation. One has only to read, listen to, or watch the news feeds to understand the validity of that statement; especially, as they relate to the recent past.  As a whole, we are instinctually prone to be wary of predation and it is that which prompts us to probe the past for predicates of the future.

The past also possesses an allure to go back to the way things once were; particularly if one finds the present uncomfortable or encounters changes that have or appear to have little reference to the past. I will explore this time-related phenomenon in future posts, but the allure of past is similar to the fear of repeating the past.  Both the allure and the fear of the past are illusionary.  Nothing from the past can be replicated.  The allure of the past is nothing more than a Siren's call that leads to stagnation and distortion of the present. Fearing what has occurred in the past as becoming a recurrent reality in the near future likewise serves to distort the lessons of the past; rendering them useless in understanding their application to the present.

Being from South Dakota, what comes to mind is weather forecasting as an example for the imprecision of using the past in predicting the future.  From the past experiences and the study of them, we are given models, contexts in which weather patterns develop and can, with some precision, define today's weather conditions, but as is often the case, these patterns do not hold true when it comes predicting the weather precisely over time, let's say a week's time.  That a storm is gathering in the previous week does not mean a storm will occur sometime this week, even though the historical pattern would indicate it happening.  This does not mean we don't pay attention to what the forecast is saying. To ignore a forecast is like ignoring the patterns of history and risk being caught in a situation that could have been avoided, but it also means that we keep an eye on the present and understand that what was forecast a week ago is not set in concrete that conditions change - that a butterfly, somewhere, can change the course of the Jet Stream and change the course of history. 

There will be more about the past as we look to present and then to future.

Until next time, stay faithful.