October 16th, 2006


Another crisis in our culture -- toilet paper handling

Poll #845923 Toilet Paper Survey

How do you hang your toilet paper?

Dropping over the front like a civilized person
Dropping over the back because I like to scrape my knuckles against the wall
I just chain my ARC of Last Dangerous Visions to the wall so I can tear the pages out
The corn cobs fit the same either way
Don't you have something better to do? Like write a book?

Another imaginary speech

If I were running for office, here's another speech I might make...

The Politics of Fear

A funny thing happened on the way to the modern world. We overran our innate ability to understand the world around us.

Let me give you a simple example: human beings were designed by God or Nature, take your pick, for a certain environment. We see in color so we can recognize ripe fruit and get to it before the birds do. We have depth perception so we can run down rabbits and catch fish from the stream. We can do arithmetic so we can keep track of our kids and count how many days the current harvest will feed our family.

None of that equips us to understand probabilities or evaluate risk. Human beings have no inborn ability reckon probabilities. Couples who take separate flights will get in the same car together, which is statistically a far more dangerous activity. People will buy a lottery ticket with their last dollar. We embrace things which should worry us, and we find terror in things which barely affect us.

Here's another example: change. It's very difficult for many people to embrace change. And why shouldn't it be? For all of human history, right through the eighteenth century or so, the vast majority of people who lived to adulthood had lives virtually indistinguishable from the lives of their parents and grandparents. Unless there was a social catastrophe, such as war, pestilence or famine going on in your village, you got up, you farmed your plot, tended your pigs, went to bed, and repeated as necessary. There weren't a lot of options, and you pretty much knew everything you needed to know about life by the time you were eight or nine.

Sure, there were always city dwellers, politicians and soldiers and accountants and priests, but before the modern era, these were a very small number of people when measured against their larger societies, and even smaller when measured against the total of the human race.

So both our fundamental nature as a species, and the bulk of our social experience since we've had a social experience, have equipped us very well to live quiet, stable lives primarily involving the production of food and children. Food kept us alive when we were young, and children kept us alive when we were old. It was a very simple social contract, in principle.

Somewhere along the way, surplus capital emerged, clever people began to find time to do things other than simply work to survive, and we had an Industrial Revolution. This meant that change happened faster. Let's call that the rate of change. In 1500, the rate of change experienced by an average individual in Western Europe (again, not living amid a social catastrophe) was pretty much nil. You used the same kind of plow your grandfather had. Your grandson would someday do the same. In 1700, things had gotten a bit snappier, but the rate of change, outside of urban centers at least, was still pretty manageable. Rotary plows had come along, for example, but that wasn't too hard to understand. By 1850, the rate of change was moving quite quickly. The cotton gin, the reaper, the concept of mass production, railroads and telegraphy were changing the way people lived, materially, during their life times.

Change in the rate of change had become the governing factor, rather than the rate of change itself. Meaning, things didn't just go faster. They went faster and faster, with each passing year, with each wave of innovation.

This was perhaps proving to be a bit much for a fruit-hunting primate that can count to seven in its head without special training.

By the time the twentieth century rolled around, the world was exploding. In some cases literally. Many of the things which were familiar to you as a child were overthrown in your young adulthood and irrelevant by middle age. Stress multiplied. Consider driving an automobile on a freeway. In one ten minute trip you are subjecting yourself to more physical stress, meaning fight-or-flight triggers, than your great-grandfather probably experienced in a lifetime of farming rutabagas. What do you think that does to a person?

So the world changes faster and faster, and gets harder and harder to keep up with.

Now combine this with the eternal human tendency to mythologize the Golden Age. The past was always better. Every era presumes that someone in the past spoke the language better, had more tasteful music and architecture, and lived in a time of peace and plenty. It's human nature. While that's sometimes true, for example, the Dark Ages perspective on the Roman Empire, in general comes down to romanticization.

The net result is a lot of people are afraid of the world, for good reasons. They don't understand it, they're suspicious of what comes next, and they're worried for their kids. At the same time, a lot of people look back on how much better things used to be.

This is the basis of the politics of fear.

It is a classically conservative meme that America should return to the way the country was in the 1950s. I've never understood this. If you weren't white, male, and middle class or better, the 1950s was a terrible time to be an American. Even the privileged lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation and the Red Scare. Jim Crow laws were the rule, oppressing millions of Americans in ways which are almost inconceivable to those who don't remember those days. Women could not own property or take out credit without the permission of their husbands or fathers. Children had no recourse from sexual or physical abuse.

What was so wonderful about that?

I'll tell you. It was wonderful because people don't remember all that. They see a time of economic might and military security, with widespread employment, hope for the future and a pax Americana across the post-World War II world.

To me that's a lot like looking back on a rotten case of the flu and being glad you had a chance to catch up on your bed rest.

I'll take cell phones, cancer treatments, personal computers and automated teller machines over that any day of the week. Guess what? You don't get all those things without taking the change of the rate of change into account.

The world is scary, people. Change is scary. We're wired for a much slower rate of change than we have today. We're also wired to live without indoor plumbing and antibiotics. When you take refuge in fear, when you turn away from the Spanish speaker or the gay couple or biology class because of your fear, you're undercutting all the very same change that gave you your SUV, your cell phone and your job in the high end American economy. Demagogues from the pulpit and the ballot box will call upon your fear, promise you safety and security from that which you believe threatens your children, but it's a hollow promise.

You can't stop change without stopping all the creature comforts you hold dear in your life. There are people who have done this -- the Amish, Old Church Mennonites. It's a choice that's available in American society. But if you want satellite TV and instant messaging and competent doctors when you fall sick, those aren't gifts from God. Those are creations of the modern world.

Contemporary Bush-era conservatism is about reversing change. It's about re-asserting American dominance in a multilateral world. It's about deregulating industry so that capital can flow and prosper freely. It's about reversing personal freedoms in the name of a specific definition of morality.

And none of those things are working. All we are doing is degrading our stature as a nation and fracturing our society.

I'm not saying don't protect your children and yourselves from what you think is wrong. I'm saying don't tear society down around your ears for the sake of that protection. When you allow your fear of the change, of the other, to govern your decision making, and especially your vote, you are sabotaging your future far more effectively than any evolutionist or homosexual or Spanish-speaking immigrant could ever hope to do. Not that they're even trying to sabotage your future, mind you. While you're worrying about them, they're out building a future which you'll get to share in, whether you want to or not.

You're better than your fear. We all are.

Dear Intarwebs

Dear Intarwebs,

Please stop trying to urgently sell me Hoodia. I don't know what Hoodia is, I don't want to know what Hoodia is, but I'm tired of hearing about it. I miss my v1agka ads.



Stemwinder update 2006-10-16

2,800 words today. Plugging along. I'm finding some nice language right now. That always pleases me.

I note, passim, that this book seems to be following a different process from the last few. Not sure what that means, save that I am like the sea, ever changing with dynamic boundaries.