So who’s da boss?

June 3rd, 2014

gavel_2In a society of over 300 million people efficiency is needed, and representative democracy is how we choose to provide it in the development and administration of governmental public policy. Other societies are organized differently but all governmental systems, whether democracy, monarchy or autocracy are presumably instituted to provide some level of efficiency. Which organizational system works best is a matter still open for debate.

Representative democracy can work fairly well, but unfortunately tends to reinforce the illusion that elected officials are “the boss.” From the elected officials’ side that illusion is buttressed by “pomp and ceremony,” media attention, holding forth at meetings from a raised dais while wielding a gavel, knowing that decisions will have the force of law, and the ordinary distortions of human ego. From the public’s side, the illusion is reinforced by Rules of Order, secrecy, complicated legislation, limited access to the media, intimidation, fear of reprisal, and the humiliation of being forced to play “beat the clock” while providing three minutes of “public input.”

The roots of public service through elected office can be noble; those who are up to the challenge are put through a campaign obstacle course, criticism, fawning, lobbying, boring agendas, endless meetings and media scrutiny. It takes fortitude to step up and assume elected office. Some think success requires a thick skin, but this just builds a barrier behind which to hide; the illusion of being “the boss” grows stronger as the mentality of “us and them” takes hold.

The term “public servant” is sometimes used, and this is closer to the truth, for in our democracy citizens are “the boss.” Admittedly, many citizens have lost confidence in this, fallen prey to the opposite belief and retreated behind a barrier of justifications about being helpless. Their courage gone, cynicism and hopelessness growing, their stilled voices reinforce the grandiose illusions of the elected. “Hey,” we’re told, “you can’t fight City Hall.”

In ancient times kings served for just one year. Unfortunately for them, at the end of their term of office they were literally sacrificed in elaborate renewal ceremonies and replaced with a successor. Society has generally evolved, and the bloody sacrifice of leaders no longer happens, mostly. That said, the public seems to enjoy the periodic ritual humiliation of its leaders, and has substituted it for sacrifice…barely. At work beneath such enjoyed humiliation, however, is deeply buried public shame and anger in response to feelings of helplessness and cowardice, the result of getting lost in the illusion of who’s boss. The illusion is very powerful, and the corresponding psychological and institutional barriers erected to overcome it are equally so.

All systems naturally create structures that are self-reinforcing, and when issues of power are involved, systems can easily become oppressive. In autocracies, the violent overthrow of the government often results, ending in chaos and bloodshed. In democracies, however, elected officials serve at the will of the public; when officials forget this and think they are the boss they behave badly, disregard the public health and welfare, and resort to self-serving behavior.

Representative democracy is not a form of temporary royalty, despite illusions. A good society requires those elected to fully surrender to the fact the public does not work for them but that they work for the public and to act and think accordingly. Either that, or we “toss da’ bums out.”

The importance of being plastic

May 26th, 2014

graduate_05Benjamin Braddock, the part played by Dustin Hoffman in director Mike Nichol’s acclaimed film “The Graduate,” is taken aside by a dinner guest at the graduation party thrown for him by his parents and quietly told the secret to his future success. “Plastics,” the guest sagely offers the non-plussed Benjamin, “Plastics.” “Okay, thanks sir,” offers Benjamin, as clueless about the comment as he is about virtually everything else going on around him.

When “The Graduate” appeared in theaters in 1967, the economic benefit of a career in plastics was easy to understand. The fifties and sixties were the decades when plastic began to fill every niche in our burgeoning consumer society. From packaging and shopping bags, toys to automobiles, plastic had major social and financial impact, but it was not simply plastic per se that the graduate’s dinner guest was invoking, or a cinematic statement about artificiality. Rather, the reference and the film itself were pointing to the theme of “plasticity.”

Plasticity is a quality of being which allows and encourages change. While hewing to the lofty aspirations of his upper middle class parents, Benjamin slowly discovers that society, relationships, and life itself are plastic and subject to being bent, shaped, and molded. Adaptability to change is plasticity; the alternative is rigidity, obsolescence and death.

Brain science uses the term “plasticity” to refer to the brain’s ability to re-wire itself and adapt to new input or injury. Though some structures of the brain cannot be repaired if damaged, much functionality can be restored by harnessing and establishing new neural connections through training. Thus, for example, some stroke victims deprived of the ability to speak can learn to speak again.

As the movie begins, Ben is increasingly lonely, uncomfortable and alienated living a life dictated by others, but he slowly awakens to the realization that his life is his own and he can make choices. The plasticity of life is revealed to Ben through his experience of an affair with the married Mrs. Robinson and then her daughter Elaine. In short, he discovers life is workable. Though dazed as he recovers from the dark numbness of his confusion and having completely broken customary social conventions and expectations, by the end of the film he grins at his newfound awareness of feeling powerful and alive.

Society too, is exhibits plasticity, because society is human. Despite the seemingly solid appearance of rules, regulations, structures, systems and all that accompanies them, the true nature of society is plastic. Children and teenagers instinctively intuit this truth, pushing and pulling at conventional limits to determine the tolerance of social plasticity. They inevitably meet resistance; over time the urge towards experimentation declines and like most they settle into one or another “safe” routine. Like Benjamin, having lost sight of plasticity, some simply drift passively through life like floating deadwood pushed by wind and carried by currents.

We can easily see that yesterday’s safe routine is quickly bent and refashioned by social change. Jobs and careers once considered “life-long” dissolve; high-priced products become nearly worthless overnight. Social conventions shift and morph; cultures add new words and discard others. Even our bodies themselves are plastic, literally changing and aging before our eyes as time and gravity bend them towards their will.

“Plastics, Benjamin,” the Braddock’s dinner guest might have added, “is life itself.”

Babysitting the Babysitters

May 19th, 2014

scanSurveillance in the digital age is a universal reality at unprecedented scale, reaching into the intimate details of uncountable millions of individual lives. Now politely called “data-mining” to lessen it’s sense of violation, we used to call such activity espionage or spying and its “Peeping Tom” practitioners “spooks” in recognition of the creepiness of spying on others. An unseemly activity so ubiquitous by necessity employs the antiseptic language of business to give it an air of legitimacy; such is the instrumentality of the surveillance society in which we now live.

What once were espionage methods used by governments against “enemies” and by corporations against competition have been turned inwards instead. In the name of “national security,” tens of thousands of employees, and untold billions of dollars are being used to monitor citizens’ personal and presumably private lives. The product of this vast array of digital technology and spying activity is stored and accessed in data-centers running 24-hours a day, by both governmental and corporate entities spanning the globe. In a sense, each of us have been assigned an algorithmic assisted “baby-sitter/data-analyst” who watches over every detail of our lives looking for patterns. This begs the question: who is baby-sitting the baby-sitters?

Edward Snowden was one such baby-sitter. A former employee of a corporation under government contract specializing in providing “security” services, he actually had a relatively low-level of clearance and was one of thousands of such employees. Nonetheless he was able to retrieve highly-classified information about the U.S. government’s worldwide spying and surveillance programs. His revelations have rocked the world community as one detail after another has come to light. Our globe-spanning “security” system even bugged the private cell phone of our ally the Prime Minister of Germany, Angela Merkel.

In George Orwell’s fictional world of “1984” systemic, all-pervasive spying and surveillance supports Big Brother’s State of Oceania. Citizens are required to monitor and report on each other, children to spy on their parents. “Thought crime,” the mere idea of stepping outside approved parameters of behavior, is illegal. Those arrested are subjected to “reeducation” aimed at correcting their “defects” and then returned to society as compliant citizens. In our real world of 2014, your email never gets deleted and face-recognition software logs your public activity.

The government and the corporations will not tolerate more traitors or whistleblowers (depending upon one’s point of view) such as Edward Snowden. But like Orwell’s Oceania, our spying apparatus does not work unless everyone is under the threat of constant observation. Thus each baby-sitter has a baby-sitter, who now in turn has a baby-sitter, ad infinitum. In penal history, this was perfected in Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century design for the Panopticon, a prison designed so that each inmate believed he was being observed; mere suspicion of surveillance is enough to prevent infractions.

Supreme Court Justice Scalia has said privacy per se is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution for activity that extends beyond the boundary of one’s home, including online communication. His conservative definition does not bode well for those who object to having the habits and conduct of their lives subject to spying and surveillance, either for political or commercial purposes.

Big Brother is watching you…but who, it must be asked, is watching Big Brother?

My Daily Paper

May 9th, 2014

newspaperI like getting the newspaper every day. I like the ritual of looking for it in the darkend driveway, and plopping it down on the kitchen table. I read the the “funnies” last, holding off what for me is the most revealing part of the daily paper. That sense of anticipation doesn’t last long, though; I read the paper in about five minutes. You see, the daily newspaper is filled with nothing but ads of no interest and old news.

By the time it reaches my driveway my daily paper is out-of-date. When it comes to news, the electronic age has rendered the newspaper a quaint inky antique, hopelessly incapable of providing any up-to-the-minute news. I get my news from websites on my iPhone and iPad and even they are slow compared to Twitter. Of course, Twitter requires putting up with so much useless crap and self-promotion that I find it unusable. Call me old-fashioned, but my websites on my iPhone are quick enough for me.

In their time, newspapers were revolutionary and provided Joe Citizen with his window on the world. Of course, his window was colored by the editorial slant and intentions of the newspaper owner; freedom of the press has always belonged to the ones who’ve owned the presses. As a molder of public opinion, for a while the newspaper was as good as it got. They changed what people thought, mobilized masses and sent boys off to war. Multiple daily nickel-editions hit the streets with new and updated stories, newsboys hawking them on street corners literally yelling “Extra, extra! Read all about it!”

Electronic media changed all that. The rise of the telegraph and radio was the beginning of the end of the printed newspaper business, and one can draw a direct line between that early technology and the state of the daily printed newspaper today. The enlargement of human sensory awareness due to the internet is the logical extension of the dots-and-dashes which first conveyed information at nearly the speed of light and rendered previous notions of time and space irrelevant.

From a news perspective, the daily newspaper is nearly dead. In time nobody will pay for old news. It’s only hope remains in harnessing electronic information to a digitally connected piece of paper, and that will require yet another technological break-through. Of course, the demise of the daily paper not only means the loss of news, but more importantly the loss of journalism. Behind headlines is a deeper story, despite our current addiction to sound-bites, but journalism requires journalists, research, interviews, verifications, fact-checks, proofreaders, and legal review, and all that costs money. The loss of true journalism is the greatest of losses; an impoverished society is not one with no money, but one without truth.

Money has always been the engine of journalism, and newspaper money has reliably been provided by advertising. With the rise of new media, advertising money has shifted away from static forms like newspapers to dynamic online forms that track users’ viewing habits and customize the advertising accordingly. The “one-size-fits-all” model of advertising is nearly as obsolete as the notion of “news” being in a newspaper.

But I still plan to get my daily paper, and unless they all disappear I’ll still listen for the plop of the paper in the driveway. Besides, I need the newsprint to light the charcoal in my barbecue.

The All-American Game

April 17th, 2014


I grew up with All-American images of clean-cut baseball heroes — Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and the like. Despite later revelations of alcohol problems, their images as wholesome, talented sportsmen resonated across the 1950s and contributed to the backdrop of conformist cultural forms against which a great number of us rebelled in the following decade.

Watching baseball today, I wonder what message America’s youth will take with them into their young lives, and how it will emerge in later life. Today’s baseball players, for all the millions many are paid, appear anything but wholesome. In fact, if I were to describe in general terms the crew of man-boys taking the field I’d have to resort to references about scary-looking tattooed biker-dudes and unshaven mohawk-headed spitting experts. Such is the look of our all-American game.

In one sense today’s baseball reflects the reality of America. What once was an all-white, working-class sport has taken on the image of a global diversity of cultural forms, and the sports fan seems to be just fine with it. Take Giants player Pablo Sandoval, affectionately known as the “Panda.” Towards the end of this season, he was sporting a Mohawk tinged with blonde highlights, but the most interesting thing about him, aside from his bulk and athletic ability, was his fetishistic rituals. A native Venezuelan, Panda’s obsession with ritual included using the small end of the bat to draw a six-pointed star with a dot in the center into the dirt next to home plate upon coming to bat. At one game I attended, as he approached the dugout he removed his cap and spoke into it, drawing figures with his index finger.

At another point in the spectrum is pitcher Brian Wilson. Wilson, a former Giant but now a Dodger, sports a black-dyed full beard tied at the bottom with a blue “stretchy” and shaved head Mohawk. I haven’t seen any ritualistic practices, just the straight-out intimidation of a “closer.” Between these two extremes is a wide range of colors, languages, ages, styles and talents. Teams have translators on staff who accompany the pitching coach to the mound for pep-talks in Korean, Japanese, and Spanish.

Truth is, baseball’s common language is spit. Nowhere else in American life does spitting seem to play such an important and visible role. Time was, male spit fueled an industry of spittoon makers, and spittoons were a regular feature in bars and joints patronized by men. On the ball field, in the dugout, on the mound, behind the plate; the cascade of spit stretches all nine innings.

The end of the spittoon arrived when women were allowed in bars, and I expect that if women sat as coaches in the dugout or stood behind the plate as umpires, the great ballpark spitting contest would quickly come to an end.

With its team names, chants, cheers, colors and symbols, baseball is inherently tribal. Fans and players come together in celebratory mock warfare, basking in both the unity of play and the energetic uncertainty of outcomes. This tribal character mirrors an emerging global tribalism, an interconnectedness of mass gatherings, social media and communications technology. What we used to think of as the all-American sport now portrays the international, multicultural, web-based reality of the 21st century.

“Purei Boru! Jueguen Bola! Nol-i Gong! Play ball!”