Tag Archives: capitalism

Self-Conscious

Cassini is no more. The Saturn-bound satellite was launched in 1997 when the earth was a very different place. As it’s four-year sell-by date passed, the little robot who could kept on snapping photos around the ringed giant and its moons. Remote controlled from three planets and an asteroid belt away, it was decided that the explorer had to be destroyed in Saturn’s thick atmosphere rather than contaminate one of the moons where life might someday be found. Yesterday the probe burned up on its way through Saturn’s perpetual cloud bank. This has led to many emotional tributes, even among scientists who believe Cassini was just a machine. It also shows us how little we really know about consciousness.

During the two decades that Cassini was in space, we’ve learned quite a bit about animal consciousness here on our own planet. Many are now finally becoming convinced that we share this strange quality we can’t even define with other biological entities. Well, at least the “higher” kind. And we can’t help but think that maybe our more intelligent machines possess it too. We treat them as if they’re alive and willful. That could be a case of our own consciousness projecting itself onto inanimate matter—that’s something consciousness is pretty good at too—but since we lack the ability to measure consciousness, we can’t know if it’s there or not. To hear the astronomers talk, we’re going to miss Cassini, a machine that outperformed expectations. Ironically, once we get machines off the earth they tend to do that, even without oil changes every 5000 miles.

Down here on earth we complicate consciousness with cash. Devising an elaborate economic system to demonstrate who can buy power in the White House and who can’t, we want to know who is more important than whom. It’s a simple metric. Bank accounts tell the truth, no matter what the level of consciousness—or even of sentience—that the account holder may have. And then we wonder why a nation that can send a satellite three planets away can’t even figure out that all races should be treated equally and fairly. Cassini was a collaborative effort. Different races, genders, and economic classes contributed to its remarkable voyage. Eyes around the country were moistened when its last image was projected to earth. We wisely decided to immolate our satellite before we could contaminate another world. Meanwhile on our own planet we’re barely conscious of what we continue to do.

Overlooked Scripture

In this great Trump Tower of capitalism in which we all live, I often wonder about the overlooked Bible. Fundamentalist Trump supporters certainly know how to thump it, but do they know how to read it? This thought occurred to me as I was rereading the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 recently. The narrative isn’t hidden or obscure. Here’s how it goes: the earliest Christians were communists. Literally. Peter himself was involved. After Jesus’ ascension, his followers pooled their resources and divided them up by how much each person needed. Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife duo, sold their property and presented the money to Peter and the collective. They held a little back, though, just in case. The result? Peter saw through the lie and they died instantly. The point was pretty clear—Christians don’t hold anything back for themselves. They live communally.

Obviously, this didn’t last very long. Let the one without a savings account cast the first stone. In fact, by half-way through Acts the holy experiment is already forgotten. Nevertheless, it was the ideal. Christians were people who took care of one another, especially the poor. By the time communist governments (which didn’t work because people are people) took hold, Christians were dead-set against them. Okay, well, they were godless—but the idea behind them was biblical. Today any form of socialism is soundly condemned by most evangelicals. Apparently they don’t read the book of Acts any more. There was no moment when this commune was castigated in Holy Writ. It simply vanishes without a whimper to be condemned as utterly evil in these latter days.

The wedding between capitalism and Christianity has proven an enduring one. Capitalism allows, indeed pretty much mandates, selfishness. It’s difficult to live in such a system and not feel entitled to more than you already have. Who ever says, “No thanks, I don’t need a raise. I have enough”? Those who attempt communal living are generally called “cults” and the suspicion is omnipresent that the leader isn’t holding (usually) himself to the same standards as the pedestrian members. The story in Acts 5, however, is even more extreme. After Ananias lies to Peter and dies on the spot, his wife Sapphira comes in just as those who buried her husband are returning. Peter baits her with a question about how much money they received for their property and when she concurs with her late husband, the undertakers have a second job for the day. This is a faith taken seriously. It was bound not to last.

Noah’s Parable

I write a lot about Noah. For those who didn’t know me before this blog, I was once invited to write a book on Noah for a series ironically published by Oxford University Press. I had been researching Noah for years, and I intended to write the book. Then, as the kids are saying these days, life happened. My interest in Noah has never waned, however. And part of the reason is that it is perhaps the most influential story in the entire Bible. I realize I’ll need to explain that, but stop and think about it—Evangelicals seldom talk about Jesus any more. Their concerns are with unborn babies, people making babies outside wedlock, and destroying our environment in the name of capitalism. It is the last of these that brings us back to Noah.

A friend recently sent me a story on Splinter by Brendan O’Connor titled “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.” O’Connor is looking at the history of how a pro-environmentalism-inclined evangelical movement decided to shift its base to align with climate-change deniers. Behind the scenes are fundamentalist clergy. Oh, we like to laugh at them and their ways, but they are the power behind the throne and we should really not let them out of our sight. You see, as O’Connor points out, they believe that the God of Noah can protect the world from the worst that we can throw at it. It’s perfectly okay to try to destroy the planet because the magic man upstairs can fix everything right back up if he needs to before sending his son back to town on the final business meeting. Laugh if you will. These people are dead serious and many who hold power in Washington believe every lie they utter.

As a nation—perhaps as an entire western culture—we’ve laughed off religion. Secure that there’s no God up there to rain down, well, rain, we laugh and jeer at Noah. It’s a children’s story, after all, isn’t it? Okay, forget about the part where everyone in the entire world drowns, except eight people. And when he gets drunk and lays naked in his tent after it’s all over. Other than that, it’s a kid’s story, right? The story of the flood is one of the oldest myths in the world. It has been part of human story-telling for millennia. We now have very powerful people with smart phones in their pockets and access to vast hordes of money who believe it literally happened. And since God took care of his own once, he can do it again. The educated smirk. The smart start building arks.

Berrying Perspective

Two people looking at the same thing see something different. Since we’re living with a government of distorted perspective this truth appears refreshed daily. I was reminded of this while picking huckleberries. Huckleberries, according to the local edible berry guide, are called many different things. In this part of the country you know them when you see them. And if you see them you pick them. They appeal to the frustrated hunter-gatherer left in us city-dwellers. As I was trying my best to fill my bucket, I kept thinking of those who only see nature’s bounty as a means of turning a profit. In my mind they’re meanies—those who take all the fun out of the few freedoms we have left—although I realize that it’s a matter of perspective. Consider the huckleberry.

I’m a mere seasonal visitor to these parts. Since not too many of my own species make this location their permanent domicile, that’s perfectly natural. Many of the berry pickers I’ve encountered have been seasonal guests as well. There are the more “industrial” pickers, though. In a good year huckleberries can command fifty dollars a gallon on the local market. Unless you know an unfrequented secret site, a gallon can take several hours to pick even in a promising location. Overall, you need to arrive before anyone else and get the most productive bushes so that you don’t have to wander around the mountainside in search of a more lucrative locale. Not to mention that, like most berries, they have a limited shelf life. Nature prefers sharers to hoarders.

While I’m picking I generally think of bears. Unlike my species they don’t have the grocery store option. These berries are their survival, I suppose. Nature does provide. That’s how evolution works—we form symbiotic relationships with our environment. The meanies, however, can’t see beyond the self. What nature provides must be accumulated for my own benefit and not that of others. There are never enough huckleberries to go around, the industrial mind thinks, and so I’d better control the availability and set my price. You don’t even have to like huckleberries to do it. Ironically we call this having a gift. Standing here on this isolated mountainside, bent over a bush offering nature’s abundance, I believe that I’ve found a gift. I have to remind myself, however, that this too is a matter of perspective. It is a perspective that tastes right to me.

Clean Sweep

The other day I was reading about cleaner wrasses. These are the fish, usually in coral reef community, that establish a place of business, and other fishes who want to be rid of parasites come onto location to be cleaned. They allow the wrasses to nip them all over to get the pests taken care of, even allowing the smaller fish to swim into their mouths to work their specialization there. Kind of a mix between a visit to the dentist and the car wash. Documentary makers have filmed the process multiple times, and, being humans, we project onto the piscine scene a kind of business template—an exchange of goods for services. Then we turn back to our own lives and forget the underwater world.

Image credit: Robbie N. Cada, courtesy FishBase, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Still, I have to wonder about what’s going on here in the realm of consciousness. We do not yet know what consciousness is, but we all recognize it in ourselves. We know we’re alive and conscious—except when we’re dreaming when we don’t seem to realize what’s going on in our brains isn’t really happening. Most of the time, however, we set our goals, have our intentions, and go about our business accordingly. What is the motive force that drives a fish to the cleaner wrasse’s studio? Isn’t there a level of consciousness involved to know that this fish’s house is where you need to be for this kind of treatment? Don’t the larger, predator fish know that if they eat the wrasse in their mouth they’ll have to find a new service provider? Are they aware of this or are they, as some scientists like to tell us, simply biological machines following their programming?

I’m not a scientist, but I see consciousness all around me. I watch the interactions of land animals—I generally don’t take trips under the sea, no matter what Sebastian says—and they are anything but simple. The birds on the wire and in the chokecherry trees have complex interactions. All you have to do is watch a single individual for a few minutes. They make decisions—the sky is a vast, open template with no obstacles, surely they have to decide why they want to go this direction and not that! And bowerbirds build nests as elaborate as Victorian mansions. Not that there are bowerbirds at my bus stop, or even in New Jersey. There are limits to how far even nature will go. As I stand here, waiting for my bus, I can’t help but think how like a cleaner wrasse I am. And I’m sure they must be conscious of what they’re doing since life’s all about the exchanges of goods and services.

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

christmas-carol

We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

Solstice Blues

The relief is so real that you can feel it with your fingers. Or brushing your cheek. The feeling of being done with another semester, and knowing you’ve got some time for recovery after the intensity of going flat-out for months at a time. I miss that feeling. As a guy who has often been accused of being “too intense” I tend to run pretty near the red line all the time. Pit stops are few and very far between. Once this vehicle’s in drive, there’s no stopping until the destination is reached. What do you do when there’s no clear destination? That’s what working for mere money is like. How do you know when you have enough? Just ask Mr. Trump. Too much is always too little. That’s the kind of world we live in.

Higher education, it used to be, was a place for people who believed in higher values than mere lucre. There was a time, historically, when we took transcendence seriously. The price (if you’ll pardon the analogy) that we’ve paid for letting transcendence go will become apparent. Those who believe only in what they see miss most of reality that swirls by them like a river under the ice. Yes, it still flows. Just ask the fish. There’s a wisdom outside our paltry economic efforts, if we’d only just get out to inquire of it.

Work is built around the foolish concept that you can never have enough. I have to think that our fear of a year of drought has deeply impressed itself on our psyche. Back in biblical times and up until just a couple of centuries ago people considered work to be farm work. Growing your own food. Building your own house. Knowing what to do in an emergency. If nature didn’t cooperate with that scheme what choice had you? Now, however, we labor for a concept as abstract as transcendence. When’s the last time you were paid with actual cash? What wouldn’t you pay for a little more time off? Time to stay in your pajamas all day and ponder what’s really real? Perhaps sleep until you’re not tired rather than awaking at the sound of a factory bell? The sun hasn’t risen by the time I reach my windowless office. When I step out again it’s already set. The solstice reminds me of the semester break that no longer exists. I have to believe, however, that under the ice the river’s still flowing.

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