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.

Affecting political change: a suggestion

Lately I’ve been getting into some debates on Facebook about the nature of political change. My position in this discussion has always been that we have to avail ourselves of the tools given to us — free speech, right to vote, access to government officials, etc. — and use every means necessary to get what we want. For some people I’ve discussed this with, my opinion is incorrigible because it includes participating in the government that they loathe so much. My point of view is that we are governed whether we like it or not, so we might as well learn the rules better than those who govern and make the changes we can. My reasoning is that this has worked before: civil rights amendment, black suffrage, women’s suffrage, poll taxes, etc. Their reasoning is that since the government is corrupt, nothing will change, so why bother participating.

As an aside, this position aggravates me to no end. Here’s why. Imagine that 100 people are all stuck in a burning building and are told that the only way to get out is to build a machine on the bottom floor and that at least 75 people have to work on the machine in order to finish it in time. Immediately, 25 people start protesting those who started the fire and refuse to help build the machine. While that’s happening, 33 people head down to the first floor to start building the machine that will be able to break them out. We’re now left with 42 people to help build the machine. If they all helped, then the machine could be built and everyone could escape. Unfortunately, 25 of those people didn’t pay attention to the rules (to remedy this in reality, please read “The Federalist Papers” and “The United States Constitution” and take particular note of the flexible structure that is in place and how change can be affected both from within and without) and head up to the top floor to build their own machine. The result? Everyone dies. That’s why I hate the “protest is the only way to change things” line of thinking: it doesn’t address the problem in the way that creates a solution.

So let’s take a look at this “protest only” method. It’s usually run by a professional protester or activist who has done this kind of thing before. It’s well-organized and scripted, and always presents a particular vibe to outside observers. All of this is tightly controlled. The emphasis with this method is on volume and presence. From my experience in participating, reporting on, and monitoring these kinds of gatherings there is usually a unifying goal bringing a number of people together in one area for the purpose of visually showing how many people agree with one thing. In some cases the participants may not be clear on why they are all there (later adopters of the “Occupy” movement), but support whatever they feel is the purpose. There is also plenty of thematic signage, uniform chanting, and hard-to-understand bullhorn-based speeches. Flash mobs, flyers, community food locations, and distrust of all government sources are also common. In some cases these protests can become violent and dangerous. This depends on the purpose and location of the protest, of course, and more of these kinds of gatherings are peaceful. Civil Disobedience and ending revolution are all possible outcomes of this approach.

I have nothing against protesting and activism. There is a strength and passion to this method that cannot be denied. The media loves images of people with signs sharing their discontent, and quick sound bytes can be easily generated from the groups’ slogans and chants (“Hell no, we won’t go!” etc). If you want quick attention to a current issue, this is a great method. Many movements were started this way, and many more will be as well. The problem with this method is contained in its very DNA: what gathers in one place must eventually disperse or keep doing something new to maintain its energy. Entropy ensues. The message gets lost. This is the flash mob of social progress. Today’s issue is tomorrow’s trivia question. The movement that arose like wildfire fanned by the hot breath of mass media dies by the same group’s smothering blanket of public attention and advertising dollars. Revolutions eventually become the next target of protest — French Revolution, Russian Student Revolt — and the heroes of the picket lines — Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin — are just as quickly demonized by future revolutionaries.

Protest by itself as a method for changing policy doesn’t do anything. Protest is a means by which an issue gets noticed. Once that happens, there is still work to do in order to change policy. Our government is — like it or not — established by those who vote. And as such, the people in government are only beholden to those who voted for them, not the people in the park or street protesting. In fact, statistics are telling the government that those people don’t vote.

You want policy change? You contact your rep over and over again. You can even tell him you’ll be at the rally tomorrow, but you need to contact him. It doesn’t matter if you voted for him or not, you’re still beholden to his decisions. While your at it get everyone at your protest to contact their reps over and over again. If a representative’s constituents present an overwhelming — or even slightly-whelming — position, he has to listen if he wants to get elected again. And don’t give me that crap about corporations and bribery. If he doesn’t get votes, he won’t be there to get bribes. We’re still in control if we want to be.

Case in point: PIPA/SOPA became a massive issue started online. All of those people posting in forums, blacking out sites, creating comics also did something else: they called their representatives. The sponsor of PIPA pulled the bill. He pulled the bill he wrote because people from his district told him to. In the case of SOPA there’s still work to do, but the vote was delayed indefinitely as a direct result of the voting public contacting their representatives.

Counter-case in point: Scott Brown (R MA) was elected to the US Senate by a majority of voters during a low-turnout election. Republicans knew that in order to try and block the health insurance reform bill, Martha Coakley would need to lose. They turned out in droves, while the democrats from a democratic state assumed victory and stayed away — even though a bulk of them would have been participating in cheering for the health insurance reform. Brown won and voted no. Voter turnout had a direct impact on the process in Washington, DC.

There is nothing wrong with protesting, but going around insisting that it’s the only way to affect change in government is absurd at best and dangerous at worst. Apathy is what your opponents bank on. They assume that if you’re in a picket line, you’re not at the polls. Unfortunately that’s more often than not the case. How about surprising the bastards and doing both? Here’s why: effectiveness at the polls is achieved through mass participation. Protesting gets people’s attention, voting tells the system what they want. If we can use both together, then that’s something that could finally tip the scales in our favor.

As an example, let’s look at China and Iran. Protests in those countries have made the news, changed our minds about the nature of social media, gave us some shocking imagery, and maybe inspired some of us along the way. However, little in the way of progress can be reported as a direct result of those protests. Why? Because there’s no recourse for those protesting to directly control the actions of government. Because that’s what voting is: a group of people coming together to express their approval or dissent with issues and people. It only works if we all do it.

In closing, I’d like to point out that a vote-based system of government is very grass roots and egalitarian in nature. It requires broad communication of issues and ideas as well as coordination of efforts and people across social and financial divides. In short, voting en masse is a grass roots, people-powered method of governing. I’m constantly told, though, that the representative democracy we have is selfish and doesn’t account for a greater good. It’s pretty obvious to me that unless we all work together, the building’s going to burn down and we’re all going to die. How’s that for greater good?