Trust the Process

Life is a process. We are a process. The universe is a process.

Anne Wilson Schaef

 Jack Kornfield in Path With Heart told the lesson in patience and unintended consequences from Zorba the Greek:

I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree just as the butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath. In vain. It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings needed to be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

Zorba’s not alone in his impatience and lack of trust in the process of life to unfold naturally.

I went on a photo workshop in Yellowstone National Park with professional wildlife photographer Tom Murphy. Tom said he could always tell which photographers were from the city: They jumped out of their cars, took a quick picture and jumped back in their cars to get to the next location. He advised us to be patient and to watch and observe animal behavior and get some great photos in the process.

I’ve been an amateur nature and wildlife photographer for a long time. I’m always in a hurry to get the next location—to jam as much into the time I have. I wonder how many great shots I’ve missed because I couldn’t sit still to watch and wait for the behaviors of the wildlife I watched or for the light to be a bit better over the scene I wanted to photograph. Only in the past few years have I tried to tame those inner drives. I was the same in my work. My friend, consultant and Clinical Psychologist Diane Olson, Ph.D. said I had the intensity gene.

To become patient and to trust the process of life may be the biggest challenge I have.

I have so much I want to do, so much I want to learn. The speed of change in our world increases faster than I can keep up. Aging only intensifies my intensity to move fast before I run out of time. The madness of our world makes it hard to trust in the process of life.

I began to meditate a couple of years ago hoping to understand my mind better and calm my inner drives. Maybe I can uproot my impatience and accept that I am not in control. Meanwhile, I can be aware of my impatience and difficulty in “trusting the process” and make conscious choices to act counter to my inner drives.

I think many of us feel exhausted and overwhelmed due to our impatience and pace of life. In Uncommon Friends, author James Newton shared a letter he received from Anne Lindbergh who wrote about her pace of life:

I have not yet learned quite how to deal with those periods when one is learning and living too fast to digest. There was a wonderful story once told by Andre Gide of a trip he took through the jungle, very fast, with African guides. One morning the native guides sat around in a circle and refused to move. When Gide urged them on, saying he was in a hurry to get somewhere, they looked up at him seriously, reproachfully, but with complete rock-like firmness and said, “Don’t hurry us-we are waiting for our souls to catch up with us.

I want to do my small part to contribute to sanity and greater consciousness in the world. One way you and I can do that is to slow down and take time to be present without thought and separate time to think quietly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Media: Excess and Addiction

How We Spend Our Days is How We Spend Our Lives–Annie Dillard

Melanie, granddaughter Saige and I were at the lake in northern Minnesota last July (2016) during the Republican National Convention. Obsessed with the presidential campaigns, I couldn’t bear to watch or listen to the Republican speakers. But I had FOMO: fear of missing out, I had to know what was going on. I turned to Twitter.

I followed my favorite pundits, experts, consultants and journalists. Tapping the Twitter icon was the first thing I did upon waking and the last thing I did before a fitful night’s sleep. I checked my phone constantly throughout the day. I’d go through new Tweets and see the notification that I had newer Tweets and I would begin scrolling all over again.

My body was at the tranquil lake with Melanie and Saige; my attention was fragmented and scattered all over the angry and anxious political landscape. I felt guilty about what I was doing and unhappy with what I was reading but I kept checking my phone apps: Twitter, Facebook and newspaper headline notifications. Every click of an icon brought me a new jolt of fear, energy or joy depending on the news of the moment. I knew my behavior was physically and emotionally unhealthy but I didn’t want to quit; I wanted more. My mix of fight/flight adrenaline and happy dopamine levels must have maxed out. When I felt depressed being away, I went to my phone for another fix. I was out of control.

Today, when Melanie and I spend time with Saige, they talk and laugh about their time at the lake–they have great memories. I remember the angst I felt and my crazy behavior that I did not like.

Tristan Harris, previously a Design Ethicist at Google, now leads Time Well Spent, a nonprofit movement to align technology with our humanity. He wrote that the average person checks her phone 150 times a day. I am not alone. Many addicts and potential addicts click away out there.

In a podcast interview with Sam Harris, Tristan Harris said app users should recognize that 1000 engineers work behind the screens empowering people to spend more time on the apps. Put more bluntly: Intentional or not, app designers, with no set of values to guide them, seek to maximize profits by manipulating users to spend more and more time on their apps. Some users become addicted with damage to their jobs, lives, health and relationships. Designers don’t try to help us make better life choices: they want our attention. We need to be aware of the dark side of technology so we can make smart choices for how we use our devices.

I quit Twitter on November 9, 2016. I stopped watching anxiety provoking cable news shows. I read newspapers for my news and quit going to their home pages many times a day for fear of missing something. I don’t look at my phone in bed or when with others. I recently decided to limit my time on Facebook to one short time period a day. I block out time for Internet surfing instead of going on and off it mindlessly many times throughout the day

Most important to me: I block out quiet morning hours to meditate and read books or listen to podcasts that challenge me and to write, which makes me think. These activities fulfill me and stretch my aging brain. I do not use any phone apps or visit the Internet before or during this period of time. I turned my phone notifications off so they won’t steal my attention and disrupt my focus and concentration. I believe that brains high-jacked by phone apps and constant interruptions are diminished brains.

To try to find meaning, purpose, self-esteem, and a sense of community from an addiction is futile and guaranteed to end in serious suffering. I know how hard it is to break an addiction: I quit smoking cold turkey 35 years ago and drinking in 1974. I consider myself a sugar addict. After a sugar binge, it takes three days of abstinence for the craving to subside. I resist app/Internet temptations daily. I replace them with healthy alternatives. I know from experience that the craving will pass. Excessive users may be able to break their habit on their own. Addicts whose behaviors interfere with work, school or relationships may need help.

I have a finite amount of attention to give and I don’t want to waste it. I want to give my attention to people I love and to activities that make me feel alive naturally. I don’t want my brain hijacked and dumbed-down or manipulated into addictions or excessive use of phone apps that drain my time, energy, attention and enrich others.

The Internet, iPhones and the apps available to us  are tools for us to use with thoughtful awareness to help us live more efficient, more productive and better lives. We need to be aware of the dark side of these tools and make our own choices about how to use them or the machines will make choices for us and absorb us. Now is the time to learn to use them in life-enhancing ways because future technologies will be more threatening to our humanity and freedom.

I look forward to being present at the lake with Melanie and Saige this summer.

 

 

The Singularity

The human being of 200 years from now will be more different from the human being of today than the human being of today is from Neanderthals or chimpanzees. Yuval Harari (paraphrased) to Ezra Klein, Feb. 28, 2017.

Thomas Friedman wrote in Thanks for Being Late that the rate of change of major new technologies is more than twice as fast as our ability to absorb the changes and will only grow faster. We cannot stop the technology that transforms our lives. We have to learn to change faster or be left behind.

Tristan Harris, former Google product manager, on 60 Minutes (April 9, 2017) said that Silicon Valley designs our smart phones to addict us to them. We are being programmed, usually without our awareness. Gradually, choice by choice, we give up our thoughts, feelings and actions to the machines.

Yuval Harari wrote in Homo Deus that technology will put masses of people out of work. They will be unemployed and unemployable. He wrote that we may have to pay people to not work and drug them to make them happy and give them advanced video games to play all day.

We can see the beginnings of these trends today:

Nicholas N. Eberstadt wrote in Our Miserable 21st Century in Commentary Magazine that the opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroine has ravaged and shortened lives from coast to coast.

He wrote that nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—approximately seven million men—take pain medication daily—paid for mostly by Medicaid. These men don’t use their free time helping around the home or volunteering in their communities. Instead they spend up to 2,000 hours a year watching their electronic devices—TV, DVDs, Internet, smartphones, etc. That is their full-time job. We can imagine Harari’s future: millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and unemployable, sitting stoned in front of screens. What does this say about the future of Democracy?

I wrote this essay in July, 2005. How does it fit our world of 2017?

Quotes from scientists:

Those of us alive today, over the course of our lifetimes, will morph ourselves into machines. We are trying to build robots that have properties of living systems….In just 20 years the boundary between fantasy and reality will be rent asunder. Rodney Allen Brooks (Director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT and author of Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us.)

…If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we? Gregory Stock (director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at the School of Medicine of the University of California)

Biological species almost never survive encounters with superior species. Hans Moravec (Carnegie Mellon University)

The emergence in the early twenty-first century of a new form of intelligence on Earth that can compete with, and ultimately significantly exceed, human intelligence will be a development of greater import than any of the events that have shaped human history. Ray Kurzweil (inventor and author of Spiritual Machines)

Are they mad scientists or prophets?

You decide.

Genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology fed by the exponentially increasing power and speed of information technology intertwine and multiply one another in symbiotic relationships. They are poised to rupture, alter, and perhaps even destroy the fabric of human nature—our minds, souls, mortality, consciousness, personalities, our imperfection, our physical makeup, our freedom of choice, and the indefinable that makes us who we are.

The machines thrive.

Today computing power rides a curve of exponential change unprecedented in human history, and the exponential change itself will continue to accelerate. Moore’s Law states that the power of information technology will double every 18 months. In 2002, the 27th doubling occurred with a billion-transistor chip. A doubling means that the next step is as tall as all the previous steps put together. Twenty-seven consecutive doublings of anything man-made remains unprecedented in human history—until now. The growth curve goes straight up. The potential systemic impact of such power translated to new technologies (genetics, robotics, nanotechnology) and on all of life staggers the mind.

When Moore’s Law exhausts itself it most likely will be followed by a new technological paradigm that will grow even faster. There may be no limits.

We are on the verge of an almost unimaginable future: what scientists call the Singularity. At the point of Singularity technology evolves so rapidly that our everyday world no longer makes sense—we enter a massive neutral zone—a place of no rules. We probably cannot escape this “perfect storm” of chaos; we must go through it.

Author Vernor Vinge wrote of the essence of the Singularity: A super humanity–artificially created. Soon machines smarter than the human brain will be created according to Vinge (See Vernor Vinge on the Singularity available various places on the internet). Ray Kurzweil, author of The Spiritual Machines (www.kurzweilAI.net) wrote that the implications of this change include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence and immortal software-based humans.

As entities with greater than human intelligence are created most intelligence on the planet will become nonbiological and changes in all other aspects of life will accelerate dramatically—including the more rapid creation of even more intelligent entities on a shorter time scale. We will not be able to think and absorb fast enough to keep up with the changes.

Vinge wrote that this change will be comparable to the rise of human life on earth. This will be a unique transition with profound systemic implications for humanity fraught with unpredictability and unintended consequences.

Will we create a new heaven on earth with all problems solved? Or will a new hell on earth emerge where the technology goes bad and the machines rule and humans become their slaves? Or will life continue as it has in the past—imperfect and creative–just with new complexities to cope with?

As I write this essay I am reading the books, Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau and Frankenstein by Dean Koontz—the first non-fiction–the second fiction. As I alternate between the books I have trouble distinguishing the facts from the fiction. The boundaries between fiction and reality blur and foreshadow the approach of the Singularity where the technologies of genetics, information technology, robotics, and nanotechnology merge.

Koontz described Victor Frankenstein who wanted to live forever and save the world from the imperfections of spirit and emotion—including love—unnecessary in a purely material world without spirituality. Some might call him mad. Others would call him driven, brilliant, and totally absorbed in filling the holes within himself by eliminating them in future models of the human being.

Koontz’s scientist creates soulless beings that look like real people and programs them genetically without moral dimensions. Their minds fill with information downloaded from computers. The live out predetermined lives in service of the scientist with no ability to control their own destinies. The machines of flesh become the successor race.

Garreau, the non-fiction writer, described a world of telekinetic monkeys that can move distant objects via their thoughts, fictional super-heroes whose imaginary powers are now real or almost real and “better” human beings artificially enhanced by machines. The telekinetic monkey (near telepathic) foreshadows future human telepathy, the imaginary heroes become soldiers who heal themselves, can go a week without sleep, and can run at Olympic sprint speeds for 15 minutes on one breath of air.

Garreau described machine enhanced people of many potential breeds who live for hundreds of years. Nanobots (nano robots) the size of human blood cells cruise their bloodstreams and attack pathogens, build new cells, and grow new organs. People separate into the enhanced—those who choose to be altered–and the naturals—those who choose to not be altered. Will the naturals become the pets or the slaves of the enhanced?

Parents could potentially order their new child gene by gene over the internet to be delivered to them on their schedule. Who or what would this child be? What would be its connection to the past, to a family, to those who come later? And what would happen when, a few months later, even more fully enhanced genetic models become available that make this state of the art child obsolete? Would the child ever forgive those who created her? Science fiction has merged with the vision of science.

Koontz’s creatures yearn to feel and to be happy like the inferior humans they were created to replace. They know they lack something within themselves despite their “perfection.” This yearning threatens the scientist’s control and leads to unintended chaos as the machines break the rules they were programmed to follow and genetic creation goes astray. Could super-intelligent machines in our “real” world do the same and turn against their creators?  In Garreau and Koontz, fact and fantasy merge.

When Garreau asked a researcher to reflect on the meaning and the consequences of his work, the reply was, “That’s above my pay grade.” People are changing our world and toying with our human nature without much thought as to what they are doing. They are having too much fun to consider that the unintended consequences might be bad. This is irresponsible. It remains up to you and me to set the initial conditions for this development, whatever it may be, and to hold creators accountable for their creations. For we do care about what “not so fun” things could happens to our humanity.

Some believe that to save our humanity and even our species, we must stop this technological development. Scientist Bill Joy wrote: “…We are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil….” (See Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us in the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine) I believe that we cannot stop or control this development. People always seek to improve themselves and their lives. This will not change.

If we push development underground it will only free the technology from ethical and moral considerations. The technology and its impact on our lives and the potential impact on the human soul will not be stopped. What development can happen, will happen—our human nature drives us.

Others believe that the future technology will lead to a heaven on earth with all problems finally solved. We become God and create Heaven. Kurzweil: “We see exponentially greater love.” I believe that these are the beliefs of the pseudoinnocent (see Pamphlet 50). Pseudoinnocence colludes with evil as it denies the imperfection of human beings—artificially enhanced or not.

Evil will continue to exist, and villains will continue to utilize whatever means are available to them to meet their sinister objectives. The insane, immoral, immature, and irresponsible among us will sell their souls for the currency of the day, as they always have, and there will continue to be people of weak spirit and character who will use technology to exploit others. I do not believe there will be man-made gods or a heaven on earth.

For the past decade many have railed against the mechanistic world view and the devastating unintended consequences of a world view that dehumanizes people. I’ve spoken and written of the conscious evolution of our humanity for years (wholeness, authenticity, relationships) because I believe our spiritual development is crucial to reversing the environmental mess we’ve created, which threatens our way of life. We can now add exponential technical development to the threats to our species. We need to pay attention.

Singularity or not, I see the potential for life to create differently than the technologically driven linear projections of heaven or hell—gods or devils. Instead of being led by technology, we can lead technology. To do so effectively we must accelerate our maturity as people and communities and bring forth a creative renaissance of relationships that will transform life on this planet.

The global transformation we are in has spiritual and technical elements. They must not compete or, I fear, the spiritual will be driven deeply underground. We must wisely manage the use of our technical genius. We must embrace the technology that threatens our humanity and outfox the creative dark side of human nature with the creative light of our humanity. We must use the very tools of our potential destruction to outwit those who would destroy our unique humanness in their grandiosity. We must absorb the technology into our greater life force. The spiritual must transcend the technical; people must transcend machines.

Can we preserve our species, retain our humanity, and become even more human in the face of unprecedented pressure and temptation to step outside of a caring and creative human nature? Can and will the good, well-intended people, who comprise the vast majority of people on this planet, find the inner courage and strength to say, “We must manage this wisely and holistically?” To do so we must catch up socially and culturally to our technical development so we can find solutions to problems faster. We must apply our deepest human values to this technology.

I believe that in the chaos of today’s world, if we wish to retain our human nature as we intuitively understand it, we must focus first on being whole, imperfect, and authentic people connected to one another by a shared vision for our collective future. This movement must leap willingly into an unknown future and see creative potential in uncertainty. We will evolve through our creativity, not technological determinism. The impact of such a focus would be profound.

Abraham Maslow wrote that to save our world we must create the “good person.” He defined the good person as:

The self-evolving person,

The fully human person,

The self-actualizing person….

Long ago Confucius wrote that the cultivation of the person must be the root of everything else. Playwright Vaclav Havel wrote: “Transcendence is the only real alternative to extinction.” I believe that Havel, Maslow, and Confucius meant creativity and spirituality when they wrote of transcendence, human cultivation, and self-actualization, not people crossing over to be linear, literal, and dehumanized machines. They understood that each authentic life lived fully provides the diversity to insure the sustainability of humanity. I don’t care about being mechanically perfect; I care about being creatively imperfect.

Each of these great thinkers calls forth images of people who continually grow in complexity in a more natural way. The goal (for me) becomes to use the technology in our spiritual quests to realize our deepest sense of purpose and authenticity. We can deepen and expand our creativity, compassion, and connection with self, others, and nature. We can create meaning in our lives as free, responsible, and spiritual people. We can use the technology to help us do so. We can say “NO” to any technology that threatens who we are in our essential spiritual being and intimate connectedness to self, others, and nature.

Life is about heroic journeys. The human spirit that suffers in our world today must renew itself for the greatest challenge in our brief history on the planet Earth:

The critical challenge of our lifetime may well be to use explosive technical development to preserve and enhance our humanity rather than to have it destroyed by the mindless acceleration of technology without though as to the unintended consequences.

What are the technological lines we will not cross? How do we decide? Who decides?

I don’t know. I do know that we need deep and broad awareness and dialogue among people of the world.

I do believe that we must go forward into the unknown with care, caution, awareness, and thoughtfulness. We must plan, act, reflect, and adapt as we proceed. We have much to think about.

Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times article (July 27, 2005) that America’s most serious deficit today is a deficit of leaders who can talk about long-term problem-solving and the national interest. Leadership will not come from nationalistic politicians more concerned about re-election than our shared future on this planet or corporate leaders more concerned about riches than sustainability. Nor can the future of humanity be left to engineers, scientists, and technicians who do not want to be responsible or accountable for their creations.

You and I and all global citizens are responsible for the future. We get to choose who we will be in the future. We can be creative spiritually as well as creative technically. We can imagine and create the future we want. Or, as Friedman wrote, we can “Live wrong. Party on. Pay later.”

To be continued.

I wrote about and tried to teach consulting clients to learn how to change organizations faster as a competitive advantage 20 years ago. My management team and I talked about lifelong learning in the early 90’s. John Gardner wrote about lifelong learning in the 1960’s. Most have not paid attention.

Do we hear politicians talking about the issues of technology?

Trump and Trumpism are a dysfunctional denial of what is happening in America and globally. They can do great damage but they cannot stop the forces at play—unless they blow all of us up.

It appears that many of us are on the path to being victims of these transformations. We can choose differently. What happens is up to us.

We begin with awareness: Do we use technology as a tool to evolve our humanity or do we fall under its control and give up our attention one choice at a time? Do we set our own agendas or do we let the machines gradually control our attention, feelings and actions? Do we let smartphones and computer algorithms make our decisions for us? Do we continually learn and reinvent ourselves over and over again throughout our lives to avoid being unemployed and unemployable? Do we resist efforts to go backwards to decline and go forward into the unknown future boldly?

It is up to us.

Why Would You Hurt Me This Way?

We’re getting the bad ones out. Bad people out of this country—people that shouldn’t be whether its drugs, murder…. Donald Trump speaking to followers.

 

I was a new Special Agent in the U.S. Secret Service—only a couple of weeks on the job. My boss assigned me my first case to investigate: A deceased man’s Railroad Retirement checks were cashed for several months after his death.

I went to the retirement home where his widow lived. She was old and frail, kind and cooperative. She acknowledged cashing his checks after he died. She thought it was okay. She said to me, “I can pay back a dollar a month.” I said, “That will not be necessary.” If I had to take a dollar a month from this lady, I didn’t want to be a Secret Service agent. I closed the case. No one objected.

I watched a news report recently and felt saddened by the reports of good people being swept up under Trump’s executive order on immigration. He said he wasn’t after people with minor criminal records or who made administrative mistakes. His order said otherwise.

One husband and father, in the United States for 16 years, was arrested and quickly deported to El Salvador for missing a meeting. His wife wept as she asked, “Why would you hurt me like this? Why would you hurt my kids this way?”

Another man was pulled over by ICE agents as he drove his children to school. He was arrested in front of his children while his 13-year-old daughter video-taped his arrest. His serious crime? A DWI 10 years prior.

A woman spoke publically about her fear of deportation. Shortly afterward, she was pulled over, detained and awaits deportation for overstaying her visa. She has lived in the United States for 16 years.

And the stories go on and on across the country. Millions of people live in fear.

ICE agents had discretion in these cases. They could leave these people alone. It’s easy to build up one’s statistics by prioritizing such people. People inflate numbers all the time to make themselves look better or for political use. I haven’t read of the arrests or deportations of any murderers or rapists. I wonder how ICE agents feel about these arrests—often done in cruel ways? If I was a young ICE agent, I would ask, “Is this what I have to do to be an ICE agent?”

We will remember Donald Trump as a cruel man without compassion.

I believe people allowed to live and work freely here for as long as these people were should be allowed to remain here forever. We should not break up families.

One way we resist Trumpism is to refuse to behave as he does: We tell the truth, have a higher purpose, treat others with respect, act with compassion and always seek to grow in our awareness of what is happening right in front of us.

The “bad ones” are not those being snatched off the streets.

Stunning Data on the Opioid Epidemic

The following is an excerpt from the essay, Our Miserable 21st Century by Nicholas N. Eberstadt/Feb. 15, 2007 in Commentary.

I recommend reading the entire article here.

I found the data in this essay stunning. I think you will too.

The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century. The terrifying novelty of this particular drug epidemic, of course, is that it has gone (so to speak) “mainstream” this time, effecting breakout from disadvantaged minority communities to Main Street White America. By 2013, according to a 2015 report by the Drug Enforcement Administration, more Americans died from drug overdoses (largely but not wholly opioid abuse) than from either traffic fatalities or guns. The dimensions of the opioid epidemic in the real America are still not fully appreciated within the bubble, where drug use tends to be more carefully limited and recreational. In Dreamland, his harrowing and magisterial account of modern America’s opioid explosion, the journalist Sam Quinones notes in passing that “in one three-month period” just a few years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Health, “fully 11 percent of all Ohioans were prescribed opiates.” And of course many Americans self-medicate with licit or illicit painkillers without doctors’ orders.

In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the real existing opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis. [Emphasis added]

We already knew from other sources (such as BLS “time use” surveys) that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned. [Emphasis added]

But how did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap. As Dreamland carefully explains, one main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program. Here is how it works (we are with Quinones in Portsmouth, Ohio):

[The Medicaid card] pays for medicine—whatever pills a doctor deems that the insured patient needs. Among those who receive Medicaid cards are people on state welfare or on a federal disability program known as SSI. . . . If you could get a prescription from a willing doctor—and Portsmouth had plenty of them—Medicaid health-insurance cards paid for that prescription every month. For a three-dollar Medicaid co-pay, therefore, addicts got pills priced at thousands of dollars, with the difference paid for by U.S. and state taxpayers. A user could turn around and sell those pills, obtained for that three-dollar co-pay, for as much as ten thousand dollars on the street.

In 21st-century America, “dependence on government” has thus come to take on an entirely new meaning….

The Assault on Truth

Since the election, I feel like I’m in a car with a drunk driver.

Town Hall meeting questioner

 

Below is the best document I’ve read about Donald Trump’s lies and the human dynamics at play in our relationship with the new president. And the dangers that threaten American Democracy.

I post the full text for those readers who believe that a free press in search of the truth is essential to our Democracy. If we lose a vibrant and courageous media, we lose our Democracy.

America’s free press is under assault from a floundering President Trump in search of a scapegoat. This talk is a “must-read” for the people who believe in our Democracy, our Constitution and the shared values of the majority of Americans. I share this for those repulsed by Trump.

We must grow our awareness and illuminate what is happening right in front of our eyes so we can protect ourselves from being propagandized, as millions already have been, by those who would use us as ploys in their quest to be “winners” for themselves at all costs.

Bret Stephens writes the foreign-affairs column of the Wall Street Journal, for which he won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

He delivered the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture on February 17, 2017 at the University of California, Los Angeles.

 

Truth is what you can get away with. Bret Stephens

The full text of his remarks:

I’m profoundly honored to have this opportunity to celebrate the legacy of Danny Pearl, my colleague at The Wall Street Journal.

My topic this evening is intellectual integrity in the age of Donald Trump. I suspect this is a theme that would have resonated with Danny.

When you work at The Wall Street Journal, the coins of the realm are truth and trust — the latter flowing exclusively from the former. When you read a story in the Journal, you do so with the assurance that immense reportorial and editorial effort has been expended to ensure that what you read is factual.

Not probably factual. Not partially factual. Not alternatively factual. I mean fundamentally, comprehensively and exclusively factual. And therefore trustworthy.

This is how we operate. This is how Danny operated. This is how he died, losing his life in an effort to nail down a story.

In the 15 years since Danny’s death, the list of murdered journalists has grown long.

Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya in Russia.

Zahra Kazemi and Sattar Behesti in Iran.

Jim Foley and Steve Sotloff in Syria.

Five journalists in Turkey. Twenty-six in Mexico. More than 100 in Iraq.

When we honor Danny, we honor them, too.

We do more than that.

We honor the central idea of journalism — the conviction, as my old boss Peter Kann once said, “that facts are facts; that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting; that truth is attainable by laying fact upon fact, much like the construction of a cathedral; and that truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.”

And we honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.

So that’s the business we’re in: the business of journalism. Or, as the 45th president of the United States likes to call us, the “disgusting and corrupt media.”

Some of you may have noticed that we’re living through a period in which the executive branch of government is engaged in a systematic effort to create a climate of opinion against the news business.

The President routinely describes reporting he dislikes as FAKE NEWS. The Administration calls the press “the opposition party,” ridicules news organizations it doesn’t like as business failures, and calls for journalists to be fired. Mr. Trump has called for rewriting libel laws in order to more easily sue the press.

This isn’t unprecedented in U.S. history, though you might have to go back to the Administration of John Adams to see something quite like it. And so far the rhetorical salvos haven’t been matched by legal or regulatory action. Maybe they never will be.

But the question of what Mr. Trump might yet do by political methods against the media matters a great deal less than what he is attempting to do by ideological and philosophical methods.

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

But again, that’s not all the president is doing.

Consider this recent exchange he had with Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly asks:

Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things that you can’t back up factually, and as the President you say there are three million illegal aliens who voted and you don’t have the data to back that up, some people are going to say that it’s irresponsible for the President to say that.

To which the president replies:

“Many people have come out and said I’m right.”

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention than certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

If some of you in this room are students of political philosophy, you know where this argument originates. This is a version of Thrasymachus’s argument in Plato’s Republic that justice is the advantage of the stronger and that injustice “if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice.”

Substitute the words “truth” and “falsehood” for “justice” and “injustice,” and there you have the Trumpian view of the world. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.

If you can sell condos by claiming your building is 90% occupied when it’s only 20% occupied, well, then—it’s 90% occupied. If you can convince a sufficient number of people that you really did win the popular vote, or that your inauguration crowds were the biggest—well then, what do the statistical data and aerial photographs matter?

Now, we could have some interesting conversations about why this is happening—and why it seems to be happening all of a sudden.

Today we have “dis-intermediating” technologies such as Twitter, which have cut out the media as the middleman between politicians and the public. Today, just 17% of adults aged 18-24 read a newspaper daily, down from 42% at the turn of the century. Today there are fewer than 33,000 full-time newsroom employees, a drop from 55,000 just 20 years ago.

When Trump attacks the news media, he’s kicking a wounded animal.

But the most interesting conversation is not about why Donald Trump lies. Many public figures lie, and he’s only a severe example of a common type.

The interesting conversation concerns how we come to accept those lies.

Nearly 25 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great scholar and Democratic Senator from New York, coined the phrase, “defining deviancy down.” His topic at the time was crime, and how American society had come to accept ever-increasing rates of violent crime as normal.

“We have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard,” Moynihan wrote.

You can point to all sorts of ways in which this redefinition of deviancy has also been the story of our politics over the past 30 years, a story with a fully bipartisan set of villains.

I personally think we crossed a rubicon in the Clinton years, when three things happened: we decided that some types of presidential lies didn’t matter; we concluded that “character” was an over-rated consideration when it came to judging a president; and we allowed the lines between political culture and celebrity culture to become hopelessly blurred.

But whatever else one might say about President Clinton, what we have now is the crack-cocaine version of that.

If a public figure tells a whopping lie once in his life, it’ll haunt him into his grave. If he lies morning, noon and night, it will become almost impossible to remember any one particular lie. Outrage will fall victim to its own ubiquity. It’s the same truth contained in Stalin’s famous remark that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic.

One of the most interesting phenomena during the presidential campaign was waiting for Trump to say that one thing that would surely break the back of his candidacy.

Would it be his slander against Mexican immigrants? Or his slur about John McCain’s record as a POW? Or his lie about New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11? Or his attacks on Megyn Kelly, on a disabled New York Times reporter, on a Mexican-American judge? Would it be him tweeting quotations from Benito Mussolini, or his sly overtures to David Duke and the alt-right? Would it be his unwavering praise of Vladimir Putin? Would it be his refusal to release his tax returns, or the sham that seems to been perpetrated on the saps who signed up for his Trump U courses? Would it be the tape of him with Billy Bush?

None of this made the slightest difference. On the contrary, it helped him. Some people became desensitized by the never-ending assaults on what was once quaintly known as “human decency.” Others seemed to positively admire the comments as refreshing examples of personal authenticity and political incorrectness.

Shameless rhetoric will always find a receptive audience with shameless people. Donald Trump’s was the greatest political strip-tease act in U.S. political history: the dirtier he got, the more skin he showed, the more his core supporters liked it.

Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, called on Americans to summon “the better angels of our nature.” Donald Trump’s candidacy, and so far his presidency, has been Lincoln’s exhortation in reverse.

Here’s a simple truth about a politics of dishonesty, insult and scandal: It’s entertaining. Politics as we’ve had it for most of my life has, with just a few exceptions, been distant and dull.

Now it’s all we can talk about. If you like Trump, his presence in the White House is a daily extravaganza of sticking it to pompous elites and querulous reporters. If you hate Trump, you wake up every day with some fresh outrage to turn over in your head and text your friends about.

Whichever way, it’s exhilarating. Haven’t all of us noticed that everything feels speeded up, more vivid, more intense and consequential? One of the benefits of an alternative-facts administration is that fiction can take you anywhere.

Earlier today, at his press conference, the president claimed his administration is running like a “fine-tuned machine.” In actual fact, he just lost his Labor Secretary nominee, his National Security Adviser was forced out in disgrace, and the Intelligence Community is refusing to fully brief the president for fear he might compromise sources and methods.

But who cares? Since when in Washington has there been a presidential press conference like that? Since when has the denial of reality been taken to such a bald-faced extreme?

At some point, it becomes increasingly easy for people to mistake the reality of the performance for reality itself. If Trump can get through a press conference like that without showing a hint of embarrassment, remorse or misgiving—well, then, that becomes a new basis on which the president can now be judged.

To tell a lie is wrong. But to tell a lie with brass takes skill. Ultimately, Trump’s press conference will be judged not on some kind of Olympic point system, but on whether he “won”—which is to say, whether he brazened his way through it. And the answer to that is almost certainly yes.

So far, I’ve offered you three ideas about how it is that we have come to accept the president’s behavior.

The first is that we normalize it, simply by becoming inured to constant repetition of the same bad behavior.

The second is that at some level it excites and entertains us. By putting aside our usual moral filters—the ones that tell us that truth matters, that upright conduct matters, that things ought to be done in a certain way—we have been given tickets to a spectacle, in which all you want to do is watch.

And the third is that we adopt new metrics of judgment, in which politics becomes more about perceptions than performance—of how a given action is perceived as being perceived. If a reporter for the New York Times says that Trump’s press conference probably plays well in Peoria, then that increases the chances that it will play well in Peoria.

Let me add a fourth point here: our tendency to rationalize.

One of the more fascinating aspects of last year’s presidential campaign was the rise of a class of pundits I call the “TrumpXplainers.” For instance, Trump would give a speech or offer an answer in a debate that amounted to little more than a word jumble.

But rather than quote Trump, or point out that what he had said was grammatically and logically nonsensical, the TrumpXplainers would tell us what he had allegedly meant to say. They became our political semioticians, ascribing pattern and meaning to the rune-stones of Trump’s mind.

If Trump said he’d get Mexico to pay for his wall, you could count on someone to provide a complex tariff scheme to make good on the promise. If Trump said that we should not have gone into Iraq but that, once there, we should have “taken the oil,” we’d have a similarly high-flown explanation as to how we could engineer this theft.

A year ago, when he was trying to explain his idea of a foreign policy to the New York Times’s David Sanger, the reporter asked him whether it didn’t amount to a kind of “America First policy”—a reference to the isolationist and anti-Semitic America First Committee that tried to prevent U.S. entry into World War II. Trump clearly had never heard of the group, but he liked the phrase and made it his own. And that’s how we got the return of America First.

More recently, I came across this headline in the conservative Washington Times: “How Trump’s ‘disarray’ may be merely a strategy,” by Wesley Pruden, the paper’s former editor-in-chief. In his view, the president’s first disastrous month in office is, in fact, evidence of a refreshing openness to dissent, reminiscent of Washington and Lincoln’s cabinet of rivals. Sure.

Overall, the process is one in which explanation becomes rationalization, which in turn becomes justification. Trump says X. What he really means is Y. And while you might not like it, he’s giving voice to the angers and anxieties of Z. Who, by the way, you’re not allowed to question or criticize, because anxiety and anger are their own justifications these days.

Watching this process unfold has been particularly painful for me as a conservative columnist. I find myself in the awkward position of having recently become popular among some of my liberal peers—precisely because I haven’t changed my opinions about anything.

By contrast, I’ve become suddenly unpopular among some of my former fans on the right—again, because I’ve stuck to my views. It is almost amusing to be accused of suffering from something called “Trump Derangement Syndrome” simply because I feel an obligation to raise my voice against, say, the president suggesting a moral equivalency between the U.S. and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The most painful aspect of this has been to watch people I previously considered thoughtful and principled conservatives give themselves over to a species of illiberal politics from which I once thought they were immune.

In his 1953 masterpiece, “The Captive Mind,” the Polish poet and dissident Czeslaw Milosz analyzed the psychological and intellectual pathways through which some of his former colleagues in Poland’s post-war Communist regime allowed themselves to be converted into ardent Stalinists. In none of the cases that Milosz analyzed was coercion the main reason for the conversion.

They wanted to believe. They were willing to adapt. They thought they could do more good from the inside. They convinced themselves that their former principles didn’t fit with the march of history, or that to hold fast to one’s beliefs was a sign of priggishness and pig-headedness. They felt that to reject the new order of things was to relegate themselves to irrelevance and oblivion. They mocked their former friends who refused to join the new order as morally vain reactionaries. They convinced themselves that, brutal and capricious as Stalinism might be, it couldn’t possibly be worse than the exploitative capitalism of the West.

I fear we are witnessing a similar process unfold among many conservative intellectuals on the right. It has been stunning to watch a movement that once believed in the benefits of free trade and free enterprise merrily give itself over to a champion of protectionism whose economic instincts recall the corporatism of 1930s Italy or 1950s Argentina. It is no less stunning to watch people who once mocked Obama for being too soft on Russia suddenly discover the virtues of Trump’s “pragmatism” on the subject.

And it is nothing short of amazing to watch the party of onetime moral majoritarians, who spent a decade fulminating about Bill Clinton’s sexual habits, suddenly find complete comfort with the idea that character and temperament are irrelevant qualifications for high office.

The mental pathways by which the new Trumpian conservatives have made their peace with their new political master aren’t so different from Milosz’s former colleagues.

There’s the same desperate desire for political influence; the same belief that Trump represents a historical force to which they ought to belong; the same willingness to bend or discard principles they once considered sacred; the same fear of seeming out-of-touch with the mood of the public; the same tendency to look the other way at comments or actions that they cannot possibly justify; the same belief that you do more good by joining than by opposing; the same Manichean belief that, if Hillary Clinton had been elected, the United States would have all-but ended as a country.

This is supposed to be the road of pragmatism, of turning lemons into lemonade. I would counter that it’s the road of ignominy, of hitching a ride with a drunk driver.

So, then, to the subject that brings me here today: Maintaining intellectual integrity in the age of Trump.

When Judea wrote me last summer to ask if I’d be this year’s speaker, I got my copy of Danny’s collected writings, At Home in the World, and began to read him all over again. It brought back to me the fact that, the reason we honor Danny’s memory isn’t that he’s a martyred journalist. It’s that he was a great journalist.

Let me show you what I mean. Here’s something Danny wrote in February 2001, almost exactly a year before his death, from the site of an earthquake disaster in the Indian town of Anjar.

“What is India’s earthquake zone really like? It smells. It reeks. You can’t imagine the odor of several hundred bodies decaying for five days as search teams pick away at slabs of crumbled buildings in this town. Even if you’ve never smelled it before, the brain knows what it is, and orders you to get away. After a day, the nose gets stuffed up in self-defense. But the brain has registered the scent, and picks it up in innocent places: lip balm, sweet candy, stale breath, an airplane seat.”

What stands out for me in this passage is that it shows that Danny was a writer who observed with all his senses. He saw. He listened. He smelled. He bore down. He reflected. He understood that what the reader had to know about Anjar wasn’t a collection of statistics; it was the visceral reality of a massive human tragedy. And he was able to express all this in language that was compact, unadorned, compelling and deeply true.

George Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Danny saw what was in front of his nose.

We each have our obligations to see what’s in front of one’s nose, whether we’re reporters, columnists, or anything else. This is the essence of intellectual integrity.

Not to look around, or beyond, or away from the facts, but to look straight at them, to recognize and call them for what they are, nothing more or less. To see things as they are before we re-interpret them into what we’d like them to be. To believe in an epistemology that can distinguish between truth and falsity, facts and opinions, evidence and wishes. To defend habits of mind and institutions of society, above all a free press, which preserve that epistemology. To hold fast to a set of intellectual standards and moral convictions that won’t waver amid changes of political fashion or tides of unfavorable opinion. To speak the truth irrespective of what it means for our popularity or influence.

The legacy of Danny Pearl is that he died for this. We are being asked to do much less. We have no excuse not to do it.

Thank you.

Antidote to Trump

Americans have spent much time over the past 1 ½ years trying to diagnose and understand Donald Trump. Is he neurotic, psychotic, a sociopath, a narcissist, a psychopath or all of the above?

Allen Frances, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical College, was chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (D.S.M.-IV).

He wrote in a letter to the editor of the NY Times:

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.

His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological.

The political leadership needed to stop Trump will come from fierce resistance from citizens, investigative truth-telling from the media and moral courage from politicians in both parties.