Saturday, April 25, 2015


Hillary Clinton is being touted, by both sides, as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee for president in 2016, and by the Democrats as the “inevitable” winner. She's already at the picking-out-drapes stage (maybe to replace the ones she and Bill took with them when they left the White House back in 2001). Well... she was no less inevitable in 2008, and we all know what happened: “Black” (even if not strictly African-American in the socio-economic/cultural sense) trumped “female”. But unless the Republicans figure out some way to nominate a one-eyed transgendered Hmong albino, it would seem that Hillary has the aggrieved minority vote sewn up.

And maybe she is inevitable. Maybe, on some inscrutable cosmic/karmic level, she is not only the most obvious candidate, but is the president we deserve at this late date – a kind of harbinger of the ultimate apocalypse of our nation, its economy, its foreign policy, and its system of government. It is worth noting that many of the worst leaders of empires were the ones who ascended to power late in the game, when the empire was already starting to crumble, as if to show people the result of their many and varied follies, and hint that things were only going to get worse. Or, the “values” that contributed to the founding, expansion, and prospering of the empire were no longer held, or even comprehended, by the people. That's also a good description of the way things are for us in these times. We have gotten to the point where a politician is just as likely to win an election if they stand for despair as if they stand for optimism – and yet, in this, they may at least be more accurate representatives of “the people”, who have become ever more pessimistic over the years (I trace it, like so much else, to the 60s).

And all of this harks back to that age-old question, do men make history or does history make men? That is, are historical events primarily the result of great (in the most general sense, i.e. including both “good” and “bad”) leaders – unique individuals who make an indelible mark on the march of mankind? Or are even the most prominent of them merely actors, caught up in historical trends and forces which they had very little to do with? Are they, in other words, forced into power, and forced to do what they do? It's obviously easier to focus on individuals than on trends, cycles, eras, etc., about which one can argue endlessly. (Just try having a discussion on when “The Sixties” began and ended – I don't mean calendar-wise but cultural-revolution-wise.) It's much easier to blame it all on President X, King Y, Dictator Z. But then we have to reflect that even those people all came from somewhere – they didn't just appear one day, riding a white charger. They emerged from a complex matrix of social, economic, racial, religious, etc. factors. Familiar example: The world would have been a vastly different place if not for Adolf Hitler – right? And yet Hitler and his movement were products of their time; they came so perilously close to failing, and yet wound up wildly successful – at least for a season. So what unseen forces were at work that contributed to their success, and then to their failure? If Hitler had succumbed to mustard gas during World War I, would some other “Hitler” have appeared? One can point to any number of people, groups, organizations, etc. in the Twentieth Century that were on top of the world for a while, then suffered a mighty fall. Was it all of their own doing – that is, the successes and failures? Might not the same forces have resulted in similar people and groups rising to the top then crashing down again? If it had not been for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, would Russian royalty really have remained on the throne for decades to come? And closer to home, was the Civil War inevitable, i.e. would it have happened sooner or later, with or without Lincoln or even slavery? And the question for our time, of course – asked every day in the media – is, has the American Experiment come to an end, and is our decline as an empire under way, and our fall inevitable? And by “empire” I don't just mean our economic/political/military empire, which remains formidable (if only by default), but our ideational empire – that set of ideas, ideals, notions, words, and concepts – along with the iconographic trappings – that has defined us from the beginning, and is still alleged to by the delusional among us. It may be that our ideational empire has already ended, and that what is left is a very large, still powerful, but moribund (and dangerous) shell.

And when we're speaking of these things, we have to distinguish between direct and indirect causality, the latter being traceable, with a certain amount of effort, over the course of years, decades, and even centuries. We claim, for example – as part of our national mythology – that the attack on Pearl Harbor “caused” the war in the Pacific. But tensions had been building up for years, with both sides arming themselves (and each one aware of the efforts of the other); both we and Japan wanted to own the Pacific, so something had to give. So we may identify the “spark” (Pearl Harbor, Fort Sumter, Concord Bridge, etc.), but a spark is not a cause, except in the most superficial and simplistic way. (Does anyone think that the “War on Terror” began on 9/11? We need to talk.) But then how far back do you want to trace causality, of however slender a thread? I can draw a fairly bright line between the Reformation and the American Revolution, for example – but a lot had to happen in between, and what if it hadn't happened? Or was it “inevitable”? We like to think that “the purposes of men” are the primary driver of history, but what if history is cyclical in the same way as natural phenomena? It wouldn't be far-fetched, since we are a part of nature, both as individuals and as groups – and as a species. Perhaps our history is as cyclic and predictable, in a way, as the migration of birds or the ebb and flow of ice sheets, and that we just, in our egotistical way, fancy that we have something to do with it.

These are all imponderables, of course, but it makes one wonder about the whole inevitability concept. If we are all tossed about by waves like victims of a shipwreck, then, ultimately, the question becomes: Why fight it? Why worry? Why do anything? If both good and bad – both weal and woe -- are, in some way, inevitable, then why not adopt an existential attitude, tend to one's own garden, sit under one's own vine and fig tree, and figure that what will happen will happen? (This has, in fact, been the attitude of most people in most societies down through history, and for good reason. Does the fact that it's not the “American” attitude about things make us superior, or just delusional?)

The Middle Ages were a time of great faith and theological scholarship that has never been surpassed – and yet the concept of “fate” was uppermost in many people's minds. (Study the words in “Carmina Burana” for a sample.) Fate was an unseen force that disposed of men's struggles, exertions, and efforts... that canceled out much of what people were doing of their own free will... and that seemed to provide a last laugh to life – the life of virtue as well as the life of vice. It was the great equalizer, and its whimsies were as mysterious as what determines the roll of dice or the flip of a coin. Its favored image was a wheel, which turns inexorably, raising some up and crushing others to dust, for no good reason. And we have no choice about whether to be on the wheel or not – we're on it from birth to death. And it's not as if it favors some and arbitrarily persecutes others; it's an instrument not of cosmic justice but of cosmic indifference like “blind nature”, the only difference being that if nature is blind, its creatures are blind as well, therefore unknowing -- whereas we are painfully aware of the turns of fate, and cry out in indignation against them.

I've always been amazed that this mind-set managed to coexist so intimately with faith – with the notion of good works and the virtues being of merit and deserving of reward. Perhaps it's because so much back then really did seem to be random and arbitrary, despite our best efforts – things like plagues, natural disasters, and crop failures, but also things like war, which in its own way seemed as random and inevitable as the others. And yet, are things any more orderly and explainable now than they were then? Try Ebola, ISIS, stock market crashes, pollution... make your own list. Do we have any less reason to be fatalistic now than our ancestors had? And in fact, a great proportion of the world's populace, when you get right down to it, is fatalistic; they don't think that individual effort is of much use because the people in power, or “the system”, or just plain bad luck, or fate, or karma, or bad deeds in a prior life, or whatever, are more important in determining outcomes than are individual conscious choices.

Check out the lyrics in so many country-western songs; check out the “locus of control” factor, i.e. who, or what, the person believes is “in charge” of their life, of their fate. (Hint: It ain't them.) Check out identity politics and “victimology”, possibly the most powerful political forces of our time. It's as if individuals are helpless and lack free will, but the government is all-powerful and has free will, of a kind. (Well, don't we talk about the government as if it's a person – a conscious entity? I think that, on some level, we believe that – the way Mitt Romney believes that corporations are people.) (Someone should tell him that Soylent Green is people, but corporations aren't.)

Now, this is not to say that the whims and fears of the general populace have any automatic truth value; that would be democracy carried to an extreme. They may all be wrong, and the few remaining people who believe in rugged individualism, hard work, etc. -- the “Horatio Alger” mind-set – may be right. And yet the government in our time seems determined to reward apathy, sloth, helplessness, and despair because they are honorable virtues possessed by society's victims and rejects... and to punish ambition, achievement, and particularly wealth, because those are all signs of “unfairness” at the very least, not to mention selfishness and unwillingness to “share”. The notion that there is only one “pie”, and that it's of a fixed size, and that the only people who have the moral standing to divide it up fairly are political leaders – this is the modern-day equivalent of fate and despair. (So I guess it's OK to elect an “inevitable” candidate to run an economy based on fatalism... right?)

Another question is, if we are merely buffeted about by unseen forces, where and how do those forces originate? I have always found karma to be a very useful (if not strictly Christian) concept – and yet does it not, ultimately, refer back to prior actions of people, as individuals or groups? The people of the Middle Ages did not, as far as I know, assign responsibility for “fate” to God; free will was a strong teaching of the Church (although there was lively debate about predestination, which continues to this day in theological circles). But if fate was not from God, who or where was it from? Or was it from nowhere – i.e. simply a blind process intrinsic to the created order? But that order was created by God, after all, so why did He have to build fate into the structure? Or was fate, in some way, a punishment – a product of human sin and failure – kind of like karma but with no causal significance? We can ask these questions every day when we witness events that appear random – that appear to confirm the common idea that “when your number's up your number's up”. Random accidents, shootings, people catching fatal illnesses from trivial causes – all those things which make us doubt that there is intrinsic order in the Universe as opposed to chaos.

A theologian might say that “when bad things happen to good people” it's not their fault, but it's not blind fate, either – it's the symptom of a fallen world, i.e. the created order scarred by sin. Yes, the innocent do suffer, but that's because they live in a world of sin and of sinners, and the just and unjust are not walled off from each other (because, for one thing, there is always hope that the unjust will be converted through the witness of the just). And the innocent will see salvation, whether they are taken early or late. But to believe in this requires that we accept that God's ways are not our ways – that human concepts of “justice” are a paltry thing by comparison to divine justice. (This is opposed to the more common idea that God is one notch above the Supreme Court.)

But this is about faith, and I started out by talking about history, and about various possible attitudes toward history and toward human action in the present. I also mentioned free will, and this is an issue that is hotly debated in our time. Clearly, there is a connection between history and free will, since without free will we have to accept that we really are only victims of unseen forces – including our own drives and instincts. Which means, in turn, that while history may be a long and complex sequence of one “inevitable” thing after another, the human actors in the drama are, basically, helpless – slaves to animal drives and instincts, as well as whatever neurological mutations went into the making of the human species as opposed to all other life forms. Which means that no one is to blame – no individuals, no groups. And as I've pointed out before, it's ironic that the very people who are least likely to believe in free will are also the ones most likely to play the “blame game” when it comes to history or current events. Belief in free will tends to go along with religious belief, and religious believers tend to be on the other side of the political divide from the identity politics/victimology crowd. Which makes perfect sense, since if salvation is an individual thing, then so is faith and the other virtues, which means that individual action is a product of free will and group action is a composite of individual action, but not so as to disguise or cancel out individual responsibility.

Take the law. It's traditionally based on the notion that people have choices, and that they make those choices, for good or ill, and that they know what they are doing, and know right from wrong. Hence it is considered appropriate to punish bad behavior, and (in more recent times) to try to correct, or reform, individuals in order to insure that they won't offend again. But in a world without free will, punishment makes no sense, any more than it would make sense to “punish” a wolf for killing sheep. (You can kill the wolf, but that doesn't require a change in attitude on his part.) And as far as “correction” goes, or “reform”, if there is no free will, then what is being corrected, or reformed? The most one could do would be to perform some sort of surgical or neurological intervention – and this is, in fact, what is done in some cases (less often now than in former times). In other words, if you are going by a strictly mechanistic model, then you have to change the mechanism; there is no higher order (spiritual) thing available to be changed.

I should note at this point that the premise of free will when it comes to crime and punishment has been eroded quite a bit over the past few decades. We have had the “insanity defense” for quite a while, and that is premised on the idea that some people – the “insane” -- do not, in fact, have functioning free will and therefore cannot be held responsible for their actions. But this mode of thinking has expanded like The Blob, and we are now presented with arguments that mental retardation (oop, I mean “being mentally challenged”), or childhood trauma, or racial discrimination, or drug or alcohol abuse, etc. are also arguments against punishment, because they also rob people of their free will. The trend is clearly in the direction of, ultimately, holding no one accountable for their actions – which, I suppose, means that all of our prisons will eventually have to be turned into mental hospitals (they way they, in fact, were in the Soviet Union, which specialized in treating the politically incorrect as insane). Much of Europe has already gotten to that point, judging by news reports; they have no way of dealing with serious crime other than to declare the perpetrator mentally unstable – and even that diagnosis is subject to revision, meaning that the person could be set free at any time, regardless of the gravity of the offense.

In spite of all this, it seems to me that free will is the key – and I don't accept that the human race once had free will, but no longer does. Are there any human traits that have appeared or disappeared since ancient times? I see no evidence of that, and plenty of evidence (through ancient writings, legends, myths, etc.) to the contrary. Human nature is a “historical” phenomenon in that, as far as we know, it has never changed since humans became humans. (Of course, we only know about human nature since “history” started; anything prior to that is sheer guesswork, despite the claims of archaeologists and anthropologists.)

The problem with free will for the strict materialist is this: Where does it reside? Because if it's strictly organic – i.e. confined to biochemical and neurological processes – then it should also be strictly causal, i.e. every action should be completely caused by a prior action or event. (Even randomness does not constitute a different type of causality, but just introduces a certain “noise” level, or entropy, into the causal process.) But free will has to, it seems to me, operate outside of strictly organic, causal chains of events, or it's not truly free, but an illusion. (One might argue – as I did at one point in graduate school – that it's the illusion of free will that enables us to make conscious choices. But it could also be argued that the illusion of free will is no more than an epiphenomenon, and if so why did it evolve, i.e. what value does it have to the organism if it doesn't really “do” anything?)

So I opt for free will – because, for one thing, it makes theology make sense. Otherwise, we're all just so many ants in a cosmic ant farm, and “what's the use?” (which is, of course, precisely the existentialist point of view – and should be the liberal point of view, if they were intellectually honest). But does opting for free will solve the “inevitability” problem? I.e., does it necessitate a definitive answer to the “men make history” vs. “history makes men” question? If we say that men make history, then free will is obviously front and center, and is operating at all times, even among people who are no more than followers (which is, after all, the majority at all times and in all places, even the “rugged American frontier”). If we say that history makes men, are we then relegating free will to other areas of human endeavor – ones that may be important in the short run (within the life span of an individual) but have no historical significance? To put it another way, which is more likely to be an illusion – that “great men” drive history or that history yields up the occasional “great man”, the way earthquakes yield up mountains? For one thing, the “great man” model is more superficial than the cyclic/unseen forces model. It is more satisfying to the people, and makes for better reading. But I consider those causes for suspicion. Add to which, most if not all “great men” turn out, on closer study, to be not all that great – perhaps not outright frauds or charlatans, but more complex and fallible than their iconographers would like to admit. They are, in many ways, just as much products of their time... just as passive, reactive, and conditional... as any of their lowly followers. And of course, when they fall, which they frequently do, it's not always because they were overcome by another great man; they may have simply been overcome by diminished resources, abandonment by their followers, or some historic trend that rendered them obsolete. As much as we like to see two giants fighting it out on the movie or TV screen, it seldom happens that way in real life. Many of the greats end their lives with a whimper, or in the most bland and ordinary way. (And as to the ones who go out with a bang, our estimation of them seems to soar based on that fact alone rather than any real achievements.)

But again, if it's less about great men than about trends, and unseen forces, and cycles, where do those originate? I'm going to propose that they originate in the collective – in a certain mass of people having the same idea at the same time, for whatever reason, and maybe not even consciously. That, and fluctuating energy levels (again, as a sum of individual motives and actions). Nature is full of examples of species that, for all intents and purposes, operate exclusively as a collective, rather than as individuals; an individual, if separated from the group (ant hill, flock, hive, herd, etc.) is disoriented and helpless, and his chances of survival nil. One can say that, for these species, the collective is the organism, and the “individuals” more like cells. Now, when it comes to the human race, we do in fact operate that way some of the time, and strictly as individuals some of the time, and anywhere in between some of the time. So we are, in that sense, hybrid beings – not only with regard to body and soul, but with regard to basis for action. The thing is, when we act as individuals we usually “know” what we're doing – we're conscious of our motives and our choices, and hopefully of the likely consequences thereof. But as we form ourselves into groups, something else starts to take over – and the larger the group, the more it takes over, and the more our conscious choice-making is subordinated to the “will” of the group, or the collective. So does this mean there is such a thing as “group consciousness”? I would rather call it “group unconsciousness” -- acting without really knowing why and without conscious goals. In degenerate form this can be equated to “mob psychology”, lynch mobs, mass hysteria, panic – all very familiar phenomena, that we take for granted without seriously asking how they can possibly happen to “homo sapiens”. On the plus side, if you will, would be things like fads and enthusiasms, cultural trends, political movements, religious movements, mass gatherings of various sorts, migrations, “rushes”, and so on – again, all very familiar and all taken for granted without anyone asking how it lines up with individual choice and free will.

Now, someone might say, for any of these things I just mentioned – whether good or bad – there is always a leader... a mastermind... someone manipulating things behind the scenes. Someone has to organize, or at least start, mass movements; someone has to touch a match to the fuse. Well, maybe, in some cases – or at least most. But it's amazing how soon the mob, or group, acquires “a mind of its own”, and then one wonders, again, whether what happened was, in some way, inevitable. We always assume that “human nature” resides in the individual, because that way we can stick with our comfy materialistic model – it's all in the brain, all neurological, and that, in turn, is determined by our DNA, which evolved over the eons in a purely random fashion, etc. etc. If we start to think that human nature may at least partly reside in the group – the collective – then this strictly mechanistic model has to be expanded to include some sort of collective consciousness, or some lightning-fast sending and receiving mechanism by which each individual communicates with each other individual in a way that seems to defy simple causality – the way a huge flock of birds will all change direction at the same time (and the ones who were in the lead before are suddenly bringing up the rear). If you look at people in large groups, and how they behave, is it always obvious that someone is in charge, even if we can't discern who it is? More often it seems that the group itself is in charge... or that no one is. And again, this is not to say that the right sort of leader (Lenin, for example) can't jump up on the nearest soap box and start directing things; this does happen. But are they not also just riding the wave? If all of that swirling energy were to dissipate, where would their fervent arguments go? And how often a once-monolithic group starts to fragment, even when the “great man” is still ostensibly in charge.

But consider that word “director” for a moment. Think of a good orchestra – they could keep playing for quite a while if the director were to walk off stage, but he would be helpless and look foolish with no orchestra in front of him. So there is an interdependency there, and so it is with leaders of any sort. Their followers put them in place, and they maintain their position only with the consent of their followers. One might say, this is only because no one individual dares speak up; they are responding to “group pressure”. But again, this is to assume that the individual is the only genuine, valid actor, and I'm not sure we can just accept that assumption without question; there is too much evidence to the contrary.

To sum up (if not to “resolve” this very complex issue), we may have to admit that free will functions more clearly, and reliably, in some situations than in others. The situations where it seems most likely to be compromised are when the group (of whatever size) is the active entity. That, in turn, starts to resemble other natural, collective phenomena – mainly based on life forms, but there are cyclic phenomena that are not organically-based as well, as we know from geology, astronomy, etc. As phenomena go higher up the “collective” scale, the effective involvement of individual consciousness diminishes until it disappears, for all intents and purposes. This is the point at which we start to feel passive and helpless – victims of unseen forces, even though those forces reside in, and operate through, our own species. And because of their cyclic quality, we see the “same” things happening again and again, yet keenly feel our helplessness at doing anything about them. Finally, we develop an attitude of “inevitably”, which is a variety of despair. Our response then is to become “existential” and retreat to our very limited span of control, leaving the rest of the world to its own devices. This, of course, is what those who are in charge – or who think they are – want. Even if they are subject to the same conditions as the rest of us, they see a profit thereby because, on the wheel of fate, they have a firm grip on the part that is rising, and they prefer to not contemplate the point at which the fall will commence.

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