Letting Go of Fear

Toward a More Equal America, Part 12

Fear
False Evidence Appearing Real
That which we believe keeps us safe
Makes the world far more dangerous
While keeping us small
Keeping us miserable
Diminishing our confidence
Diminishing our power.
 
Fear controls us
So that we wish for control
And when we wish for control
Those who wish to be in control
Have their wish granted.
 
Fear occupies a strange place
In our collective psyche
Not revered
Yet not questioned
We might view it as harmful
Yet we do very little
To speak against it.
 
We chastise those who incite violence
Or who incite hatred
While those who incite fear
Spread their fright-words far and wide
From Twitter accounts
And news hours
And halls of Congress
To nary a peep of dismay.
 
If we are going to have a chance
To rebuild trust in each other
Trust in democracy
We are going to have to do something about fear.
 
This doesn’t mean pathologizing it
Judging those who are frightened
Or anxious or stressed
There is no shame
In being afraid.

At the same time
It is high time
That we recognized
That fear is bad for us
Like cholesterol or corn syrup.
 
Fear is both addictive and harmful
A psychological nicotine
That can be added to ads
Stuffed into stories
Ramping up ratings
And inspiring us to buy
What we do not need.
 
Contrary to popular opinion
We do not need fear
To keep us safe.
 
We do not need to fear a virus
To make choices
That will prevent it from spreading
But if we fear it
Then we will fear each other
And our fear will tear us apart.
 
We do not need to fear death
For there is nothing that we can do
That will grant us immortality
And so our fear
Can only diminish our experience of life
In our days in the sun.
 
Politics has become infused with fear
On both sides
And so we seek to control and destroy
Bringing ourselves ever closer
To the fascism and socialism we fear
Those being two sides of the same coin
The Nazis were socialists, after all.
 
Driving ourselves closer to a loss of democracy
Dividing families and communities
Straining the fabric of society
So that even fires and floods
No longer bring us together.
 
It is time for us to recognize
That this fear does not serve us
That it will not help us to accomplish our goals
That it will not bring us closer
To the equitable society that we seek.
 
In fact, it seems quite clear to me
That this fear is intended to divide us
That this is not just about sales and ratings
But about keeping us small
Keeping us divided
Keeping us from rising up
And demanding our democracy back
From those who seek only wealth and power.
 
So, I say
I am done with fear
Will you join me?
Will you accept that I do not wish to harm you
Even if we disagree?
Will you accept
That this world is big enough
For all of us?
 
Can we begin instead to rebuild trust
Starting local, bridging divides
And breaking free
From this two-headed political monster
That seems determined to steamroll our humanity
Beneath the wheels of the corporate wealth machine?
 
Can we begin to elect those
Who are simply citizens
Who are not career politicians
Beholden to moneyed interests?
 
Can we tell the Davos crowd
That we don’t appreciate their meddling
Their meetings and schemings
To design a future
In which they feature prominently
And we are controlled and pacified?
 
We inhabit a representative democracy
A constitutional republic
So we need not change the laws
Or stage a revolution.
 
We need only slough off the fear
Escape from the narrative matrix
Reclaim our voice
And choose only those
Who speak with that voice
To represent us.
 
It is time to see where we are headed
A world in which we sacrifice liberty for safety
And in the end have neither
A world that Democrats and Republicans alike
Are leading us toward.
 
It is time to build a government of, for, and by the people
With an economy of, for, and by the people
With liberty, equality, and justice for all
We cannot do that if we are afraid
Of each other, of death, of climate change
Of ourselves.
 
If we are to build a better world
We must choose love
And let go of fear.
 
Let us begin.
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The Road Less Traveled

Toward a More Equal America, Part 11

In Part 10 I introduced the political plane and situated the United States within it: approximately halfway between democracy and authoritarianism, and with more private ownership than public ownership.

At this point, I want to take a closer look at where on this plane we are headed and where we might prefer to go instead. To get a sense of that, it’s helpful to consider which other axes are collinear with the spectrum from democracy to authoritarianism.

It is quite clear to me that the United States is currently moving toward the right along most of these axes, with larger movements justified by “attacks on democracy” such as 9/11 and the recent Capitol riot. This is being supported by both major parties, which differ on the political plane primarily in their allegiance to unrestricted capitalism (Republicans) or to a rather bureaucratic and centralized vision of providing a basic level of social welfare to the lower classes (Democrats). Republicans blame individuals for failure to succeed, while remaining stubbornly unwilling to examine the structural factors (e.g. outsourcing, downsizing, benefit-cutting, discrimination, etc.) that render success impossible for many, and actively supporting a perpetuation of those factors. Democrats blame systemic failures, but offer handout-type solutions that only create dependency while disempowering individuals and strengthening those same corrupt systems. Libertarians, a minority, are vocally opposed to this movement toward authoritarianism, but their vision of a world structured on unregulated capitalism and personal autonomy leads into the unstable gray zone.

Republicans fear “socialism”, by which they mean authoritarianism imposed by Democrats. Democrats fear “fascism”, by which they mean authoritarianism imposed by Republicans. When in power, both sides – in an attempt to impose their will on their opponents by force – enact laws and executive orders that move our nation closer to an authoritarian reality.

For the past fifty years or so, and accelerating in the current time, we have been following a zigzag path toward greater corporate influence, greater government secrecy, less personal privacy, increased rules and regulations, increased surveillance, and decreased faith in representative democracy – even as we oscillate back and forth between right-leaning privatization and left-leaning public provision. The Great Reset is simply the logical endpoint of this progression, warmed over with a patina of orderliness, climate justice, and “happy people” who own nothing and don’t think too hard or dream too big. Such a world would be not unlike modern China with its social credit scores and all-encompassing surveillance, except with a bit more corporate power and less government control.

Before I address how we might put a stop to this agenda, we need to look at the societal factors that drive movement on the political plane. From my perspective, it looks like this:

Our desire for competition leads us to innovate and create under private ownership, while our desire for cooperation leads us to build systems that provide public utilities and public goods. To thrive we must find a way to balance those desires, but it is the horizontal axis that is more concerning in this moment.

Fear is the path to the dark side.

Fear leads to anger.

Anger leads to hate

Hate leads to suffering.

Yoda

We inhabit a world awash with fear. We fear those who have guns, those who would take our guns away, those who don’t wear masks, those who would force us to wear masks against our will, those who are immigrants, those who dislike immigrants, police who use lethal force without just cause, protesters who torch and loot, those who refuse vaccines, those who would force vaccines upon us, those who voted for Trump, those who voted for Biden. We fear each other. And so we are angry at each other. And so we hate each other. And so we all suffer.

It is especially telling that neither of the two political poles devotes much energy to developing policies that would improve lives, preferring instead to mount a series of never-ending attacks against the other side. We no longer seek to build coalitions, to find common ground, to seek compromise. Instead we seek to win, and when we have “won” by the narrowest of margins, we proceed to impose our will, by force, against the losing side. The current “domestic terrorism” mania on the left which seeks to punish the entire right-of-center populace based on the actions of a few unhinged rioters – and to assume that these people could only be motivated by such negative ideals as white supremacy and bigotry – is simply the latest manifestation of this trend.

Countries with authoritarian governments tend to be those with opposing factions which cannot establish dialogue. Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq. Islamists and Anti-Islamists across the Middle East. Authoritarian regimes which effectively quashed opposition all began with this sort of conflict. The Nazis against the Communists in 1920s Germany. The Bolsheviks against the Russian Republic. Anyone who wishes to avoid this sort of authoritarian future ought to see the warning signs in current events. No matter how much we might fear the other side, following our fear-based desire to impose our agenda against them by force can only lead farther away from democracy and closer to authoritarianism.

In order to put an end to our collective movement toward authoritarianism, we will have to provide an alternative to fear. We will need to begin to rebuild trust in each other – not fragmenting by identity or party lines, but recognizing the humanity, the unique and irreplaceable value, in each of us. We will need to let go of our desire to control how others live, what choices they can make, what thoughts they can have – while encouraging them to also let go of their desires to control us.

We do not all need to agree. We can continue to debate exactly when a fetus becomes a human being, which guns should be legal to own, how much immigration is good for our nation and how much is problematic, how best to balance timber jobs with a desire to protect remaining forests. The only route to a homogeneous pseudo-utopian future lies through war and genocide, and I hope that we all can realize that before we continue much further down our current path. If we wish to change minds, we must first build bridges. One who is our enemy is closed to us, hardened against our message, unchangeable except through annihilation or imprisonment.

We need to rebuild trust and cooperation to begin to move in a direction that no current political forces are leading us – back toward democracy and also toward greater cooperation and recognition of public goods, against the forces of unbridled capitalism.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would surely be disappointed by the direction our nation is heading. Let us heed his wisdom as we seek to build bridges, to restore trust, and to move our nation back toward true democracy.

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society…


Now, don’t think you have me in a bind today. I’m not talking about communism. What I’m talking about is far beyond communism. …Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated…


And I must confess, my friends, that the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future….


When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967. “Where Do We Go From Here?”
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The Landscape of Political Possibility

Toward a More Equal America, Part 10

We tend to think of politics in terms of voting on bills and taking positions on issues: debating, for example, exactly under what circumstances abortion or capital punishment should be allowed, or what types of guns are protected under the Second Amendment, or how much money to allocate to highway maintenance or education. In normal times, only a minority of citizens engage deeply with these matters, with most preferring to trust their representatives to sort things out while getting on with their lives.

At a deeper level, however, politics is about collectively deciding exactly what sort of society we wish to inhabit. At times like the present moment, when the structure of society is unstable and shifting, more people begin to tune in and take part, aware that the rules of the game of life are changing.

To make sense of where we are, where we are headed, and where we might be better off going instead, I find it useful to look at human societies along two axes – a plane of political possibility.

On the horizontal axis, societies can range from fully democratic – in which every person is granted a voice and a vote – to fully authoritarian – in which most people have no input into governance. On the vertical axis, societies can range from complete public ownership – in which all private industry is prohibited – to complete private ownership – in which the free market is viewed as the highest ideal in all circumstances.

Most of us, if given a choice, would prefer to live in a democratic society in which our concerns are heard and our voices are valued, rather than in an authoritarian society where the dictates of government must be obeyed under penalty of death. The ideal position on the vertical axis is somewhat more up for debate. Communists and socialists cite Karl Marx and wax poetic about egalitarian utopian “workers’ paradise” societies in which everyone works for the benefit of the whole. At the same time, libertarians and free-market devotees cite Ayn Rand and wax poetic about societies in which healthy competition drives innovation and assures that all of our needs and wants are fulfilled.

My perspective is that the ideal society is somewhere in the middle. Private ownership leads to competition, motivation, and innovation. Public ownership carries a mandate of acting in the common interest but can also lead to bureaucratic ossification and stifling of creativity. Which of these is preferable depends on which aspect of the economy we are talking about.

Back in Part 3 I introduced ethical red flags in the development of a market economy.

Ethical red flag #1: People will pay almost any price within their means to meet their basic needs, if there is no other option.

The upshot of this is that private enterprise – with its associated profit motive – will only work toward the common good when businesses are in competition AND demand is flexible.

Consider, for example, car manufacturers. Any business that can build vehicles can compete, and if prices are too high no one will buy them – they will move closer to work and take the bus. The result is that cars are priced reasonably relative to the cost of construction, and there are many options available catering to all niches from saving money to saving fuel to hauling large families to showing off status. A government-owned car manufacturer, on the other hand, would be tasked with providing the greatest utility to the greatest number and so would churn out millions of identical, no-frills models that would give little joy to their owners, and costs might even be higher without a competitive drive toward greater efficiency.

On the other hand, consider our water supply. It makes no sense for a town to have more than one set of pipes, so competition is not an option. Furthermore, without it we cannot survive, so we would buy it at any price even if it drove us to bankruptcy. And it’s just water; we don’t really want the option of extra-fancy oxygen-infused water, or blessed holy water, or 99.999% pure deionized water piped into our homes. It’s easy to see that private industry in this circumstance would be motivated to gouge buyers on prices and maintain infrastructure at a bare minimum level to maximize profits, while public ownership tasked with supplying a common good at a fair price would work much better.

So it is that most countries have private car manufacturers and publicly-owned municipal utilities tasked with delivering clean water. Unconstrained by ideology, democratic societies naturally adopt this blend of public and private ownership. Societies – or groups within society – that go religiously all-in on public or private ownership are either short-lived or else must become authoritarian to enforce their ideology against the will of the people who quickly realize its failings.

Very few of the communes of the 1960s and 70s lasted more than 10 years, and an attempted libertarian utopia in Vermont went predictably and somewhat hilariously awry. Communes must decide everything as a group, which leads to endless meetings and ultimately to conflict when some people’s creative or innovative ideas threaten cohesion or serve to privilege themselves above others. Libertarian communities cannot come together to solve shared problems, and so descend into spirals of blame and neglect.

This phenomenon – that attempts to organize democratic society around purely public or purely private ownership are doomed to failure – also helps to explain why there are no socialist utopias. Human nature aspires to some level of competition, innovation, and individual uniqueness, which inevitably leads to a greater level of autonomy and private enterprise unless this is forcefully forbidden by an authority under threat of punishment. Societies that follow an ideology into the gray areas of the political plane either relax their ideology and embrace a balance of public and private ownership, or else move rapidly toward authoritarianism to preserve the ideology against the countervailing force of human nature.

I have attempted to place various nations onto the plane of political possibility. While I’m fairly confident about where the United States of America is at presently, I don’t have first-hand experience of other nations and so may be making assumptions based on media bias. Feel free to let me know if you feel your country is misplaced here.

On the horizontal axis, the United States is currently in between democracy and authoritarianism. It is also moving in the direction of authoritarianism, which I will address in the next chapter. In theory, we have a representative democracy with checks and balances, in which the right of participation has been expanded over time from a privileged subset of the population to all citizens. In practice, this remains true only at the local level. At higher levels it has become virtually impossible to get on the ballot and to obtain fair treatment in the media without the endorsement and support of entrenched unelected power structures – what might be called the military-industrial-medical-pharmaceutical-technological-educational complex, or something like that.

On the vertical axis, the US is out of balance in the private-ownership direction. We still have functional public utilities and a concept of public goods, but we also have privatized sectors of the economy that objectively function better when managed as public utilities. Perhaps the best example of this is our medical system, which leaves millions of people without affordable access to essential care, while collectively costing us more than twice as much as in comparable nations with public health care, with inferior outcomes in terms of population health and life expectancy.

Increasingly we are seeing calls for a “Great Reset” of the world economy, accompanied by flowery language about addressing climate change, investing in our future, and improving our lives. What is notably missing from this grand vision is any mention of democracy. It is entirely the product of extremely wealthy influencers like the World Economic Forum who wish to believe that they can save the planet while maintaining their privilege and creating happy lives for the peasants in a world with no privacy and a much-reduced concept of personal property.

The peasants, of course, don’t get much say in this, and those who don’t look forward to this sort of nouveau urban digital feudalism are viewed with a mixture of disdain and pity. We have so far seen disastrous results from handing the reins of government to those who seek profit and self-enrichment, and it is difficult to imagine that an authoritarian Great Reset will truly benefit anyone outside the circles of privilege that are promoting it.

On the right-hand side of the spectrum, the vertical axis becomes far less important. Once a small and unelected group of people gains complete control over government, it doesn’t matter that much from the perspective of the common folk whether that group of people is ideologically communist or ideologically capitalist. The effect, in terms of decisions that benefit the ruling class at the expense of those outside of it, is inevitable under all forms of authoritarianism.

Many volumes have been written about political theory, seeking to make the case that one particular structure of society is preferable above all others. As for myself, I would much prefer to inhabit a world in which every citizen has a voice, and in which we have a balance of public ownership and private enterprise. In Part 11, I will examine what might be necessary to arrest our current movement away from that ideal, and how we might begin to reclaim our representative democracy.

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I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Toward a More Equal America, Part 9

When I started this series last spring, I had no idea that would continue for what is looking to be 12 installments. Although my writing style may come across as prescriptive at times, it is really a journey of self-discovery: the result of my own thought process as I ponder the sort of world I wish to inhabit as we move through a tumultuous and chaotic collective period in which transformative change is not only possible but perhaps inevitable.

The first four essays focused on economics: specifically how inequality increases over time, and how we might begin to envision an economy of, for, and by the people.

The second four essays focused on neoliberalism and social justice, and in particular the ways in which the modern social justice framework is gaslighting us into believing that we are building a more equitable society as poverty and unemployment rates climb and wealth disparity reaches new heights.

I have so far mostly avoided writing (and thinking) about politics, but in light of recent events and the cultural divide threatening to do irreversible damage to our nation’s founding principles, I can avoid it no longer.

Politics is, at its core, a discussion of the structuring of society. What is the role of government? What is a public good? What should be privately owned? How much censorship is OK, and how do we compromise between the individual desire for autonomy and the collective desire for security?

The culture wars, as exacerbated by social and mainstream media echo chambers, have made any discussion of politics difficult, because we can no longer agree on the meaning of important words. So before we can launch into a political discussion, we need to talk a bit about this abuse of language.

Communism is, according to an established definition, a sociopolitical system centered around public ownership of the means of production. True communism in this sense has never had a particularly strong presence in US politics. However, according to Republicans, “communism” is a cold prickly word that can be used to describe everything they dislike about the leftward end of the spectrum, almost none of which fits into the definition of the word. It is used to put an end to discussion, to discredit an idea without even beginning to consider it.

Similarly, fascism is a hypernationalist, dictatorial sociopolitical system that has also never had a strong presence in the US, which has morphed into an equivalent hate-word on the political left. Democrats talk righteously about fighting “fascism” when they are really opposed to discrimination, immigration control, xenophobia, gun rights, and any number of positions which are not by any means the sole province of fascist governments.

Words like these serve, in modern political discourse, as virtue signals and emotion-laden buzzwords. Using them signals camaraderie with members of the same political tribe and hatred of the opposing tribe, while carrying virtually no meaning with regard to particular policy positions.

Furthermore, media echo chambers have hyperbolized discourse so that a mostly-nonviolent Capitol takeover with zero chance of overturning government becomes a “coup”, or alternatively mostly-nonviolent Black Lives Matter protests become hostile occupying forces. An observer reading the headlines would think we are a nation at war, when in fact we continue to exist in relative safety and with a bare minimum of actual bloodshed.

If we are to have a meaningful conversation about politics – about where our society is headed, how we feel about that trajectory, and what we can do to change it – we are first going to have to overcome our language barrier, to re-engage across our arbitrary battle lines.

As we begin to explore the political landscape in Part 10, I’m going to avoid “isms” and emotionally-loaded buzzwords as much as possible, in the hopes that folks from both camps are able to engage without being triggered into cold prickly mode.

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Turning the Corner on Covid-19

It’s been a while since I’ve offered my thoughts on Covid-19, which has receded from the center of our national consciousness even as schools remain closed and infection numbers reach all-time highs.

I am an avid observer. Whether it’s tracking the weather, understanding flows of goods and energy, following planetary conjunctions, or monitoring the progression of a global pandemic. When something is afoot in the world, I watch – sometimes a bit obsessively – to feel like I am being present with the unfolding of reality.

As I have watched this pandemic for the last eleven months, I have been surprised that very few others – in science or in the media – have adopted this approach. Most of the “experts” have assumed that case counts would be immediately responsive to human actions – lockdowns, school closures, masks – and that exponential growth would hold sway until we either drove the much-vaunted R number below 1 or we reached a high level of population immunity. That is not an unreasonable epidemiological assumption, but it needs to be tested against large-scale disease trends over time, and if it fails to adequately describe reality then it is time to consider alternative approaches.

If disease transmission is primarily a function of human behavior and government decisions, we would expect a chart of disease over time to look something like the stock market. Furthermore, we would expect to see vastly different numbers in different states, based on variation in government policies and “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPIs) like business closures, mask mandates, etc.

Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2020. Stocks rise and fall in response to investor confidence, which directly responds to real-world conditions such that it is easy to see the effects of early pandemic fears, pre-election worries, etc.

On the other hand, if disease transmission is primarily beyond human control, we would expect a chart of disease over time to follow a smoother pattern – in time with natural oscillations.

Importantly, in this case, the existence of a mechanism of human influence – the fact that a virus spreads from one person to another – does not assert the primacy of this mechanism when examining disease trends across time and space.

With that in mind, let’s examine where we’re at in the Covid-19 pandemic, as of late January 2021.

These are nationwide numbers of people in the hospital with Covid-19. Unlike case numbers, which reflect rates of testing, hospitalization numbers reflect the actual number of people sick at any given time. It’s worth noting that these are surprisingly smooth curves, rising and falling on a scale of several months. There are no obvious holiday bumps or reflections of policy changes. Despite a rather intense nationwide lockdown in March, illness continued to climb to a peak in mid April. As economies then reopened in May, cases continued to fall. The decline in illness from August through September does not reflect citizens being more careful than they were in July. The current peak and nascent decline of illness does not reflect people being more careful than in December. I simply don’t see evidence of nationwide large-scale behavioral change that could be driving this. Nor have we yet vaccinated enough people that we should be seeing illness declining for that reason.

As a further illustration of this phenomenon, here are recent hospitalization trends for a few selected populous states:

It’s worth noting both that all of these states peak and begin to decline nearly in unison (Upper Midwest states peaked a few weeks earlier), and also that California – with among the strictest NPIs currently in effect – has a higher hospitalization rate than Florida – which has no NPIs at present.

My primary conclusion after eleven months of tracking this pandemic is that we don’t have anywhere near the level of control that we think we have, and some scientists are beginning to notice this as well. If we look at a graph of the 1918-19 flu pandemic, we see very similar waves on very similar timescales.

Source: LA Times, UC San Francisco epidemiologist George Rutherford

As to exactly why we don’t have that much control, and what factors are driving these cycles, those are important questions to ask. Perhaps noncompliance and human nature are at fault, or perhaps the virus spreads in ways that cannot be effectively contained while preserving a level of human interaction required for a functioning society. There appears to be a strong seasonal signal – with the most illness in the winter months – and perhaps some other natural oscillations are also involved in ways that we don’t yet understand.

We don’t have to answer those questions, however, in order to begin to apply a historical or observational approach to prediction. We have experienced two smooth waves of Covid-19, rising for 1-2 months and then falling for 2 months. The third and largest wave has now reached a peak following three months of rise and is beginning a clear downward trend across the contiguous US.

I view this as the most significant positive development since the pandemic began – a likely inflection point after which we will probably no longer see days with 200,000 new cases nationwide, or 4,000 daily deaths. I say this for two reasons:

  1. If, as we have long suspected, there is a seasonal component, we would expect the worst time to occur in the winter, and so – unlike in the April and midsummer peaks – we no longer have reason to believe that a future wave will be more severe.
  2. Based on antibody tests and other prevalence estimates, it is apparent that many parts of the country are approaching 50% infection – at which point half of the population has developed some level of resistance through exposure. This doesn’t mean that we are “less than halfway there”, however – because those who are now immune tend to be those who are most exposed and who are most likely to expose others – essential workers, delivery drivers, etc. – while those who have avoided infection tend to be those who have been able to carefully isolate. And as population-level disease prevalence declines, it will become easier for those who have been successfully isolating to avoid infection.

Perhaps the somewhat-more-infectious UK strain could change this, but it’s worth noting that – in terms of population level death and infection rates – the UK and US are not that different, and also that cases and hospitalizations have begun to decline in the UK. There is always some risk that a pathogen can mutate to become more virulent or more infectious, but this is historically uncommon on short time scales. Once a pandemic has passed its peak and infected millions or billions globally, it tends to fade away until the next pathogen emerges, or the same bug returns changed and stronger years or decades later.

This is all to say that I have a hopeful Covid outlook at the moment that I have not had since the earliest days, when it seemed that our lockdown might actually lead to effective suppression as in China or New Zealand. I don’t wish to diminish the very real suffering of anyone who has lost a loved one, or suffered a prolonged illness, or is experiencing lasting chronic symptoms with no end in sight. At the same time, I have a strong sense that it will be mostly downhill from here – in the positive bike touring sense of that term. That we will no longer be breaking records in terms of daily new cases or daily deaths in the weeks and months ahead. That we might begin to discover that we can relax our NPIs without returning to an upswing. That this natural peak, perhaps aided by increasing vaccination and a return to warmer weather, will be followed by the gradual return to normalcy that we have all been waiting for.

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A Reflection

 1991
Early spring
Jim’s hills, I think?
Little Mark at five years old, Ed at 53
Who took this picture?
Such a perfect composition
Such a perfect meditation
On presence and impermanence
The pasqueflowers, long awaited through winter’s cold
Bloom only for a few days
The feather cast off and soon to return to the Earth
But as yet unblemished by time
And ourselves, fully present and immersed
Sharing a moment of joy together
On a river of time

So many years ahead, yet unknown
Stanton and Frances still alive
Twenty-five more cycles for Ed
Twenty-five more springtimes
Twenty-five more seasons of that hat
A very finite number
Yet seemingly infinite and indefinite
In each passing day and year
Floods, gardens, Christmas celebrations
Graduations, weddings, travels
All unknown and unknowable in this moment
All unimportant in this moment

So much time we spend
Seeking for truth
Examining the nature of reality
Pondering ideologies
Debating with anger and passion
Experiencing others’ stories in the news
Interacting with a virtual world through our screens

It all seems so meaningful and important
And it is, in a way
Creating this collective experience together
And seeking to find our home and our truth within it
And yet in a world of seven billion human souls
There is little we can change
And we should perhaps take solace
In our individual insignificance

We can read the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers
Heed the teachings of Jesus or Mohamed
Honor the founding fathers of our nation
Read the autobiographies of former slaves
Pick our way through competing narratives
And campaign for a better world
That is important for our evolution
For our betterment

And yet narrative and thought exists outside of time
All of history available in the present
All of the present available in the cloud
All of that removed, abstracted, separated
From the pasqueflowers and feathers
The explorations and gatherings
The gardens and harvests and births and deaths
The singular uniqueness of each moment
The bittersweet inevitability of change
And the inevitable finiteness of human life

To step too far into the cloud
To spend too many hours on our screens
Is to step into a timeless existence
Unaffected by the weather
Unnoticing of the pasqueflowers
Unchanging with the seasons
Outside the river of time
Which flows on regardless
Carrying us from cradle to grave
Whether we are awake
Or inured to the wonders around us

So let this be a reminder to me
In times of collective anxiety
Of competing narratives
Of unrest and upheaval
To find the pasqueflowers in their short season
And the daphnes and the lilacs
To plant the seeds
To watch them grow
To harvest in its time
To look in the eyes of those I love
And see them as who they are in this moment
An alive, experiencing presence
Not merely a collection of stories and ideas and memories
Of narratives and perceptions and arguments past
To be present in each moment, in each day, in each year
Knowing that what is will not last
Which is both bittersweet and cause for celebration

And perhaps if we can all be more present
Away from our screens and echo chambers of thought
Then we might be able to begin to agree
On what is real
We might be able to share experiences
To build connections
To find our way forward together
In a chaotic, uncertain, tumultuous
But ultimately beautiful world
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2020 Weather Summary

This year will not be remembered primarily for its weather in most parts of the world.

That said, 2020 did bring a record-breaking hurricane season and a continuation of worldwide weather extremes that are almost certainly linked to climate change.

Here in western Oregon, we mostly saw a continuation of the protective bubble that has been over us for the past few years, with muted headlines and no major floods, storms, heat waves, or cold snaps.  The one notable exception arrived late on September 7 and continued for the next 48 hours.  Interrupting a month of late-summer sunshine with warm days and gentle winds, a cold and dry airmass came barreling down from the Canadian tundra,  generating unprecedented northeasterly winds and single-digit humidities.  Had this happened in October – when such events are more common – crews would have simply spent a few days cleaning up fallen trees and restoring power to outlying areas.  But ahead of the first fall rains and following on weeks of dry heat, the winds proved catastrophic, fanning existing small fires to hundreds of thousands of acres overnight and igniting many new ones from sparking power lines.  Four unstoppable conflagrations raced down the valleys of the Clackamas, North Santiam, McKenzie, and North Umpqua rivers, obliterating small towns and placing most of the eastern Willamette Valley on some level of evacuation notice until the winds died down. 

Farther west, away from the fire threat, the easterly winds carried vast plumes of smoke over the Pacific, first dropping ash under ominous orange skies and later leaving the valley in a cool gray stagnant smog, thick enough to block summer sunshine and create winter-like inversion conditions and ongoing hazardous air quality.  At its thickest, the smoke knocked nearly 30 degrees off of daytime temperatures, generating a strange and short-lived dystopian November in between summer and fall.  Blessed rain arrived in quantity on September 18, clearing the air, mostly extinguishing the fires, and putting an end to the 11-day pyrogenous climatic aberration.  Those in California would not be so lucky; their historic fire season began months earlier and their rains would not arrive until much later.

Temperature trends

The year’s highest temperature – exactly 100.0ºF at our place – arrived without much fanfare on August 15: a one day blip with a couple of 90-degree days on either side.  With seventeen days above 90º, the summer was substantially warmer than mild 2019 but on par with other recent years.  The coldest temperature of 22.4º was also reached without much notice on both November 9 and December 29, though the low of 22.7º on October 26 flirted with earliest-coldest records and brought a resounding close to a long growing season.  The entire year remained within this 77.6º range, somewhat remarkable considering that some individual summer days covered nearly 2/3 of that distance between morning and afternoon.  We had no real intrusions of arctic air; low 20s are about the limit of normal dry winter days absent advection of colder airmasses from the northeast.  With no arctic air, we also had no snow to speak of; only a few flurries from the coldest late-winter showers.  We did have a total of 76 days with lows below freezing – the same number as 2019 but well above recent averages.  This reflects a recent trend – perhaps exacerbated by climate change – of a greater proportion of clear fall and winter days with frosty mornings and comparatively fewer days of clouds and rain.  Overall, the year averaged 0.5 degrees above long-term averages – in keeping with the previous three years that have been unremarkable in their temperature normalcy.

Precipitation trends

The Willamette Valley was in drought status for all of 2020, at times and in places listed as severe, after inheriting a significant shortfall from October-December 2019.  This was an odd sort of hydrologic drought: more a result of long-term shortages than short-term patterns and so with limited effects on farmers and gardeners.  Total rainfall for 2020, at 36.42”, came in at 90% of normal – higher than 2018 and 2019 but not yet enough to break the longer-term drought.  With periods of dry clear weather seemingly becoming the wintertime norm, it is becoming more important to win the atmospheric river lottery; to end up beneath those stationary bands of intense rainfall dropping inches at a time and bringing us closer to our precipitation quota.  More often than not in 2020 those bands took aim at western Washington, but deluges from November 13-18 and December 16-21 put dents in the hydrologic deficit.  As I write this, the near- and long-term winter forecasts look moist, with a La Niña pattern directing the dominant storm track toward the Pacific Northwest.  With luck this will be enough to end our drought status moving into the 2021 growing season, with snowpack, streamflows, and aquifers recharged.

Monthly notes

Januarywas an exceptionally wet and dreary month, even by Oregon standards.  Flooding rains stayed to the north, and we never received more than 0.76” on any one day, but rain fell on 27 of the month’s 31 days as we were locked in an onshore flow pattern with a continuous parade of Pacific fronts.  The monthly total of 8.93” was the highest of the year, but coming on the heels of a dry fall and followed by a dry February through April it was not enough to offset the year’s overall droughtiness.  January averaged 5.2 degrees above normal – the year’s largest departure thanks to the monthlong pattern of warm-ish clouds and rain.

February saw a switch to unseasonable sunshine, with rain on only 11 of 29 days totaling 1.96”, or 39% of average.  The remaining days brought frosty mornings and sunny afternoons, exceeding 60 degrees by the end of the month despite a below-normal monthly mean.

March brought a continuation of the same mostly-dry, mostly-sunny pattern up until the equinox, when the pattern finally shifted to cool and wet.  That was too late to make up for a monthly rainfall deficit (3.07”, or 69% of normal), and the continued frosty mornings led to a -2.4º temperature departure for the month despite a feeling of late winter warmth.

The brief cool-and-wet interlude ended April 5, ushering in an above-normal, mostly-sunny month of 60s and even low 70s for daily highs.  A low of 27.1 on the 3rd gave orchardists heartburn – though in general temperatures did not drop as low as feared and blossoms and young fruits were spared.  The 14th brought the season’s last frost at 31.1º, and drying conditions allowed farmers and gardeners to get crops in on schedule.  The beautiful spring weather was largely overshadowed by the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated statewide shutdown that even included closures of beaches and outdoor recreation.

May brought above-average precipitation, much-needed but not exactly welcomed by those wishing to till and plant.  Dry windows from the 7th-11th and 24th-29th brought highs in the 80s and an early taste of summer, though some days in the mid-month wet spell struggled to reach 60 degrees, keeping bees in their hives and putting a damper on dreams of a bumper honey crop.

June had rain on every day from the 6th through the 16th, largely washing out blackberry blossom nectar at peak bloom and leading to an anomalous beekeeping year in which the early-season bigleaf maple honey was a large proportion of the harvest.  The rain only totaled 1.61”, slightly above normal but enough to delay the onset of summer drought and prolong blooms and green lawns.

After a sprinkle on the first day for 0.01” July was completely rain-free with warming temperatures.  The first third of the month had highs in the 70s, then mostly 80s in mid-month with five days in the 90s at month’s end.

August can be hot and sticky but not this year, with highs around 85º on most days and only a brief and mild mid-month heat wave topping out at exactly 100º on the 15th.  One brief shower – 0.04” on the 6th – provided minimal disruption to drying grains and seed crops.

September started out in the 90s with more of the same in the forecast, but the smoke beginning on the 8th dimmed the sun sufficiently to lower daytime highs by over 20 degrees.  The respite from the heat made it easier to stay indoors out of the smoke, though clean air became a relative term as ash seeped in around doors and windows.  Were it not for the fires the month would have been historically warm; as it was September finished slightly above average.  After an inch of fire-quenching rain on the 18th, additional rains after the equinox brought the monthly total above average and paved the way for an early fall re-greening.

Aside from rain on the 9th-14th, October was mostly dry, continuing the pattern from the previous two years and a boon for late seed harvests delayed by the days of smoke.  Total rainfall at 1.58” was just 50% of normal.  After no frost threats through September and mid-month, a killing frost on the 22nd was followed by a low of 22.7º on the 26th, ensuring that even tarp-covered tomatoes and peppers grew no more.  As a gardener I must say I prefer to have a clear end to the season, as opposed to those years where we harvest increasingly flavorless peppers until Thanksgiving. 

We managed to – just barely – exceed normal rainfall in November – thanks to a mid-month atmospheric river.  With dry soils and low streamflows, this rain didn’t cause the flooding concerns that a similar event would create later in the season.  Overall the month brought a wide variety of weather – warm sun at the beginning, warm rain, cold frosty mornings, a rare sunny Thanksgiving, and finally some cold inversion fog, and averaged a bit below normal temperature-wise.

Early December often brings the year’s coldest temperatures in a dry spell; the dry spell arrived on schedule in 2020 but not the cold, with highs reaching over 55º and lows only around 25º.  Mid-month through the solstice brought another atmospheric river, followed by occasional rain through month’s end but not enough to reach the 7.14” average for the wettest month of the year.  After a foggy and rainy Christmas, bright sunshine on the 27th and 28th brought hope for longer days ahead and brighter times in 2021.

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Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part IV: A Transmission from the Nebuchadnezzar

 Far from the frenzied cacophony of talking heads
The people are waking up
 
No longer willing to listen to authority
To “experts”
Flailing a bit at times
Straying into conspiracy
But thinking, pondering, exploring, reclaiming our narrative filters.
 
Power still reigns
On the vast playing fields
Of nations
And multinational corporations
And media narratives
But the people are beginning to tell different stories.
 
If Power controls the food system
Then we will feed ourselves
Turning abandoned city blocks into gardens
Supporting local farms
Giving freely to friends and neighbors in need
 
If Power controls the medicine
Then we will care for ourselves
Offering our skills freely and willingly
To those who need them
 
If Power controls the money
Then we will stop using it
Trading among our communities
Creating local currencies
Building a resilient economy of real exchange
Outside the gates of Wall Street

The people are waking up
And soon, I hope
We will leave the talking heads behind
In a barren and empty dreamworld:
The narrative matrix
A decaying husk
Of distortions and lies
The narrative matrix
No longer in control
Of our stories
 
Then the people will say
I do not choose to live in a world
Where illness or injury
Leads to lifelong debt
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where human beings
Are unhoused
And unfed
And uncared for
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where human beings
Are destroyed by bombs
In the name of strategic interests
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where our children’s futures
Are sacrificed on the altar
Of profit and progress
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where a few human beings live in luxury
While most simply survive
 
I do not choose to live in a world
Where human beings
Are the only beings
That have a voice
 
And then the people will ignore the talking heads
And choose a leader
Who is not of Power
Who is not an actor
Who is not a demagogue
But who speaks for the farmworkers and the caregivers
The teachers and the counselors
The cashiers and the carpenters
And the forests and the prairies and the oceans.
 
And who can say with great conviction
And without caveats
We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all are created equal
That they are endowed with unalienable rights
That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
 
Amidst all of the chaos and confusion
Conflict and conflagration
Gridlock and anger
Fake news and alternative facts
We have the option
To step out of that story
 
Indeed it may be our only option worth considering
The alternative being descent
Into the sort of dystopian Gotham
Of cinematic imagination
 
The time has arrived
To awaken
 
The time has arrived
To escape from the narrative matrix
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Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part III: What Is the (Narrative) Matrix?

Turn on any news channel, listen to the radio, or browse any mainstream news website, and you will encounter stories.  Attend school or college, and you will encounter a worldview:  a narrative of history and an interpretation of the present moment.  Most of these stories are based on truth.  Most of the opinions are coherent and well thought out.  Most of the people are well-meaning.  And at the same time, nearly all of these stories will support Power.  This is true not because the people telling the stories are evil or part of some giant conspiracy, but simply because they almost universally are beneficiaries of Power, and those who benefit from Power will not question Power. 

The narrative matrix is a collection of stories and worldviews that have been carefully sanitized of any effective opposition to Power.  It is based in reality, but twisted and incomplete.  And the more that the effects of Power become obvious in our everyday lives, the more stories which must be carefully avoided, the more the narrative matrix must distort truth and generate distraction to avoid confronting Power. 

When there is a conflict – and there seem to be many these days – the narrative matrix ensures that neither opposing viewpoint is a threat to Power.  If the debate is about healthcare, the two acceptable positions are that we should either continue the status quo of unaffordable and ever-increasing insurance premiums, or we should transfer the bill to the government as Medicare for All.  The question of exactly why we spend more than twice as much as other similar nations for comparable care is not allowed to be asked or addressed.  To address that would be to confront Power, to say that some humans are shamelessly extracting wealth in exchange for providing an essential public good.

Inside the narrative matrix it is only criminal and newsworthy when a company raises the price of a lifesaving medication by a factor of 50.

Outside the narrative matrix it is criminal and newsworthy whenever any institution or corporation with a mission of providing care and saving lives prioritizes profit over providing care and saving lives.  Outside the narrative matrix it should not be possible to amass a fortune by providing essential care or medicine.

Inside the narrative matrix we embrace identity politics, in pursuit of a more equal society, or else we rebel against them in pursuit of “traditional values.”  We focus on persistent bias that remains from the time when Power utilized race and gender as important distinctions, and on the identity-based inequalities that are still with us.  We note with chagrin that for every dollar a woman makes on average, a man makes $1.23.  For every dollar a Black person takes home, a white person takes home $1.43.  We seek to stomp out remaining racist attitudes and to provide preferential opportunities to marginalized populations to reduce these inequalities, and we note with some pride that we have been making progress in terms of reducing inequalities along these lines over time.

Outside the narrative matrix this is still important, but it too often serves as a distraction from the inequalities that are rapidly expanding in our current moment.  For every dollar a grocery store cashier makes, an accountant makes $3, a doctor makes $8, a typical CEO makes $32, and Jeff Bezos sees his wealth increase by 2.5 million dollars.  So long as we need cashiers, shelf stockers, meat packers, apple pickers, and janitors for a functioning society, the people performing these roles deserve to be paid enough to survive and thrive.

Inside the narrative matrix any attempt to address this excessive and ever-growing income inequality is met with howls of SOCIALISM!

Outside the narrative matrix it is immediately apparent that in 1950, working class jobs paid a living wage and a factory worker could easily afford to buy a home and see a doctor, and the US was most definitely not a socialist county in 1950.  We could take steps to return to that more reasonable level of wealth inequality while preserving a market economy.

Inside the narrative matrix we are told that racism is our nation’s original sin, that we must all acknowledge our biases, and that by stomping out racism and other forms of oppression we will achieve a better world for all.

Outside the narrative matrix it is immediately apparent that a world in which billionaires are proportionally Black, Latino, and LGBTQ while half of Americans – with all identities proportionally represented – still barely scrape by is not the victory we are seeking.  It is equally apparent that preferentially offering winning lottery tickets (e.g. scholarships, college admissions, hiring decisions) to impoverished people of marginalized identities is a great way to stoke anger among impoverished people who do not have marginalized identities, and that fueling this anger is a great way to prevent confrontation with Power.

Inside the narrative matrix the best way to help marginalized people is to fight discrimination.

Outside the narrative matrix the best way to help marginalized people is to eliminate poverty.  That’s not to say fighting discrimination isn’t important, but it is small solace to hear fewer racial slurs if you still can’t afford rent.

Inside the narrative matrix it is very important to believe that race and other identities are the primary basis of human oppression.  To suggest otherwise is to fail to “center” marginalized identities.

Outside the narrative matrix it is becoming clear that Power no longer depends on racism or other identity-based oppressions.  Neoliberal economics alone now ensures that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and those who have Power would much rather throw down some ladders for a select few marginalized people to climb than face the collapse of their towers.

Inside the narrative matrix neoliberal economics is carefully defined as natural law, like gravity or magnetism.  A free market determines prices and wages, and those prices and wages are by definition fair and good, and any attempt to manipulate those prices and wages is TERRIBLE SOCIALISM.

Outside the narrative matrix it is eminently clear that neoliberal economics is entirely a product of human decisions and that the humans making those decisions are the ones with Power.  It is equally clear that making different decisions could greatly improve quality of life for a majority of people.  And making different decisions does not require embracing socialism or communism with their associated failings.  This “slippery slope” argument is a complete logical fallacy.

Inside the narrative matrix COVID-19 is a plague of unprecedented severity which must dominate the news cycle, disrupt society, and inflame preexisting fault lines to the greatest possible degree for an indefinite and ever-extending period of time.

Outside the narrative matrix COVID-19 is a pandemic with an expected severity recurrence interval of 50-ish years that has the potential to kill one to perhaps three out of every thousand people.  A healthy society would choose to either suppress it effectively if possible (a la New Zealand) or else allow it to spread with protections for the most vulnerable (a la Sweden).  The US response has combined the worst of societal disruptions with very little effective control of disease spread, thereby generating a double-whammy that generates continual fear and suffering and distracts people from confronting Power.  It’s worth noting that a much worse pandemic in 1918 was officially ignored (never mentioned by then-President Wilson) at a time when the Power narrative was focused on proving the US as a world power in WWI and the virus was an unwelcome distraction.

Inside the narrative matrix we debate how to handle illegal immigration.  One side prefers compassion and amnesty while the other fears job competition and cultural change.

Outside the narrative matrix it seems strange that these human beings only become worthy of our attention or compassion when they succeed against harrowing odds in crossing our border.  It becomes equally clear that US foreign policy and imperialism are in many ways responsible for grinding poverty and political instability across the global south, and that perhaps the best solution is to confront that Power and invest our resources in helping these nations to thrive, so that their citizens do not arrive penniless at our borders begging for menial work.

Inside the narrative matrix we support drone strikes and geostrategic pre-emptive wars in the name of “national security” and the “war on terror,” and we praise the politicians and pundits who promote them.

Outside the narrative matrix the reality of these wars entails around 30,000 bombs dropped every year, leading to thousands upon thousands of civilian deaths and lifelong injuries, and thousands of newly-aggrieved families lending support and donations to terrorist organizations.

Inside the narrative matrix Yemen is never mentioned and might as well be on another planet.

Outside the narrative matrix Yemen is probably the single worst humanitarian disaster on Earth at the moment, with 24 million people facing starvation or a lack of basic needs, and the US has the power to end it by confronting our “ally” Saudi Arabia.  But we don’t because allying with Saudi Arabia serves Power.

Inside the narrative matrix Tulsi Gabbard is a discredited and forgotten also-ran who is friendly with brutal dictators, has made homophobic remarks, embraces a  strange cult-like religion, and might even have been groomed by Russian agents to run as a third party spoiler.

Outside the narrative matrix Tulsi Gabbard was a rising star in the Democratic Party until she dared to confront Power, returning from her military tours with a dubious assessment of our eternal “regime change wars” and promising “a government of, for, and by the people, not a government of, for, and by the rich and powerful.”   Rather than giving airtime to her views on government and foreign policy, the narrative matrix published a series of distortions and hit pieces and effectively silenced her.  This is how Power eliminates dissent, and no one is immune to these sorts of half-truth, out-of-context, discrediting attacks that sidestep the important issues to render the messenger persona non grata.

Inside the narrative matrix we are in the midst of a fight for the soul of our nation between “liberal” Democrats and “conservative” Republicans.  We are divided so bitterly along these ideological lines that we can no longer feel empathy for the other side, and we dread sullen Thanksgiving dinners with not-quite-disowned family.

Outside the narrative matrix it is apparent that both Democrats and Republicans serve Power and that the policies offered by both sides have been carefully scrubbed of any real threat to Power.  At the same time, it is oppression by Power –corporatizing, offshoring, union-busting, labor devaluing, money-grabbing, rent raising, debt creating Power– that is directly generating the suffering and anger which must be funneled into the culture wars – wars that can have no victor because the blame is misplaced and the suffering will continue no matter which party wins.

Inside the narrative matrix we just had a Very Important Election, and depending on your perspective we either rejected racism and fascism while evicting a narcissistic bully or else sold out Main Street and rural America to government bureaucracy and morally bankrupt urban values. 

Outside the narrative matrix we just had an election between two Agent Smiths.  One represented comfort, status quo, stability, pretense that everything will be OK if we just make a few minor tweaks.  The other was a talented narrative manipulator who reached out to those harmed by Power and offered them not actual empowerment but association with an image of wealth and a myth of national greatness; who offered his supporters a collection of scapegoats, of disempowered people somehow responsible for their misery.  The latter might be more dangerous to the fabric of society, but neither will confront Power and both will bluster about improving quality of life while supporting policies that actively decrease quality of life for a majority of people.

Inside the narrative matrix we fear the Other Party, COVID-19, and those few rogue nations which have not capitulated to the US-centered world order:  Russia, China, Iran, North Korea.

Outside the narrative matrix those concerns appear small alongside the specters of nuclear war, resource limits, climate change, mass extinction, US-sponsored military violence, ignored humanitarian crises, and the ongoing immoral extraction of wealth from the vast majority of humanity in service of Power.

This is the narrative matrix.  The reality we are offered.  The lenses we are given to interpret that reality.  The stories we are told and not told.  The statistics that are gathered and not gathered, cited and not cited.  The ways in which we are sold a world where most of us see the fruits of our labor accrue to others, to Power, and yet remain indifferent.  The changes we believe are possible and the changes we do not even consider.  The ideas we are taught about what it means to succeed, to be a good person. 

The narrative matrix serves Power.  It does not serve us.  It does not serve humanity.  It most certainly does not serve the biosphere or planet Earth. 

It is time to step out of these stories.

It is time to escape from the narrative matrix.

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Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part II: Follow the Power

What is inequality, really?

Most of us feel warm fuzzy feelings when we read proclamations of human equality.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

And yet we inhabit a world of mansions and trailer parks, high-rise offices and sweatshops, four-star hotels and homeless camps.

That ought to create intense cognitive dissonance, but somehow it feels normal.  Such is life in a world where Power controls the stories and defines acceptable worldviews.  We claim to be fighting for a more just and equal world, but “just” and “equal” are carefully defined to allow vast and growing inequalities to remain unexamined, to be viewed solely as the natural outcome of a free and fair market.

We fling hatred at each other across political divides, and yet somehow neither side ever opposes Power.  That is intentional.  Narratives that oppose Power are quietly and effectively silenced, cancelled, invalidated, debunked by “experts.” 

It’s time we took a good hard look at this Power.

Power is unequal exchange.  Any time labor or wealth is coercively extracted from one person or one nation for the benefit of others, Power is in play.

Power is not the same as wealth.  It is entirely possible to become wealthy, to a point, without invoking Power – by, for example, writing a book that millions of people choose to read, or inventing a technology that millions of people choose to buy.  Power enters the picture when there is no real choice; when the profit is collected in exchange for basic human needs like food, shelter, medical care, or education; or when workers are paid less than a living wage for full-time employment.

Power is a continuum, and that continuum includes both institutions that are considered perfectly normal and acceptable, and institutions that are deemed outdated and morally bankrupt.

“Hard imperialism” here refers to the globe-spanning colonialism of the British, French, and Spanish Empires in the 16th-19th centuries, while “soft imperialism” refers to the standard US foreign policy of installing/supporting puppet governments that create the same sort of impoverishment and resource extraction but under a guise of sovereignty.

Power represents unearned wealth and the systems that facilitate the transfer of unearned wealth.  Although we have the unfortunate habit of counting all income as “earnings,” truly earned wealth is acquired through transactions in which both parties benefit equally.  Unearned wealth is acquired through transactions in which the one who pays has no other reasonable options.  It is not so much earned as it is taken.

“No one ever makes a billion dollars.  You take a billion dollars.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A history of the United States of America, perhaps more than any other nation, is a history of expanding Power.

We are a young nation, and one that has risen from conception to global domination in the span of a few human lifetimes.  We have not done that because God ordained it so, or because we are especially virtuous and intelligent.  We have done it because we swore an allegiance to Power, and from the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee, from the Alamo to the banana republics, from the forests of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq, we have showed no mercy to those people who dared to demand sovereignty and self-determination in the face of this Power. 

In our commitment to growth, control, and Power, we have not placed a high value on the well-being of our own citizenry.  And as we have begun to run out of foreign wealth to extract, and economic growth rates have slowed, the Power has come to bear ever harder on those on the losing end.  We can look more closely at the last 50 or so years, from the perspective of economic Power.

Medical care and college tuition have been increasing much faster than wages for decades now.  In many regions, housing costs have been increasing as well.  The Reagan years saw the adoption of neoliberal economics – with the aim of an unrestricted global market.  Coupled with the soft imperialism that had already devalued labor and currency in “developing” nations around the world, this led to a vast offshoring of manufacturing jobs.  Those companies that kept US factories open had to compete with cheap foreign goods, which drove down wages and benefits. 

Beginning in the 1990s, multinational corporations catabolized small businesses around the nation.  Small-town hardware stores lost to regional Home Depots and Walmarts.  Hometown bookstores lost to Amazon.  Local coffee shops lost to Starbucks.  Small farms either failed or grew to thousands of acres.  And the list goes on.  In all cases, jobs were either lost outright or else squeezed (longer hours, more responsibilities, fewer benefits) to remain competitive.

Following the Great Recession of 2008, the jobs that returned were primarily low-wage, and a greater proportion of work was fulfilled by “gig” arrangements:  part-time, uncertain and unpredictable hours, and no benefits.  Taken together, these trends have created what I call The Great Squeeze:  a situation in which a majority of younger Americans are financially insecure.  Many are one medical emergency away from losing their housing, and few are able to save for a down payment on an overpriced house, let alone for eventual retirement.

None of these things just happened, in the way that the weather, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions just happen.  They resulted from human decisions, and some humans purchased yachts and retired to seaside mansions as a direct result of those decisions.  It is a testament to the power of Power that we talk about these things like the weather, as if we have no choice, as if there is no other option.  Power controls the stories that are told, and in so doing it controls the way that we think, the way that we see the world, the problems that we focus on, the futures that we believe are possible. 

It is time to confront this Power. 

It is time to understand the narrative matrix.

It is time to escape from the narrative matrix.

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