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A Hike in the Woods

These woods were made for nine-year-old boys. The leaves are carpet enough and the dark trunks of hickory are walls enough for the architecture of imagination. Already they run ahead, laughing, while we tarry behind. The young dog scampers, the old one trots. How they must pity us, the nose-blind, who can sniff only the uniform, stoic must of a wet and late autumn. I wonder what olfactory bouquet entertains them. The old one has found a half-chewed turtle shell. There must be a circus of smells – alkaloids, phenols, pheromones, the ribald humus, the ethylene of post-ripening, and the crystal twang of fungal filaments woven into the rotting wood fibers of the limbs all around our feet.

I drag the sky into my body, but cannot smell anything with much detail. Yet there is an emotional complexity that may surpass whatever the dogs sense, though I don’t presume to know how this day feels to them. Those threadbare clouds of autumn and the first chill unlock in me memories of her and that trip we took to Duluth, a city crowned by golden maples on the rim of a darkening lake full out to the horizon. I only remember her eyes. We didn’t touch each other the whole time. That would come later and then, like the winter, the touching would subside. And so, although I do not perceive the chemical nuances of autumn, I know her subtleties such as they take shape in humanly ways. One October breeze across the wet leaves can evoke an entire symphony of nostalgia, regret, nudity, wine, embarrassment, and a dull-burning rage that summer is over. The day aches inside me. What I mean to say is that if I have a purpose it is to be a place for the day to ache in this way.

To be nine. Life would be fine, if I were nine. Time would unwind if I were nine. Look at them, walking like fancy ladies with their hands on their hips that make exaggerated swings until they can stand the impersonation no longer and howl in laughter. Shoving one another. The first awareness of sexuality has dawned on them, a kind of spring that forms a contrapuntal to the fall around us. The sweet gum tree litters the floor with its ornate seedpods, filigreed globes pierced by two dozen holes, each surrounded by what appears from up close like wooden solar flares. Or from another angle, each hole looks like the gaping mouth of a bird, its beaks twisted elegantly. But for them, they are balls. Woodland testicles. And the pine needles form abundant and convenient, albeit slender, phalluses. Giggles all around. Man is the measure of all things. It is innocent enough – and accurate enough. After all, the woods are lousy with sex and its consequences.

We walk the old logging road. It appears to be abandoned – the woods slowly closing in with sprigs of ferns cropping up to erase human intentions. A grotesque spider hangs at adult eye level from a branch above. The three boys had not noticed it, but my companion did. “Look,” he says. “What will it do in the winter?” I wonder. For us, the wood is chopped and the harvest is in. But for the spider? What about these creatures that live, as it were, leg to mouth? They have nothing stored up, save in their flesh, which is meager to say the least. Will it die in the cold? Or will it hunker in somewhere under a crag of bark or a lip of soil and go torpid? Does it know the seasons are turning like a blue stone wheel around us? It may not know, I suppose, in a propositional sense, but perhaps in its body it knows that in the same way it knows how to weave its web. Knowing and doing and being are one. What is its life to it? Does it think, does it have that internal dialogue, swinging as it does for such long periods of waiting there in the infinite woodland? Or is there only an internal static, like on a radio before radio stations?

They boys have found a hump of soil, pocked here and there with shards of white quartz. My walking companion says it may have been made to dissuade off-road vehicles. I had assumed it was natural – that maybe it was an old trunk tucked under a blanket of soil. But that sort of thing doesn’t happen on its own. I see it now: the hand of man. I see it too in the thick row of spindly pines along the logging road. And in the road itself. The knoll is hardly four feet high, but enough for a game of king of the hill. More shoving and grappling. They test their muscles against one another – always ready to call foul, to change the rules, to feign a loss of interest should one suddenly wind up downhill. All you need to know about social compacts and wars, about monarchies and treason, about the unspoken norms of democracy is played out there in the flailing of arms and the bracing of legs. How close we live to violence and the wilderness inside. Yes, civilization harvests the woods but the woods in turn harvest the peace of civilization, the leisure to be unnecessary and beautiful. “Boys!” we call. It is time to head back to the cabin.

They run past us and ahead now downhill. It is a liminal age. Throw them in the lake and they set about like fish – you can drink a PBR on the pontoon with an easy spirt and a clear mind. Give them rubber boots and they take to the creek for hours like old explorers. Present them with the kitchen and they might even produce something akin to lunch all by themselves. But they are not yet ready to be on their own, we reckon, with the .22. And when we tell ghost stories there is genuine confusion about those glowing blue eyes in the woods, the eyes of star-crossed lovers who had died tragically at the hands of small-minded tribalists. Are they real?

One of them lost a tooth last night– the tooth that had long sat akimbo as the adult tooth pushed up from the pulp beneath, like an oversized hunk of quartz, slightly out of place. How adulthood breaks up through us, cracking and peeling its way through the soil, shoving unjustly until it is there: king of the hill. And he had put the tooth under his pillow in our bedroom at the cabin. The tooth fairy brought a handful of quarters, which he collected solemnly the next morning in silence. I feigned a mixture of surprise and drowsiness. I had listened from my bed above when he met his mates downstairs for scrambled eggs. He said nothing about the tooth fairy. Is it because they wouldn’t believe – that he feared they wouldn’t believe – that he didn’t really believe or at least want to be caught believing? Did he not want to be caught wanting to believe?

Oh, how nuanced the business of growing up! It happens in those moments there with a handful of quarters wondering where they really came from. The calculations about what to say to your dad, your friends, yourself.  A handful of quarters becomes the price of learning contrivances, the adult kinds of make-believe. The quarters become fare to get him to the other side of the river. Nine year old boys, it seems to me, are stepping on that boat, unprepared for the crossing. But I am still nine or at least still crossing and unprepared.

They miss the turn from the logging road to the small path that leads back to the cabin. We holler for them and they come racing back uphill, oblivious, with the dogs. How far would they have gone, we wonder, had we not called them back? The chilled air and the hallow blue drum of the sky remind me of German poetry. Give us just a pair of days, noch zwei… The hiker is fine. It is the hiker who feels compelled to give words to the evocations of the hike who you must worry about. He will always feel dejected and lost upon return. You must remind him that it is not his fault. There is too much space between language and being – between the root and the word ‘root.’ Even the young dog can only bound and zag amidst the bric-a-brac. His movements are just as inadequate as any spoken account. Expression is always indebted to experience, forever disappointing it.20171013_114512

The frustration can feel like a prison. We are trapped, perhaps, in these bodies. Why carbon, why not silicon? Why the humanoid form – this upright ape posture – why not any, or every, other? To quote from the venerable Father Copleston and his treatment of the pre-Socratics: “…in spite of all the change and transition, there must be something permanent. Why? Because the change is from something into something else. There must be something which is primary, which persists, which takes various forms and undergoes this process of change.” There must be some original stuff – Urstoff, for the German poets and philosophers. The sweet gum (shall we say?) endures throughout from seed to sapling to tree. The person (could it be?) abides despite being baby and then boy and then the man hollering for his own boys to get back on the path. Would this be your nature, your essence – the authentic you hunted and celebrated by Disney and fascists alike? And if so, why couldn’t it be lifted entirely from the body? That permanent you – that which does not itself change but lives through the change unchanged.

I think about when he was only three and how back then we knew him as a girl and he had a different name. This is an age before you learn the pump-jack motion of your legs to make the swing go all by itself. The father must push. It is his honor, or should be, because if he is wise he knows it is a short-lived needfulness and he wants to be needed. The child on the swing traces the largest arc, to be sure. Change is most apparent there, at the end. But follow the chain all the way up to the beam atop and you will see that even the topmost link rocks slightly at the same tempo. Even the beam, though you cannot see it, is rocked by the swing and this rocking is transferred into the pillars that are sunk in the ground. Even the earth vibrates at the swinging of the child. We just can’t feel it, the same as we cannot smell what the dog smells. We should never confuse the inadequacy of our senses for knowledge, let alone certainty.

There is nothing permanent. Or, if there is, it is far distal from us. The soul, you know, is not the self. The One requires the Many and the Many go up and down as if on a swing in and out of the One. “It is death to souls to become water,” so says Heraclitus, but take heart because “from water, soul.” The day has me all around and is distributed across skin and into sore ankles and sinking knees. There is the barbed wire fence marking the property line. We know it through the eyes but also through the legs, which must lift to cross the spot where a limb has fallen and, like a gentleman, is now holding down that line of rusty barbs for us.

The old dog has had enough and pants serenely, lapping at the meager inch of water in the creek. He takes his rest on the porch at the back of the cabin. The young one prances, confident that there is more – surely there is more – to the day than all this. This has only been a warm-up, right? From here we go on to the real thing, right? The boys too are ready for more and race to grab the .22 from the woodshed. I load the gun with five bullets each. And then I watch as each in turn takes aim at the rusty can on the nail in the fallen oak trunk. “Steady, now,” I say and watch as they calculate an imaginary straight line from their eye down the barrel, through the trapezoid blue shapes between the trees, above the leaf litter, and into the organic imprecision of the woods.

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Blood and Soil

A white supremacist spits in a vial. A lab analyzes the spit. The results are printed on paper: Your genetic heritage is 86% European and 14% African. “That’s not right! Oil and water don’t mix!” Different essences cannot inhabit the same body. He spits in another vial. A different lab uses a different method. The results: Your genetic heritage is 97% European and 3% Iberian. “Yes, that’s me….mostly right anyway.” Mostly.

This is the story of the racist Craig Cobb. It is also the story of the majority of white supremacists, because they take DNA tests and are dissatisfied with the results. But it is so much more than that. It is the story of our times. Adrift in a globalized, hyper-paced world with infinite cultural possibilities and identities at our fingertips. We want to know: Who am I? Who are we?  It is a chasm of anxiety. Phones clutched in bed at night. Tell me who I am. The answer is never fully satisfying.

Torch march of white nationalists

They carry torches and swarm a small band of students on campus who are linked arm in arm at the foot of Mr. Jefferson. (Who was he…slave owner, author of human rights? Oil and water.) They shout “blood and soil.” Das Volk. But what about blood? It’s not the hemoglobin – everyone has that. It is why all blood is red when it ends up out there on the pavement. On your knuckles. No, not the blood of physiology but of heritage. Bloodlines. Lines back in time. The ancestors, the antecedere, those who came before. Anchor lines.

But they never hit the bottom of the ocean. The spit unspools into the thinnest strand and goes down, down, down. Back in time. As thin as a spider’s thread. Where to stop? How about a few hundred years ago in Europe. Fine, but why? There is no answer to that question that doesn’t carry the stain of the arbitrary and thus, the indefensible. After all it goes much further back. To Africa – always through Africa. How painful. It’s okay, you are white if you look in the mirror and you see a white man there looking back. “But the mirror is thin. What about the anchor line through the depths?” It’s still dropping into the fathoms. Past the monkeys past the frogs and fish. Who are we again? “The mirror is cracked….hello?”

The soil under the concrete under their marching feet is moving inches per millennia. Time and space move through each other. Soils hemorrhage down the James River to the bottom of the ocean. Soils emerge after long nightmares that turned them into rocks, scared stiff. Soils are atoms – the same as you. Quarks, really. It is all just quarks out there on the university square. Torches are quarks. Racists are quarks. Their arms linked. Quarks. Each one the exact same as the next. Give it enough time and Virginia will be at the equator. It will be under an ocean. The point is: it won’t be anymore. Hubris of man – to think the soil could hear you call its name. Does the mountain stoop to entertain the existence of the flea? Some supremacists! Kings of nowhere. Kings of never.

What could white culture mean if not the culture that gave us modern science? Though there is that “Iberian thing.” Those Muslims – Ibn Sīnā, etc. Mostly, though. Mostly it is the culture of science. Then, I am sorry, it is your heritage and your fate to fall and keep on falling. To spin and keep on spinning. To have your blood forever slip through even the most fastidious of methodologies. To have your soil pulled out from under you like a rug. Forever a hybrid. Mixed. Mongrel. Unrein.

Poor soul. This culture – the one you love – has planted inside of you an unbearable itch for certainty and purity. And then it deprived you of every possible means for scratching that itch. Everything melts in your hands.

“Those DNA tests are a Jewish lie!” Good. Tell yourself that so that you don’t shatter. You’ll keep falling, but at least you’ll never crash.

Dear Secretary Zinke

 

I am writing on behalf of my children to urge you to protect our National Monuments. My son Max (9), my daughter Lulu (5), and I have had the chance to camp at, explore, and hike several National Monuments, including Chiricahua, Organ Pipe Cactus, Chimney Rock, Capulin Volcano, and White Sands.

At these places, my children have participated in the Junior Ranger program and we have learned a great deal: about mountain lions, volcanoes, cacti, loggerhead shrikes, coyote scat, erosion, pit houses, hunting, the medicinal uses of juniper, and what to do if you simply have to poop while on the trail. Max and Lulu have earned many Jr. Ranger badges, which they proudly display on their Jr. Ranger vests. What I like about the ceremony of this is how each Ranger has a different oath that the kids repeat with a raised right hand. In one case, the Ranger asked them to pledge to treat everyone kindly even if they look different. In another case, the Ranger made them promise to care for our mother earth.

There is a basic ethos to being a Junior Ranger that has three parts. First, be safe – you know, stay on the trail, drink water, wear sunscreen, look large if a mountain lion appears, etc. Second, learn about the area (for example, did you know that mountain lions don’t roar?). Yes, mountain lions (or catamounts, if you will) are our favorite.

Third, leave no trace. These are places where we quiet our souls, slow our rhythms, and listen. They are places for contemplation, which, if we are the rational animal (rather than, say, a featherless biped or a human resource), is our highest good. This is also a lesson in humility and something of a counterbalance to, shall we say, the YouTube culture where everyone is a star. No, in these places you must be marginal and indeed insofar as possible, invisible – try to be nothing at all. The PG-13 version is that you are not special, you are inconsequential, you will inhabit this ancient earth for but a wee piffle of time, and then you will be gone.

If you spend enough time working on being a Junior Ranger, you will learn that there is a fourth, unspoken, part of the ethos. It is the most important and the most difficult. We could say that in the art of leaving no trace on those ancient and wild places, they begin to leave a trace on you. You start to get carved, shaped, and honed by the stars and blistering sun and the moon shadows of saguaro. It is a fragile process and the mood can be broken easily. But it has happened to us. For example, once among the rhyolite hoodoos of Chiricahua in a dead silence we suddenly heard the awful whump-whump-whump of a raven’s wings shoving desert air downward as it lifted into the towering arms of a ponderosa. When that sort of thing happens, as Rilke said, you must change your life.

So, the ethos is four-fold: be safe, learn, leave no trace, and deepen your soul. The fourth one is unspoken and ambiguous to be sure – but also essential. After all, if the point was only to be safe, learn, and leave no trace, then it would be far better to stay at home and study on the internet. If you go, it is because you are asking those places to mold you, redeem you, build you anew. The importance of land for building character should be apparent to conservatives, at least as I once understood them. Or, in John Muir’s words, “The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers…”

The sad implication of Muir’s words is that strip-malls, highways, and parking lots are also fountains of men and women. We, alas, are not as fortunate as the National Monuments. We have not been spared the debilitating impacts of so-called ‘development.’ Yes, we are comfortable. But we have grown soft, distracted, impatient, and in a word spoiled. The best cure for this is a long hike in an area outside of cellphone range. That such places still exist is a miracle. That we are thinking about shrinking or eliminating them is dumbfounding – especially coming from the party that stands, or stood, for conservation and good-old, tough-ass, quit-your-crying grit, spit, and fortitude.

Do not let either a narrow interpretation of the law or the small mindedness of your city-slicker boss cloud your vision. You know that these are the places that make America and Americans great. Keep them large so that we can fill out the full measure of our mettle.

organ pipe kids

2018 Public Philosophy Network Conference

The University of North Texas is proud to host the 2018 Public Philosophy Network Conference. We are now accepting submissions. The Call for Proposals is here:

‘Philosophizing Impact’

4th Conference of the Public Philosophy Network

University of North Texas   |   February 8-10, 2018

Submission Deadline: September 15   |   Notice of Acceptance: Oct. 1

 

The Public Philosophy Network invites proposals for its fourth conference on Advancing Public Philosophy. The 2017 conference theme is philosophizing impact: What philosophical practices improve the uptake of philosophy, both across the disciplines, and throughout society? These questions will be pursued through topical investigations (e.g., climate change), case studies, and engagement with philosophers, STEM researchers, administrators, policy professionals, and journalists. The conference website is at: https://philosophyimpact.org/ppn2018/.

We invite proposals related to understanding and advancing public philosophy, including the following:

  • questions of how to define, evaluate, and measure impact of public philosophy;
  • Accounts of philosophical work with other disciplines (e.g., STEM), as well as engagement with various non-academic publics – and of the impacts of such work;
  • best practices in public philosophy;
  • philosophical work on substantive policy issues (e.g., environment, LGBTQ, health, housing, economics, and many more)
  • reflection on pathways to greater impact: How can philosophers increase the impact of their work? And the skills needed to engage in public philosophy;
  • questions of audience, credibility, expertise, standards of rigor or excellence, responsibilities, and loyalties of the public philosopher;
  • responses to the accountability or audit culture and neoliberal trends in the academy;
  • the institutional dimensions of public philosophy (for example, tenure, funding, pedagogy, the structure of academic units and programs, etc.);
  • reflections on how philosophy itself is transformed by turning outward: How does public engagement inform philosophical concepts and understanding?
  • Accounts of the relation between public and normal (‘disciplinary’) philosophy.

Toward the goal of making our meeting more participatory and interdisciplinary in nature, plenaries and sessions include (in addition to some of PPN’s traditional approaches):

  • Presentations by scientists, engineers, and policy-makers on how philosophers can better help with the philosophical aspects of their work;
  • A reweighing of the proportion between speaking and conversation, with greater emphasis on the latter;
  • A discussion with university administrators on the changing place of philosophy within the university, and the increase of support for public philosophy
  • A plenary on the challenges of doing philosophy in the public.

Submissions: send an abstract with “PPN Submission” in the subject line by September 15, 2017 to philosophy@unt.edu. Abstracts should be limited to 300 words. Please also specify in your abstract whether you are submitting a proposal for a workshop or an individual paper. Details on these two formats are as follows:

Workshops (2 hour sessions). Proposals should include a workshop title and descriptions of the organizer(s)’ interests and experience with the subject matter and how the topic is of concern to philosophy or public life. Proposals should also include an overview of how the workshop will proceed, highlighting how it will be participatory and experiential, and indicating any non-academic participants you might invite. We anticipate that workshops will take different formats, depending on the issues being addressed and the number and type of participants. The goals of these sessions can include 1) to foster partnerships and projects, whether new or ongoing, and, where appropriate, to spark substantive dialogue between philosophers and “practitioners” (public policy makers, government officials, grassroots activists, nonprofit leaders, etc.) or 2) to focus on how to do certain kinds of work in public philosophy. A second call will be issued later in the year inviting people to apply to participate in the workshops. Workshop organizers should help publicize this second call. Each workshop will be limited to ~20 participants.  Workshop participants chosen after the second call will be listed on the program as discussants, though they will not be expected to make any formal presentation.

Papers (to be grouped into 90 minute sessions). We are especially interested in papers that report on public philosophy projects or reflect on the practice of public philosophy. Proposals should include the title and a brief description of the paper. Presenters should plan for brief presentations followed by longer conversations. More details on this will be given to authors of accepted proposals.

 

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Conference Website: Details about the conference are forthcoming on the conference website at https://philosophyimpact.org/ppn2018/.

Fort Davis

Had we lived then, and we are talking some 140 years ago, we would have had woolen clothing. Max would have been a soldier, he says. Lulu, a mother. Maybe she would have been the soldier’s mother. Or wife. The clothes, though, would have been plain and scratchy. That much we know.

How novel the simplicity seemed to them. I may have imagined it, but it almost seemed like they were relieved. You get one color. Once choice. You will be a soldier. Or mother. You would probably be that one thing very deeply; more deeply than we nowadays can be any one thing. And that would be comforting. You’d know just who you were and where things stood.

There is something to be said for that. Because now we accumulate so many things that just when we’ve got an interest in one of them, something newer and shinier piles on top of it. My children say that they want this. But then you look at them in those scratchy clothes and you think, well, I’m not sure they wouldn’t have been just as happy back then. I mean, providing they survived this long (which was far less certain back then).

At the ranger station, we are told not to judge the people then with our standards now. I wanted to subscribe to that line of moral thinking, mostly because it would (presumably) also apply to people 140 years in the future. I am rather sure that from their point of view we are leading horrible rotten kinds of lives. But we are really not so bad, you know, if you think like we do now and not like they will later, in the future, that is.

Still, though, wasn’t that a genocide or at least a violent and under-handed bit of ‘settler colonialism’? And isn’t that the sort of thing we want to consider wrong in a universal, a-historical kind of way. Maybe some of ‘my’ standards are not just the latest trend in moral fashion but actually, well, true. Then again, if Max had been a soldier and it had been this cold back then and he had orders to shoot and the other guys were known to be blood-thirsty at times and Lulu would love him even though (or because?) he shot…could I condemn them?

We are here now because men took those shots back then. They had two Gatling guns at the fort. We looked at them briefly in the cold, reading about how they frequently jammed. Heavy sons of bitches too. All the loot we have now was, in the beginning, the stuff of pillage and plunder. Should we, if not judge, at least cringe? That cannot be undone without doing the wrongs all over again.

I think they call this the identity problem: had anything, even the slightest fart, happened differently in the past, then we would not presently exist. So, don’t judge. Because your life depends on everything that happened before. Be grateful…unless you prefer non-existence (which I am not sure makes sense, given that having preferences is something that only existing kinds of things can do).

Here we are, great-grandchildren of the victors, of the ones with better weapons and better (though scratchy) clothing. The grandchildren of manifest destiny, whose western wave has sloshed against the furthest coast and washed back this-a-way.  Here we are, children of a father who had thought for a moment of condemning history but decided instead to take our picture in these old-timey rags. And then we got something hot to drink.

The Man Who Made Humble Reign

rain

March 31st, 2022

We all remember where we were the day President Trump didn’t blow up the world. It was one year ago. My wife had holed up in a makeshift fallout shelter we had started digging when his re-election seemed certain. But I had decided to sit on my roof eating a croissant in solidarity with the #itsjustcroissantsyouidiot global movement. Naturally, croissants were sold out. So, I ate a bagel instead, feeling that it was at least in keeping with the spirit of the thing. I sat there watching for the first mushroom cloud, which never came.

How could it be that the man who was so certain of himself suddenly paused with his finger literally poised over the button?

Thanks to the release of a recording from inside Situation Room South at Mar-a-Lago©, we have now pieced together those final minutes when civilization nearly winked out of existence.

“Sir, please reconsider,” the General said in a modest panic.

“What was that?!” Trump bellowed back, “Those frogs must pay!” He ripped off his shirt and spun it over his head in his patented “cyclone” move. He stormed over to press the button. Along the way he grabbed a glass of water from a golden tray and huffed it down with gusto.

“Sir, I beseech you to consider that you may be wrong.” the General insisted in what has now become the ubiquitous t-shirt slogan.

And then the miraculous happened. Trump stopped. There was an unusual silence. Then he spoke in a strange soft way, “Tell me more.” And then, so we are told, he looked once again at the satellite photos. All we hear on the recording is a gentle, “Oh, my…” coming from Trump.

A moment later, Steve Bannon can be heard screaming, “The logic of history cannot be stopped” as he races across the room in a desperate attempt to launch the nuclear strike by himself. This is followed by the sound of a scuffle and a tremendous WHUMP. Reports have it that Trump himself wrestled Bannon to the ground before he could push the button.

Shortly after that, the President was back in bed and the world learned to breathe a collective sigh of existential relief.

A few months later, I received a curious e-mail from “a big fan of my work.” The man said he had read all of my articles, which he took to be good guesses about what was going on in the Trump White House after the complete prohibition of all but “friendly and true” news outlets.

“I can explain it all,” he wrote, “the change in social media habits, the formation of the #policygeek phenomenon, and of course the new Trump…the man now described as ‘the great listener.’ I know why the federal register now garners more internet traffic than pornhub. We are all behaving differently and I am the reason why.”

He said he would like to be called Dr. Bronowski. He offered me the inside scoop. At first I refused, assuming he was a crank. But then he sent me hundreds of files — documents that linked his “little genetic uplift experiment” with news stories over the past few years. The dots started to connect in my head. He was only a short drive away, living, as he said, “off the grid in the mountains.” So, I spent a day with him listening to his story. I have come to believe that what he says is true: we have all been unwitting subjects in a massive research trial…for our own good…maybe.

**

“Reason dances, pleasure calls the tune.” So read a (poorly) hand-carved sign above Bronowski’s one-room log cabin. We sat along the south wall in a patch of sunlight. Bronowski told me his story in a jolting cadence, switching between near-maniacal titters and monotone pontifications. As we spoke, he stroked his cats: a fat one named Epimetheus and a skinny one named Pandora. I was not offered anything to drink, which suited me, because the bathroom (I would later learn) was the third Ponderosa on the left.

“Man’s basic problem is a mismatch between the pace of cultural and biological evolution, hmm.” (He said hmm frequently). “As a result, we are not well adapted to the technological world we have made.”

I said hmm, but in a more quizzical way and shifted in my uncomfortable wooden chair, which had been carved in what I might call an eco-brutalist style.

“Monkey brains,” he said pointing to his cranium, “in a very post-monkey world,” he added as he stood up (still stroking Pandora) looking out over the vast city sprawled at the foot of the mountain.

Eventually, I gleaned that he had been a young neuroscientist at an internet start-up in the mid-90s.

“NOT Yahoo!” he insisted.

“Ask Jeeves?” I asked.

“Screw you,” he replied.

“Why did they hire a neuroscientist?’ I asked.

“They thought I would know how to sell stuff, hmm.”

He remembers the utopian dreams coming out of Silicon Valley that a new global citizenry would emerge. Bronowski laughed in their faces, “Because we are not cosmopolitans. We are tribal.”

Bronowski watched the following years as the internet Balkanized and people hived themselves off into bubbles that would confirm their pre-existing beliefs. Alternate realities took shape. At this point in his story, he pulled a vial from his breast pocket. It was full of a clear liquid. “Dopamine,” he said and peered into my eyes. “Hmm” we both said. I tried sitting on my hands as a makeshift cushion. “Why dopamine?” I asked.

He tittered, “You think we are the rational creature?”

We?” I asked, “you and I?”

“Humans,” he clarified.

“Oh, sure,” I said.

“Wrong!” the cats bolted at this exclamation and Bronowski stood upright with his vial of dopamine thrust overhead. “We may be clever but we are not rational. We are not scientists…not even the scientists are scientists.” He spat on the floor.

Then he sat down again and held forth in a much calmer tone as if he were reciting a paper at an academic conference. Rationality, he argued, is an adaptation to our social behavior. Groups are a double-edged sword, however, when it comes to the selfish genes who are really running the show. The genes favor groups insofar as they help the individual to survive and pass down copies of genes to the next generation. The genes don’t like groups, however, insofar as they allow freeloaders to get all the rewards of safety without doing any of the risky work. A gene for bravery might only serve the function of getting yourself killed to save the genetic neck of a loafer.

So, what rationality is really all about, from an evolutionary standpoint, is making sure we don’t get screwed over. Bronowski claims that he discovered the physiological mechanism behind this. We get a little burst of pleasure from defending our own actions and beliefs and sticking to our guns. It feels good to pick apart someone else’s position (who, after all, might be trying to pull a fast one on us), but it feels bad to pick apart our own position.

“Thus, the dopamine?” I speculated.

“Bingo,” he said with a devious look, “this little chemical pulls our strings. It makes us feel oh-so-comfortable in our beliefs, even when contradictory evidence should force us to change our minds or at least stop and think. There is no pleasure reward for that…er, I mean, there was no pleasure reward for that.” He tittered nervously as he excused himself to use the Ponderosa.

**

“Did you build this cabin by yourself?” I asked upon his return. I was standing now, working out the kink in my lower back.

Bronowski answered proudly in the affirmative, rubbing his hands along the slanted and misshapen beams. “It is my greatest achievement!” Hmm.

“So, can you explain what happened to Trump in the situation room?” I asked hoping to cut to the chase. But Bronowski was feeling contemplative as he continued to walk slowly around the room, petting his log cabin. He circumambulated me as he talked.

There are two kinds of pleasure, he said, “meaning pleasure and feeling pleasure.” The cabin was a kind of meaning pleasure. It comes from a skillful (more or less) engagement with the world. There used to be apprentices and masters. There used to be vocations that oriented human lives. They were wainwrights or carpenters or blacksmiths, and they built intelligible worlds around them.

Meaning pleasure is, thus, deeply satisfying and all pervasive. But it is also inextricably linked to feelings of pain and burden and confinement. Long days at work in a simple world offer much hardship and only the occasional reward in the hearty meal or seasonal celebration. They offer little by way of feeling pleasures. Those are more ephemeral and scattershot. They come in short bursts and are not tied up with a whole way of being in the world. They are ultimately less satisfying, but because they can be had more or less on demand, they are more alluring.

Our world, he continued as he peered at his handiwork, represents the triumph of feeling pleasures and the decay of meaning pleasures. All of our mythologies – just look at Disney! – are about breaking the stifling bonds of family and tradition to strike out on your own. But out on your own you are not immersed in a matrix of meaning. Rather, you are a little island – a node on a network that can feed you feeling pleasures in proportion to the amount of money you make. Or how many opioids you can get a hold of. Either way, you are dependent on mysterious systems and don’t really exercise any sovereignty.

“We have traded freedom for comfort, hmm.”

“And this relates to Trump how…?” I interjected. He paused momentarily, crawling now on the floor. He knocked on a beam as if to test its soundness and replied, “ah, the internet, yes…”

He continued crawling and telling his story. The internet, he said, permits us to have such constant affirmation in our beliefs that we are bombarded with a ubiquitous dose of feeling pleasures. This sheen of good vibes starts to behave for us like the anchoring presence of meaning pleasures. We stare into our phones first thing in the morning to see ourselves reflected in the world, to feel that sense of orientation we crave but can no longer get through traditional vocations. We build little virtual log cabins of our identities. We get all snuggled down in our beliefs. To really challenge them would not just feel horrible, but would cause our world to come crashing down.

“You may have noticed I don’t have a toilet or indoor plumbing, hmm” he glared up at me from his intensifying floorboard inspection.

“Oh, is that so…”

“That’s because I don’t understand how they work!” he said with a certain pride in his ignorance that we have all noticed more of lately.

We think we know more about the world than we really do. “My old friends in cognitive science called it the illusion of explanatory depth,” Bronowski said, now feeding the cats a bowl of what appeared to be giblets. Epimetheus boxed Pandora out and wolfed most of the food down. “Everyone is an expert, hmm.”

“We need different doxastic norms,” Bronowski mused, picking up Pandora just as she was finally about to get a bite of the scraps. “Come, look at this.” I followed him and the cat to a small bench where he was working on another carving. It was nearly complete and read:

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient e”

“EVIDENCE!” he shouted out the last word and began scratching away at the “v” as he continued to speak. Everyone has an opinion, he said, a conviction about even the most complex things: TPP, Obamacare, infrastructure, the tax code, new source review, on and on. But none of us jokers has a clue what we are talking about. Dopamine, that’s why. Because what we want is not to be rational but to be right. We want that ping of feeling pleasure to fill those dark spaces of ignorance rapidly growing in a world so complex we cannot possibly understand it or genuinely be at home in it.

Suddenly, Pandora clawed her way free, causing Bronowski to make an errant gauge in his wood carving making the ‘d’ look more like an ‘L’. He pondered it for a long while, then slowly set it in the fireplace. He grabbed a new piece of wood and started all over, carving “It”…

**

I think he forgot I was there until I cleared my throat, now feeling about in the growing dark for my uncomfortable chair.

“The key part was the water,” he said from behind me in the gathering gloom, “no one thinks of that.”

“What water?” I asked.

“In the situation room, hmm.”

“Oh.” I suddenly realized he had a wood carving knife in his hand somewhere in the dark. I decided to go.

“Democracy!” he growled loudly in disgust. “Rule by morons, hmm. Death by low information voters.” He lit an oil lantern and came to sit down next to me again. I was about to leave, but what he said next transfixed me.

“The sun of the new enlightenment rose in the west, hmm.”

We had noticed that things first changed in California and crept slowly eastward. We had assumed that was just the way this social movement arose and progressed. First Ted Cruz in Texas, then Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, then Marco Rubio in Florida. One by one they started asking real questions of Trump. They started craving independent sources of news. They started hosting town hall meetings that went long into the night with detailed policy discussions instead of slogans and equivocations. Like dominoes, a new wave of political discourse swept eastward. It was symbolized in Paul Ryan’s late night town hall remark: “Wow, isn’t this fascinatingly complex?!”

“It wasn’t a social movement!” Bronowski tittered, rocking on his chair, “It was a biological movement! No, a physics movement! Simple diffusion. Just the natural flow of the jet stream, hmm.”

Like other early members of the resistance, Bronowski started wearing t-shirts in 2016 that said “Science is Real.” If only the scientists were allowed to speak…if only the experts could be in charge, he figured, then things would be alright. But by 2018 he became disillusioned by his fellow scientists.

“Not even scientists care about the truth anymore. Money money money! They want publications. They want their name in headlines. They want steady jobs with good benefits. Most of what is published now is crap. It cannot be replicated. It does no good in the world.”

Bronowski claimed the biggest threat to science was not Trump’s budget cuts, but, rather, the opposite. It’s all the money that flowed to science after World War II with no strings attached. That allowed for a huge cohort of mediocre intellectuals to churn out un-reproduceable garbage studies. “Not even scientists care about the evidence, about being earnest in the search for truth! They too just want that little rush of feeling right that comes when one of the umpteen million journals out there publishes their papers. Science is fake news, hmm.”

Bronowski spat in disgust. In 2018, he started wearing t-shirts that said “Science is a Joke” in protest of his colleagues’ craven behavior. Trump supporters naturally ate it up and Bronowski made a small fortune selling his t-shirts to them. By 2019, as the re-election campaign geared up, Bronowski was in a deep depression. Trump’s slogan, we all recall, was: “Nobody, and I mean NOBODY understands ____ better than I do.” Just fill in the blank with anything. It was the “blank slogan,” which political scientists argued (in reams of peer-reviewed publications) would long be studied as sheer brilliance. Those in the resistance still debated whether his selfishness and greed were the worst things about him or whether it was his racism and sexism. But for Bronowski, the worst thing about him, and about all of us, was arrogance.

“Hubris!” He bellowed. “To pretend to know. To reach further than one’s understanding will permit. That is how high-tech democracies will perish, hmm.” Some moron will claim to have it all figured out and, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he’ll unleash Armageddon. “That is, until the Sorcerer himself comes back as the savior,” Bronowski gave his most effusive titter, so violent that it devolved into a coughing fit.

Bronowski was radicalized when the Parisian Ivanka scandal went viral. In the absence of a terrorist attack, he could see that Trump was using this trifling affair to scare and control the populace and win re-election. I can still remember when Trump tweeted his first threat to the French President: “You will wear Ivanka’s anklets. Or else. Believe me…OR. ELSE.” The French President apologetically tried to explain there simply were no anklets in his size or style. That was the last straw for Trump. We all remember how he exploded in an orange hurricane of fury. He waved his shirt bombastically for hours until his rotator cuff finally gave out, which led to the cast he then used to bonk his “advisors” on the head when they gave answers he didn’t like.

Not long afterwards came the first briefings with national security advisors warning us that Paris was stockpiling nuclear weapons. Satellite photos, we were told, confirmed a steady stream of enriched uranium pouring directly into the French capital. Trump’s re-election campaigns were now awash with chants of “Bomb the Frogs, Bomb the Frogs!” Zealous mobs burned berets, shoved baguettes into unsightly places, and poured French wines into the sewers. Trump gleefully launched a trade war, which in turn sparked an underground railroad of real French goods, most symbolically: croissants. Trump tweeted: “Maybe anyone eating a croissant doesn’t deserve to be called an American?” He was gobbling up the spectacle of it all, especially the wrestling matches between Captain Patriot and Pepe Le Pew. He sailed to victory on the promise to “eliminate the French scourge.” “Nasty country,” he smirked at his rallies, “just nasty.”

**

“The only way to save us at that point,” Bronowski mused with his face lit from below by the lantern on the floor, “was to change the pleasure principle at the bottom of it all, hmm.”

And so that is what he did. He used the CRISPR gene editing kits that were by then available off the shelf for less than $100. He rigged up a waterborne biovector that would deliver the new genetic sequence to any human host that swallows it. The edit, he claimed, was simple. And quite necessary to correct for our new sociological conditions. First, the vector snipped out the sequence that gave us pleasure from having our beliefs affirmed. Then, in the same spot along the seventh chromosome, it inserted a genetic sequence that would trigger a rush of dopamine anytime our beliefs were challenged.

“People would now get high on thinking twice, hmm!” he practically giggled. “They’d be stoned on facts! They’d be junkies for hard evidence!” He squealed.

The vector was ready just before the election in 2020. Knowing there was no time to spare, Bronowski decided the fastest way to get maximal spread of this upgraded bit of human genome would be through cloud-seeding.

“Come with me,” Bronowski grabbed his lantern and led me outside and down the hill. Under a makeshift canopy of branches the light showed something large hidden under a tarp, which he pulled aside to reveal what looked like a cannon from Star Wars. He flipped a switch and the contraption started to whir. Then he pushed a button and the cannon fired several shots high into the night sky. This, he explained, was how he spread the vector. He had spent several months pumping the California and Oregon skies full of a powder designed to create clouds and, thus, rain his “truth serum” on the land below.

What we hadn’t noticed was that the NSA agent who first leaked the satellite photos had recently traveled to Nevada, where he presumably drank the water. When he got back to D.C. he noticed something that now seemed obvious. Those weren’t trucks full of uranium. They were croissant delivery trucks. As more and more people, including high ranking Republicans, started demanding to see the photos for themselves, the NSA agent sent them to wonkyleaks, which had just formed.

“By February of 2020,” Bronowski, continued as we walked back into his cabin, “it was sleeting Socrates all over the heartland. People fell in love with aporia – that sensation of paralysis by uncertainty. They yearned to know more, and the more they knew the more they realized they did not know. What joy it suddenly gave them to profess ignorance! And to change their minds when the evidence warranted it.”

I asked him why he thought philosophy was suddenly the hottest major on nearly every college campus.

“Because sometimes just getting the facts straight actually led to convergence of beliefs. Like, you know, a croissant truck is a croissant truck. But often disagreements still persisted. Take school vouchers, for example, people realized that underneath that debate were different conceptions of the human self and no amount or evidence or facts could seem to clarify which was right. Are we best understood in terms of a logic of internal or external relations? My little genetic edit gave us a powerful thirst for metaphysics…I hadn’t seen that coming, hmm.” He laughed at the way research dollars were hemorrhaging out of science into philosophy.

So that was why that drink of water saved the world. Some people required a higher dose of the vector to achieve enlightened humility. Trump was nearly the last to feel the effects. Fortunately in what seemed to be the final seconds he was just one dose away. Bannon, of course, still hasn’t succumbed. He still swears those are toxic symbols on the sides of the trucks rather than pictures of croissants. That’s why he has become the poster child of what is now listed in the DSM 6 as an official psychological disorder: The Hegel Hallucination – an insistence, despite all experience, that history tells a Grand Narrative and is marching to some culmination.

“But why the economic recession?” I asked Bronowski. “Is that just a coincidence or is that related to the rains of humility?”

“No coincidence, I’m afraid,” he now replied in an unusually sober tone. “It turns out that a certain recklessness is required for economic growth. Now every CEO is endlessly pondering whether what they do – the next innovation, say – is really for the better or not. Madison Avenue has lost its swagger…bitten by an ironic bug of self-doubt. Do people really need all this stuff? They ask themselves, hmm.”

My head was swimming with the implications of this one-man experiment in our evolutionary history, I had to ask one last question: “Are you a hero or a villain?”

Bronowski took a drink of water and thought a long time, stroking Epimetheus whose purr was the only sound.

“I was positive that I had to do it,” he replied at long last, “but now I’m not so sure.”