No, we can’t all get along

Rodney King, who was pulled from his car and beaten

Put people together and you’re sure to find trouble. Families, husbands and wives, siblings, cousins, politicians; no matter how you find them, people always have trouble getting along. Human society reflects just how terribly difficult it is; when large groups of people organize, it often leads to conflict and warfare with other large groups of people.

One history of the world, despite aspirations otherwise, is a history of human conflict. These conflicts range across every social strata, race, political persuasion, and geographical location. It should be added that such conflict is mostly promulgated and acted upon by men. This is not to say that women do not participate in matters of conflict; there are plenty of women who like to fight, but we must concede that the world’s history of violent conflict is male history.

It is for this reason–people can’t just get along–that America is a nation of laws and not simply customs. And not only is America a nation of laws, but a nation of written laws, beginning with a written Constitution and Bill of Rights. Unlike Britain, which has no written constitution, the United States is an experiment in democracy dependent upon the written word. In this sense, America has always been and continues to be rooted in “textualism,” enacting and imposing legislation governing behavior in the form of written laws using common language.

While far from perfect, and subject to interpretation about intent and meaning, using “rule-of-law” as the social framework for relating to each other is our solution to containing and resolving conflict. To be sure, the rule-of-law is no panacea; to the contrary, laws do not prevent all conflict and serve mostly to ascertain and assign responsibility. Thus conflict continues, it’s causes often unaddressed in favor of close attention to its effects.

The nature of human conflict is so diverse and ever-changing, the laws written to keep up with it are endless. Every cultural change, from the introduction of new technologies to trends in art and music, cultivates conflict. Those who imagine a world without conflict are doomed to disappointment; culture and society are in a state of continuous, dynamic flux. So too are the laws we invent to respond to cultural change.

Arguing over laws is our substitute for interpersonal conflict–sometimes violent conflict–with each other. In principle, laws are the great equalizer, law enforcement applied uniformly across social classes. In practice, unfortunately, this is often not the case. Differential power relationships deeply influence the ways in which laws are written and applied.

Applying the law is itself a matter of conflict, as we now witness the effects of polarized politics; the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court, rewriting of government regulations, and unlimited campaign contributions are all examples of lawful conflict. Inevitably, the laws written to manage and adjudicate human conflict are themselves manipulated and become a theatre of conflict.

Though we can imagine getting along, and when inclined are actually capable of doing so, our tendencies towards violence, greed and aggression prompt laws of all sort: religious, secular, criminal, civil, trade, commerce, marital and so forth. Thus, the unfortunate answer to the plaintive question posed by Rodney King (pictured above), the black motorist in Los Angeles severely beaten by police officers in 1991 — “Can we all get along?” — regrettably, remains “no.”

Screen time — then and now

Much is being made at present about the effects of screen time, particularly on children. Screen time, of course, refers to the time spent engaged with one’s smart phone, iPad or laptop, which by all accounts has skyrocketed to epidemic proportions. Issues of attention deficits and addictive behavior have arisen, not to mention the effects of the content delivered on such devices. Ironically these very same concerns were expressed while I was growing up in the 1950s and televisions were found in most every living room in America.

Early television programming was graphically and technologically unsophisticated; much of it was modeled on theatrical principles and even included programs with curtained stages where performers would speak to the “audience.” The Ed Sullivan Show, which featured a variety of performers, is one such example, and the Jack Benny Program began and ended on a curtained stage, as well. Content was king; the technology itself was a simple, one-way information and entertainment delivery system much like its predecessor, radio.

I’d come home after school and plunk myself down in front of the TV to watch such fare as Sky King or The Three Stooges, televised Hollywood one-reel movie shorts from the 30s and 40s. There was some original kids programming, but it too was pretty mild. For younger kids, Howdy Doody–the marionette puppet–and a wide-ranging cast of stereotypical characters like Chief Thunderthud and Mr. Bluster, served as appropriate children’s fare, alongside the Mickey Mouse Club. Captain Kangaroo served as the period’s softer, more “educational” character. “Watching stupid TV again, I see,” my father would say as he arrived home from a day’s work. Yet, no blood was shown; the televised violence of the 1950s was antiseptic. That content has completely changed, and current television is a blood-fest of bullets, gore, dismemberment, zombies, torture and deadly explosions.

Screen time today includes something entirely different. Content is delivered–movies, television series, pod-casts and the like; however, the other elements of modern technology have no precedent, namely it’s virtually instantaneous feedback mechanism. Digital wireless technology has enabled an extendable, interconnected social network, a globalized feedback loop that can be customized by each individual. Customization allows creation of “tribal” networks, false identities, fake news, affinity groups, cyber-bullying, security hacks, “phishing”, credit scams, identity theft, black markets for drugs and weapons, and 24/7 encrypted messaging. Much of this hides behind a curtain of technology ignorance on the part of most screen-users, whose private lives are unwittingly exploited.

I grew up part of America’s TV Generation–looking back–a time of innocence. Those growing up today are immersed within a complex and far from innocent media environment which shows signs of ever more sophisticated manipulation. The readiness with which new technologies are embraced insures that those who prey on others will suffer no shortage of unwitting victims. The lure of the screen is too powerful; resistance is futile.

Media critic Marshall McLuhan foresaw all this coming; presciently, in his 1972 book “Understanding Media” he wrote of re-tribalization engendered by electronic media and subsequent fragmentation of society. We are just now witnessing the fulfillment of his prophesy as traditional standards of modernity are discarded in favor of long-standing resentments, ethnic conflicts, gender dynamics and political allegiances. Ironically, the technology that with one hand unifies the world simultaneously tears it asunder with the other.

A return to the Byzantine

When the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta found themselves allied against the massive armies of the Persian king Darius and his son Xerxes (Circa 460 BC), they established a narrative about the “Barbarian” people threatening Greek society. Later, the very same narrative was adopted by the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine the Great, who having converted to Christianity in 313 AD, consolidated his authority by invoking the threat of barbarian violence.

In 1095 AD, Catholic Church sponsored Crusades against the “barbaric” Muslim world came to demonstrate reliance upon Christian barbarism as state strategy, and the conflict between the Christian West and Islamic East became embedded within a cultural narrative still current in the minds of some today.

Propaganda being what it is, the use of the term “barbarian” remains valuable. Diminishing the humanity of others is a necessary component of legitimizing their elimination, converting acts of murder and persecution into righteousness. This pattern is so old as to make one wonder if civilization has accomplished anything at all.

There are those who still characterize world events as a clash of civilizations, West vs. East, Christianity vs. Islam, Democracy vs. Dictatorship, etc. For some people this feels true, and when the world was large and territorial conquest was a major focus of attention it even contained some legitimacy. As a species and a planet, however, we are well past the point when such an outlook has longterm value.

The climate crisis facing our planet renders political and territorial considerations moot; global warming knows no borders nor respects national policy. The planet is a living system operating through complex, non-linear relationships; effects build upon others, feedback loops alter assumptions, patterns change; equilibrium on human terms is non-existent. Human civilization is affecting the planetary systems, and indications are that changes ahead might result in what’s being called “the 6th extinction.”

Ironically, the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, inheritor of Constantine’s mighty Roman empire, is now one of the world’s leading spokespersons warning against the dangers of climate change, income inequality and the manipulative use of narratives justifying state violence.

Meanwhile, the new White House administration has ramped up its propaganda about barbaric Islamic terrorism. It has found itself aligned with, of all nations, Russia, where Vladimir Putin is pursuing an ideological war against “degenerates” and Islamic societies at Russia’s borders. The Russian Orthodox Church, now re-legitimized in the former Soviet Union, has helped to re-establish “traditionalist” cultural norms. Accordingly, the Trump/Putin bromance is best understood through attention to cultural events that happened almost two-thousand years ago.

America is not a Christian nation, but politically the Republican Party depends greatly upon the conservative Christian and Evangelical Christian communities for its success. This is an advantage the Democratic Party does not enjoy, and places it in a difficult position. It was recently reported that Steve Bannon, Special Advisor to the President, has deepened contacts within the traditionalist Catholic Church, cultivating Vatican bishops opposed to Pope Francis and his left-leaning policies. Bannon has openly defended his conviction that the West is engaged in an ideological war with Islamic culture, and he explicitly advocates actions and policies in line with such views. And now Steve Bannon has the ready ear of America’s President.

Make no mistake about it; an American ban on Muslim immigrants combined with constant White House propaganda about the barbaric catastrophe of imminent Islamic terror is nothing short of Byzantine.

Must history repeat itself?

I’m old enough to have been right in the middle of the cultural, political and social turmoil of the nineteen sixties, and amidst the world’s current upheavals I sometimes feel as if history is repeating itself.

It’s not difficult to make comparisons about then and now; racial and social unrest, violence of police authority and use of power, increased riots and demonstrations; uncertain war in foreign lands dragging on for years, sapping resources and killing thousands; gender-related controversy about rights and citizenship; widespread drug use and pervasive crime associated with illegal drugs; growing poverty, homelessness, and inadequate programs to insure domestic tranquility; increased awareness of the importance of environmental issues; and finally, political polarization and the ascendancy of leaders unfit to hold high political office. The comparisons are apt.

Yet, though many points of favorable comparison can be made, there are also significant differences. The nature of technology and communication has completely changed with web-related and digital services now widely available to ordinary citizens; women and members of the LGBTQ community generally enjoy more favorable legal status; the global population has effectively doubled from 3.5 to nearly 7 billion people, accompanied by heightened globalized trade and growing corporate power; and finally, climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions which is radically altering global weather patterns and quickly raising land and ocean temperatures.

Notably, it’s important to remember that when it comes to drawing parallels, as historian Jacques Barzun observes, “likeness is not sameness.” Times and events can seem eerily familiar, but each period of history he notes “wears its own dress and raises images peculiar to itself.” The common element that resonates, of course, is the human element – periods driven by growing dissatisfaction due to any number of causes (but mostly economic) which results in unrest and often, violent revolution.

The humanist, Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) believed that history moves through repeated cycles, ceaselessly coursing well-trodden paths over time. A good case can be made in favor of Vico’s observation, with the proviso that human history is not circular, but spiral. With each transit across history, we find ourselves experiencing “likeness,” but these episodes occur at differing points in the spiral of time and space. Though the nature of being human does not change, the context of being human does, which is why such times are not “sameness.”

Thus it it important see the larger picture, the ground upon which our human drama is performed, lest we fall into either the complacent cynicism of familiarity or the fearful panic of blame and confusion. Again, likeness, after all, is not sameness.

Conventional wisdom teaches that “one who forgets history is doomed to repeat it,” and we are undeniably and unfortunately very forgetful. However, we now face a ground of circumstances unlike any human society has faced before: the pressure of supporting 7-billion people combined with the unpredictable effects of rapid climate change. These circumstances are game changers, and every element of and system within human society will be forced to adapt.

During the past 500 years, revolutions were centered primarily on issues of power, poverty, property, emancipation and individuality; population growth and climate change render them secondary. Today, evolution not revolution is called for, and there’s no time to waste; given current conditions, it may not simply be that history’s repeated, but may come to its end.

Does Sonoma’s History Matter?

The home at General Vallejo State Park

The decision by a community to commit itself to historic preservation is a commitment to enforcing rules. Unless rules are created that define what contributes to historic preservation and what does not, the entire effort becomes impossible.

Here in Sonoma we use various methods to reinforce the city’s commitment to historic preservation. Our Historic Overlay Zone is extensive, with rules covering residential, commercial and mixed used parcels; rules about land use, demolitions, paint colors and building modifications are contained within the Development Code. Design guidelines have been created to assist the various commissions in their decision-making, reflecting policies approved by the elected City Council.

Despite these commitments and protections, decisions are too often made as if no previous thought has gone into historic preservation at all. Sometimes it’s a lack of institutional memory, inexperience of commission members or just plain confusion. A good example is the way in which the history of the Peterson property on 1st Street East across from the ball fields, now being proposed as the site of project combining housing, hotel, pool, health club and cafe, has been forgotten and ignored during two recent Planning Commission study sessions.

In 1996, the City of Sonoma adopted an “interim zoning ordinance” to govern land use while the final language of a new Development Code and Zoning Ordinance was completed. Properties northeast of the Plaza were rezoned in the interim ordinance as Mixed Use, including the Peterson property. While the Petersons and the neighborhood desired the parcel ultimately to be used for housing, the decision was made to zone that parcel Mixed Use too, since not to do so would have created an uncomfortable situation of “legal non-conforming use” for Peterson Mechanical’s commercial business still using the property.

The North of Mission Neighborhood Association felt that the risk of intense commercial uses in their neighborhood was too great under the Mixed Use zoning provisions. A lawsuit was filed challenging the city’s zoning. After reviewing the neighborhood’s concerns, the city Council adopted an amendment to the interim zoning ordinance, essentially making a formal commitment to the neighborhood limiting high-intensity commercial uses on the Peterson property; the lawsuit was withdrawn.

The effects of this history can be seen in the Northeast Planning Area Guideline and its recommendation of allowing only very low-intensity commercial uses in scale with the area to preserve its historic character and to insure that housing takes precedence as development proceeds. The Guidelines are intended to help both the Planning Commission and project applicants understand how to best match development to policy and vision.

Regrettably, nothing about the history of the lawsuit and amendment and the reasons for the creation of the Guidelines was in the city staff report to the Planning Commission, and until I brought it to their attention at the second study session, apparently was not known by the commissioners or remembered by them, assuming they lived here in 1996.

Promises matter, not just in principle but in practice; in this case, a promise that insures historic integrity of the North of the Mission neighborhood. It matters to those residents, but it should also matter to all residents. Either we are serious about historic preservation or we’re not. If we ignore our own history of merely twenty years ago, we also ignore its lessons. Development of the Peterson property was inevitable, but also had been subject to thoughtful consideration of how that should proceed. Ignoring policy intentions means no neighborhood is safe.

Some argue that everything changes, but when it comes to historic preservation, the opposite is true. Historic preservation requires that change is modest, at most. Exclusions, limitations, restrictions and guidelines are the life’s blood of preserving Sonoma’s neighborhood history and should be embraced, not ignored.

El Niño is not our friend

“Climate’s capacity to inflict misery rises steeply when imperial arrogance and ideology hinder a society’s adjustments to extreme weather.”
Eugene Linden – The Winds of Change

Four years into persistent drought, California is now being told an El Niño is forming in the Pacific, and moreover that it appears to be among the strongest ever. While initially this may appear to be good news portending copious rainfall for our dry state, upon deeper examination the reality of a powerful El Niño should give California and the rest of the world pause.

Climate change is not a recent phenomenon, though global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is entirely modern. Looking back prior to our industrial age reveals earth’s dramatic history of periodic climate change, none of which was the result of human activity. A variety of scientifically collected and analyzed records including ice cores, sediment samples, radiological analysis, and geologic excavations reveal that in the past 10,000 years alone tremendous climate oscillations have taken place. 4,200 years ago, for example, centuries-long El Niño -like climate disruption set off a cascade of famine which collapsed entire civilizations.

Planetary climate change – cooling, warming, storminess and periods of relative a calm – all occur at varying intervals as a result of factors as diverse as the flattening and rounding of earth’s orbit and distance from the sun, shifts back and forth in its angle of axis from 22 to 24 degrees, sun spot activity, volcanic activity, changes in atmospheric and oceanic flow, formation of ice sheets, and feedback responses to each and any of these influences. Earth’s climate is constantly changing subject to both short-term and long term events.

Climate history corresponds to the biological history of life on our planet. Adaptation to climate change drives natural selection and creates conditions for both the arising of new species and the demise of old. Lacking such environmental change, the engine of life’s diversity would have been far slower.

While we in California may view the formation of the El Niño with a sense of relief, the rest of the world may justly anticipate it with fear and trepidation. An El Niño is a global event triggered by deep heating of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, which itself spans over 11,000 miles. Accordingly, though El Niño brings rain to California it also causes severe drought, extreme weather events and severe flooding globally. Worldwide, the El Niño of 1997-99 caused over 100-billion dollars in damage and many thousands of flood-related deaths. Though generally short-term in scale, a strong El Niño nonetheless subjects millions of people to its far-reaching effects.

The current drought reveals our disposition to ignore the historic and now documented reality of climate variability; rather than planning properly for periods of low precipitation we have foolishly wasted water, behaving as if it would always be in abundance. Now, faced with the prospects of a wet winter fueled by El Niño, we’re foolishly placing hopes of salvation in the complex vagaries of nature.

Our rain and snow shortfall has lasted four years, but periods of serious drought have been far longer; the analysis of climate indicators document drought lasting 300 years. Accordingly, one seasonal El Niño will not save us from our arrogance, nor will nature protect us. Rather, our survival depends upon deep, systemic change in our attitudes and actions.

Crazy wars of assassination

Countries have used a variety of excuses to go to war. Some cite the need for protection of people who speak their language, like Vladimir Putin is doing in the Ukraine or Adolph Hitler did before annexing the “Low Countries” adjacent to Germany in the 1930’s. Others, like the United States, claim that National Security is threatened as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq or pursue policies to prevent “the domino effect,” offered as justification for the war in Vietnam which claimed 50,000 American lives. In yet other circumstances, war has begun as a simple strategy of territorial conquest in pursuit of the extension of Empire; historically speaking, the United Kingdom, for example, has at one time been at war against 171 of the 192 members of the United Nations.

Of all the excuses, however, the most bizarre is war due to assassination, the intentional killing of one or more individuals which then induces international military conflict. The best example of this is World War I. The assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the then Austrian Emperor in 1914 by a Serbian nationalist triggered a global war, killed over 5 million soldiers and set the stage for the much larger conflict of World War II. The latest example of this type of trigger to war has happened in Northern Iraq and Syria where the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS) has assassinated two western journalists and an aid-worker.

As a result of the beheading videos posted on YouTube, the United States is hurriedly cobbling together yet another “coalition” of countries and preparing for a major military conflict. Our British allies, who themselves were enraged by the beheading of one of their journalists by ISIS, are also beating the war drums. It appears we and an unknown number of other countries will soon be embroiled again in battling the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni military, once called “dead-enders” by that sage of warfare Dick Cheney, who reportedly form the core military leadership of ISIS. Thus, merely three well-publicized, admittedly gruesome assassinations will yet again vault the world into a rage which surely will kill many, guilty and innocent alike.

The use of social media by ISIS has been essential in bringing things to this point. The world-wide web provides the opportunity to magnify lone acts into world-changing events, and to overwhelm both the senses and common sense at the same time. Such obviously emotionally-laden material as a beheading becomes fodder for a mass-media feeding frenzy and the hand-wringing of military bureaucracies. Such events become beheadings “heard round the world.”
That America and its allies would fall for such obvious provocation is more an indication of how governance and foreign policy is now a sentimental exercise in pleasing public opinion rather than sound strategy. We’ve taken the bait and are now entering the trap of war on the backs of a fickle 24-hour news cycle. Meanwhile, as we dither yet again in another fruitless exercise of perpetual war, the Ebola virus has the potential to leap across Liberia’s borders and become a lethal world-wide plague.

Determined to “teach our enemies a lesson” our exaggerated military response to assassination is our way of “educating” the world about who’s boss. When media-savvy extremists succeed in gaining our attention this way, however, we’ve already been largely defeated.