Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The strife below

The Emperor of Japan looked from his mountaintop at the strife below and wrote this poem.

Quietly a leaf seeks

a vanishing sun.

At the shore

water rushes in.

I said too much!

My words pile up like

beached whales.

Oh, to be succinct 


Thursday, December 12, 2019


I got a call from my friend Harry the Human, strange if only because he doesn't have a phone.  Harry is a telepath, the real kind, retired from playing nightclubs and cruise ships, where he pretended to be fake.  He inhabits a two-room shack in the desert north of LA.

Harry gets his fill of human communication out of the air and has no need for additional verbiage via technology.  Nevertheless my phone rang and it was Harry.

"Doug, man, I need help!"

"Harry?  Why aren't you telepathing me, if that's a verb?"

"I need you to help me think in human language."


I knew why.  Harry, in his communing with animals and people has concluded that human language is designed to manipulate what it describes (except when diverted from its purpose by poetry).

"You know why," Harry continued (he's telepathic, after all).  "For once, I want to control things."

"Harry, this must be serious!"

"We're all in the same boat," Harry sighed, "...the same sinking boat."

Harry is pessimistic by self-definition, whereas I continually strive to burnish my optimism (figuring my pessimism needs no burnishing).  Put differently, I view the glass as half full (of shit).

Harry believes that human consciousness is a construct, one of whose purposes is to individualize us, so that we believe we are independent actors, "people" if you will.  When Harry telepathically travels outside of human language he sees other possible constructs for consciousness.  He gets absorbed in other states.  Once he experienced being a porpoise with half its brain asleep; another time he was Zephyr- the spirit of the West Wind.

But Harry is alarmed by what he's picking up lately from random media and real time humans and animals who pass his way.  He increasingly sees "us" - his loose term for atoms and molecules of all sorts, including his own- as unstable, fissionable material.

In other words: Ka-Boom!

The city of Los Angeles offers a phone app to alert users to imminent earthquakes.  Harry wants to function as something similar.  He says we should be alert for psychic mindquakes, possible earthquakes and maybe even a volcano.  Once the distinctive shaking starts, it will not stop, but will gradually accelerate to its maximum.  

Harry notes that the instability will appear localized in time but will have been eons in the making, the latest in a series of shake-ups that started hundreds of millions of years ago, when predation first appeared on the ocean floor. Over long ages, single-celled life had grazed and meditated, observing the precept: "Good fences make good neighbors," until one day God said, "Let them eat each other, for their sins," and, at least per popular opinion, added, "The penance of the living shall continue until the final eruption of The Big One."

I don't think Harry would mind if I contrast his version of The Big One with Christian apocalyptic thinking, as expressed in 
Revelation, the final book of the Bible.  Revelation supplies a point to the human endeavor: Its end.  Though widely popular with early Christians, Revelation at first met resistance from Church authorities, who were perhaps wary of its explicit message.  Revelation was rejected for inclusion in the canon by the Council of Laodicea in 363 AD.  The Synod of Hippo, in 393 AD, was poised to reject it again but had second thoughts when it realized that Christians were going to read Revelation whether it was deemed canonical or not.  After all, it provided human life with a purpose: To die.  

Harry strives to offer more than an afterlife, the qualities of which he can't guarantee.  Most of the time he aspires, perhaps Quixotically, to survive.

The duration of The Big One, from start to finish, is unclear, but its outcome is clear: The entire surface of the earth will be transformed.  To read Harry's message, go to Harry the Human @ http://harrythehuman.harrythehumanpoliticalthoughtsfrombeyondthepale.com/.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

I asked a man

I was walking down Ventura Boulevard 
with pita from the Persian store and
I saw a man sitting on the sidewalk.
Yes, a black man, wearing black.
He was neither young nor old.
He did not ask for money.  He was sitting.
I looked at him and his brown eyes asked: "Where are you?"
and I wondered "Where am I?" and I asked the man
(with my eyes, for I was in a hurry)
what the President meant
when he said the enemy "spent his last moments
in fear panic and dread"?
What did he mean, 
I mean,
What did he mean?
The man answered
(with his eyes, for he was not in a hurry)
"He meant our joy is not complete;
we are too conscious yet."
I saw a light at the end of a tunnel.
On the corner.
It was red.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

As above so below

Macro and micro
use the same clock
'cause they're in the same time
except when they're not.

Does a center need to hold?
Does a center need to be?
Does everything really
not refer to me?

The bonds of our atoms
it couldn't be clearer
break when the strivers
talk to a mirror.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Boundary waters

In early August my wife and I took a trip through North Dakota and Minnesota.  We found recurring themes of boundaries and borders, of centers and outliers.  

For starters, North Dakota features the geographic center of the North American continent, in Center City, where you can stand on the spot.  We did not go to Center City.  Our trip started with a flight from Los Angeles to Denver, where we boarded a twenty-seat plane to North Dakota's capital, Bismarck, about 50 miles southeast of Center City (and 150 fifty miles southwest of Rugby, the geographic center of North Dakota).  When I was born there, Bismarck's population was 8,000.  It is now 77,000.

A word about why we began our trip in Bismarck: Herman.  That was my paternal grandfather's name.  He left Ukraine at age 14 after his father was killed in a pogrom against Jews.  He was the second in his family to leave after his older brother Sam, who went into the fur business in the Dakota's.  Sam helped Herman get a leg up in Bismarck, where, in 1925, Herman built a two story brick structure downtown on the corner of Fifth and Main, across from the glitzy Patterson Hotel and kitty corner from the train station.  The building housed, at various times, a men's clothing store, a liquor store and a pharmacy.  My grandfather's family lived above the store.  When he was five, my father watched from his bedroom window as the local Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of the building.  He recognized the ringleader as the chief of police (and husband of his kindergarten teacher).  On a Fourth of July, when he was a little older, my dad fired a rocket from his window that crashed through a window of the Patterson.  I lived my first two years in the same second floor rooms, until we made the big jump to Los Angeles.  

We learned that the building still exists and is designated a historic structure, and we wanted to visit it.  Thus our first stop in the rental car was the "Lasken Block," as the old cornice proclaims it to be.  Standing across the street, I gazed at the second floor windows and wondered what rights my brief sojourn there gave me now.  Could I go upstairs, knock, and tell whoever answers, "I entered the world in these rooms.  May I come in and look around, meditate, maybe find a morphogenetic field and channel my lost and barely remembered ancestry, like in Dune?"  I felt the correct answer would be No, that my connection, if it was one, did not afford me passage across the boundary between longing and property rights.  Or maybe I was afraid that if I did visit, nothing would happen.  I would see some nondescript walls and maybe a linoleum floor while the people who lived there watched me and noted the futility of my search- and it would be, well, nothing, not a science fiction or ghost story, or any kind of storyIronically, not going up those stairs is a story.

Our next stop in Bismarck was the capital building, two miles north, through pleasant residential streets.  Along some of them grew American Elms (the state tree) that had escaped Dutch elm disease- tall, beautiful, brave trees.  The capital building is referred to locally as a "skyscraper," though it's only 14 stories high, a mere bump in L.A.  But it was as imposing this time as it was the last time I saw it, at age 8.  Standing atop a long grassy rise, it is a good 12 stories taller than any other structure within hundreds of miles (with the exception of distant wind turbines and grain elevators).  The 30's era art deco design, plus the phallic layout (a broad two-story base housing the state legislature and governor's office, with the fourteen stories rising in the middle) gives it the aura of Emerald City, with its palace of the Great Wizard of Oz.

As luck had it, the quarter mile loop running around the sloping lawn in front was occupied that Saturday by the annual North Dakota craft fair.  Stall after stall featured stunningly wrought items of wood, glass, paint and fabric.  Here was a boundary between bias and reality.  My bias, barely known to me, was the idea that humans are more self-aware and artistic on the coasts than in the Midwest.  No such difference exists.  Thoughtfulness, concentration and skill characterize North Dakotans.  News at 11!

All the people we saw were white.  Perhaps we were at the white center of North America.  These are the people who are endlessly ridiculed and vilified these days in most American media and much university pontification. They are deemed undeserving because life has been so easy for them, and because they suck life out of non-whites.   I personally saw no one sucking life out of anyone, near or far.  Nor did I see signs that life is easy in North Dakota.  Many striking paintings in the craft fair evoked angst and alienation.  None evoked any kind of "supremacy."  

In 2016, Donald Trump won 63% of North Dakota's vote; Hillary Clinton won 27.2%.  Here was the boundary between red and blue.  I was in a red state.  And yet, no one was red.  Nor could anyone tell what color I was.  Boundaries can be illusory. 

When we left Bismarck, heading east on I-94, we found more boundaries in the content of radio shows and billboards.

Over some stretches it was difficult to find NPR on the car radio, though there were many evangelical stations.  It must be lonely sometimes on the North Dakota plains, when the only company might be a man telling you about your soul, that you have one, and that it is important for the universe and will last forever.  Why not?  If I'm from a blue state, a blue person, does that mean I can't believe in the soul?  Not that I'm certain the soul exists.  It is a compelling idea, that we aren't just reflections, flashing for a few moments then gone- memory, identity, time, space...all gone.  You can argue that our evanescence is too awful to be true, that the soul is necessary to give existence a point.  You can argue anything. 

The billboards often conveyed political content.  Every half-hour we passed an anti-abortion message.  Here was a boundary made intense by the language used by politicians and other "leaders" on both sides: If you support abortion rights, you support murdering babies; if you oppose abortion rights, you support harms to women.  The formulations eliminate nuanced boundaries, creating two simplified stories of good against evil, one for each side.  

Both formulations recognize a conceptual boundary between a newly fertilized egg and a more developed fetus with a heartbeat.  There is agreement that these are both living things, but do they both have souls?  I don't know if a fetus with a heartbeat has a human consciousness or a soul.  Maybe it does, and maybe we should care; I'm just guessing.  It seems unlikely that a newly fertilized human egg would have a human consciousness, or a soul.  It's a single cell, with no developed brain tissue.  It would make more sense to believe that the soul is attached later, when there are elements of human consciousness.  None of this is proven, or can be proven, of course.  The question becomes: if none of the essential considerations about abortion can be proven or known, how can anyone argue about it?

Such thoughts occupied many soporific hours driving across the plains, but there was also the news, which on this trip was dominated by the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, especially horrific because they happened on the same day.  The radio presentations suggested an America coming apart at the seams, with violence ready to erupt at any time or place.  Of course that's not even remotely what is happening.  The number of mad killers, as a percentage of the population, is small, and would be negligible if assault weapons were not so easy to procure, and if any homicidal lost soul couldn't get worldwide attention from a media that thrives on their crimes.  

It was a disconnect to hear over and over about the violence while driving through hundreds of miles of wheat fields, where the violence is microscopic, involving insects and chemicals.  No crazed human acts out here, swinging wildly with a machete, railing against mono-culture.  That's why wheat fields are not in the news.  

In the evening we arrived in Fargo, on the Minnesota border, and got a room at the Radisson Hotel near the Red River, in the historic downtown, where socioeconomic boundaries are mixed.  There were depressed areas with homeless people and local teenagers defending turf, alongside art galleries and stately mansions.  

We saw "Rocketman" at the vintage (and well kept) Fargo Theater, in which Elton John invites us to contemplate one of our favorite subjects: the pain famous people feel when they discover that not only are they as lonely as they were before they were famous, but it's a new kind of loneliness, even more brutal and cosmically empty than the loneliness before.  Elton John was able to survive his ordeal.  There is a boundary between people who can handle fame and people who can't.  Rock singers seem to have the worst of it.  Politicians generally do ok with fame.  Why is that?  We could ask a politician.  Maybe President Trump or one of the candidates trying to replace him could explain how politicians are able to handle fame so well.

Next stop was the Twin Cities, where my wife's family lives and mine used to.  We stayed with my wife's sister and brother-in-law in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis which is within Minnesota's fifth congressional district, represented by Ilhan Omar.  She is intensely opposed by much of her district.  Omar put herself on the political map with statements like, "Israel has hypnotized the world; may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel."  Omar crosses the boundary between church and state when she invokes deity to fight a perceived national enemy, suggesting that she envisions herself operating in a theocracy.  Interestingly, she does not follow her logic to invoke Allah against America because it took land by force from people who were here first.  On the contrary, Omar seems comfortable living and prospering on formerly Native American lands.  She feels differently, it seems, when the sin is hers.

We saw a family of wild turkeys strolling around my in-laws' house, digging up gardens in the front and back, crossing the boundary between human and animal.  Another animal crossed a boundary at my wife's parents' place in St. Paul: a bat flying around in the lobby.  In order to get out, the bat needed two doors opened at once (the two doors enclosing the warm-up space typical of Midwest lobbies).  My wife held one door open while I held the other.  A trapped bird would have taken minutes to figure out that there was an escape route, but the bat figured it out immediately, presumably using echolocation.

More animal encounters occurred when we traveled north to the Boundary Waters area.  En route we spent a night and a morning in Duluth, on Lake Superior, which was filled with lovely butterflies and aquatic birds.  Another boundary appeared in the Skyway, an elevated passage, unventilated and very stuffy, between our hotel and the canal area along the lake.  The passageway was empty of all people but us.  We checked a side passage that led to a movie theater showing Tarantino's "Once upon a time...in Hollywood."  We thought of seeing it, but it was scheduled too late. When we re-entered the Skyway and turned left towards the canal, there was a tall, lean young black man reclining against the wall, watching our approach.  He was wearing a baseball cap and jeans that hung below his waist, exposing an inch of boxer shorts.  His tank top revealed long, sinewy arms.  There was no one else around.  As we advanced and looked his way, he made a little hop forward and said, "Ha, ha."  It was quite funny, crossing at it did a racial boundary in which he knew what stereotypes might rule us, and we knew that he knew, and he knew we knew he knew.  Ha ha, indeed.

We didn't go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (within Superior National Forest), so called for its proximity to the Canadian border, but toured areas to its south.  Birch and pine forests extended to the horizon.  We stayed at a lodge near the town of Bibawic, which features a fiberglass moose near the bandstand in the park.  We walked all of Main Street at night, encountering no one.  Everything was closed except several bars hosting locals who were nursing drinks and talking with people they had known for years.  We could have gone into one of the bars, crossing the boundary between people we know and people we don't, creating perhaps intimacy with the other, but we didn't.  

For dinner we went to the town of Virginia, ten miles away.  Virginia had been an iron boom town, attested to by the main street of old buildings that looked like my grandfather's.  When globalization wiped out the economic value of the Mesabi Iron Range, Virginia died a partial death.  It has struggled with an opioid epidemic.  We walked around and saw newly painted, often beautiful murals on the walls of old buildings.  A group of cheerful young people was involved in painting a new mural.  We ate at the Boomtown Restaurant outside of town.  The service was great and the food was hearty.  The restaurant was filled with white people.  How did they feel, these people who are said to have an easy life and to believe themselves supreme because they are white?  I got no sense of an easy life, and no sense that anyone felt supreme.

On the trip home we crossed one more boundary- that between moving by your own power, and moving via advanced technology.  I refer to the two flights, starting at Lindbergh Airport in Minneapolis, and connecting in Phoenix, that got us home to Los Angeles.  The flights were similar: each left on time, and each included lengthy periods waiting on the tarmac after landing while a gate was secured.  These waiting periods were stressful, as people sank into thoughts of busy schedules now messed up, and perhaps into deeper waters about the meaning of modern life, perhaps concluding that a life spent in joyless cylinders waiting for release belied an existence without meaning.  On the other hand, the flights landed safely, we did not die, and we were able to have ten days of experiences we wouldn't have had without air travel.  The final boundary, then, is the one between what we're grateful for and what we're not grateful for, and the final lesson is that we're grateful and not grateful for the same things, in the way that we support and oppose the same things.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Why I quit politics

Reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse: http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_12/clash/lasken.html

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, when I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, told me, in reference to the signs, that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of state Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors (in particular Los Angeles Times opinion editor Jack Miles) liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of pieces in the Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, New York Times and others on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of "1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu mayoral race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh,"you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: So...you would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, "We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over three hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot, to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Science news should be political

Here's an update on recent scientific research on human beings which, given its critical importance to the future of our species, we should be hearing about in the 2020 US presidential campaign.  We are not, nor was any of this research referenced by the candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign:

1. Scientists are learning how to manipulate human thought.  They will soon be able to erase real memories and implant false ones; difficult emotions, such as grief over death or unrequited love, will be susceptible to elimination with drugs (“Finding a way to erase harmful memories,” Boston Globe, http://www.bostonglobe.com/2014/01/17/mit-researchers-find-drug-that-helps-erase-traumatic-memories-mice/6mYYOM1SGW8C2XPYpCgDjM/story.html).

2. There will be no need for fathers in human reproduction in the future, and perhaps no need for mothers (New York Times, “Men, who needs them?”, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/25/opinion/men-who-needs-them.html).

3. Current struggles about race will become moot as biology mixes and matches to produce new races adapted to new technologies and environments, as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (see below).

4. Humans will combine with machines, mentally through Artificial Intelligence (AI) as well as physically, through prosthetics.  Many scientists predict an end to current, flesh-based humans by 2045 (see the writings of Vernor Vinge and the "Singularity”).  

5. Automation via AI enhanced machines will displace human workers on a mass scale, including such workers as judges, doctors and teachers (see Yuval Harari's Homo Deus).

These developments are not prominent in U.S. political news [Update, 10/15/19:  The Democratic presidential debates continue to avoid the topic of human evolution], and predictably, very few people appear concerned about the imminent re-definition of our species. Newspaper headlines should be proclaiming: "Human race has 20 years tops, per prominent scientists!"  Instead, we get front page headlines like this from today's L.A. Times: "Netflix to pay to keep stream smooth"!  Talk about living in the moment-  it will be maybe a generation before the end of present-day humanity, but people need a smoothly streaming movie now!

That's how it is at this historical juncture. We see the scientific revolution coming to save us from ourselves- and we look away.

There is no consensus on the future humans, no discussion or awareness, at least not in the voting public.  That doesn't mean we won't be able to master the technology; we're mastering it now.   Research and development will continue as a free-for-all that won't even blink at the occasional call for bioethicists to write papers that no one will read.

It's enough to make a guy run through the streets shouting, "They're here! You're next!" like Kevin McCarthy in the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the science is plied by extraterrestrials.  I try to restrain my own impulses to run shouting in the streets, since that approach didn't do much good against the body snatchers. 

There is plenty of science coverage in the media, but not in the political stories. What if the end of humanity as we know it were a topic front and center in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign? Can you imagine the candidates debating the best way to design a new human consciousness? A passing extraterrestrial would think the earth was a rare haven of high-order critical thinking. 

Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen. We are comforted by the pabulum of the two-party struggle, the endless repetition of pro and anti positions for solving the puzzles of our age: relations between nations, ethnic groups and religions;  regulation or its absence regarding abortion, guns, sexuality. We vociferously strive to win our debates, though we lack even common definitions of terms. The lack of common definitions in itself kills any hope of dialogue, because our "hot button" political issues are only superficially about the subjects they purport to be about.  

Opposition to abortion, for example, is ultimately about a future where not only fetal human life is treated as non-sentient and disposable, but adult human life as well. Future humans, in many credible scenarios, will be no more than production units. In Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1931) human eggs are fertilized in vitro on factory assembly lines (the state religion deifies Henry Ford) and the resulting children are reared by technicians.  There are no biological parents to get in the way (the most obscene word in the language is "mother").  Children are required to gather around hospital deathbeds to watch people die so that death becomes prosaic.  Relationships, when permitted, are superficial and temporary.  The unloved and disposable embryo in a petri dish is extrapolated to the disposable developed human.  

Huxley refigures the modern focus on racial distinctions through a genetic scientist's  lense.  In Brave New World there are four "castes," or biologically different types of humans (in contrast to the Hindu usage, which distinguishes people who are biologically identical but socially different).  In Huxley's vision the four castes have replaced racial categories.  The lowest caste, the Epsilons, are designed to do menial work. Their neural beauty receptors have been deadened so they won't mind ugly factories.  They are bred to be shorter and less attractive than the higher castes.  For the upper, managerial castes, culminating in the Alpha's- who are bred to be tall and attractive- mandatory recreational drug use and promiscuous sex distract from consideration of their pre-programmed fates (essential to Huxley's nightmare is the placid acceptance of it).

Another issue, gun control, is not just about whether you can bear arms in an urban environment; it’s about whether we will need an armed insurrection to protect us from a scientific state.  Most pro-gun groups have extensive literature arguing that without our guns we will be sitting ducks for fascism, though our household guns have proven of zero effectiveness against our intelligence agencies' almost total knowledge of our doings (predicted, in 1949, in George Orwell's “1984").  The Fourth Amendment battle for privacy is already lost without a shot fired.

Today's "War on drugs" will be unveiled as a "War for drugs," as in George Lucas' pre-Star Wars masterpiece, THX-1138, in which a highly stressed human population, forced underground by an unnamed holocaust on the earth's surface, is coerced into taking mind numbing tranquilizers to facilitate boring factory work and avoid feelings of romantic love, claustrophobia and the resulting social unrest.  The protagonist, whose name is THX-1138, falls in love with a co-worker after avoiding his dose and is charged with "drug evasion."

The struggle over homosexuality is not just about whether men or women can have sex with their own gender or get married; it’s about a world where any kind of couple is superfluous, reproductively speaking.

If science is not political news, there will be little understanding that we are living in a transition to a revised humankind.  The ignorance will grow if we are distracted by domestic strife and war.  Diminished attention to events outside the prescribed battle zones will make a covertly planned transition possible.  It will be over before we understand it.

There is a lot of potential for good in the coming science: relief from suffering, enhancement of intelligence and physical well-being. But we are taking the next step in human evolution with only a faint element of self-determination, becoming something of unknown design, by unknown designers.

Unfortunately, any chance that the 2020 American presidential campaign might direct our attention to the future of the species is rapidly diminishing, replaced by partisan, reactive outbursts to high profile social issues like those noted above and, of course, by the President's highly distracting behavior.  These matters deserve our attention, but they are formulated by the media and politicians to produce circular, never ending polemics, not policy.  While we indulge our love of yelling at each other, science will fill the void, determining our fate without polemics, and without an election.  

[For more Lasken's Log, click on "Older posts," below right]