Monday, March 18, 2013

The Uncertainty of It All


We all know about accepting what we can't change, change what we can, and recognize the difference. Well, sometimes that's easier said than done. At times, I fall into the mental trap of trepidation at the thought of just how helpless we humans are against the forces of this universe.

For some reason – probably stress – I have glimpses of it now. As I walk the street, I'm suddenly reminded of the thin crust of earth covering the chaotic fire within, eager to burst through. Mayhem in a minute.

The chilly wind on my cheeks and forehead, remnant of a winter unwilling to pass, creates images of a coming ice age, with a layer of ice, one thousand meters thick, spreading its deadly embrace all over Scandinavia – and perhaps, if things get really bad, growing to cover the whole planet, which would shut off life for good. What is global warming compared to that?

A glimpse at the evening sky, where the moon is unusually bright and seemingly distant, accompanied right now by a couple of planets making particularly piercing white dots – that not only reminds me of a possible meteor instantly pulverizing the crash site and miles and miles around it, maybe even covering the planet in ashes.

It also brings to mind just how helpless we and our planet are against the galactic processes, including the collision of the Milky Way with the Andromeda galaxy in about four billion years. If not doomed by then or long before then, our sun will have its spectacular death dance at about the same time. And in the long run, the whole universe is heading for a fading away like no other, a desolate cold darkness where nothing can happen.

That's very far into the future, but its chill reaches us from way yonder by the mere hopelessness of it. Neither individually nor as a species are we able to live forever. It's sad, because it gives little room for a lasting meaning in life. Whatever we do will vanish.

Death is not just something that appears at the end of every lifespan. It's present all through life, like a shadow companion threatening to strike at any moment. In the grand scheme of things, life is the anomaly and death is the rule.

We exist for an instant in a vast eternity when we do not. Actually, the time we occupy is comparable to the space we fill up in this expanding universe. The farther into the future, the less significant is that time and space of ours.

When I was a child I used to have the same dream recurring in the beginning of the summer: I dreamed that nature had somehow skipped summer, and it was winter again. The dream was so convincing, I believed it to be true until I looked out the kitchen window at breakfast. No snow! It was just a dream.

But it reminded me of the total uncertainty of life.

I know fully well that we should live in the present, which is something philosophers of old as well as present ones have told us repeatedly. There is nothing else, they say – which may be oversimplifying things, but they have a point. There is nothing else on which one can trust. What we have is what's now, right now.

So, we should live our lives from day to day, steadfast in the present as it carries us onwards through time and space. What else can we do? We can even learn to be content with it. But I am surely not the only one occasionally overcome by the uncertainty of it all. That dreadful uncertainty.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Great Misfortune of Society: It's Ruled by Freeloaders


Society is far from perfect, in spite of its thousands of years of evolution. Most of the suffering it causes or at least readily allows, is due to injustice. Some few are privileged at the expense of the vast majority.

Some have much more power than most. They even tend to inherit it, from generation to generation. In addition to making sure to keep that power, they often misuse it, increasing the injustice.

This emerged when society swelled from small tribes where everybody knew each other, into big civilizations of thousands of individuals, most of them completely unknown to one another. Early examples are the cities of Memphis and Ur, with thousands of inhabitants already in the third millennium BC.

The increase and concentration of population was possible through agriculture, by which the work of some could feed plenty. Agriculture was introduced in the New Stone Age, around 10,000 years BC, and was significantly developed in the seventh and sixth millenniums BC.

Unfortunately, it also led to a drastic drop in human life expectancy, which was circa 33 years in the pre-agricultural Old Stone Age and dropped to 20 years in the New Stone Age. Not until the 20th century did the life expectancy rise significantly above the Old Stone Age value.

Another consequence of agriculture was the rise of hierarchies. Kings and aristocracies emerged and took control with the force of arms, making the rest of the population helpless subjects. They seized the surplus of agriculture and became the rulers of the world. That's pretty much still the situation.

A hierarchy doesn't in itself necessarily lead to greater injustice than the unequal distribution of power. But alas, we're yet to see a society where additional injustice is not the unavoidable outcome of that first one. Those who can will grab what they want, which tends to be more than they really ever need. And the ones who can't stop it are robbed of everything but what they need for basic survival. Sometimes even that is ripped away from them.

Why is that so? Many would hurry to say it's human nature. But that's jumping to conclusions. The study of non-agricultural society, those who live as hunters and gatherers, shows that they live by the code of general reciprocity – they share everything, always, thereby making sure that no one's needs are ignored. It's almost a sacred thing in those societies, where deviation from it is regarded as repulsive.

Still, sometimes it happens that an individual makes sure to receive what others give, but escapes from returning the favor. Cultural anthropology calls this a freeloader – someone who wants to share the benefits without sharing the sacrifice needed for them.

It may go unnoticed for a while, but when exposed, this person is finally thrown out of the community. Usually, those who are expelled like that return humbled and reformed, after discovering how tough life is in solitude, without the support of others. They learn the lesson.

But in agricultural society, where populations multiplied and small tribes were replaced by big communities of thousands of inhabitants, freeloaders were able to continue their ways in anonymity, and simply move from one part of the community to another when exposed. They could go on exploiting the trust of others, and did so – until they had the resources to grab what they wanted by force, instead of asking for it.

They became the rulers. The growing society had no protection against freeloaders, so it was soon taken over by them. They're still in control.

Look at so many leaders of the world today. They use their positions primarily to spoil themselves, living luxuriously, increasing their fortunes beyond any reasonable limit, holding on to their power with any means they deem necessary, whatever the cost to society as a whole.

That is strikingly true about countless politicians, making their decisions on what they gain on the most, and business executives, cooperating to squeeze the companies for absurd salaries and bonuses. This minority in power treats the rest of mankind as little more than cattle.

They even claim that this is only human, as if it's what we all would do in the same situation. Not true. Only freeloaders think like that. They just want to defend their own misuse of power, in a hubris of not only taking all but getting praise for it as well.

In the rare occasions when others than freeloaders get power and money, they act quite differently. They try to do some good with it – good for us all. But they're viciously opposed by the freeloaders, who usually succeed in keeping anyone but their own kind out of power to begin with.

I don't believe we can solve the dire injustices of society until we get rid of the freeloaders in positions of power. How to do that is no easy matter, but it has to begin by exposing them. Of all people in power and all people of wealth, we must demand benevolence and altruism. That's only what society with its laws and actions demands of everybody else.

Actually, I think the Internet may bring along a change also here, since it's a tremendous resource in exposing injustice wherever it resides. Traditional media tends to be reluctant about that, since they are both owned and led by the privileged few. But the Internet escapes such control and censorship, so there's a chance it will persist and thereby increase the pressure on our leaders to be fair. At length, that can make freeloaders shun leadership altogether.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Individualism of Communism


Seeing a documentary about Mao Zedong's China I was reminded of the anomaly of communism: Why are these ideologies of the collective given names of individuals? That should be enough to dismiss them.

Marxism, Leninism, Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism... The communist ideologies persist in carrying names of individuals in spite of their expressed principles of the rule of the masses.

They also tend to consist of idolatry. One person is given complete charge and swiftly demands to be worshiped like a deity. Beyond any reason, as if that person was the creator of the universe and then some.

I noticed it way back in the 1960's, when I was a kid and these movements were high fashion. Their supporters spoke of revolting against the men in power and substituting their rule with one of the people. But why, then, were they obsessed with these individuals? It didn't make sense to me, and still doesn't. So, I had my doubts.

Not that idolatry is a monopoly of the communists. It pops up just about everywhere, as far as political power is concerned. I guess we simply haven't grown out of monarchy yet.

Democracy may have been invented already by the ancient Greeks, some 2,500 years ago. But it was forgotten for a number of those years. Since its recent renaissance, it's still in its infancy. We easily slip back into the habits of monarchy. Communists do, too, for sure. More than most.