Saturday, March 13, 2021

The future of the alpha male

Early Hollywood films often featured cute baby chimpanzees who mimicked human behavior with infantile gestures, grimaces and clownish antics.  But, although there are plenty of adult lions, elephants and giraffes in early movies, there are no adult chimps.  Adults were retired to "reserves" far out of the city.  Chimp handlers knew why, but the general public did not.  

That changed over recent decades as a series of horrifying attacks by adult chimps on humans were reported in the media.  Adults can weigh up to 200 pounds and are generally twice as strong as the average adult human male.  The attacks entailed faces and genitals torn off, hands amputated and other targeted attacks that appeared designed, not necessarily to kill, but to permanently debilitate the victim both physically and psychologically.  The victims typically were taken by  surprise.  Often the chimp had been raised by the victim from babyhood, or the victim might be a friend of the owner who knew the chimp well, or thought so.  The trigger for many of the attacks appeared to be jealousy, or a sense of betrayal.  One woman brought a birthday cake to a captive adult chimp (removed from her custody for dangerous behavior) in the company of two other chimps.  One was so jealous of the cake that he bit off the womans lips and nose and destroyed one eye.  A man who brought a toy to a chimp he knew lost his genitals when he tried to take back the toy.  It is now illegal to own a chimp as a pet.

While our society was learning about the nature of adult chimps in captivity, scientists were learning about chimps in the wild.  Search "chimp attacks in Africa" and you'll find beautifully shot narratives by producers like Discovery and Planet Earth-BBC Wildlife depicting a murderous species, often out to expand its territory.  In one program, a band of adult male chimps, led by its alpha male (the dominant male animal in a particular group- Webster) silently creeps through the forest, stalking a neighboring colony of chimps.  The alpha, who not only determines the group's behavior but defines its virtues, deficits and moral tone, brings the group to a halt as the "enemy" comes within earshot.  The males huddle together in intense, intimate concentration.  The group attacks and manages to capture a baby chimp from the neighboring group, which they kill by pulling off its limbs, after which they sit in a circle, gnawing on the limbs and sharing them with each other.  There are many iterations of such behavior.

Why dwell on this?  We are compelled to because chimpanzees are our closest relatives.  Human DNA differs from chimps' by only 1%.  In contrast, human DNA differs from dogs' by 75%.  The difference between apes (like chimps) and monkeys (like capuchins) is 7%, meaning that we are closer to chimps than chimps are to monkeys.

[Note: Our DNA is likewise only 1% different from the chimps' nearest relation, bonobos.  In the 70's and 80's, bonobos were touted as "flower-children chimps" because of their uninhibited displays of affection- including social conventions like handling each other's genitals or rubbing them together- and the lack of male combat.  The hippie association was dropped after researchers noticed that many males were missing thumbs, which had been bitten off by females in this matriarchal alternative to chimp patriarchy.]

As with humans, not all chimps are murderous.  A Discovery UK episode tells the story of two peaceable chimps, Hare and Ellington, who, though members of a large warlike group, spent their days together in tranquil strolls through the forest.  One day Ellington was beaten and mauled to death by members of the group.  Hare then wandered alone, depressed and distracted, finally finding his place taking care of baby chimps orphaned by his group.

Are we like chimps in behavior as well as DNA?  A study of human history suggests that we are.  Many anthropologists speculate that homicidal impulses in our ancestors explain the absence today of any other types of humans than our own.  There is fossil evidence that there were other types of humans, notably Neanderthals and Denisovans.  Genetic analysis indicates that we interbred with these humans, but we also witnessed their extinction.  There is no evidence that we intentionally eliminated them (an action we would now term "genocide"), but the question remains, where are they? 

We are proud of our hunting heritage, but unlike, say, lions, who, after millions of years of hunting and eating impalas and giraffes have not caused the extinction of those animals, human prey tends to disappear.  A well known example from prehistory is the wooly mammoth, though we don't have evidence either that wooly mammoths were hunted to extinction or that "natural causes" were involved.  There is plenty of evidence that needless killing of fauna and megafauna has been prevalent in historical times.  The settling of the American West provides notable examples of animals slaughtered in numbers far exceeding people's need to eat them.  When Europeans arrived in North America, passenger pigeons comprised up to 40% of the bird population, their migrations filling the sky.  "Sportsmen" would fire straight up and revel when dozens of birds fell to the ground.  From an estimated 3 to 5 billion pigeons when the Mayflower docked at Plymouth Rock, their numbers fell in two hundred years to zero.  The American bison (commonly called the "buffalo") numbered around 30 million before Europeans came.  Horace Greeley wrote in 1860 that, "Often, the country for miles in all directions had seemed quite black with them."  The railroads sold tickets for bison killing excursions to New Englanders looking for adventure.  When herds of bison ran across the prairies near the tracks, rifles were issued to passengers so they could shoot them from train windows.  The train did not stop to recover the mounds of carcasses for any sort of use.  Today the bison is designated "near threatened."  "How the West was won" should be rephrased as, "How the West was cleared of lifeforms that suggested humans are not the dominant species."

Back to genocide- the modern term for humans intentionally killing (or attempting to kill) entire groups of other humans- we often treat it as a recent aberration stemming from Adolf Hitler (the term "genocide" originated in the 1940's), but far from being unique to World War II, genocide (which continued after the war and is ongoing today) has occurred repeatedly since the dawn of humanity, starting, possibly, with the disappearance noted above of any other sorts of humans than us, the Denisovans going extinct about 80,000 years ago, the Neanderthals about 40,000.  Moving forward, there is recent archaeological evidence that the Indo-Europeans (from whose language group almost all current European languages derive) committed genocide in the course of their expansions starting around 4,000 BC.  In historical times, both the Athenian city-state and the Roman Empire achieved much of their stature through genocide.  The list of genocides after the Romans is long, covering all continents.

The quest for empire and hegemony- straight from the chimpanzee playbook- seems a prime factor in human genocide.  Since the advent of large civilizations around 3,000 BC, it's been one alpha male ambition after another, producing brutal, genocidal empires that are then toppled by the next empire-building alpha, which is toppled by the next.  It seems never to have occured to people that one might just live happily munching leaves, replacing glory and bloodlust with the simple pleasures of a satisfied existence, not unlike the lifestyle of another of our close ape relatives, gorillas (whose DNA differs from ours by 1.75%).  

In fact the idea of just existing is repulsive to many people; we call it "vegetative," as if we know what it's like to be a plant.  We think we are supposed to manage everything, maybe even dominate everything, as our choice of comic book "superheroes" shows.  

I see the tendency in myself, at least in my childhood taste in fictional heroes, such as those from the TV series Star Trek.  Was it the spectacle of James T. Kirk, captain of the starship Enterprise and cutting edge of the human race, landing on one planet after another, subduing its inhabitants, always winning?  Or First Officer Spock (half-human, half-alien, a hybrid alpha) who matched Kirk's ability to dominate the environment but went beyond it by also dominating his inner self?   Of course Kirk and Spock were depicted in each episode as gaining the moral high ground by adhering to Starfleet's "Prime Directive," that none of the ship's missions would interfere with indigenous cultures.  That's why it's called science fiction.

Returning to the real world, President Trump was lauded by his tribe as the mean alpha, jumping up and down, hooting and fulminating throughout his four years as the dominant male of America.  The other night, when people watched President Biden address the nation about his $1.9 trillion covid relief plan, there was widespread relief that Trump had been replaced by Hare, the gentle chimp who cares about children (of course Biden is a facade; the wheels of war turn more quietly now, but as relentlessly as under Trump).

Where does the chimp and human animus come from?  What happened in the ancient forests of Africa, to us and to chimps?  As William Blake phrased the question (though addressing a tiger):

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Scientists are not asking that question, but they are tangentially finding out interesting things about alpha males, in particular that there is a correlation between alpha males and a high level of the "flight or fight" drug serotonin, produced in a cluster of cells in the human brainstem called the raphe nuclei.  When the raphe nuclei enable a large dose of serotonin into the amygdala- a brain center that controls our emotional state- the amygdala directs us to become alphas and run the show.  Submissive mice have been transformed into alpha's after injections of serotonin, and alphas have been demoted when their serotonin is decreased.  

Interesting, but the question remains, why did the ancient raphe nuclei feel they needed to squirt so much serotonin into men's amygdalas?  We get a shitload, which is probably why we can't stand a sky full of pigeons.

There's not much evidence to explain what scared the raphe nuclei so much, so once again we must guess.  My guess is that we and our chimp cousins feared non-belonging.  The forest had rejected us in some fundamental way.  We did not fit.  Chimpanzees reacted to this ostracism by terrorizing each other into a structured existence.  People fought back by becoming smarter and more resourceful.  Some of the response was practical, bringing development of improved hunting implements and use of fire.  Some was psychological, as when ancient Egyptians built giant pyramids to inflate the standing of the ruling alphas and humble the slaves.  Some was suicidal, as when, in our time, we learned how to blow up and poison the planet, threatening the alphas along with everyone else.  Perhaps we secretly hate the Earth and resent Creation for sending us here.  

Genesis tells the story metaphorically.  After Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, the Earth was revealed as inhospitable, requiring people to build artificial environments lest they starve and freeze.  We're not the only creatures who have to do this: birds build nests; beavers build dams.  But humans need to reconstruct the whole forest, the whole world. 

There is a growing understanding that our quest to reform the Earth under the guidance of the alpha male (and an enabling Eve) has gone awry.  As the dream of a compatible Earth flounders, we turn to space- with its endless planets full of monsters to defeat, hellscapes to terraform and indigenous cultures to leave in pristine condition- hoping the effort out there will go better than it has here.

The question this essay asks is, what is the future of the alpha male who has guided us to this point?  We are acquiring biological tools that will enable us to recreate ourselves.  Through CRISPR technology we will be able to assemble our DNA into any combination of characteristics we want.  If we envision a new way, one that seeks co-existence rather than dominion, we could, if we choose, phase out the alpha male and seek a softer, more cooperative humanity.

The fly in the ointment is that the people in charge of our re-creation will likely be alpha males (and alpha females, since we fluctuate now between chimp and bonobo) who are motivated to make vast fortunes and dominate the humans around them.  The chimps will be in charge, driven by their terror of not being in charge.

What can we do about this?  Cut off the supply of serotonin?  It's unclear.  Stay tuned for Part II of this post: How to ensure that the new humanity is not as homicidal and generally berzerk as the current one.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Message

Listen to the raindrops:

Plink! Plink! Plink!

Saying something clear yet

Indistinct.

Watch the swirling foam going

Down the sink,

And you'll agree with me about

What I think.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Chuck E Cheese Adult Club

What if every conspiracy theory you ever heard, no matter how outlandish, were true?  Before you object, let me clarify that although I mean "every" literally, I don't mean "true" literally. You may have wanted to object, for instance, that Hillary Clinton does not run a pedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza restaurant.  If so, your point is well taken because obviously she does not, and the conspiracy theory is not literally true.

In its tone, however, the false story suggests a truth, that Clinton and other leaders are members of an organization that pays tribute to morality while enjoying, covertly, vast money-making prospects in a hyper-sexualized atmosphere induced by the well-documented aphrodisiacal effects of power.  Everyone is on the honor system, like in Vegas.  There is no pizza joint with a basement, but the reality does suggest a sort of Chuck E Cheese Adult Club.

If you consider their subtexts, every conspiracy theory is true in some sense.  The post-war charge that President Eisenhower was a communist, for instance, was silly, but the subtext was that our leaders put on a show of reviling putative "enemies" while secretly making deals with them.  Richard Nixon, after outing "reds" to jumpstart his career, had no trouble schmoozing with Mao and normalizing relations.  No one outside the Chuck E Cheese Adult Club can do that.

Conspiracy theories are central to what happened January 6th.  Many of the people who took over the nation's capital believe that wealthy powerbrokers around the world are conspiring to bring about "the Reset," a current term for installation of a world government.  This world government would not be a repeat of the toothless U.N, but would actually replace the governments of all current countries.  By the end of the process, countries will be gone and humanity will be controlled by a single, dictatorial power.

One of the unfounded assumptions in the January 6th version of this narrative is that attacking Congress and harming officials would act to forestall or impede an approaching world government.  That assumption is false because officials in the capital have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the Chuck E Cheese Adult Club.  Why would they want to give that up for a world government?  In this sense the protesters attacked their natural allies.

The world government conspiracy theory, however, contains elements of truth.  Current national governments are incapable of solving humanity's existential problems, such as the lack of new culture to replace cultures dismantled by industrialization and urbanization, or the questionable status of the current human model as new, improved models come online.  The more important and critical the challenge, the less capable governments are of addressing it.  At some point then, current governments will fall, and there probably will be attempts at a proto-world government.

Conspiracy theories can damage a movement by getting it off track from its objective.  The authors' of these theories often write in a double language, one literal and one figurative, hitting two audiences, the inner and the outer.  The literal is for the outer, sparking outrage, but no way to act on it.  The inner is figurative, gently hypnotizing people with their secret hopes.  The capital protesters clung fiercely to a figurative and fictional interpretation of the world government conspiracy, a highly detailed narrative, as in a novel, in which members of Congress plan to undermine the U.S. government and subsume it under a world power.  As noted, there is no reason to believe that narrative.  Current leaders in the U.S., aside from enjoying their perks, are primarily occupied with creating the illusion that they are working to solve the worst of our problems.  They are not really doing that, because they can't, but their minds are far from attempting to replace the government.  

The damage done by conspiracy theories is intentional.  By tricking the capital invaders into thinking the insurrection would address their grievances, the world government conspiracy theory worked to separate the volatile elements of a potential anti-world government movement from its more strategic and diplomatic elements, weakening in advance any such movement.  This suggests that the perpetrators of the Reset conspiracy theory may themselves be conspiring for a world government.  

The Biden administration, in order to benefit from the foil of evil provided by the insurrectionists, must play its part by reinforcing their delusions.  It did that with the presidential inauguration, spending vast funds to maintain it as an imperial pageant, now with dystopian visuals (e.g. the population cowering at home; the incoming leader isolated in front of the capital, surrounded by military and police forces) worthy of a science fiction book cover.  The dark extravaganza (like the failed second impeachment that followed) served to reinforce the delusion of the Anti-World Government Army that under Biden they will be relentlessly persecuted.  

World government may arrive with or without a conspiracy, but the fallout from our enhanced confusion on the subject does not bode well for an orderly transition.  For our own protection, as conspiracy theories arise we should look deeply into them, at both their falseness and their truth.  This will help us understand the world, not to mention the Chuck E Cheese Adult Club.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

The capital takeover is a distraction

[Note: My altered-ego Harry the Human and I battled covid together, with opposite results.  Our feverish nights inspired Harry to write (http://harrythehuman.harrythehumanpoliticalthoughtsfrombeyondthepale.com/) but, as some covid victims lose their sense of taste or smell, I lost my sense of polemics, long the mainstay of my psychology, and I could not write.  The takeover of the U.S. capital shook me out of that.  Welcome back, right and wrong!  D.L.]


Whether you view the takeover of the nation's capital by Trump supporters on January 6th as mob frenzy or an organized coup attempt, it is, in the bigger picture, a distraction.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a "distraction" as "a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else."

The distraction in this case was an attempt to thwart the will of the people and take down American democracy, a riveting subject for sure.

What is it distracting us from?  What are we not supposed to think about?  Below is a partial list of things we are not supposed to think about:

1. The imminent replacement of natural humans with artificial humans

2. America's post-4th Amendment surveillance state

3. The possible destruction of all beauty on Earth

4. The military-industrial complex

5. The non-covid related, non-political and non-racial malaise that afflicts humanity 

The most important thing we're not supposed to think about is government's inability to address any of the issues above or, probably, any other fundamental issues the reader can think of.  Trump is doing the incoming Biden administration a service by distracting Americans from this inability, as suggested by the tepid Democratic responses to Trump's illegalities over the last four years (this might change).

In addition to valuing Trump as a distraction, Democrats are no doubt wary of overly upsetting his supporters because, depending how you count them, they number about 70 million.  The question becomes, how did America develop a schism of this magnitude?  

Our two-party system is mostly to blame.  The need to distract people from government deficiency has been the basis of party strategy and national politics for decades and explains why, in 2009, the GOP elevated its far right faction, the Tea Party, to national status, though it represented only 30% of the electorate.  Tea Party positions (for instance, those against birth control and religious tolerance) were intensely disliked by the other 70% of voters, so all the Democrats had to do was run against the Tea Party.  They didn't have to solve real problems or have real ideas.  

The payoff to the Republican Party for throwing top-ticket races has been hegemony in rural areas.  It's been a sweet deal.  

In 2016 Trump picked up the GOP for a song, seducing party leaders who seemed to have already determined that the party was bankrupt.  Trump co-opted the Tea Party, using explicit bigotry to magnify the emotional impact of its doctrine and grow its ranks.  He put the pre-existing system on steroids, which led finally to the January 6th political breakdown.  Maybe that's what he wanted all along.

The current mess is not what the leaders of the two major parties wanted, as both parties are now seriously weakened.   The runaway schism happened because our political managers needed distraction so much, they were willing to risk this outcome.  

What we need now are new parties, geared towards this world, not distracted from it.  Any future parties will be as corrupt, now and then, as parties have ever been, but at least we can hope they will direct their attention to the world as it is actually unfolding, not cling, as the Republicans and Democrats have, to centuries old political expressions as holy writ, raging about what they mean and producing an archaic and nonsensical near civil-war in the process.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Puzzle solution

Scattered pieces drifting down

have by themselves their neighbors found.

Now place your ear upon the ground

and listen for the puzzle's sound.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

What happens now?

What will happen in post-Trump America under Joe Biden?  All we know for sure is that Biden's personality is starkly different from Donald Trump's. (Note: This essay does not consider Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris, because the focus is Biden's long national history).  We know enough to hope for certain outcomes.  Biden will not be the open troublemaker his opponent has been.  Trump created his base when he called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "drug dealers."  Biden will return us to the diplomatic past, when marginalized people were marginalized amidst showers of money and smiles, rather than the gratifying insults many crave.  

But aside from a return to courtesy, what will come of the grand objectives embraced by Biden's Democratic Party?  What will Biden do in the face of growing income inequality?  Racial tensions?   Increasingly open corruption in government?  Deterioration of foreign relations? 

We can project how President Biden will address these issues by reviewing how he and his party addressed them in the eight years of the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.

Economic policy, race relations and corruption were definitively addressed by the Obama administration in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2009 "Great Recession."  Democrats, including Biden and Obama (as well as both Clintons) enabled the collapse by backing financial rules that permitted expansion of debt which, when enhanced with deceptive sales practices, made bankers rich while undermining mortgage holders.  Biden supported paying off the bankers who caused and then profited from the collapse, instead of charging them with fraud and sending them to prison, while he supported sending thousands of black men to long prison terms for using crack.  Regarding economic and racial policy, Biden will likely be a passive Trump.
In foreign policy, over eight years the Obama administration authorized an estimated 540 drone strikes all over the Middle East and Africa that killed hundreds of civilians and laid much of the groundwork for current hatred of the US.  None of these strikes was in the service of a declared war.
There are examples of Democratic malfeasance in public education, a sector that is solidly in the Democratic camp.  The Obama administration promoted the Common Core Standards (part of the "Race to the Top" program), strong-arming school districts across the country into adopting them.  Nationwide, Common Core was a $15 billion coup for publishers, but it was not needed in many states, such as California.  The rush to throw out California's previous world-class standards and implement Common Core, at a cost to the state of $1.5 billion, destroyed the testing baseline and thus the validity of California's standardized testing for at least four years, and earned an additional fortune for publishing and testing companies that were paid to clean-up and cover-up the mess they had created.

The Democrats haven't had to worry about maintaining a virtuous image, however.  They are much better than the GOP at appearing squeaky clean, partly because their deceit tends to be less hindered by ideology than Republican deceit. 

Democrats receive their biggest assist in image control from the media.  Try finding a newspaper in California that reported the Common Core fiasco.   The same selective reporting has obtained in foreign policy.  On January 20, 2009, the day of Obama's first inaugural address, a U.S. drone strike hit an Afghan wedding party, killing the bride and groom and 40 family members, not a militant among them.  The story earned one paragraph on the bottom of page 12 in the Los Angeles Times, which never reported on it again.  Obama did not mention the strike in his speech or ever, and continued with his own strikes, killing more civilians than Bush had.  Each strike was duly reported somewhere in the depths of the L.A. Times, while on the front page Obama might be dedicating an elementary school.  

In addition to media support, Democrats have enjoyed a free ride from the opposition since 2009, when the GOP embraced the Tea Party, a minority faction representing its extreme right wing and comprising much of Trump's current base.  The Tea Party maintained that evil people live near oceans, that they are hedonists and that God hates them.  The Tea Party standard bearer was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, one of whose pronouncements was: "Contraception turns sex into mere pleasure."  The evil people who live near oceans (and some lakes) don't like ideas like that because people who live near oceans are hedonists who think pleasure is good.  The Democrats, who represent people who live near oceans, had merely to compare themselves to the Tea Party/GOP to appear both squeaky clean and hedonistic.
Let's not forget Trump himself, whose outsized egregious behaviour created a foil enabling the uninspiring Biden to slip into the presidency.  If Trump now evolves into a shadowy underworld figure who can be blamed for things, the benefit to Biden and his party will be ongoing.
So the question, "What happens after Trump?" can't be covered by saying, "President Biden happens after Trump," because President Biden will, in many ways, be a continuation of President Trump.  The main differences will be in direction of money and avoidance of inflammatory rhetoric.  The beneficiaries will include people who live near oceans, which I can't complain about since I live near an ocean, and it will be a relief to hear less inflammatory language, but what else will be different?  Will the Democratic party be up to the task of figuring out this moment in history?  Or will we need new parties to tackle things in new ways?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Defining "democracy"

Americans are taught in elementary school that the word "democracy" comes from ancient Greek and meant "rule by the people."  The Greeks are said to have "invented" democracy around the 6th Century B.C., the implication being that 300,000 years (give or take) of possible human self-management prior to the Greeks was negligible, that there was no democracy until there was the word "democracy."

One bit of information that is sometimes missing from school textbooks- but that students often pick up on their own- is that for the ancient Greeks, "the people" referred to wealthy, slave-owning men, as it did for their successors the Romans.  

Students learn that the age of the Greek and Roman empires (called the classical age, from Latin 
classisclass, as in, upper class) was followed by a thousand year period called the Dark Age, which happened because when the Roman empire collapsed, the peoples whose cultures it had destroyed had no cultures to fall back on (a similar potential exists in today's industrial world).  Textbooks suggest that Dark Age people didn't know anything; they just made things up and believed them no matter how stupid or crazy they were (imagine that!).  There was no democracy.  People were ruled by monarchs- kings and queens- who were members of the "aristocracy," from ancient Greek meaning "rule by the best people" (aristos, best + kratia, power).  There were also religious leaders such as the Pope, who represented rule by God.  Many monarchs tried to cover both ends by claiming that, in addition to being the best people, they had been appointed by God.  

In the 14th Century, towards the end of the Dark Age, the Black Plague killed an estimated 25 million people throughout Eurasia and North Africa- about a third of the population- leading to a major shift in human ambition.  Many people were dissatisfied with monarchy and/or religious rule after these failed to protect against the plague.  The institutions had also notably failed, over centuries, to turn human life into an interesting and gratifying experience.  This became important in the late 18th Century to a group called the Romantics, who imagined that life used to offer more than a desperate quest not to be a slave.  In contrast to the Enlightenment (see below), which valued rationality (from Latin reri, to countas in counting money), Romantics believed our ancient life was primarily emotional.  My vintage textbook describes Romanticism as "a reaction against the order and restraint of classicism," which is ironic because "Romanticism" derives from "Rome." 

The Dark Age concluded with an explosion of light and darkness called the Industrial Revolution, in which humanity decided that it could not survive without continually evolving machines.  People from every background, sensing that humans could fight back against obstinate nature, developed science (from Latin, 
scire: to know) into a well-funded, politically supported organized collection of data on every aspect of everything.  Thus armed, many people raced to invent a variety of machines that could do human work using steam and electricity.  

The machines increased human power so much that the human role started to change from doing work to tending machines that do work.  The owners of the machines- who were usually not members of the aristocracy and so could not rule- became rich, sometimes gaining near absolute power over the workers who tended the machines.  These owners started to feel like their abilities to move earth and dominate people qualified them to be among "the best," with attendant perks.  It was the machine owners who resurrected the ancient Greek idea of "democracy," which they found afforded them the quickest route to power.

There were people who did not want the machines and their owners to take over society and culture.  In the early 19th Century, a group of English textile workers called "Luddites" (after a mythical character named Ned Lud) believed that machines were in competition for their jobs, so in response they destroyed the machines.  Their movement lasted four years, until they were all either killed or imprisoned.  In current usage a "Luddite" is a person who opposes industrialization generally.  If you call someone a "Luddite," the implication is that this person is living on another planet. 

At the same time that industrialization was forcing a transition from serfdom to urban "wage slavery" or actual slavery, the philosophers of the age started thinking about classical Greece and Rome, about how the ancient aristocracies were able to lord it over everyone not just with the sword and the wage, but with intellectual output.  Suddenly everything about the classical world was cool: rectangular buildings surrounded by columns; state endorsed theater that probed the human soul; democracy, where rich men could run things on behalf of women, wage-slaves and slaves.  The PR department for this movement came up with the term "Renaissance," meaning "rebirth."  Thus Shakespeare, a Renaissance playwright, was patronized by the royal court even though his plays laid out the mental pathologies of kings and queens, an elevation and acceptance of theater not seen since classical times.  At least for playgoers, there was a rebirth.  For everyone else, life was the same slog.

Another PR coup was the term "Enlightenment," the idea that all the stupidity of the human race through the Dark Age had been replaced by a great understanding of things.  For instance, we finally understood the self-evident goodness of allowing people to make as much money as possible doing whatever it takes to make it.

Not many people talk any more about the Enlightenment or the Renaissance as ongoing processes, but we continue to refer to democracy and expect it to be practiced in America, with or without clarification of its meaning.  

The current debate about when and how to reopen public schools is a good example of democracy not in action (not that I'm complaining).  On March 16, 2020, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), my employer, closed its schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Since then, I and my colleagues have met with students via Zoom.  Like many teachers, I've found the online experience both surprisingly useful and severely limited.  Because online learning is promising yet deficient, politics should not touch it.  The political process requires that one side be right, the other wrong, and it will reshape any issue into that format, to the detriment of solutions.

In late summer, for instance, former President Trump and the nation's teachers unions engaged in an entirely political argument about how to reopen schools for fall semester.  Trump and then education secretary Betsy Devos announced in a news conference that, because research shows that in-person instruction is superior to online, it is imperative that all schools physically reopen in the fall, and that online instruction be minimized.

Teachers unions offered an opposing narrative: Teachers are first responders, directly at risk of contracting the coronavirus from students, who can also catch it from teachers.  Teachers need to be protected in the school setting, and online learning should be used until a safe working environment is assured.

There is strong evidence for each side in this controversy, in fact each side is right. That is the recipe for most of our useless political struggles, and the reason they tend to degenerate into noise.  

Should we expect the decisions about reopening schools to be democratic?  That seems unrealistic, if you equate democracy with the ability to vote, as Americans do.  People won't have an opportunity to vote for representatives based on their positions on school reopening.  Those decisions will be made by experts who are able to convince officials that one way of reopening is less likely to result in litigation than another.  

Most societal decisions are made this way, undemocratically, though it can be argued that such processes are democratic.  Socrates and Plato criticized democracy for serving special interests.  In this sense, Trump's special interest has been to please his base, which has been trained to hate teachers unions and public education.  The unions' special interest is to convince their rank and file that they are being protected.  

In the minds of most people, however, democracy requires that every adult affected by an issue have the ability to vote on that issue.  There will be little democracy regarding decisions on reopening schools.  There will be a clash of experts.

This might be the natural way things happen, but it would clarify our political conversations if we stopped describing official decision-making as "democratic" when it does not entail voting, especially as we face future foundational challenges in education and beyond.  We're about to reinvent human society from the inside out, incorporating Artificial Intelligence and bioengineering to create humankind 2.0.  Almost none of the decisions involved will be made by voting, so the process should not be termed democratic.  

Since many of our critical rulings are made by experts, we might label ourselves a technocracy- a society run by technocrats (i.e., 
members of a technically skilled elite, Webster), though there is a negative connotation to "technocrat," suggesting a bureaucratic coldness.  That could change with some decent technocrats.

All that matters in the end is whether the human race will be able to figure itself out before self-destructing.  We won't be able to unless we have meaningful language, in which words essential to our society, like "democracy," are clearly defined.

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