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

After New Hampshire

Over the last week, there has been a lot of press generated about Bernie Sanders as an outcome of his win in New Hampshire. A good deal of that press has been positive. Which, of course, I really like. But I also don’t mind stand-up critiques of his policies. What I’ve been disturbed about is the kind of meta-conversation that’s been happening that attempts to describe the ways in which Sanders should be discussed or viewed.

“Hey Bernie, here are the issues this presidency is about. Anything else is off-message.” In the latest debate, Clinton worked to paint him as a single-issue candidate, which hearkens back to the message from the main stream media when Sanders first announced, calling him an inexperienced protest candidate. In New Hampshire last week, Rachel Maddow essentially dismissed that view as inaccurate.

Sanders, of course, is not a single-issue candidate. Racism, healthcare, environmental issues, reproductive rights, and human rights all have connective tissue in the idea that oppression is a tool used by the powerful on the disenfranchised. While he has policy ideas in place that address the issues of the day, he also understands that a complex system like our country is not just a list of single-focus-issues. Sanders understands that and is trying to help us understand it. In turn, we are reaching out to share his message.

As we do so, Sanders’ voice becomes larger and more expansive, and as that happens, we are being instructed on how to share the message.

“Hey, women, supporting Bernie is a betrayal to your gender.”

“Hey, men, you’re a sexist asshole if you support Bernie.”

“Hey, whites, by talking to black folks about why he’s a good candidate, you’re being racist.”

While most of the above examples have been redacted or spun back, or the utterers of them have apologized in the last week or so, the damage is done. Speech and the freedom to use it as we see fit has been harmed. By criticizing and calling out the conversations themselves rather than discussing the content of them, the ability to have conversation is diminished. By reducing the words available for viable conversation and by diminishing the value of those who use them, we reduce the potential for new thought and honest communication and practice the kind of oppression that his campaign is against.

No, this campaign season is not about a single issue, nor is Sanders a single-issue candidate, but this campaign season is necessarily aware of the vast inequities in this country and the power that this gives certain groups over others. The over-arching narrative of 2016 is going to be about  whether we finally begin to recognize the interconnectedness of everything that plagues the oppressed and marginalized people of the United States or continue to view the world through a myopic lens and reach for solving one symptom at a time without really understanding its impact or source.

 

 

Matrices, Patterns, and Consciousness

The overriding joy of pursuing my master’s degree is the forays into matrices, patterns, and consciousness that I’ve been able to take while examining the idea of the lived experience of problem solving. These have been valuable adventures for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the foundation that patterns and consciousness have beneath the way each person lives.

In other words, the patterns of our experiences and our conscious understanding of those patterns allow us the ability to engage with and solve problems. In order for me to understand the process of living with and engaging problems, I need to understand the way consciousness is derived, how it adds to the matrices and patterns of life, and thus how that affects problem solving. There’s the added bonus of both consciousness and patterns being applicable to my work as a User Experience Designer, as well.

At any rate, here are two presentations I’ve given to my seminar on patterns (October, 2013), and consciousness (March, 2014).

Compassion for victims, not for perpetrators

This banner helps me frame what I’ve been trying to say since Monday.

Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.
Syrian Revolution hold a banner in support of Boston.

I don’t have compassion for the perpetrators of vile acts.

My compassion extends to the victims of those acts and the environments in which both victims and perpetrators live. Given similar context, environment, and social structure, the only thing that separates a victim from a perpetrator is compassion: perpetrators do not have it.

In other words, responding to an act of terror by saying “we must have compassion and understanding” for the perpetrator doesn’t cut it for me. I have compassion for the situations (Syria, for instance) and for people in general (perhaps those holding the banner), but I will not waste my compassion on those who would turn their own victimization into an act of destruction. Why? Because out of the millions and millions of victims on this planet, only the most cowardly seek to perpetrate their problems on others.

I will not waste my compassion on current psychopaths, rather I will use my compassion and empathy to prevent societies from creating them in the future.

Gun control and ethical consciousness

When we talk about gun control and assault weapon bans, should we talk about controlling the weapons themselves, or should we talk about the ethical weight of having access to such weaponry and the implications of that weight? The national dialog certainly has been focused on the former, but I believe that the latter is far more important a thing to address.

Our right to bear arms has become a label we use for what should be called our desire to bear arms, and it is this desire that we need to discuss. It is this desire and the ethical consequences of it that have to be brought forward into the national dialog. It cannot be denied that the United States is deep in the throes of a passionate, sordid love affair with firepower. We are drenched in the post-coitus scent of black powder, molten lead, hot brass. Our language in the debate is not logical nor reasonable but passionate and fiery: the rhetoric of lovers afraid of losing each other, afraid of admitting what they have. Other countries can see the lust for weapons in our dialog, our media, our attitudes.

Before I go any further, I should say that I am not promoting a ban on anything. In fact, because my position is that we are not having the proper discussion about weapons, I am against the discussion on banning anything. I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem. We tried to ban alcohol: it didn’t work. We’re trying to ban drugs: that’s not working. My parents tried to tell me to not have sex with anyone in the house when I was a teenager: that certainly didn’t work. None of these things work because none of them address the issue at hand (hedonism, addiction, hormones). And the issue at hand in the gun debate should be around our responsibilities as they relate to owning weapons, the ethics implied by the second amendment.

For instance, I have a right to stand in a crowded plaza and say “Bomb!” because the first amendment grants me the right to free speech. However, it would be right for someone to hold me responsible for the damage that declaration might cause because my right to free speech also leaves me responsible for what I say and the results of those utterances. The same should hold true regarding the second amendment.

I have a right to purchase, own, and fire a weapon. However, I also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that my weapon is not used to harm others. I think most folks who are pro-gun would agree with this, and I’m glad of that. Responsible gun ownership is one of the hallmarks and cornerstones of the second amendment. Fine. Let’s not argue that here.

Looking back at the first amendment again. Imagine that I know or can deduce that someone is about to shout “Bomb” in a crowded plaza and cause an unmitigated panic in which surely a number of people will be trampled to death. Imagine I have the power to keep that from happening by simply taking away that person’s power of speech. Does my foreknowledge of that person’s action give me an ethical responsibility to stop him? Are that person’s first amendment rights being violated if I do so? These are the kinds of questions that are not easy but have to be asked of ourselves in terms of our “rights” as granted by the United States Constitution.

So how does this thought experiment apply to the second amendment? Surely we can recognize that the right to bear arms comes also with a responsibility to ensure that those arms are born in an ethical and safe manner. A manner in which violence does not come to those who are innocent. If you exercise your right to carry a weapon, then you tacitly agree to the ethical responsibility that comes with that weapon. It must be so, because otherwise we are giving ourselves over to the idea that the right to power also gives us the right to hold power over and disregard others, and surely that’s not what is meant by the second amendment.

While we debate about what is or is not an assault rifle or even if that’s a term that makes any legal sense; while we try to find “compromise” about how many bullets in a magazine is too many or few; while we spin our wheels trying to ban or not ban a variety of weapons, we are missing the point altogether. Banning a weapon does not free us of the shared ethical responsibility of how weapons are used any more than controlling the time manner and place of speech frees us from the responsibility we must bear if our speech causes harm. We are not able to see this clearly, however.

We are in love with firepower. Love has blinded us to the responsibility inherent in having access to that firepower. Blinded us so deeply and assuredly that the deaths of hundreds of people in either accidental or deliberate acts of gun violence has become nothing more to us than statistics we can compartmentalize for the sake of a pro or con stake in the national argument. We are so in love with firepower that the death of a child means less to us than the debate about how many bullets is too many or whether “assault rifle” is a real term.

Because as a nation we are granted the right to bear arms by the second amendment, we as a nation have also tacitly agreed to shoulder the ethical burden of that amendment. We know this because we live in a civilized society, not an anarchistic state. By exercising this right, we acknowledge our adherence to the laws and morality around that right. Just as in speech, driving a car, growing our own food, owning the rights to land, etc.

The debate about our love of firepower and our ethical responsibilities must begin and the argument over which component of what weapon will be regulated must stop. Only by acknowledging our responsibility for the safety of ourselves and each other can we begin to find a way to eliminate the innocent deaths caused by this love affair we have with weapons.