367 days later

Donald Trump’s rise to power is not the story of the success of one man over and above all others, but rather the story of the rise of a system beneath a system, lurking in the depths of the United States. In order to find meaning in Trump’s election, we must explore those murky depths from which he was, very literally, spawned. (ed. I wrote this about a year ago, but never published it. I’m leaving it here now as-is for the sake of completeness.)

This morning, I was thinking about an article published in The Washington Post. In the article written by Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks, a study is described in which 1,388 American adults were asked two questions. First, to identify which picture of the Washington Mall filled with people goes with which inauguration. Second, to ask which of the same pictures had more people in it. Each question was asked of half the participants. For full details, check out the article here. The result of the survey was that 41% of the people who voted for Trump associated the wrong picture with his inauguration, and 15% of the people who voted for trump said that the picture with fewer people in it had more people. While the results are not psychologically surprising, as Schaffner and Luks point out, they do indicate that perhaps there is more going on here than party loyalty and Trump fandom, as much as Trump would have us believe otherwise.

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes how every idea that has caught the public’s eye or entered the Zeitgeist of thought was at some point thought of as absurd, as impossible, or as pointless. The tipping point, Gladwell says, is that point in the development of a product where it starts to gain ground. Where the number of people who think of it as a good idea begin to increase and gain ground against the naysayers. Common examples, of course, are the automobile, telephone, electricity, personal computer, portable music players, etc. Every idea has a tipping point. It just takes the right environment to reach there. Gladwell is speaking primarily here of entrepreneurial ideas, of business and/or product improvement. But, another writer, Thomas S. Kuhn, has written about a similar phenomenon in the annals of science.

Kuhn’s book The Scientific Revolution discusses how revolutionary scientific ideas gain ground. He hypothesizes that a radical idea will first surface, say for example Copernicus’ idea that the earth revolves around the sun. The idea and the purveyor of it are initial discredited, ridiculed, and isolated from society. At some point, however, the idea gains ground through other similarly-minded individuals and a Galileo and a Tycho Brae bring it forward for further study and inclusion in the conversation. At some point, a certain percentage of the general population begins to accept the new idea. Once that happens, it becomes reality. This is very similar to Gladwell’s idea, and it has held up to some scrutiny.

Both Gladwell’s and Kuhn’s theories are based in systems thinking and attempt to quantify — inasmuch as possible — the nature of emergent activities, information, and beliefs. And to that extent, they are very powerful methods by which we can attempt to understand how the world around us works, and what might be causing the kinds of things we observe every day that don’t seem to make sense. In systems thinking, the observation of the immediate must be combined with analysis of the events preceding it.

Don’t worry, all of this will lead to Trump’s emergence, though I’m betting that a few of you are there already. I have one more reference point to bring in, though, a little-known book called Systemantics: They Systems Bible by John Gall. In this book, Gall lists and explains a number of mantras about systems that he and other systems thinkers and observers of complexity have discovered over the years to be consistently true. Most relevant to the discussion here is the mantra “TO THOSE WITHIN A SYSTEM, THE OUTSIDE REALITY TENDS TO PALE AND DISAPPEAR” (Gall, 2012). The results of The Washington Posts’s article from this morning is perfectly explained by this mantra.

The system becomes the manner in which things are accomplished, communicated, and understood. Once the system becomes large enough — and they always do if left unattended — it traps people within it so that the only understanding people have of the world is through the system itself. Think of the parable of Plato’s cave, but in this case the cave is traveling around the world, gobbling people up and expanding as it does so. It’s a metaphorical way of understanding both Gladwell and Kuhn, really. How is it that a tipping point is accomplished? How is it that a 10% – 12% acceptance of something will become close to 100% acceptance. Gall’s mantra lends some understanding to this.

In Kuhn’s terms, Trump is the heliocentric model of the universe that strikes most people as so far-fetched that it’s impossible. He is Gladwell’s iPod. Enough people believe in Trump that he has caught on, and is either in the apex of or passing his tipping point. Couple these with Gall’s mantra that reality outside the Trump system is disappearing, and we end up with a president whose staff releases alternative facts, whose supporters insist that the emptier photo has more people, and on and on and on. The system is winning, as it always does when left to its own devices.

So for those of us who want to fight against this, how do we do it? Trump has proven to be surprisingly resilient and resistant to revelations on his character, his business dealings, and his conflicts of interest. Accusations of nepotism, favoritism, and pandering go unnoticed. All previously-effective methods of political undermining have failed. The system that manifested him doesn’t care about racism, bigotry, or oppression as long as it gets what it wants, which seems to be a combination of ultra-nationalist capitalism and far-right racial, gender, and moral oppression.

My father

Happy birthday, dad.

I don’t speak of him often as my father, but as a poet, mathematician, carpenter, sculptor, or artist. (Okay, so that sentence is kind of a cheap way to introduce his crazy amount of talents to you, but it’s also true.)

In amongst all of those talents, those genius word weavings and “slight of foot tricks,” Victor Densmore has always without fail been my father. And through all of these years the most I’ve said about him being my father is when I say something like “My father’s writing a new book,” or “My father just made a giant set of wind chimes.” What I don’t remember having ever expressed in public, despite all the years I’ve been conscious of knowing him, is how much I love him as my father.

Today he turned 82. He’s known me for half of his life, and each morning he gets up and smiles and says good morning to me like it’s the first time, and each night he says goodnight like it’s the first time, and I can’t explain how that feels or what that means to me.

He loves my own family as much as he loves his own. He spreads the word about my wife’s art. He’s a grandfather twice over, and his wisdom towards his 18-year old grandson is just as salient as it is towards his 8-year old granddaughter. His joy and concern are equally real, and his advice in both situations is always cautious and intelligent.

Like all caring fathers, he worries that he wasn’t good enough, or didn’t teach enough, or didn’t sacrifice enough. He’s got nothing to worry about. There’s so much to say about him and what he’s done for me, for my sister, for my wife, and for my children. I’ll be saying more of it soon, but for now, I want to keep it simple.

Happy birthday, dad. Thanks for always being my father and always being good at it.

Embarassing

President Trump is an embarrassment to this country. That is all.

The necessary evolution of “Safe Space” in order to improve discourse

The concept of “Safe Space” needs to be evolved to ensure that ideas are heard in full, to ensure that people are protected from attacks because of their ideas, and to make it clear that ideas are not protected from counter arguments free from ad hominem attacks.

Before I get too far into this, I want to make note of the fact that I’m aware that my thoughts on this topic are likely to upset somebody. I’m okay with that. It’s part of the process of discussion. Without negative reaction to opinions, we exist in an echo chamber. One of the problems with discourse in this country is the existence of and heavy reliance on echo chambers to enhance ideas without actually subjecting them to rational discourse. So. All of that being said, I think that the meaning and implementation of “Safe Space” needs to be adjusted so that meaningful discourse can be had about issues that affect us.

What we have ended up accomplishing as a nation is — for each faction — interpreted the First Amendment to protect the speech we agree with, but not the speech of dissent. Conservatives look to drown out Liberal ideas, and Liberals do the same to Conservatives. Economic issues are pitted against racial injustice, and men’s issues become the polar opposite to feminism (they’re not). Rather than be willing to recognize everyone’s speech as protected, we seek to diminish the speech of others without actually listening to what they have to say. Consequently, the arguments lose the plot and become focused on the semantics of arguing rather than the topic of discussion. Additionally, the unwillingness to listen to others and the resulting feeling of not being heard contribute to deeper divisions between what, in many cases, are not polar opposite viewpoints, but nuanced facets of shared problems.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees protection of speech and religion, so this argumentative discourse and shouting match is both constitutionally and legally protected. What the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee is the right to be heard. This is interesting because the act of speaking implies that there is a resultant act of listening. That’s what speaking is, what language is. It is a communicative act that transmits ideas through common symbols or sounds to a receiver. But what if nobody is receiving? One of the most effective ways of overcoming speech is to not listen to it, and this has become a common refrain: “If you don’t like it, don’t listen.” But if nobody is listening, then nobody is speaking.

It was understood by implication that free speech in a democratic society is speech that is allowed as part of a public discourse, and it is in this spirit that I believe the First Amendment applies. As citizens of the United States, we are free to proclaim our opinions on any topic imaginable, and in most cases those opinions cannot be used to imprison or otherwise curtail us. There are certain precedents and nuances here, of course. If speech incite violent acts, or in cases of slander and libel someone’s reputation is harmed or life is threatened, the speaker can be held liable. Those moments notwithstanding, we can pretty much say what we want. And we do.

So what does this have to do with “safe spaces”? In current practice, a safe space is a zone established where opinions are not challenged. It’s usually a phrase used be Liberals or their allies, and often appears on college campuses. It’s a place where a conversation can be fostered without fear of negativity, reprisals, or arguments. It’s also a place free from insults, slander, and violence. Some people see safe spaces as having great value in terms of counseling, group therapy, school assemblies, and social work: people sometimes need to be assured that what they say will not come back to harm them. Others see them as a place that can be used to foster echo chambers, to isolate opinions from counter arguments, and further entrench erroneous or naive ideas. To me, they represent both.

The kind of discourse that our nation has devolved into using is what has prompted the increase —as I see it — call for safe spaces. We have transformed the First Amendment into a protection of argumentative insults and interruptions rather than a protection of reasoned discourse where people’s ideas are heard and discussed on their merits. Creating safe spaces that keep this from happening aren’t doing us any favors, though. The safe space simply removes the harmful elements from the conversation but doesn’t outwardly make clear that dissenting opinions are welcome. Maybe some spaces do welcome dissent, but certainly that’s not the impression created with their creation.

I would like to see it established very clearly that a safe space is a place where people are safe from insulting language, personal attacks, and degradation. I would like to see it stated that a safe space is a place where people’s ideas are heard on their merit, rather than shut down or shouted over. In a civil society, there should be no need for such a protection, but that’s where we are right now. I do not believe a safe space should protect people from opposing viewpoints and challenges to their beliefs. People should be willing to accept that their belief systems will be questioned. They should feel safe that they will not be personally assaulted for their beliefs, but nothing should be considered sacrosanct.

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be times when people of a like mind can get together and reinforce their ideas and beliefs without challenge. We need to be around people who share our opinions, and there needs to be time for those opinions to be fostered. Private meetings, faith-based meetings, rallies, and other gatherings of like-minded people should have a reasonable expectation of isolation and freedom to develop their shared ideas. Once in public, those ideas should be allowed to be expressed. And once expressed, those ideas are open to discussion, counter arguments, and debate.

In short, then, I think the idea of safe space needs to be evolved into one that provides for the safe dissemination and receipt of ideas with assurances that people are safe from insult and attempts at blocking their speech. Private meetings with like-minded people should be protected from interruption and harassment because we all need to be recharged with people who share our beliefs and ideas.

Practically speaking, an implementation of this recommendation would involve pundits on network and cable news being replaced by experts with opposing or counter viewpoints. It would involve open debates on campuses where issues are presented in a moderated format and discussion remains civil. It would involve that each community welcome all opinions about political, social, and economic ideas without ridiculing the person delivering those ideas. It would involve Facebook friends not blocking each other for opposing viewpoints. It would involve each of us examining our own opinions and beliefs in light of opposing viewpoints that we’ve heard. It would involve humility and destruction of ego in the face of other people’s ideas. Most of all, it would require empathy: the ability to truly understand somebody else’s viewpoint and how our own beliefs may be impacting that other person.

Winter Solstice at the dawn of the future

As the winter solstice comes upon us, I ponder the nature of our nation’s divisions. I wonder if we can emerge a wiser and more thoughtful nation, or if this is our fimbulvetr — our horrible winter — leading to the demise of this version of our society.

Íss er árbörkr / ok unnar þak / ok feigra manna fár
Ice is river bark and waves’ roof and harm of men destined to die¹

The world seems fractured to me. Scattered remnants of peace and companionship, good will and understanding lay strewn in a landscape of what appear to me longstanding institutions now smoldering in their ruin. Not without reason, distrust of each other and our institutions is higher than it has ever been in the history of the nation. Perhaps the only time this country has been so divided was the Civil War. And it seems to me now, as the icy rain falls outside the window, that Donald Trump is the perfect culmination for such a divided nation. Not because he is the best president or because I think he can bring us back together, but because he best represents the division, fear, and reactive nature that we’ve become as a country. He is truly the president we deserve. I believe that his term of office will be as a thin layer of ice over a raging river or the ebb and flow of waves. Smooth in appearance, but a cold and silent drowning beneath.

This is fitting in a way. The end of the postmodern era should be ushered in by the epitome of itself. The distrust of what we’ve made and the hyper-focus on the inner self without understanding the connections between each other has led us to this point. Far from seeking authenticity, as Charles Taylor would have it, we have been soothing ourselves with assurances that each of us is more authentic than everyone else. We have come to the point where our discussions aren’t centered around the comparison of the merit of ideas, but rather insistences that we are right coupled with insults against those whose opinions differ. I believe it is this isolationism from each other along lines of differing opinion that allowed Trump to win. This is not identity politics per se, but the unwillingness of us to find shared meaning in our own existences despite our social and self-identities.

Hagall er kaldakorn / ok krapadrífa / ok snáka sótt.
Hail is cold-seed and a shower of sleet and the sickness of snakes.¹

There’s a word in Old Norse — Skuldali∂ — that i have tattooed on my left arm to remind myself of what’s important in life, especially around the time of deep winter. It translates roughly to household or family, but like many pre-Christian concepts, there isn’t really a word left that contains the entire concept of it. The first syllable skulda means debt or what’s owed. The second half of the word li∂ is a synonym of hjún which is defined as the people in the household. Skuldali∂ means, then, the debt owed to the people in the household.

A Viking-age household included extended family such as parents and children, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and other relatives. It sometimes also included guests who stayed through the winter due to the weather, distance to their own home, or hard times they fell upon. A household could be anywhere between two and twenty people depending on location or size of the homestead. In short, it was a group of people in a communal space sharing the burdens and joys that came along in their time together. In essence, a small village. This is what Skuldali∂ represents, and is the core of community relations: “don’t bark at your guests or drive them from your gate, / treat the indigent well” (Havamal, verse 135, tr. Larrington). It is in this context that I have the tattoo, and this context in which I look forward to the times ahead.

(cén) byþ cwicera gehwám cúþ on fyre, / blác and beortlíc; byrneþ oftust / ðær hí aþelingas inne restaþ.
(Lamp) is to the living all, known by its flame, / pale and bright; it burns most often / where the noble folk within relax.²

As the deep of winter enfolds the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice and snow and sleet coat the ground, and the cold kills the last of crops and forces animals to sleep or flee, we humans huddle together against the cold. It’s what we do. Midwinter is a time when we acknowledge the power of light to repel the darkness, when we recognize the cycle of the seasons. It’s when we know that we’ve been through the worst and soon enough things will slowly warm and thaw, enlighten, and come alive. We burn and dance and sing in defiance of the isolated cold of the deep night around us and remind the universe of our existence in the face of its unceasing entropy. While we do this within our own households and with our own traditions, we do this together. This season is a reminder that in the face of darkness, humanity spread across the globe comes to the same conclusion: recognize the cycle and know that it’s not complete. The cold dies with fire and light. The sun will, as the orphan says, come out tomorrow.

Sól er skýja skjöldr / ok skínandi röðull / ok ísa aldrtregi.
Sun is clouds’ shield and the sun shining and ice’s arch enemy.¹

But what will the sun reveal as it melts away the winter. Will it show us a disheveled field of battle, political and social corpses still unburied and bones bleaching in the sun? Or will it reveal our own emergence from the dark of winter in recognition of our shared existence? Will we be able to participate in society together as a community unified by the need for understanding, or will we continue our collective falling out and further isolate ourselves from each other.

We do so at our own risk. There is much at stake in the coming frost. The fate and future of our nation, our own senses of self-worth, the nature of who we are as a people, and whether we stand up to claim a legacy worth being remembered for. Through all of it, though, we should not forget that at the very core of our beings, we are one big household. Differences aside, we must acknowledge that we are partly responsible for each other and each others’ fates. This is encoded in our founding documents, and it is implied by the bond of each state to the nation.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The opening sentence of the Constitution is a call for a nation built on a shared dream of justice, tranquility, welfare, and liberty. We aren’t there yet. For many, social justice is a myth. We have entered the winter fractured and fragile. The promise of the Constitution has become thin ice, and unless we recognize this truth, we will come undone and drown in our own ignorance. So what is it to be? Will we fall through the thin veneer of calm and drown in the roiling waves beneath? Will we emerge from our winter slumber with a new purpose of unity beyond that conveyed by elected leadership, but unified by the shared mission of us as a people? Do we have what it takes as a people to rebuild our failed institutions and overcome the distrust we have of each other?

In Norse mythology, following the horror and dark of Ragnarok, those remaining alive emerged onto a battlefield long grown over with grass. The fimbulvetr had passed. Spring had come. The sun streamed through the leaves of new-growth trees. The people remembered the terrible battle they’d been through, the vanity of the gods that led them to the final battle, and vowed to make things better. In the ruins they found the chess pieces used in carefree games prior to the broken promises that led to war.

Þar munu eftir undrsamligar / gullnar töflur í grasi finnask, / þærs í árdaga áttar höfðu.
There afterwards will be found in the grass / the wonderful golden chequers / those which they possessed in the ancient times.³

 

  1. Source: Icelandic Rune Poem; Translation: Sabin Densmore
  2. Source: Old English Rune Poem; Translation: Rune-Net
  3. Source: Völuspá; Translation: Carolyne Larrington