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Lost In Space

What do uptopians and libertarians have in common? Their principles are both unrealistic and unworkable — doomed to inevitable failure. Belief that like-minded people can live together in harmony with minimal government and maximum freedom by adhering to commonly held principles ignores centuries of human history that say otherwise. Distrust of government only adds to the rate of failure.

True believers invariably have highly selective viewpoints, willingly ignoring how human nature and behavior consistently undermine every attempt to create a more “perfect” form of human existence. Distrusting government is particularly foolish. Who other than government is going to champion the greater good. And even this requires a general consensus as to what the greater good is and how it is best achieved. Citizens have to understand and accept that because of the flaws and imperfections of humans, their institutions will always have these as well.

Libertarianism is really just a variation of utopianism, with deeply flawed assumptions. Inadequate personal freedom and tyrannical government are fictional themes from those who promote a mythology of U.S. history that fails fact-checking and leaves out all the contradictions. Distrust of government includes the assertion that taxes are theft and can never be low enough. This ignores that cutting taxes to make an economy more successful isn’t supported by economic data, but can and does undermine the greater good. (Kansas, thanks to its clueless governor and legislature, is the current example of this.) There’s a trillion plus dollars of student debt now because of inadequate government investment in higher education (matched by inadequate investment in infrastructure). I have long maintained that American exceptionalism is 10 percent true and 90 percent just made up.

It’s not cynical to note that what worked, or at least helped, in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries is no longer doing so. Both democracy and capitalism need rethinking for the 21st. This is the utter failure of conservative ideology and libertarianism. They are mired in a past — largely misremembered while being idolized — that no longer exists. This country, like so many others, has changed, and going back is not an option. This century is going to present unprecedented challenges at a time when the U.S. is becoming increasingly dysfunctional politically and economically.

Many U.S. voters are like the definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Those electing and reelecting candidates who don’t champion the role of government as an agent of change and problem-solving are enabling decline. They get the government they deserve, as do those who don’t vote. The only way to stop decline is by electing moderates who believe in the power of governance to get things done and make things better for the greater good. Elect those who like the way things were back when, and the country’s problems will only get worse.

Here’s an axiom I find pragmatically realistic: If you think your country is the greatest on the planet, it probably isn’t. This belief in exceptional greatness is simply narcissistic nationalism that pretends things can’t be as good or better elsewhere. Perhaps they aren’t better in all ways in other nations, but they often aren’t worse, and many times they actually are better. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and many in that 4+ percent do not experience greatness. Except for perhaps the top 15 percent of the U.S. population in the coming decades, the economic quality of life for the rest will remain static or decline. Simultaneously, it will improve for larger percentages in other countries.

The difference is that capitalism with socialism, taxes with pro-active government policies and an overall trust in government are accomplishing what isn’t happening in this country. The U.S. is the only developed country without a plan. No economic and social roadmap, no defined problem-solving goals and no compelling, innovative governance. In a changed world, American exceptionalism is a liability. Too many Americans distrust their government even as inequity and stagnant mobility erode their lives and their futures. No amount of praying while bemoaning the moral collapse of the country will change any of this.

The moderates and pragmatists who don’t vote, or don’t vote at mid-term elections, aren’t helping. Candidates who are the least capable of, and most inept at, responsible governance are elected by those who are well right of center and vote consistently. These voters represent less than 20 percent of the electorate, so it becomes government by minority, not majority. And that’s the reason for failing governance. When women and ethnic-racial minorities aren’t voting in large numbers in every election, they are contributing to the problem and its effect on them.

Greatness is in the details. I noted months ago that while governance is failing most at the nation-state level, it is thriving and effective at the city level. Mayors are getting things done because residents hold them accountable for doing so. Out of necessity, mayors are pragmatists, not political party failures. But this won’t help with the larger issues that remain unaddressed by national politics and the legislative branch. While the Koch brothers are funding their agenda through grants to colleges and universities with stipulations and through political action committees run by know-nothing tea party zealots, national governance is barely functioning thanks to those who do vote…and those who don’t.

Free Will Is A Question?

While it may be an intellectual exercise to contemplate free will, I’ve never thought it worth the effort. It’s like asking what color the sky is. Of course we have free will. Look around. We experience and see it every day. There are two common approaches to free will for those who feel compelled to examine it: philosophical and religious. The latter requires belief in a higher power with its own free will, setting up a conflict with human free will. At stake is going to heaven or hell, requiring belief in their existence as well. For me. it might as well be science fiction.

The philosophical version has a much wider scope, but basically comes down to free will versus determinism, which itself has a variety of versions. Regardless of version, determinism says that what one decides is set and inevitable, thus making it incompatible with free will. Deterministic choices and behaviors are controlled by numerous variables, such as morality, obligation, love, social conformance and many more. Think of these as malleable versions of the laws of physics — always in play while giving the appearance of free will without actually conferring true free will.

To put it pragmatically and succinctly, this is just mental masturbation. An analogical example of why would be traffic laws. Despite the existence of them and societal mechanisms to enforce them (police, legal system, department of motor vehicles), we actually retain the free will to ignore them, which we do to varying degrees in varying circumstances. The consequences also vary, from none all the way to tragic. In other words, the acquiescence of free will to obey traffic laws is itself a result of free will. This isn’t determinism. We do so because we can assess the potential consequences for not doing so.

Free will is like personal freedom. We readily trade lots of freedom for social order. Why? Because for most people most of the time, the consequences of insufficient social order are far worse than the freedom that is relinquished. Those with certain psychological profiles or issues — I’ll include conservative-libertarian extremism here — do not share this willingness to swap freedoms for government-driven social order. Maximum freedom and minimal or no government are simply not viable realities to reasonable, practical people. In the same way, we willingly trade a lot of free will for the benefits we receive in return from family, friends, neighbors, coworkers and society.

Conflicts between free will and social order are most often the result of those in authority or leadership seeking to control free will for reasons that do not seem justified, appear arbitrary or represent ideological-dogmatic agendas. Religious and authoritarian hierarchies have a long history of attempts to assert control over free will through suasion, edicts and/or threats. The Catholic church and Chinese government are primary examples, the former having done so for centuries while the latter is currently trying to grow a “free market” economy without democracy or freedom of speech. In the twenty-first century, free will is challenging both.

I can’t speak for all pragmatists, but this one doesn’t allocate time on the meaning of free will. It’s obvious enough how delightfully positive to grotesquely negative it can be. Determinism, to me, is like destiny, creations by humans that distort reality in exchange for unenlightened obsession. At its worst it represents extremism, zealousness and insanity posing as self-righteousness. Pragmatism is about balance, reason and reality. It’s the basis for the evolution of human intellect, openness to new ideas and progress toward tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Free will without pragmatism is how we get into trouble.

Detachment

Not everyone values detachment. Just ask the current president of the country. Why isn’t he emotionally engaged, why is he more cool than concerned, why doesn’t he spend more effort trying to work with those across the aisle, why isn’t he doing more (or less) regarding world issues. Even some supporters are complaining. But he remains emotionally detached. I can actually answer why. But to do so, it’s singularly important to grasp what the roles of any competent executive leader include.

It’s not just about making decisions, although ultimately he or she is the decider-in-chief. A critical role is that of steady, thoughtful, consistent leader regardless of the emotions occurring within. What those being led need is the confidence instilled by leadership, be it a corporation, an organizational or national government. And this is only possible when there is emotional detachment. This isn’t to say there’s not emotion, but it’s not on display. Instead, there’s a calm exterior, words of assurance and phrases about issues being addressed. The effect is to encourage others to remain calm and rational.

Unfortunately, unlike, say, corporate governance, the politics of government are often less than thoughtful or rational. Politicians and citizens become increasingly agitated because leadership doesn’t seem sufficiently agitated. That many issues are complicated and require dynamically balancing a variety of competing interests and possible consequences seems lost on those who should know better, or would if they made the effort to discover what these might be. That’s why armchair critics are least likely to form credible opinions even as they rant about the incompetence, agenda and, yes, detachment of those making decisions.

Implicit in detachment is pragmatism, moderation and openness. Principles, values and beliefs are all well and good, but these only function intelligently when applied by reasonable people. When ideology and dogma are influential, pragmatism ceases because the emotional attachments to such beliefs undermine objective opinion and decision-making. Pragmatism requires varying degrees of detachment simply to achieve objectivity. Without objectivity, nuance is not possible because access to all information has been effectively blocked as a result of one’s preconceived tenets.

If I’m asked for advice, I may appreciate any emotional aspects involved, but my detachment gives me the working space fundamental to solving problems or helping someone make choices. Which points to an important distinction. One can simultaneously experience emotion through compassion, empathy and concern, yet set it aside to sort through possible combinations of resolutions. Emotional responses may result in some possibilities being rejected, but at least the merits and consequences of them have been offered.

I’m a big fan of detachment because it opens new pathways. It facilitates taking on topics in ways that don’t fit convention and without emotional baggage, resulting in intellectual enlightenment. This is how thinking outside the box works best. Avenues of inquiry and consideration are revealed. Subsequent reattachment will then include a broader scope and wider range to work with. Sometimes it may become obvious that some problems do not have answers, or at least not ones that precisely achieve desired goals.

Detachment isn’t about not caring. In fact, I would posit it makes caring more effective. Caring itself isn’t a solution. Do you remember the conservative approach to caring referred to as compassionate conservatism? It was simultaneously a pathetic diversion masking disdain of government assistance and utterly ineffective in terms of scalability. Yes, local charities and churches could help, as could business if it chose to do so, but these were not substitutes for broad, sustained assistance on a large scale. Detaching from ideology invariably reveals its many shortcomings.

It’s easy, often too easy, to become emotionally invested to the point where one’s viewpoint is largely irrational. When this happens, not only is pragmatism off the table, so are possibilities that remain unseen, unappreciated, unconsidered. This is particularly true when there is change. If there is ever a time when detachment proves its worth, it’s when unwanted change presents itself and isn’t going away. The pragmatist steps back and looks for all there is to know about it, while those who remain stubbornly attached feel much but see little.

One And Only Isn’t Only One

When we are happy in our significant relationship, we are grateful for having found our one and only. But this is really an illusion of time and place. What is rarely acknowledged is that there are numerous potential one and onlys who would engender the same emotions, feelings and sense of having found the right one. It’s a version of knowing what you have but not knowing what you don’t have. Pragmatically, and despite what song lyrics might imply or express, finding true happiness is not reduced to seeking that singular special person on the planet.

I’m not trying to encourage anyone to look for someone else even though they are content with their current partner. I’m simply pointing out that contrary to the myth and magic about true love we grow up with, one could end up in a very good relationship with a number of individuals (out of a fairly large population) who, while not replicas of each other, are all suitably compatible. Obviously, the challenge is meeting them when they are available, and recognizing the qualities that represent compatibility.

Sometimes, existing one-and-only partners can disappoint, change or grow apart in ways that are unpredictable to themselves and to others. The resulting sense of loss, feelings of failure and emotional trauma can make some believe they will never love again nor feel that special sense of one and only. But they’re really not paying attention to how many people eventually (sometimes too soon) become open to the possibility of another special person, and actually manage to find someone else who, though different, can still be a one-and-only partner.

The possibility of experiencing the same feelings with different people is dependent upon the manner one approaches the goal. While the details may differ among them, there are likely multiple choices — if one has the stamina to see the process through and assess the details. Exactitude of matching is overrated relative to overall compatibility. As always, chemistry plays its unpredictable but important role. An open mind is necessary.

That said, there are relationships that may be difficult to replicate. When a truly compatible, meant-to-be-together partnership is ended by circumstances, such as illness or accident, it may seem even less likely that anyone else could fill the void. It can take a long time to even want to consider the possibility of a new relationship. And odds are this someone would not be identical to the he or she who is gone. If one believes no other combination of traits, personality and characteristics would be equally compatible, there’s little chance of finding a new one and only to share life with.

The adage that life is for the living is recognition that loss can be overcome when one is ready. The emotions and feelings we want for and from another remain fundamental to our being even after a previous one-and-only no longer exists. These emotions may naturally be suppressed for a considerable length of time, but at some point one should come to realize that life alone may not necessarily be better or more desirable than finding someone. A new relationship is not being disloyal to the previous partner. He or she is gone in every sense of the word.

Currently, some 40 percent of us are living alone, many of whom have been married or had significant relationships and have chosen to not negotiate the ins and outs of a significant other again. They still date and enjoy some of the benefits of a relationship, but the freedom of being alone is not discarded. My inner pragmatist thinks much of this ambivalence about relationships is really avoiding the pain and emotional disruption that accompany relationships that don’t work out or last, or end tragically. There is always inherent risk in this regard, but avoiding risk also means denying possibilities.

The prized cultural-social goal of discovering the one person — perhaps in the world, or just close to home — who we are meant to be with can create more expectations than life may deliver. And we can’t know how many mister or miss rights there might be. Finding out depends upon wisdom. Part of successful matching is knowing what matters and what really doesn’t. A relationship doesn’t have to be perfect, because it really can’t be. Disagreement, conflict and issues are normal, not automatically signs of incompatibility, but these do require the ability to negotiate and the acceptance for differences. The end result is why two people come to feel they have found their one and only.

As a pragmatist and a romantic, I have had to learn to combine these two traits. Given the complexity and variables in forming relationships, failures can often help increase eventual success. When the “what works” aspect of pragmatism meets attraction, emotion, chemistry and key compatibility variables, meant-to-be is not limited to only one other person on the continent or in a city. Knowing what absolutely won’t work is often equally important — which eliminates a majority of possibilities. And experience tells me that timing is critical for both people. When timing isn’t aligned, one either waits or moves on.

Marrying for love is considered affirmation of meant-to-be-together, but love exists in the presence of what works and does not exist in the presence of what doesn’t. It’s culturally popular to believe love conquers all, but that’s a rather idealistic concept that has failed many, many times. The song says all you need is love, but in real life, love and one-and-only are not always synonymous. Which is to say, one and only is a state of being, not destiny, even though it can certainly feel like it.

What Do Bunnies Think

Have you ever noticed a rabbit nibbling on something in your yard not meant for it and thought, I wonder what it’s thinking about. No, you have not. You inherently know the bunny is not having a philosophically enlightening moment. One, it does not have the neural hardware for this, and two, its primary “goal,” other than finding food and reproducing, is to spend its non-sleeping hours avoiding becoming a meal for other forms of wildlife that are also not contemplating the quality of life or its meaning. Which is to say, wildlife exists because it exists…until it ceases to.

This means there are no reasons for the existence of nature…or the universe for that matter. There’s no grand scheme, no oversight by one or more deities, no actual purpose. Despite the simplicity of this realization, it is very difficult for many humans to understand or accept. Goals and purpose and reasons are so embedded in our neural existence that the lack of these seems incomprehensible and impossible. The fundamental self-awareness statement that “I exist for a reason” releases a cascade of “reasons” for many things, all seeking to explain the universe, our world and everything in them. For many, these explanations become articles of faith, but for others they only confuse reality.

The failure of faith is in the meaning of the word — to believe without evidence. One has to essentially accept explanations that defy real world experience and common sense. Believers, in their attempts to overcome these objections, resort to claiming inerrancy of texts and asserting anti-science truths. In the end, no matter what they say, their articles of faith lack the ring of truth, that quality which the human intellect finds credible because verifiable evidence supports it.

Humans can exist without divine creation just as rabbits can. The randomness of both life itself and the various permutations of it undermine any order or plan. Design flaws are rampant, with most undermining rather than enhancing existence — hardly the work of “intelligent” design. Yet many people are convinced that the existence of something that’s alive could not be possible without a creator, designer, fabricator. This is because they mistake biological complexity as proof of an unseen hand. Yet it doesn’t require a higher power to design, say, an Airbus A-380, which is a very complex result of human intelligence. The assertion that humans couldn’t design this aircraft without outside help is just a variation of believing complexity cannot be exist because it’s difficult to comprehend and understand.

Why do rabbits not have a language, the capacity for abstract thought or intricate social interactions? Because once sufficient reproductive success is attained — bunnies are famously prolific — there is no need for further mutations. Evolution stops where it’s not enhancing reproduction and survival. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s famous essay The Panda’s Thumb, which demonstrates how sub-optimal morphology confirms evolution.) Beyond that, only adaption to changing environmental circumstances and/or mutations that eventually result in different species represent mutational opportunities. Other mutations will simply either confer no benefit or actually impair reproduction or survival.

The life of a rabbit is mundane by human standards, but more than adequate to ensure that lots of rabbits exist, and for no other reason than that they do. One could say the same regarding domestic cats, which, for all their variations of personality, are remarkably unchanged from the cats first domesticated by humans. Yes, humans have selectively bred cats for specific traits in appearance, often resulting in accompanying physical alterations that can be detrimental to them, but beyond this they remain essentially as primitive as they’ve always been. Their interactions with us do not alter this. They do not need to evolve further to be highly successful at existing.

The difference between humans and other forms of life is we can think about why we exist, whereas rabbits and owls and monkeys don’t know and don’t care. The message would seem to be that we exist because we are alive, and when we die, so does our existence. Why, then, isn’t this enough? I think it’s conflict between our evolutionary-driven instinct to survive and our awareness of mortality. All of the superstition, mysticism and religious dogma surrounding this conflict are attempts to exert control over it, in much the same way that heaven and hell are used to motivate or dissuade others from various kinds of behaviors.

So we arrive back where we started. This short essay is really a lesson in pragmatism. I’ve looked at all the reasons humans have devised to explain the meaning of life and why we exist, and none of them pass my ring of truth threshold. This causes me to return to the most basic assumption, which that existence is its own answer, and the quality of that existence — a distinctly human value — depends on both being able to conceive of the concept of quality and then being able to determine what that is or might be.

I’m not saying all pragmatists will arrive at the same place as myself, but for me there’s piece of mind being precisely where I am regarding existence. Existence without reasons answers why the results of human nature range from the wonderful to the worst in ways that are inexplicable. The evolution of human intelligence and thought is unevenly distributed, and accompanied by a wide variety of personalities and psychological combinations. The results are all around us and stretch back in time for as long as humans have existed.

Existence is precisely what it appears to be. The difference between humans and bunnies is in the complexity of the former. The phrase what you see is what you get may not explain why both exist, but I suggest explanation is superfluous. Besides, in four billion years, when the sun becomes a red giant and incinerates our planet, existence for both will cease anyway.

Needing To Know…Or Not

I’ve occasionally mentioned my wife, an attractive, intelligent senior executive whose pragmatism is pretty close to mine. Even though she was a cheerleader in high school, many of her friends were geeks, a fact she reminded me of on the occasion of telling me I was something of a geek. Mind you, something is the operative word and I have high-functioning social skills. So it was a surprise after sharing with her the first episode of the new version of Carl Sagan’s famous series Cosmos, this time with Neil deGrasse Tyson, to hear her say to me, why does anyone need to know this stuff. I was at a rare loss for words.

How could my pragmatic wife, who likes geeks, even ask such a question. As I considered this, I heard myself explaining that knowing the history of our universe, our solar system and our planet puts everything in perspective and explains so much. She agreed this may be true, but it wasn’t necessary for her to know or care about any of it. It wasn’t knowledge she actually needed. Not needing it, I noted, assumes that the concepts inherent in this knowledge don’t provide a valuable matrix upon which to place life’s issues and big questions. Ignorance, superstition and mysticism are not going to do better.

One of the differences between us is that I am extremely curious. She’s noted many times that I have more questions than anyone she’s ever known. “Your poor mother.” Hmm…how are questions a bad thing.

The phrase “there are no stupid questions” is meant to encourage learning. The same can be said regarding the quantity of questions. Some of us are more curious than others, and others lack curiosity at a level I find hard to understand. It won’t be surprising that I share website links via email (I never use share links on web sites) if I think someone I know will find a topic interesting or helpful. But I’m highly selective when doing so. I consider whether the potential value justifies sharing — a lot of information is of dubious value, if only for its triviality.

Here’s an example of information that, to me, meets the trivial threshold: It is estimated that each year the world’s population produces 6.4 trillion liters (1.65 trillion gallons) of urine. Of course, it’s possible that this information might be useful to someone, and it turns out that when urine flows through microbial fuel cells, it can create sufficient current to charge mobile device batteries. So it might be possible to use this technology in undeveloped parts of the world without electricity. But, otherwise, not really information anyone else has need of. Which is to say, the value of information is largely its context, and context should determine both our world view and how we interact with that world.

Information is life blood for pragmatists. It forms the basis of the search for truth, for determining reality and for problem solving. Even life’s most profound questions can have answers in information. Finding, sorting through and synthesizing conclusions from information is the challenge. Hence the need for questions, which lead to answers and then more questions. My inherent skepticism of religion from a young age was confirmed — for me — by everything from cosmology and physics to evolutionary biology and plate tectonics. There was no place for a deity or prayer, particularly when it turned out the whole genesis story was a retelling of the same story of creation from other preceding cultures.

Which brings us back to deciding what we need to know. Suppose we change need to want — because need is really the expression of want. One can want information to learn how to do something, but one can also want information to understand something…anything…and thus create more context. If you look at the fundamental premise of this blog, found in About at the top of this page, it’s really about how everything is relative to everything else — a huge context matrix. Whether it’s the meaning of life, keeping secrets, making realistic choices, solving difficult problems or whatever, context is a fundamental factor. We apply context so often we don’t even think about it.

And this was my point to my wife about the knowledge in the Cosmos series. It provides context on a vast scale upon which we can see ourselves and our relationships to everything else. Scale and relativity give us perspective. Years ago a close friend, a professor at MIT, noted how the students arriving there were the smartest fish in their high school ponds, but now found themselves surrounded by many equally smart or smarter fish in the much bigger MIT pond. This realization and the consequent adjustments to it provided a life-changing lesson in scale, relativity and sense of self.

Not everyone likes or can accept a pragmatic viewpoint. They prefer political ideology or religious dogma, which start with answers and then apply them to life without context. The attraction is certainty of principles and values, but the unacknowledged flaw is how meaningless the “answers” are without context. And the lack of nuance and balance so essential to reality make these answers even less relevant. In the real world, ignorance is not actually bliss but instead intellectual failure with negative consequences. The only way to know what one needs to know is by wanting information first and then being open to what it might say to us about our own contexts.

Cultural Nostalgia

In my journey to two degrees in history, I covered a wide variety of topics in many areas, from global and regional to national and local. I was less interested in political and economic aspects, more interested in social and cultural ones, and focused particularly on urban history — the history of cities. The focus was on large cities and metropolitan regions, but also small towns and villages. The evolution and growth of cities is tied directly to invention, innovation, technology, the arts and finance. And cities are cultural transformers, creating megalopolises of urban and suburban that represent higher education, higher income and higher expectations. Eighty percent of Americans live in metropolitan regions.

It’s not news that those who live in these areas tend to be more liberal relative to those who live away from them. It’s not unusual to see cities mapped in purple or blue surrounded by large areas mapped in red. To those outside of them, cities have a centuries-old reputation as places where human behavior and activity are marginal at best and in contradiction to religious values. Pick any socio-cultural topic that is in political contention, and the most conservative opinions will be most prevalent in rural areas and towns. Non-conformists have long found their home in cities.

Earlier this year I noted (Getting It Done — March 13 2014) that cities are well ahead of the federal government and many state governments in getting problems solved. Mayors keep their jobs by making sure the programs, services and assistance residents want and need are in place and functioning. This pragmatism ignores political party lines, and might be deemed “liberal” by the ever-unhappy far right — social conservatives in particular. Unlike some fiscal conservatives, who can be social moderates or even liberal on some issues, social conservatives have an overwhelming cultural nostalgia that wants to push back against all the changes that have invariably emanated from cities.

From diversity to individuality, cities are engines of cultural change in a country with vast areas of rural culture that is largely hostile to this change. This conflict may ebb and flow, but slowly and inevitably — particularly now with the Internet and cable-satellite television — change seeps even into places that are the most resistant to it. The result is anger and political rhetoric about taking back the country and saving “religious freedom.” This is a fundamental consequence with nostalgia in general and cultural nostalgia in particular. Both are distortions of reality, selectively remembering the past and creating its mythology while emotionally rejecting changes since then…whenever then might be.

By definition, nostalgia is tied to individual age. As people get older, some develop a predilection for nostalgic romanticism. Despite all evidence pointing to things being better overall now, there’s a persistent belief that things were better, and simpler, in the past (an amorphous term that lacks specificity or context). This was made obvious in a recent piece I read in which the author noted that thanks to cable and the Internet, dozens of television shows from the 50s, 60s and so on were easily available, but rarely worth more than an occasional cursory viewing. From simplistic plots and dialogue to inconsistent acting, these nostalgic “classics” are neither better than nor often even as good as what has come to us more recently. It’s fun for a little while, and then it isn’t…or shouldn’t be.

The comments by readers were a combination of selective agreement and pushback. Yes, many shows had not aged well, but there were exceptions — a demonstration of it depends who you ask. These less hip, less ironic, simpler and almost innocent programs are apparently a pleasant reprieve from the past for many of a certain age demographic. What I found myself contemplating was all the actors who are now dead and only still in our cultural awareness because of the interest in these sitcoms and dramas from decades long gone. Otherwise, fame (and wealth) does not change the long-term outcome of eventual obscurity. This is part of cultural change, of course, realizing that even those who are the least anonymous are easily forgotten with the passage of time.

Nostalgia for the past and hostility toward change are both highly misguided in that the former will not bring back the past and the latter will not stop change. In other words, neither is going to alter reality. The notion that life was somehow better and simpler in some previous era of human existence is simply without merit. The quality of life overall is vastly better for more people now than it has ever been, be it a century or a decade ago. The quality of one’s personal life may vary with time for many reasons — real or perceived, but this is not a reflection on changing society and culture or the fault of cities and misplaced values.

The roots of nostalgia are not a mystery. Change brings anxiety, unfamiliarity and new challenges. Things become more complicated, information increases in volume and job skills evolve in scope and complexity. Cultural signposts — language, entertainment, trends — are constant reminders of change. The pace and amount of change may be greater than they used to be, but change itself has always been there. The stereotype of increasing age bringing increasing resistance to change is not without merit, but depends on a variety of variables. Phrases by the nostalgic about moral collapse and loss of values are not new, just more widely seen and heard thanks to the 24/7 world of news and social media.

As an historian, I put things in perspective by training. As a pragmatist, I do the same by nature. Cultures evolve as combinations of what has come before melded with what is here and now — over and over, again and again. Not everyone is up for this, and they want to stop what can’t be stopped and reverse what can’t be reversed. Nostalgia for the past is really about when the future was ahead of them and they were going to own it. Now they are older, the future is their past and others who aren’t like them are taking their place. These transitions are rarely easy, but they are inevitable. It’s a pragmatic truth.

Doing Nothing

Governance is not just about government. It actually applies to any organization — profit or not-for-profit, institutions such as museums, universities and libraries, religious organizations and charities, and so on. Essentially, it’s about the establishment of policies and continuous monitoring of their proper implementation. In other words, the rule of the rulers within a given set of rules. It’s not unreasonable to expect governance to be rational and practical. Ironically, this does not always — or even often — occur in government, particularly in the legislative branch

The primary source of the dysfunction of governance that plagues legislatures, most notably the federal branch, is politics combined with large numbers of elected members. For governance to be rational and practical, it has to take place within an assumption that the greater good is a commonly held goal, and that points of view have to be sufficiently malleable that consensus can be reached and laws passed — to then be signed by the executive branch and implemented. The results are not perfect and may have flaws that need later correction, but governance takes place because issues are addressed.

A working assumption is that when legislators are a problem, voters will make changes in who is elected to office. Yes, I know…Civics 101. And yet, with mid term elections just a few months away, and the federal legislature having done so little while creating so much endless drama, there is no compelling reason to expect meaningful changes. It is true that some of the most extreme candidates were not successful in their primary campaigns, but it’s questionable how much (if any) moderation this will create when there are still sufficient numbers of those with extreme opinion and no interest in compromise who can and will prevent governance from occurring.

Democracy is messy, with its greatest redeeming value being that it’s better than the alternative. But messy should not mean ineffective or non-functioning. Even many within Congress are noting that the institution is not working and no problems are being solved. Being part of the solution or part of the problem takes on greater meaning. The larger problem becomes not just the issues that aren’t resolved in practical ways but the cumulative effect of this. The decline of nations is often the slow degradation of their governance.

While it’s true that only voters can fix this, the voters who are wise enough to understand the need for moderation and problem solving are not necessarily the voters who regularly show up to vote or vote by mail. It’s the voters who are least informed and least moderate who are committed to candidates and incumbents who are least qualified to govern. Moderate voters are more intelligent in knowing that compromise and consensus are fundamental to the functions of democracy, but perhaps insufficiently committed to voting. Of course, gerrymandered districts simultaneously corrupt democracy while allowing fringe incumbents to remain in office despite doing nothing of value…and nothing at all.

I’m a pragmatist. I know there’s not much that will simply turn around doing nothing, at least not right now. But motivation is coming. The Republican party is tired of losing elections they might have won except for far-right candidates in their party, and business is tired of being the target of these candidates and seeing government and economic stability threatened by tea party zealots. The party elite and business leaders are fine with moderates and compromise. The party base has finally proved to be the liability it was always going to become. Demographics are also changing, and white males are destined to become a minority who will not be easily elected by the coming voters unless they move back toward the center.

Corrections in political excess and dysfunction eventually take place. It’s not efficient nor is it timely, but it does happen. As an historian by training if not profession, I can point with confidence to how the movement from political center to left or right and then back the other way has happened many times. It takes cultures time to adjust to progress, and there can be regression, but in the long run the overall result is more liberal (open-minded), less conservative. If the Republican party hadn’t foolishly embraced the most conservative as its base, the degree of partisan gridlock and acrimony would never have come to where it is, with nothing getting done and the conservative base just fine with it. They are fools in every sense of the word.

And Now, The Weather

When I was in college here in SoCal, I had a fascinating summer class taught by a professor from the University of Hawaii on regional climatology. It was just for fun (I was a history major) and brought into focus the many aspects of climatology and its effects on both the history of the earth and human history. The most important takeaway was and is that the complexity of weather exists both at a global level and at regional levels, with microclimates within the latter. The effects of everything from atmospheric gases to amounts of light or dark areas on the earth’s surface to the persistence of cloud (or volcanic ash) cover all interact in complex ways.

That was decades ago, and since then the power of computers and the complexity of weather models have increased exponentially. And climatology remains just as important as it always has both for the planet and for the life on it within the thin biosphere from ocean bottom to outer edges of the surrounding atmosphere. Historical climatology demonstrates how profoundly climate can alter life on the planet, including extinctions on massive scales. The Gaia theory posits that plants and animals can alter the composition of the atmosphere by their existence and activities, which can enhance or impair their survival over time depending on their adaptability.

We now live in the (informally named) Anthropocene period, indicating the results of the existence and activities of humans on the planet and its weather. Humans are a very recent development, mere minutes at the end of the last day of the year if a calendar year represents the history of the universe and this planet. You can see where this is going. Those with interests in science have been contemplating the effects of mankind on the earth since at least the 16th century, when humans numbered in the mid hundreds of millions, not billions. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the various disciplines of science that didn’t even exist that long ago, it’s that seemingly small changes can have subtle but cumulative effects over time.

The war on science has always existed. Be it evolution, contraception or climatology, when science meets religion, belief or special interests, the intellectual progress of humans comes to an abrupt halt. My inherently pragmatic response to new information is to reconsider and rethink what it means, and I find it incomprehensible why anyone wouldn’t do the same. After all, the alternative of ignoring information makes no sense, particularly when the amount of information is huge and highly regarded.

When it comes to climatology, there are so many interrelationships that it’s hardly surprising the cumulative effect is so significant. If small changes can have long-term consequences, large changes have even greater impact. For example, as ocean water becomes warmer it contains fewer nutrients, which in turn mean fewer plankton, the tiny creatures that represent a fundamental food source for the biological pyramid above them. Plankton are also an inhibitor of carbon dioxide. With reduced masses of plankton, there is increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is just one example among many. Those individuals most resistant to the influence of humans on climate change are also the least likely to have knowledge of the details and what the long-term effects will be.

Which brings us to opinion as truth. Truth is not a matter of opinion unless there is either insufficient evidence (who, what, where, when and, often the most difficult, why) or credible questions regarding the evidence. Even then, opinion is not actually truth but rather related to the evidence itself. The evidence determines truth. For example, is the climate changing? Yes. The is true and not in dispute. What does the evidence say regarding cyclical climatology versus climatological change driven by human activities? More than 97 percent of climatologists agree that humans are driving the scale and rapidity of the changes.

We have comparative climate data for hundreds of thousands of years to use in gauging current levels and rates of change, and the current numbers far exceed historical data. The conclusion seems inescapable…unless one has reasons for not wanting to accept this reality — and these reasons are neither science nor scientific. They are, instead, about agendas and special interests and ideology and simple denial. For this pragmatist, there is no truth in any of these. The war on science has always been truth versus those who want the world to be a certain way regardless of how it really is.

It comes down to this. What needs to be done, should be done, can be done to slow down climate change remains controversial and contentious even when there is agreement that doing nothing is not a viable option. Reversal of climate change is also not an option. The challenges for those who will be living with climate change consequences later in this century will only be made worse by how little is done now. Pragmatism is about truth — not necessarily optimism, and the truth is that the twenty-first century may determine much about the quality of life on earth for a very long time.

Staying Tethered To Reality

The daily news contains a rather long list of depressing stories, some far worse than others, involving the deaths of dozens, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of innocent people — innocent in that they were going about their lives, not fighting in wars, uprisings or rebellions. As a result, we sometimes have a collective reaction both for the lost individuals and for how perhaps it could be us someday. The details of these events differ, with some being accidental whereas others are clearly the result of malevolent intent. We make the distinction because we believe the why matters as much as the how.

These distinctions don’t change the results of what happened, but may distort both short- and long-term perspectives. The mourning of loss can be an individual experience or it can be a collective one (sometimes including societal expectations of participation). For the former it may be devastating and life-changing; for the latter it can be shared emotions, but with the potential for becoming culturally intrusive, even obsessive. Over the centuries some cultures and societies have suffered far more loss than others — most often from war, but sometimes disease or terrorism of some form. Yet, again, the results are the same regardless of how and why.

The U.S. has largely been spared significant collective loss and grief, partly a result of geography, but also because losses from war in the last two centuries have taken place elsewhere — with the exception of the civil war in the 1860s. Events such as assasination of a president can trigger collective grief, but these are rare. What we do have now is 9/11, which has taken on a life of its own for many, and is now memorialized with a tower of a precise height to match the numerical year of the country’s founding. The horrific deaths of 3000 innocent people is, of course, a tragedy, but more than ten times that many people in the U.S. die each year in traffic accidents, and the annual number worldwide is ~1.3 million.

The reality is that most people in developed countries will live relatively long lives. Participation in higher risk outdoor activities has the potential to change the odds, but even these do not make much of a statistical dent in longevity. Lifestyles matter as well, with moderation increasing lifespans for many. But longevity is not the only measure. Quality of life also matters to us, and we tend to generalize about having good health, career, family, friends and things we enjoy. Taken as a whole, lying awake at night worrying about all that can go wrong — and kill us or loved ones, isn’t a desirable use of sleep time (an exception could be serious illness).

We should, of course, care about the why of death, holding those accountable for doing things that result in the killing of others. However, while the existence of consequences may have some effect in preventing such behaviors, a pragmatic overview says that consequence as deterrent has distinct limitations thanks to the perversities of human nature. Those with agendas may even create their own consequences, such as the individuals responsible for 9/11, who were driven by political and religious zealotry to do what they did while dying in the process. Despite all of this, the odds against becoming a victim remain remarkably in our favor.

Focusing too much on these events distorts perspective and balance. Collective mourning, assuming it’s actually necessary and appropriate, should be relatively brief. Life truly is for the living, and the normalcy of day-to-day existence should be celebrated and embraced. Daily life may feel mundane and even banal at times, but it clearly is what keeps us grounded in reality. Erecting memorials so we “never forget” may seem noble, but time will erase much, if not most, of what was so emotionally real for those living at the time. Even when culturally embedded, these events mean less and less to more and more with each passing generation.

Want proof? Pick any national holiday and note what percentage of the population actually makes it a day of remembrance. Individuals and families with direct connections to the purpose of the holiday may focus on this, but for most people it will be about deciding what to do on a day off or with a long weekend. Which may be of equal value. In many ways, the barbecues, picnics and three-day road trips are celebrations of life, and living. And that’s the pragmatic reality.

If you’re one of those individuals who wants to find the meaning of life and death, enjoy the search, but don’t be surprised if you ultimately discover the meaning of life when seeing yourself in the mirror or looking at your significant other, spending time with children or with friends, watching a favorite sport or being immersed in a hobby, seeing a good film or reading a great book. I haven’t written about it in a long time, but the zen approach of being in the moment and finding your happiness in life in many small things remains great wisdom.

As for death…well, it’s possible to contemplate it from every perspective and point of view and still end up back at the beginning, recognizing that it’s really just part of reality and therefore of living. As a pragmatist, I can tell you what it’s not about. Death is not about fairness. And death is random for a long list of reasons. We may place judgement on the how, when and why, but the pragmatic reality is that the end result is still the same. Experience the emotions but stay tethered to reality.

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