December 2014 Archives

Should I Bring My Umbrella Along?

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tornado

Weather may not be a politically correct conversation in Washington, but it is on the news channels. Most evenings, I watch the national news and noticed, some time ago, that the weather, which occasionally used to show up late in the program, is now often the featured story, night after night. Every night, I watch Ginger Zee explaining why half the country is going to be either inundated or parched. ABC, my usual channel, has a huge techie display that enables them to show extreme events in infinite detail.

It’s clear from all this that extreme weather has both entered our consciousness and our conscience. Death counts are frequent as are photos of utter devastation. The interviews with those who have literally lost everything to the wind are heart-wrenching. But something is missing in all this. I have yet to hear a word about the possible cause of this new reality. No scientific expert is called in to explain; to give us the back story, as is done in virtually every other case of breaking news. After every drone attack, some security expert shows up to give us the old tired story about it. After the last several police shootings, the number of explainers was legend.

Why is the media hiding the background from us? I have to assume that the failure to expand beyond the always clean-cut professional meteorologists is deliberate. The elevation of weather events to the prime story clearly indicates its evolving interest as news. Extreme weather is no more a random act than are other major breaking news stories. There is always some attempt at explanation or elaboration. Is there a hidden and unintentional conspiracy at work? Do the newscasters really know the true story behind all that damage and carnage: that the watchers of the shows are the culprits. Are they afraid of telling us the truth and scaring us off? Are they afraid we can’t face it? Are their owners and managers part of the general conspiracy to simply deny any relationship between our everyday behavior and these persistent extreme events.

I don’t know, of course. If they simply don’t see the connection, we are being robbed of a critical opportunity to learn one of the most important facts about our lives today and tomorrow. Ebola, which is certainly a most serious problem, but not for us, got far more attention to its causes than the weather. I would love to see ABC hire a scientist, like their medical expert, Richard Besser, who would appear almost every night and tell us a little more about climate change science. The greenhouse effect, the primary physical process involved, is not really all that arcane. The whole story that connects my specific tailpipe emissions with a flood in California is very complex, but the principle is not all that abstruse.

Write to your media asking them to make the extreme weather a regular part of the news and to provide expertise to explain what is happening. It is not just happening over there any more. These events now are covering the entire US. If we demanded an detailed explanation of Ebola and similar not-so-imminent problems, we should really start to care about the weather. It’s time to put the lie to Charles Dudley Warner’s famous quote, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

A Brooksian Christmas Story

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awe

I have been away from my blog for several weeks. I claim overwork. I am writing an essay for the Great Transition Initiative, and finishing plans for a course I am delivering at my learning at retirement institute. The subject of the course is “Authenticity” or a look at the notion of self through the ages. It’s a chance to put some of my current thinking on self, being, and authenticity into a historical context. But I have been buried. So when I read David Brooks’ op-ed piece today, as it so often happens, a little voice inside said I would have to respond and not let him get away with it without some comment. As I re-read it, some turned to be a lot.

I found the article so full of errors and misstatements that I am having trouble not to write a dissertation about it. But let me begin with calling attention the important words in the article: faith, belief, spirituality religion, and rationality. Although this will not be a vocabulary lesson, I will try to capture meanings I have gleaned for many places. The quotes sections are all from his piece. Faith is the belief in something that you can’t explain through reason or rational arguments based on scientific theories or facts.

He begins with, “With Hanukkah coming to an end, Christmas days away, and people taking time off work, we are in a season of quickened faith.” I don’t think that faith, itself quickens, especially in this season. The cynics among us attribute the activities around this season more to the institutions of economics than to those of organized religion. It is true that holidays tend to call the slackers like me back to the houses of religion, but, in my case and, as I read, that of most Christians in the US, the draw is from other obligations than the tenets of faith itself.

A few lines later he says, “You’d think faith would be a simple holding of belief, or a confidence in things unseen, but, in real life, faith is unpredictable and ever-changing.” Wrong, David. The notion of faith connotes something to be held until it can no longer be. That was the struggle of Job, and similar cases through Christian history. Brooks and the sources he quotes confuse spiritual experiences and their impacts on our beliefs with faith. A very bad error. We may have such experiences often during our lives and they may then have a profound influence on some of our beliefs. In particular, they may cause us to question other beliefs we are holding that have become rooted through reason or other expressions of faith inculcated by religious affiliations. These comments are all from only the first 3 lines of the article.

Then, he quotes a Yale colleague (no elitism here), who says,

When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?” (My emphasis)

Another confusion between religious experiences and spiritual ones! Humans have had spiritual experiences long before they were institutionalized into religious contexts by those who saw power in invoking god as the cause of these inexplicable, mysterious phenomena, on the basis of what was known about how the world worked at the time. Knowledge by our present standards was in very short supply.

Such “glittering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith.” Half right. Faith refers to the beliefs behind the experiences. If powerful enough, they may lead the experiencing individual to hold beliefs created from scratch to explain what happened. No religion here yet, as Wiman’s, his Yale colleague then argues, but “Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward.”

Wow, he completely misses the point that religions are selling a particular set of spiritualistic ideas to those who have never experienced them. How many even true believers have seen a burning bush or experienced the mystery of the Eucharist. Religions have done a disservice to the idea of spirituality, an individual experience by institutionalizing and killing the spirit, so to say.

Next Brooks writes (I apologize for using so much of his piece, but I find it compelling),

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

This is pure gobbledygook. Spiritual moments may do lots of things but not flash images of ethical perfection and merciful love. Phenomenological, they are conscious experiences that we cannot explain. Given this, they cannot flash such images. We can bring them forth later if we try to describe and explain (or rationalize that as based on reason) them. I do argue in my work that that may make us conscious of being connected to whatever appears in these moments. The feeling invoked by watching a beautiful scene may bring forth a sense of connection missing in the hurly-burly of much of life, but where is perfection and love. If a longing, as he pictures it does arise, that is not faith. It is a longing that may cause the seeker to look for other beliefs that help him enrich life beyond what the rationalized belief of modernity can offer. More about this in a moment.

Then he writes, “It’s a hard process. After the transcendent glimpses, people forget.” Sure they do, but they are certain to have that forgetfulness reinforced if they seek to find it in religion, for religion will offer a set of faith-based beliefs as substitutes for whatever was there in his or her moment.

I’ll divert from the exegesis of Brooks’ piece for a moment and talk about spirituality. I believe strongly that spirituality is a central part on what it is to be human and make this argument in all of my writings. We are meaning-seeking creatures and cannot live without it in our civilized, cultural settings. Meaning entails the explanations we give to everything we directly and vicariously experience through stories from all sorts. The medium of meaning is language. It is the medium by which we embody meaning in our brains and extract it from there. We can place language in four distinct domains that completely encompass human conscious experience. These are experiences involving ourselves, other human beings, all the rest of animate and inanimate material world, and an important fourth origin, those with the transcendent origin. These are the spiritual experiences. They are as much a part of the history of our species as are those with material causes. Our language confronts with them every day. We still encounter them long after science has come to be the rational source of almost everything we are conscious of.

Religion is not the same. Religion is an institution that evolved to organize the spiritual experiences of few. Western religions are largely based on a concept of god as the primary source for all spiritual experiences, and still may be invoked as what brought me that gorgeous sunset that gave me shivers. I obviously do not believe this as my writing indicates, but hopefully is not letting my personal beliefs get in the way of this critique.

Then comes.

The process of faith, of bringing moments of intense inward understanding into the ballyhoo of life, seems to involve a lot of reading and talking — as people try to make sense of who God is and how holiness should be lived out. Even if you tell people you are merely writing a column on faith, they begin recommending books to you by the dozen. Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.

I don’t get the first part of this, but was startled by the last sentence, “Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.” It seems to me that reason, whether conceived by the Greeks, who more or less invented it or by modern philosophers, always refers to a process of argument based or experience and rational or logical derivations of that experience. He has badly confused faith and reason, making a category error. Faith is a form of belief. Belief is the key concept. Beliefs are those truths on which human agency is based as justified. Faith is a kind of belief without reasoned grounds. It is true because I say so. Now this is not a pejorative statement. The “I” may be a single believer who is completely justified in holding any beliefs until they contravene societal mores and norms. That’s the argument William James made in his famous piece, “The Will to Believe.”

The “I” may be the “Books” on which the great Abrahamic religions are based. I will note that faith is involved in even our rational system of beliefs, but I don’t think that is what Brooks meant. Accepting that science and rationality produce the correct model of the world on which to base our culture is a matter of faith, in fact, one of the key articles of faith of Modernity. In fact, science, like religion, is merely another story we tell about our beliefs about the world out there. Modernity changed their priority. What matters is the meaning we draw from these stories and act on.

Then he throws a Talmudic scholar, Joseph Soloveitchik, at us. I am far from a Jewish scholar such as Soloveitchik, but I did go and read the entire “footnote” from which this extract is taken. Here it is the part Brooks quotes:

The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.

Since my immediate reading was that the Rabbi has it completely backward, I thought I might understand his point by reading the whole piece cited. No such luck. I believe religions and science exist in two separate and distinct domains, much like C. P. Snow argues in his famous essay, “The Two Cultures,” which separated intellectual life into science and the humanities. If the humanities are seen as the place from which meaning and its moral consequences come, I might include religions there. Science always needs another distinct domain of intellectual activity to give meaning the knowledge it produces. Soloveitchik is railing against the nihilism that has been attributed by many to philosophers ranging from Nietzsche to Heidegger. But to see objective thought as the perpetrator of all the evil we have seen in our times on earth is, I find, preposterous. Rationality and objectivity are amoral, but do produce the material forces that are and have been utilized by moral arguments far from its reach. If we are to focus on faith in this column, bringing in rationality as a component further fuzzes the picture.

I know I am running on, but can’t stop now. Next we have:

Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”

What are these “claims of reason”? It seems to me that reason make claims only in the sense that we take it to be the appropriate basis for action until we find more reasons to change our beliefs. It is true that we debate which is the more legitimate basis for action in the world: reason-based beliefs or faith-based beliefs, but that debate was won with the enlightenment and the evolution of modernity. Should we abandon what science and reason tell us about climate change and give in to arguments based on faith? Should we abandon a pretty good story about how humans got here is place of a story can only survive on a completely faith-based explanation. We have a claim on reason, not vice versa. So with religion. It is our choice to invoke one of these stories to win our arguments.

Next:

All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

This seems to be about religion. That’s where creators live. Look, I am not dumping on religion. I am trying to unpack Brooks’ article and make sense out of it because some of what is here is very important. If he means that those of religious faith are bound by the ethical and moral tenets that have become attached to the religion, I strongly agree. Most, if not all, of the important moral guidance we need for living fully, comes from theologians and philosophers, as the interpreters of what we experience in the world. But it takes more than faith to be attentive to every moment. Faith cannot guide us through the real world without the objective knowledge science provides us. Again look at the case of climate change.

Almost done:

Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

The process of life is inherently “complex and arduous.” Spiritual dilemmas are no different from existential ones. That’s the real point here, I believe. Science has reveals an awe-inducing amount of knowledge about the world, but which is not very useful in helping individuals make choices in life or explain why this or that happened to me. When faith tries to provide answers to such questions, it is not very good either, because, like science it finds its answers in categories and generalities, like “God’s ways are mysterious, so stop asking that question.”

Finally the last paragraph:

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”

I don’t follow most of this paragraph, but found in the last line the zinger I was hoping to find. He, I will guess, is pointing to existentialism without meaning to, as a philosophical argument for making the most about what humans are and can experience during a lifetime on Earth. Existentialists, like Nietzsche and Heidegger, whom Soloveitchik rails against as being evil (my interpretation of these passages) also wrote this just before the part Brooks cited:

First, the entire Romantic aspiration to escape from the domain of knowledge, the rebellion against the authority of objective, scientific cognition which has found its expression in the biologistic philosophies of Bergson, Nietzsche, Spengler, Klages, and their followers and in the phenomenological, existential, and antiscientific school of Heidegger and his coterie, and from the midst of which there arose in various forms the sanctification of vitality and intuition, the veneration of instinct, the desire for power, the glorification of the emotional-affective life and the flowing, surging stream of subjectivity, the lavishing of extravagant praise on the Faustian type and the Dionysian personality, etc., etc., have brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world.

The existentialist credo, if such a credo exists, is that individuals are unique; there is no way to put them into the categories of science or religion. To be human is to live one’s finite existence on earth, faced with the constant terror of knowing that there is no ultimate source to call on to guide the next act and get find an excuse for whatever what was done. Science and religion are just stories that may be useful in this regard, but lack relevance in real life, itself, in its everydayness. I will finish with a brief statement that makes a quite different case.

Spirituality, not religion, is what is truly important because it is a basic part of the humanity of our species. Much of the inhumanity of modern life can be attributed to spirituality’s loss to modern categories of knowledge. Science has separated us from the world’s mystery by its reductionist methodologies that separate humans from the world, and weaken the sense of connectedness to it. Love comes naturally from that sense of connectedness, not from some moral statement that merely recognized love as a basic human emotion. Love is a special form of caring; one in which the other is acknowledged as having an equivalent right to exist as the giver. But love like any form of caring is essentially action across some connection. More reason to always focus on spirituality, not religion. One is existential; the other is a reduced institution structure that has substituted dogma for raw human experience.

Descartes turned us into mere objects to be understood just like rocks. The concreteness inherent to the existentialist view of the human being is also important to our view of the world. Science gives us abstract rules to describe its parts, but cannot tell us how the whole organic, complex world is working at any moment or where it will be in the next. Whitehead wrote famously of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” We are forever mistaking the menu for the meal. Perfection is a consciousness of the wholeness and interconnectedness of the cosmos; absolutely unavailable in the machine that science brings us. Both science and religion have squeezed out spirituality from a normal practice in our modern world.

Neither rationally based nor faith-based beliefs (I should really say religiously-based because that is what goes for faith today) can provide the basis for achieving our human potential, either as individuals or societies. I have called that achievement, flourishing. It can only exist upon a model of human being that is different from one that faith, religious or otherwise, or science can provide.

If this season is to be a time to celebrate our humanity, religion, IMHO, is not the way to do it. We should be learning more about its teachings, rather than its preachings, for there is the place to find invaluable wisdom. Science can do nothing here. I wonder how it got into article. It is very important to avoid confusing categories of belief, as we seek more of what we can become. Beliefs are the foundation for our individual and social actions. We can see them both in our personal habits and the routines of norms of societies. Neither science nor faith has gotten us far enough and seems to be leading us farther from the vision of existential flourishing. But these form the social paradigm that dominates the West. If we truly want to find flourishing and the full expression our unique humanity, we must find our way into a new paradigm. If we are to do that, understanding the words we use is critical. Words carry the meanings we use to build and legitimate the institutions that drive our culture. They underpin the ways we act and feel. Writers, like Brooks have a responsibility to clarify, not obfuscate, them. Thanks again, David, for so much, maybe too much grist, for my mill.

Killing Time*

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Never waste a moment again.

Never let the world come in.

Never worry that some one

Will look at you enjoying fun.

Time is money so they say.

Working in our modern way

Spare5, the app, finds jobs to fill.

No chance for existential thrills.


A penny here, a nickel there,

 You’ll soon not have a cupboard bare.
But like the Red Shoes dancer,
Life for you will have no answer.

Time is never there to kill.

Nor to deliver you a bill.

It’s all we have to let us be.

Free moments are a part of me.

I need to stop myself some times
And listen to the warbler’s chimes
Without a single moment’s thought
Of don’t or must or should or ought.


I need to let time pass me by

Without thinking what I should buy.

Idleness is part of what makes me human.

Damn technology—no flowers bloomin’.

  • Inspired by a Globe article on an app that turns idle time into $$. (slightly revised 12/11/14)

Sustainability Is Growing Warts

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Caradonna

I have been harping about the decline of the meaning of sustainability for some time. Today, the Boston Globe carried an interview with Jeremy L. Caradonna, author of the recently published book, Sustainability: A History. In the interview Caradonna makes many of the same points I so often do. Here are a few extracts.

In recent years, “sustainability” has become an inescapable buzzword. Companies launch sustainability initiatives; virtually every major American university now has an office of sustainability; and the word is a staple of United Nations commissions and conferences.

Like “diversity” and “social justice,” sustainability is easy to embrace and, not coincidentally, hard to define: It nods to a belief in the wise use of resources while remaining vague about what that actually entails. The term can refer to an initiative as limited as, say, stocking a school’s printers with recycled paper. At the other extreme, it can encompass a nearly utopian vision that extends well beyond the environment.

The author has joined a growing group of former sustainability champions who share the same concerns: the response to a critical deterioration of environmental and social conditions has become effete and toothless. I am certainly one of those. I also agree with his claim that sustainability can refer to a utopian vision, but here one must be very careful about what vision. I haven’t read the book yet (I have requested it from the town library), so I do not know what utopia he is referring to. He’s a historian and may have some previous use of the word in mind, but I see no utopia whatsoever in the way the word is used today. Later in the column, he suggests what utopia he might be writing about.

IDEAS: Was this a radical development?

CARADONNA: I would not say that the sustainability movement and its origins were radical. I would say in many ways they’re critical. They’re critical of deforestation, later on they’re critical of unchecked economic growth and deregulation, and they’re critical of pollution and social inequality. But in many ways, it’s quite conventional. I mean, one of the things I’ve noticed is that some of the early advocates for what we could call sustainable living were aristocratic bureaucrats, or imperialistic bureaucrats who are stationed on islands in the West Indies or the East Indies. Or someone like Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who’s part of the Saxon Dynasty, he’s part of the monarchy there. None of these people, as far as I can tell, are interested in the natural world, in and of itself. None of them. They’re interested in natural resources because they have an impact on the economy and they have an impact on the human realm, in one way or another….Perhaps counterintuitively, the sustainability movement has roots in good old-fashioned economic and monarchical self-interest.

He could omit the word “perhaps” because, clearly, sustainability has come to mean continued growth. Growth is nothing but some process presumed to lead us to the utopia promised by the Enlightenment thinkers, human perfection, in the eyes of God. In our secular world today, the idea of perfection remains without the theological banner. But it is no clearer today than in Hobbes and Mills time. No utopia, only more or better. The unfortunate truth is that sustainability, as it is being used, is dystopic. Growth, itself is exacerbating the devastation of the environment and contributing to the growing societal inequality. The latter is ironic in that “good old-fashioned economic and monarchical self-interest” is supposed to bring us whatever utopia is envisioned.

Utopian ideas have been around for quite a while as expressions of some world very different from the existing conditions. The word itself is full of irony. Thomas More coined the word from two Greek words meaning “no” and “place.” Literally, it means a vision of no place. Another way to look at it is to imagine it stands for a plea to be anywhere else than where one is. Given this etymology, I find it exceeding difficult to attribute utopian ideas to sustainability.

Caradonna may have included reference to sustainable development in his book. There is no utopia implicit in this definition, only continuing economic development; only means to some undefined end or no end at all. However the word is taken, the results are perverse. It is being used to deny the state we are in. It is used to disguise actions that are clearly detrimental to social and environmental health. It is used to justify acts that are nothing but business-as-usual in both the public and private sectors. I believe it has become dangerous and needs to be stricken from the vernacular, unless and until its true meaning takes over.

It is important to begin to form a utopian vision for our country and others like it. For me that vision comes forth from the word, flourish. Linguistically it is possible to make a connection between flourish and either vision or utopia, but not with sustainability unless a vision is made explicit. As Caradonna notes, that is not so when a word becomes a buzzword. Like any other fashion, it is ephemeral and devoid of intrinsic meaning. That’s enough, but I found it encouraging to see an article about sustainability in the Ideas section, especially one that shows its warts. The column ends with this interchange.

IDEAS: The concept of sustainability leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Do you think that’s a blessing or a curse?

CARADONNA: It facilitates greenwashing for sure, because it’s a term that can be used and abused….What I think is fascinating is that it’s a really flexible discourse and allows for a lot of people to get into the tent together. And I think from a kind of political science-y point of view, it is useful and helpful to get everyone in the tent together.

Great to think about gathering many people under a tent to take up a big problem and thrash out their differences. But, unless they stop and give themselves a vocabulary lesson first, the best they will be able to do is erect a Tower of Babel.

Talk, Not Body Cameras

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Brown’s family wants to see every police officer working the streets wearing a body camera. The White House has said the cameras could help bridge deep mistrust between law enforcement and the public.

body camera

This paragraph came from a Boston Globe story about plans for sending military equipment to local police force. Most of the article was pretty much gobbledy-gook, but this jumped out at me. How in the world can body cameras build trust? This idea is terrible. It is just another example of the addiction we have to technology. This one is particularly disturbing because of the nature and importance of trust.

Cameras can only provide a record of what happened. They cannot change it. They might help sort out the details of some event, after the fact, but will have little or no effect in altering the event, itself. Would the Ferguson shooting have been different in the Officer Wilson had been wearing a camera. Would Michael Brown even seen it? But the forensic arguments are not what concerns me at all. My concerns are about trust.

Trust has nothing to do with technology. Trust is a quality of relationships. It is not easy to define, but means, more or less, an acknowledgment that the other in this situation shares the same values and norms as I do. So, if any sort of request is made to me, I will consider only the request itself, but not its historical context. Trust is built up over time, and starts to build only when people’s assessments of the past indicate the other is trustworthy.

In the case of the police and black men, there is no such history. Whether justified or not, the assessment of the police, as I read about it in the news, is that they cannot be trusted to treat you like others. There is no acceptance that they acknowledge you the same way as white men. Much will be written whether this judgment is valid or not, and police will defend themselves against the claim, but truth here is irrelevant.

An assessment is an assessment and as such sets the context for action. If either side wants to get beyond reactions without trust involved, only a change in the nature of the relationship has any chance of working. Offering up technology is a poor, thoughtless substitute, and indicates to me how little understanding of the true nature of this problem and other related issues we share.

Human beings all carry many prejudices around in their brain. It’s part of our enhanced cognitive abilities. It is part of the evolutionary tools we carry to avoid danger. We have evolved to have instinctive, that is prejudged, responses to certain situations. When these prejudices become unreasonable, for example, fear of objects that do not pose a danger, they get called neuroses or worse, psychotic phobias, and the normal response is to seek treatment.

I do not see any difference between this and the situation in Ferguson or any other place where police roam the streets. Some sort of therapy is essential to sever the link between the prejudices on both sides and their immediate responses. Technological solutions can do little and may even make the situation worse by delaying the essential trust building processes.

To call this situation an act of racism is to inflame those who deny or downplay its existence. President Obama, the most potentially powerful actor, risks using the term for obvious reasons. But, what if we looked at the situation as one where human prejudice is at work, as it does in many less tragic cases. The word prejudice, if understood properly, loses the negative and pejorative context of racism and other isms. It is a normal, although problematic, human trait.

This case is only one where acting out of prejudice is causing harms to individuals and our collective society. The stalemate in Congress has prejudice at the base. “I have the right idea bout this situation and I am going to act on it before I pay attention to anything you say.” Fuggedaboutit.

Trust is a mood that may have developed to deal with prejudice as human culture evolved. It permits reasonable or normal action to take place even when latent prejudices are present in the brain. Trust creates a conversation like, “You are an object I instinctively reject, but I have learned not to let that run me, so lets get moving together.” Learning is absolutely essential and, again, cannot be substituted by some artificial mechanism installed to overcome that instinctive rejection.

When trust is absent, people are more likely to be hurt, as consequent actions come from prejudice (instinct) and fail to utilize the parts of the brain where experience and reason operate. The lack of trust in Congress is a national tragedy, with far more serious consequences than the case in Ferguson. Perhaps, if people would begin to see the equivalence, they would call for as much action as is following the tragedy there, but only of a non-violent kind. The President could use his bully pulpit without being called a racist, himself. It might even be possible to redefine compromise as a necessary human, not political, process.

Only talk therapy will work, psychotherapeutic drugs will not work here. Please stop trying to evade its necessity by following one of our civic addictions, the use of technology to solve all our problems. Are we afraid to talk to one another? Why? Is it that the solution to the problems we share may lie somewhere beyond the horizon of my prejudice. Have we forgotten that as humans we have both prejudice and reason, albeit in different parts of our brains? We are here today only because we learned to use both parts in combination. We cannot afford as a species to let either one decay.